Judging Others Is Partly a Social Process

Robert Wright asks us to reflect on whether we notice a professional rival’s flaws more readily than we notice those of an ally. In presenting the scenario he characterizes the relationship with the rival as zero-sum and that with the ally as non-zero-sum.

Various psychological mechanisms make us particularly receptive to evidence of blemishes in a rival’s record and of virtue in the record of an ally. I may well ascribe unflattering motivations to a professional rival more readily than to a colleague who shares my own academic tastes, interests, and methodological orientation. But do the biases in question stem solely from cognitive distortions? There are also social processes at work, and in practice they may be relatively more significant.

The books and articles that I read will tend to praise the writings of my ally and to criticize those of my rival. Likewise, the people who give talks at seminars that I organize, or choose to attend, are more likely to think highly of my ally’s works than of my rival’s writings. For these reasons, information favorable to my ally is relatively more available to me. The same is true of information about my rival’s failures and dark motivations.

The bias that Wright mentions is undoubtedly pervasive. My point here is that it has an important social component that may work independently of the psychological mechanisms in question.

Am I likely to see the relationship with my rival as a zero-sum contest? Not necessarily. I might see it as a negative-sum struggle involving much wasted energy on both sides. Alternatively, I might view the relationship as a positive-sum contest that makes each of us think harder and write better in anticipation of possible criticisms from the other side. Wright’s scenario appears realistic, then, only in a probabilistic sense: a rivalry is more likely than a cooperative relationship to appear zero-sum.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • This month’s Cato Unbound features an essay drawn from The Evolution of God, the ambitious new book by Robert Wright, author of Nonzero and The Moral Animal. In this essay, Wright explores the relationship between “moral imagination” and the possibility of religious tolerance and social cooperation. Wright argues that moral imagination is part of our evolved mental machinery. When we see others as potentially cooperative, moral imagination is awakened to better grasp the needs and interests of partners and allies. But when we see ourselves caught in a zero-sum game with others, moral imagination, and thus sympathy and the spirit of toleration, shrinks as we prepare for a fight. Wright argues that the widespread perception that “the West” and “the Muslim world” are playing a zero-sum game is an illusion created by a misfire of moral imagination. The media’s relentless focus on the truculent acts of a small minority of Muslim extremists encourages the sense that the larger, more moderate Muslim world is much more hostile than it really is. But this sense narrows moral imagination, making it harder still to grap the possibility of cooperation and the point of toleration.

Response Essays

  • In his reply to Robert Wright’s lead essay, philosopher Richard Joyce, author of The Evolution of Morality, emphasizes the distinction between potentially and actually engaging in mutually beneficial cooperation. That “the West” could be in a non-zero-sum game with the “Muslim world” doesn’t imply it is actually in one. Moreover, Joyce argues, “non-zero-sum” and “good” do not mean the same thing from the perspective of an individual’s or group’s interest. If there is gain to be had from conflict, reason may recommend it. Tolerance and understanding are wonderful, Joyce agrees. But he finds something “unsettling” and “morally troubling” in what he takes to be Wright’s “[attempt] to justify these attitudes purely by an appeal to self-interest.” There are psychological limits to what appeals to self-interest can accomplish, and the congruence of self-interest and cooperation is far from certain in many cases. Additionally, Joyce suspects that Wright may be guilty of a weakly supported conjecture when he posits an evolved adaptation for distinguishing between zero-sum and non-zero-sum games.

  • Timur Kuran, Professor of Economics and Political Science and Gorter Family Chair in Islamic Studies at Duke University, finds insight in Wright’s account, but argues that it is insufficient to really explain the sense of conflict between many Muslims and the West. Kuran argues that displays of hostility in conformance with local expectations and social pressures can pay off handsomely. An expansive sense of possible of positive-sum relations with distant others does nothing to change the incentives that arise from collective processes at the local level. Not even suicide bombers require a false picture of zero-sum conflict. They may martyr themselves simply to bring status to their families. Wright’s neglect of the such alternative causes of cultural conflict, Kuran argues, leads him to offer advice of limited value.

  • Jonathan Sheehan, associate professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, touches base with Blaise Pascal and reminds us that explicit game theory was first deployed as a religious argument aimed at conversion. In secular terms, a convert is a gain for one sect but a loss for another. But in religious terms, as Augustine noted, even the harsh coercion of heretics can be viewed as non-zero-sum–the heretic, whether he thinks so or not, has Heaven to gain. So, Sheehan argues, “the real stakes of the game do not matter. Or, more precisely, the nature of the game is the real stake.” To characterize the game as in fact non-zero-sum, as Wright does, is to miss the real moral and political issue about how the stakes of the game will be determined in the face of deep disagreement about what the game is. “Modern conflicts between ‘the West’ and ‘the Muslims,’” Sheehan concludes, “have less to do with misfiring mental machinery, and more to do with the absence of any recognized authority for determining the kinds of games we are playing, and which interests should count in them.”