By Dov Michaeli
Most of us are in a funk right now. We are involved with two wars which most of us don’t really believe in, we are slogging through the worst economic wreckage since the Great Depression, there is a pervasive sense that America is rapidly losing its optimism, its enthusiasm, its can-do attitude. It wouldn’t be a big stretch to conclude that we are losing our hope. On the individual level hopelessness is a hallmark of depression. Can our society suffer from the equivalent of depression? And what would the consequences be?
Research on environmental and cultural impact on societal behavior is hard to do. The main difficulty is to tease out causal connections from the incredibly rich fabric that affects society. For example, did religious institutions shape societal behavior, or did the latter provide fertile ground for the rise of religion? Or was it a two-way relationship, one affecting the other? All one can do is make observations, and observational studies are rarely conclusive.
Having said that, some observations are pretty compelling. For instance, the domestication of milk animals is associated with an increase in the genes coding for lactase, the enzyme that allows us to absorb lactose, the milk sugar. How does it work? Probably through natural selection. Scandinavian babies 10,000 years ago who had more of the enzyme had a survival advantage over babies who did not. That’s probably why in modern Scandinavians lactase deficiency is very rare. This process is called gene-culture co-evolution. But what about more subtle influences? These are much more difficult to study.
One approach is to compare behaviors of different societies in response to environmental and cultural stresses. For instance, we reacted to terrorist attacks by turning inward. How would the Norwegians react? Remains to be seen, but initial reactions from man-on-the-street interviews indicate a societal consensus to remain an open society. How did we react to the Columbine massacre? By arming ourselves even more than before. The Brits and Australians, on the other hand, reacted to similar massacres by swift and absolute bans on firearms.
In a May 27, 2011 Science paper Gelfand and his coworkers approached the problem in a more systematic way. They surveyed 6823 people in 33 nations, asking them to rate the appropriateness of 12 behaviors (such as crying, laughing, eating) in 15 situations (such as being in a party, at work, in a bank). Their findings are interesting, but not unexpected. They found that societies exposed to contemporary or historical threats, such as territorial conflict, resource scarcity, or exposure to high levels of pathogens, more strictly regulate societal behavior and punish deviance. These societies also developed institutions that strictly regulate social norms. Not totally surprising. China’s repressive institutions in the name of “social harmony” is case in point.
Other studies show that religion finds a fertile ground in societies that face existential threats, such as war or natural disaster, and it progressively declines in societies with high levels of economic development, low income inequalities and infant mortality, and greater access to social safety nets.
What are we facing?
In the last decade our national psyche has suffered several shocks. 9/11 robbed us of our innocence. Incompetent leadership sowed the seeds of economic disaster by resurrecting the unbridled capitalism of the 19th-early 20th century. Income inequality was of no concern to policy makers, repeated attacks on the social safety net pursued with ideological fervor.
The scientific evidence is still in its initial stages of formation, but what is already emerging is unsettling. We did go through an existential trauma on 9/11; we did lose our confidence in our institutions; we are in the midst of severe economic dislocation, we lost our economic primacy in the world, we are losing our educational and technological edge. Will our reaction be the predictable turning inward, more authoritarian institutions, more religion in state affairs, more xenophobia, less tolerance?
We need leadership to navigate the nation through these threatening shoals. We have been through trying times in our history. Are we up to the task today?