Can group identity be a force for good?

Many in the rationalist sphere look down on tribalism and group identity. Paul Graham writes that identity interferes with people’s ability to have a productive discussion. Julia Galef seconds this view (though with exceptions), devoting a chapter of Scout Mindset to the ways that identity interferes with clear thinking. Eliezer Yudkowsky makes a similar point in the context of political identity.

I think this view is correct, but I want to give three personal examples of my own identity motivating me do good things. These examples have a common theme, and I believe there are lessons to be drawn from them.

I. Effective altruism

I first ran into EA in 11th grade, when my English teacher assigned an essay by Peter Singer and asked us to argue against it. I completed the assignment and got a pretty good grade (though, having reread my essay, it was pretty bad!). But I noticed that Singer’s argument was much stronger than most arguments I’d encountered. Over the next couple years I became a utilitarian and was fully on board with EA (at least in broad strokes) my freshman year of college.

By “fully on board”, I mean that I agreed that the EA approach to improving the world was a really good one. On the other hand, I didn’t change any of my personal behaviors to reflect this. I didn’t start donating to or working on effective causes.

Unlike (I think) most EAs, I’m not intrinsically motivated to do good. Making someone happy feels good if I’m close to them, but knowing that I’ve saved the expected lives of 1.2 strangers — frankly it doesn’t. If I could change that I probably would, but as far as I can tell this is just how my brain works.

But last year I donated a few percent of my income to effective charities, and I plan to work my way up toward 10% over the next few years. What changed?

For me, it was the fact that I wanted to feel like a real EA. I wanted to feel like I could honestly identify as an EA, be part of the EA tribe. I joined Columbia EA in my first year of grad school, felt really at home in that community, and grew closer to the EA movement as a whole. Now I consider myself an effective altruist. Introspecting about why I’m donating, and why I’m thinking about ways to make my academic research on forecasting more relevant to EA causes, well — it’s because it’s the EA thing to do.

So my journey has been (1) I learned about and agreed with EA principles, (2) I grew close to the EA community, and (3) I started identifying as an EA and taking actions that made me feel like an EA.

The rationalist in me balks a little bit at (3). I should be taking actions because they’re right, not because it makes me part of the tribe. And yet I think those actions are right — it’s just that my brain finds this sort of circuitous motivation more effective. This isn’t surprising: I think most brains are built better for being part of a tribe than for doing abstractly good things.

Some EAs I follow on Twitter have a light bulb emoji 💡 next to their names. I’ve told myself that I don’t deserve this emoji yet — not until I donate 10% of my income to effective charities or do direct work on effective causes. But that emoji is motivating. I want it by my name, and I hope to be able to put it there soon. That light bulb might be a weird motivation, but if it makes me save a couple more lives, I’ll take it.

II. Neoliberalism

Speaking of Twitter emojis, for a long time I had a globe emoji 🌐 next to my Twitter name, representing Twitter neoliberalism (not to be confused by what most people mean by neoliberalism). Several pre-existing common thought patterns attracted me to neoliberal ideology, including a belief in consequentialism, an appreciation of markets, and having read (and agreed in broad strokes with) some of Scott Alexander’s ideas. The main neoliberal account pretty reliably had opinions I agreed with on things I’d thought about, and this made me trust their opinions more on issues I hadn’t given much thought.

One of these issues was housing policy, which was a somewhat awkward one for me. I hate living in dense neighborhoods; when deciding on my grad school, I went to Columbia in spite of the fact that it was in New York. How much I enjoy living in a neighborhood is inversely related to its density.

At the same time, I would have reluctantly agreed with the neoliberal notion that increasing the housing supply would be better for the world. Rent prices would fall, there would be fewer homeless people, and people would be able to live closer to work and to each other, decreasing commute times and making the economy more efficient.

But I agreed with this position only on an intellectual level; it didn’t feel true to me. I like my Upper West Side brownstone apartment, thank you very much. (Better yet if it were a standalone house with a picket fence, but I don’t think I could afford that.) So while the neoliberal “upzone and build more housing” position intellectually seemed correct, it didn’t feel correct.

But I felt like the neoliberal community had things basically right. It felt like a bastion of sanity amid all the other crazy ideologies of the Internet. They also did things I really liked, like raising money for the Against Malaria Foundation. Not that I fell in with that crowd for completely rational reasons — partly I just liked their aesthetic — but I came to identify as a neoliberal. I became part of the tribe.

