“When men are most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken, and have then given views to passion, without that proper deliberation and suspense which can alone secure them from the grossest absurdities.” – David Hume
Person 1: “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’ ”
Person 2: “True, but there is an ‘M’ and an ‘E.’ ”
On occasion, I have been arrogant at times in my life. To be fair to myself, I believe such episodes have been rare, and most people who know me would probably describe me as introverted, possibly even timid. More than once, I have been told that I am “too nice” and overly conciliatory. During my pre-tenure review, one committee member told me that my autobiographical narrative was too modest, and that “in academia you need to toot your own horn because nobody else is going to do it for you.” That’s probably true in most fields, but it often makes me uneasy. And if you spent some time in the cacophony in my head, you’d see there is plenty of self-doubt and insecurity in here (you’re better off not doing that). Still, like everyone else, I am complex, and have had enough instances of arrogance that they irritate me and force me to consider from where they originate.
I bring this up now because I’ve been reading about hunter-gatherer societies, and was reminded of this famous passage from the anthropologist Richard Lee (1979) on egalitarianism in the !Kung of Namibia and Botswana.
Two remarkable cultural practices at the level of consciousness accompany this egalitarian political ideal. They occur among the !Kung and among many other hunter-gatherers. The most serious accusations one !Kung can level against another are the charge of stinginess and the charge of arrogance. To be stingy, or far-hearted, is to hoard one’s goods jealously and secretively, guarding them ‘like a hyena.’ The corrective for this, in the !Kung view, is to make the hoarder give ‘till it hurts,’ that is, to make him give generously and without stint until everyone can see that he is truly cleaned out. In order to ensure compliance with this cardinal rule, the !Kung browbeat each other constantly to be more generous and not to hoard…
But deplorable as they regard the fault of stinginess, the !Kung’s most scathing criticisms are reserved for an even more serious shortcoming: the crime of arrogance (≠twi). A stingy person is antisocial and irksome, but an arrogant person is actually dangerous because, according to the !Kung, “his pride will make him kill someone.” A boasting hunter who comes into camp announcing “I have killed a big animal in the bush” is being arrogant. A woman who gives a gift and announces to all her great generosity is being arrogant… The !Kung perceive this behavior as a danger sign, and they have evolved elaborate devices for puncturing the bubble of conceit and enforcing humility. These leveling devices are in constant daily use – minimizing the size of others’ kills, downplaying the value of others’ gifts, and treating one’s own efforts in a self-deprecating way. Please and thank you are hardly ever found in their vocabulary; in their stead is a vocabulary of rough humor, back-handed compliments, put-downs, and damning with faint praise. In fact, the one area in which the !Kung are openly competitive is in recounting suffering. They try to outdo each other in tales of misfortune: cold, pain, thirst, hunger, hunting failure, and other hardships represent conversational gold, the obverse of the coin of arrogance, which they so strongly discourage” (p. 458, emphasis added).…
Most of us would probably be uncomfortable with this type of society, where hoarding is met with scorn and the response to even fairly mild self-promotion, by our standards, is pretty tough social sanctions. It’s entertaining to imagine (insert egomaniac here – I’ll pick Donald Trump) living in a !Kung-like society, and the humbling experience of having their ego checked by their fellow band members. I don’t know exactly why that scenario appeals to me, if it’s schadenfreude or an aversion to massive out-of-control egoism, but there is something intuitive about it.
Given the collision of individual wills, it’s expected that there are constant tensions in any collective. Cancer cells are one example, out for themselves and sacrificing the overall health of the organism for their own replication. In some bee species, normally neuter female workers sometimes have their own offspring, going against the social order and the queen’s efforts to suppress reproduction by others. Vampire bats, who often share blood with others who were unsuccessful in finding a meal may sometimes be stingy and withhold. Even for the most intimate relationship there is, that between a mother and her fetus, there is a conflict of interest over resources (Haig, 1993). The fetus wants a provider and nutrients (and eventually love), while the mother wants an offspring and genetic continuity, but also her health, overall well-being, and the possibility of future offspring. Somewhere, interests overlap, but there is a continuum between cooperation and conflict, and what you want will not always be what I want.
For humans, the tug of war comes in the form of individuality versus conformity; seeking status and recognition versus humility and loyalty to the group. To the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, we have developed six axes of morality, which are built around these themes. These include: (1) preventing harm, (2) fairness, (3) liberty, (4) loyalty to the in-group, (5) respect for authority/ hierarchy, (6) a sense of purity or sanctity. It is noteworthy that the first three are mostly concerned with the individual, while the latter three pertain to strengthening the group. Within us, there is the need to prioritize and balance these different axes. Individuals vary in which of these are most important to them, and Haidt has argued that this is reflected in which political ideologies are most appealing to us.
