Steven Pinker on the Tribal Roots of Defying Social Distancing

Partly because people think of experts as oracles, as opposed to experimenters and exploiters of trial and error, there’s a presumption that either the experts know what is the best policy from the get-go, or else they are incompetent and ought to be replaced.Photograph by GoToVan / Flickr

The images are everywhere: People crowded face-to-face in swimming pools, shoulder-to-shoulder in indoor bars, cheering without masks at a rally held by President Trump, who often downplays the global pandemic. Now, as many public health experts predicted, waves of new COVID-19 infections and deaths are rolling across the South and West. Many, still practicing social distancing, look at their fellow Americans and ask, “What are they thinking?”

We turned to Steven Pinker for help with an answer. The professor of psychology at Harvard, author and most recently, , sees the deep-seated mindset, tribalism, at work in people’s defiance of health recommendations. But it’s more than a tribalism of being with your crowd. “There’s a moralistic component to this kind of tribalism, mainly that people tend to see their own tribes as victims of some kind of oppression or harm by some rival coalition,” Pinker says, his distinctive mass of gray hair filling the Zoom screen. “They believe their actions on behalf of the group, even if symbolic, are a kind of justice, a kind of settling the score, making a statement, advancing a moral cause—as strange as that may be to those of us who are not part of that coalition, and might even have contempt for that cause. But from the inside, it always feels as if your group has been victimized, has been a longstanding victim of a series of affronts and harms for which you seek redress. And that’s common in the invented histories and myths and narratives of many peoples.”

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