And as a result, what changed wasn’t so much my views on housing policy, but rather my feelings about it. I cheered for new development and rooted for pro-housing candidates in local races. A couple weeks ago I voted enthusiastically for pro-housing candidates up and down the New York ballot. In the city council election — the one that most directly affects whether housing gets built where I live — I voted for the pro-development candidate, against my own interests. She lost, and I’m sad about that.

Had I not become part of the neoliberal tribe, I likely would have reluctantly agreed that the pro-housing candidate is better for the world, and then voted for the anti-housing candidate anyway. Just like I used to intellectually agree that donating to effective charities is good for the world without acting on that belief. My actions changed only when I became part of a tribe that brought my feelings in alignment with these beliefs.

III. Rationality

I first ran into the ideas behind rationality the summer after 10th grade, when a student at a math camp I attended gave out physical copies of the first 17 chapters of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I was hooked and promptly proceeded to read the remainder (or what existed at the time). I didn’t realize that HPMOR was part of a broader community until my freshman year of college, when I ran into Scott Alexander via his wonderful It Was You Who Made My Blue Eyes Blue. The post linked to Scott Aaronson’s Common Knowledge and Aumann’s Agreement Theorem, which to this day I consider the most important thing I’ve ever read. And then I realized that Eliezer Yudkowsky was also part of this community. At a time where I’d gone from surrounded by friends in high school to feeling pretty lonely in college, I felt that I had found my crowd.

Being a rationalist has changed how I approach the world in many small ways, mostly from learning things covered in rationalist essays and articles. But a few of the changes came, I think, as a result of identifying as a rationalist. The most notable of these is working toward relying less on motivated reasoning and developing a scout mindset. Again, I would have agreed with the statement “motivated reasoning is important to avoid” well before becoming a rationalist, but I became emotionally invested in avoiding motivated reasoning around when I became a rationalist, because avoiding motivated reasoning is what rationalists do (or try to do).

IV. Hmm, about that neoliberalism

In a recent Twitter thread, I drew a distinction between effective altruism and neoliberalism. In my mind, effective altruism is a question (“What are the best ways to improve the world?”), while neoliberalism is an answer (to a related question: “What public policies would most improve the world?”). Identities centered around questions seem epistemically safer than those centered around answers. If you identify as someone who pursues the answer to a question, you won’t be attached to a particular answer. If you identify with an answer, that identity may be a barrier to changing your mind in the face of evidence.

A week ago I removed the globe emoji from my Twitter name. I would like to say that I did so upon realizing that my neoliberal identity made me worse at seeing public policy debates clearly. I came to believe a while ago that I’d benefit from holding this identity more lightly. But ultimately I removed the globe, after some nagging discomfort with it, because it went against my rationalist identity. Rationalists care about not letting tribalism cloud their reasoning, and I felt that by being too attached to my neoliberal identity I wasn’t being a good rationalist. Going forward, I’ll continue using the “neoliberal” label as a more or less accurate descriptor of my beliefs, but hope not to be attached to the label itself.

In all of these cases, my experience with tribalism and identity is that it takes things that I believe I should do — donate to effective causes, vote for pro-housing candidates, develop a scout mindset, hold my neoliberal identity more lightly — and gets me to want to do them on an emotional level. In a sense, this isn’t optimal. Ideally I would want to do something as soon as I decide I should do it. But it seems that my brain doesn’t work that way, and tribalism has been a useful crutch.

I don’t endorse tribalism in general, or think it’s a net positive. Tribalism strikes me as a symmetric weapon, equally wieldable by good and evil. This alone would make tribalism net neutral, but in fact tribalism corrupts, turning scouts into soldiers, making people defend their side irrespective of who’s right. And the more tribal a group becomes, the more fiercely they fight. Tribalism is a soldier of Moloch, the god of defecting in prisoner’s dilemmas.

But after thinking about my own tribalism, I’ve come to realize that it can have systematic positive effects as well. Whether it is possible for us to have the positives without the negatives — or at least in excess of the negatives — is in my mind an open question.

But if I may suggest an answer: First, be a scout. Make truth seeking a central part of your identity. Just like EA, a scout identity is centered around a question (“What is true?”). Then, so long as you always think of yourself as the sort of person who cares first and foremost about the truth, growing other identities and joining other tribes will be less epistemically scary.


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