Arrogance touches on many of these axes: fairness, liberty, group loyalty, respect for authority, and – as the !Kung believe – the potential for harm at the hands of someone whose head has gotten too big. In foraging societies, group cohesion is essential, and one may face the accusation of arrogance if they overstep some culturally defined limit on self-promotion which could threaten the integrity of the group and chafe against egalitarian ideals. In many industrial societies, this form of individuality is less suppressed (though there are always social pressures to conform and not be too different, and to keep arrogance in check).
As Krystal D’Costa has written at Scientific American, this is one reason we are conscious of what others think about us, forcing us to police our own behavior in order to maintain our reputations. In her words, “we’re all in the business of impression management.” That policing occurs at different levels of consciousness. Sometimes, genuine humility wins out. At others, it takes effort to suppress overconfidence. In the journal Nature, Dominic Johnson and James Fowler (2011) summarized the various hypotheses on the evolution of arrogance:
not just confidence but overconfidence—believing you are better than you are in reality—is advantageous because it serves to increase ambition, morale, resolve, persistence or the credibility of bluffing, generating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which exaggerated confidence actually increases the probability of success.”
The drawback is that it is easy to overshoot ordinary confidence without some corrective measure, whether subconscious self-doubt or conscious introspection. Confidence is necessary; a life solely built on self-doubt would be miserable. Even Richard Lewis must have some confidence somewhere. Johnson and Fowler argue that while over-confidence / arrogance may have short-term payoffs, in the long-term it may lead to various modern world problems, including “hubris, market bubbles, financial collapses, policy failures, disasters and costly wars.”
Fairness for Me (and Perhaps for Thee)
Some research suggests that our aversion to the arrogance of others (though perhaps not our own) could originate from some built-in tendencies toward fairness and egalitarianism. Stephanie Sloane and colleagues (2012) found that infants as young as 19-21 months old expected rewards to be equally distributed between two individuals. They stated that this was “consistent with recent speculations that a few sociomoral norms—evolved to facilitate positive interactions and cooperation within social groups—are innate and universal, though elaborated in various ways by cultures.” In other words, some building blocks for fairness may have been installed by natural selection to help smooth over some of the tensions inherent in social living. We can also see hints of these building blocks in other primate species.
Sarah Brosnan and Frans deWaal trained a group of capuchin monkeys to exchange a token for a reward, usually a slice of cucumber (Brosnan and deWaal, 2003). However, some monkeys were intentionally given a grape instead (a more desired food), and sometimes for no effort (without exchanging a token). Other monkeys who witnessed unfair rewards for their peers and were then offered the standard cucumber refused to further participate, wouldn’t eat the cucumbers, or threw them at the researchers.
The upshot is that capuchin monkeys seem to have a sense of fairness, but this is contingent upon what other monkeys got. After all, at one point a cucumber was a perfectly fine reward, but it is difficult to accept better rewards being given to one’s peers for the same level of effort. Context matters, even for capuchins. We think in similar terms. At one point, our salaries or wages may be acceptable, until we learn that so-and-so is making more for doing the same job. It may be somewhat easier to accept the notion of someone receiving better rewards if we think that they deserve it because they have some rare skill that is valuable to society, such as being able to help others who are ill or injured (or being able to hit a ball very far with a stick, or having wealthy parents). But there are limits to how much inequality is acceptable, and while it is axiomatic that life is unfair, it is harder to justify someone earning 231 times more than their peers, or even their subordinates. In some sense other primates share this aversion to blatant inequality with us.
It is noteworthy that capuchin monkeys only protested against unfairness when they received the lesser reward, not when they were the one to benefit. However, in a follow-up study done with chimpanzees (who are more closely related to us), individuals did refuse unfair rewards that benefited themselves, indicating a more generalized sense of fairness that could be extended to others (Brosnan et al 2010). Eric M. Johnson summarized the study:…
In 95 trials chimpanzees that received a grape were significantly more likely to refuse the high-value reward when their group mate only received a carrot (p = 0.008). Even those who benefitted from inequality recognized that the situation was unfair and they refused to enjoy their own reward if it meant someone else had to suffer.”
