The 'don't trust the boss' gene?


  • Social brain

Another in my series ‘pop evolutionary psychology for scientific imbeciles’. Or as someone put it to me the other day ’the charming thing about your blog, Matthew, is that while other people use theirs to display their knowledge, you use yours to parade your ignorance’.

There is a lot of research out there on how we are shaped by social norms. Take for example Mark Earls’ book ‘Herd’ which shows how following the crowd explains most human behaviour. It isn’t a surprise we’re like this. After all, other species do the same. Birds flock, bees swarm, when one sheep starts running they all do.

But human beings seem to have another, opposite, instinct. There appears to be a part of the brain which responds to the message; ‘don’t trust the boss’. It’s the part which lights up when - during a meeting discussing a plan from central Government, the council or company head office - someone stands up and alleges that the truth isn’t being told, or the decision has already been made, or ‘the secret plan is…’. It’s the part that makes us susceptible to conspiracy theories, despite the tenuous nature of the evidence underpinning them.

The reasons most frequently offered for this suspicion of authority are political and sociological: It represents a loss of trust or legitimacy and it is connected to a long term decline in deference and tradition in society. We also know that attitudes to authority are to some extent innate, with people having a more or less ‘authoritarian’ personality. 

When we are deciding whether to follow or to rebel we try to base our response on rational judgment. But, it is often impracticable for us to find out enough to make an evidence-based judgment (think of how many of us now feel about climate change science) and both the compliance and resistance instincts have a strong emotional power.  But while we have the compliance response in common with the rest of the animal kingdom, the resistance/suspicion reaction seems uniquely human.

It could be argued that it is entirely a cultural phenomenon. Sociologists, like Anthony Giddens, argue that the decline in deference is a key characteristic of modernity. But doesn’t the attraction of ‘don’t trust the boss’ feel like it has a deeper, more visceral, basis?. Like many other ‘natural’ instincts it can lead to bad judgement, eccentricity or madness if we have an excess. Paranoia can be a pathological version of ‘don’t trust the boss’.

Could it be that the possession of a certain level of natural suspicion towards authority – albeit unevenly distributed through the population – has played a vital evolutionary role? After all, in the hundreds of thousands of years of our evolution - when there weren’t many human beings around and our future flourishing was far from certain - there must have been plenty of leaders who were mad and dangerous: the kind of person who would lead their tribe to disaster or say God had demanded a mass suicide pact. Has the survival and evolution of the species rested on our innate ability to be suspicious of authority?

Of course, it will be argued that at some times in recent human history – think of the Third Reich – human beings seem to have abandoned this instinct. True enough but – as the theory predicts -  this has led to disaster and, also, this is why authoritarian regimes adopt totalitarian methods: they know any dissenting voice will be likely to strike an emotional chord.

Of course, I am not quite so stupid as not to know that the question of authority and obedience has been the subject of much brilliant analysis from historians, philosophers, social psychologists, sociologists and political scientists (Hobbes, Adorno, Diamond, Arendt, Milgram to name just a few different perspectives) but what about the genetic/evolutionary account? Can someone refer me to the book (or, even better, the easily digestible article) I need to read?

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