Haidt: The Hive Switch

Beginning on page 228 of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt


In the last chapter, I suggested that human nature is 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. We are like chimps in being primates whose minds were shaped by the relentless competition of individuals with their neighbors. We are descended from a long string of winners in the game of social life. This is why we are Glauconians, usually more concerned about the appearance of virtue than the reality (as in Glaucon’s story about the ring of Gyges). 3

But human nature also has a more recent groupish overlay. We are like bees in being ultrasocial creatures whose minds were shaped by the relentless competition of groups with other groups. We are descended from earlier humans whose groupish minds helped them cohere, cooperate, and outcompete other groups. That doesn’t mean that our ancestors were mindless or unconditional team players; it means they were selective. Under the right conditions, they were able to enter a mind-set of “one for all, all for one” in which they were truly working for the good of the group, and not just for their own advancement within the group.

My hypothesis in this chapter is that human beings are conditional hive creatures . We have the ability (under special conditions) to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves. That ability is what I’m calling the hive switch . The hive switch, I propose, is a group-related adaptation that can only be explained “by a theory of between-group selection,” as Williams said. 4 It cannot be explained by selection at the individual level. (How would this strange ability help a person to outcompete his neighbors in the same group?) The hive switch is an adaptation for making groups more cohesive, and therefore more successful in competition with other groups. 5

If the hive hypothesis is true, then it has enormous implications for how we should design organizations, study religion, and search for meaning and joy in our lives. 6 Is it true? Is there really a hive switch?

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