Of course, there are limits to fairness, for capuchins, chimpanzees, bees, and humans. Some will be more equal than others. By analyzing material, social, and embodied wealth, Eric Smith et al (2010) found that contemporary hunter-gatherer groups are much more egalitarian than the vast majority of modern industrialized nations. However, the authors claimed that inequality in hunter-gatherer societies is under- appreciated, with Gini coefficients about the same as Denmark, which is about as egalitarian as a modern nation-state gets. Still, in their terms, this is “far from a state of ‘primitive communism.’ ” I imagine that for those on top of any hunter-gatherer group, as in the !Kung, it is important to avoid being arrogant about it (or giving empty platitudes like “I want everybody to be rich.”)
Into This World We’re Thrown
In a widely circulated commencement speech given at Princeton, the author Michael Lewis highlighted the role that luck plays in our lives, and the importance of avoiding arrogance:
Success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.… Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”
I am proud of some of the things I’ve been able to do in my life, such as this blog (parts of it, anyway), and my job, and these guys. While it has taken work, it would be arrogant to think I accomplished anything completely on my own and not to recognize all the contingencies and kindness from others that made any of this possible. As Kate Clancy wrote about allo-mothering, all parents receive help from others. That lesson extends beyond parenting to other spheres of life. I know that many people could do my job just as well, if not better, because there are plenty of very bright anthropologists out there, some of whom I’ve met at professional conferences or online. I’m not sure how I got my foot in the door in the fickle world of academia while many of them did not. Sometimes I feel like a capuchin who has gotten the grape. At other times, when I think of others who’ve accomplished more, or who have more prestigious positions, or who have higher salaries, it seems I’ve gotten the cucumber slice.
If I hadn’t attended the elementary school that I did, I probably wouldn’t have developed an interest in human variation, which in turn pushed me into anthropology. Majoring in anthropology wouldn’t have been even an option as an undergraduate without my supportive parents (“We’re not sure what you are going to do with that, but we’ll see where this road takes you.”) I might not have made it through graduate school either without my wife. If my officemate, Stephanie Rutledge, had not pointed me to David Barker’s work on the ‘fetal origins hypothesis’ at a time when we were both feeling burnt out, I might still be floundering to find a dissertation project. The same could be said about the luck I had in finding Hmong, Lao, and Khmer friends in high school and college, since their histories prompted me to consider how war in Southeast Asia might have impacted later health. For that matter, if I had not been born where and when I was, higher education might not even be an option to me. To top it off, I know the advantages I have being a white male in a part of the world run mostly by white males (if whiteness was an option, I would re-up every year). And so on, and so on. Introspection has a way of throwing cold water on arrogance.
It is tempting to tell ourselves a different narrative, that what we’ve earned is on our own merits. As Thomas Jefferson said “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.” That’s probably true. But hard work is only one tributary in the river of success. We can steer ourselves down that river with endogenous effort, but it would be that much easier if one is born with a canoe or a yacht already available.
David Brooks once wrote that “We’re all born late. We’re born into history that is well under way. We’re born into cultures, nations and languages that we didn’t choose. On top of that, we’re born with certain brain chemicals and genetic predispositions that we can’t control… Often, we react in ways we regret even while we’re doing them.” Not everyone likes David Brooks’ writings, but I think he was spot on here. We do arrive late to the party, and are then handed genes and cultures that have histories which preceded our existence.
On those rare occasions when I’ve worked my way past insecurity or even a healthy level of confidence, and arrogance wants to escape, I try to think of why it might be there in the first place. Perhaps it’s arrogant to have this blog, and to think that my thoughts are worth sharing (is that false modesty?). Perhaps it’s arrogant even to exist, knowing the odds against it. Or maybe, arrogance can sometimes be an act of defiance, in the belief that our wills and desires are worth something and that it is:
neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.” (RFK)
Brosnan SF, deWaal F (2003) Monkeys reject unequal pay. Nature 425: 297-9. (Link)
Brosnan S, Talbot C, Ahlgren M, Lambeth S, Schapiro S. 2010. Mechanisms underlying responses to inequitable outcomes in chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes. Animal Behaviour Volume 79, Issue 6, : 1229–37. (Link)
Johnson DDP, Fowler JH. 2011. The evolution of overconfidence. Nature 477: 317–320. (Link)
Lee, Richard B. 1979. The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society. Cambridge Univ Press. (Link)
Haig, D. (1993). Genetic conflicts in human pregnancy. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 68(4), 495-532. (Link)
Sloane S, Baillargeon R, Premack D. 2012. Do infants have a sense of fairness? Psychol Sci. 2012 February 1; 23(2): 196–204. (Link)
Smith EA, Hill K, Marlowe F, Nolin D, Wiessner P, Gurven M, Bowles S, Borgerhoff Mulder M, Hertz T, Bell A. 2010. Wealth transmission and inequality among hunter-gatherers. Current Anthropology 51(1): 19-34. (Link)