We tend to choose to be with people who think and look like us. We also tend to choose outcomes that benefit us now. These tendencies lead us to focus on activities that separate us and provide short-term outcomes.
When we reflect on what we really want, we say that we want healthy relationships, greater social harmony, learning and innovation, and greater overall wellbeing. We know that these desires mean that we benefit from being with people who think and look different from us–they bring something to the game that we don’t. We know that we also benefit from working on things together that provide the largest benefit to us over time. A good education or a good highway take time to build and require many people. We know this. So why don’t we always do it?
Research on cognitive biases finds that people tend to think in ways that vary from what they rationally would do. Social identity research shows that people tend towards groups where they identify as a member (the in-group, such as family and close friends) and not towards groups where they do not identify as a member (the out-group). Hyperbolic discounting research shows that people tend to disproportionately prefer immediate rewards to future rewards. These theories argue that, in human evolution, in-group and right-now preferences probably were very important when we were hunter gatherers. As societies began to gather in large cities that are globally connected, dealing with large-scale, highly complex issues such as nuclear warfare, poverty, water, climate change, terrorism, and health, these previously healthy, innate preferences might be getting in the way of what people actually prefer.
Choosing the in-group and outcomes-now leads to separation, a form of human interaction that I suggest leads to lots of people working on what seem to be similar issues, on different elements in different places at different times. While these separate actions might have some positive local impacts, they cannot achieve sustained, large-scale impact on complex, multi-dimensional issues that require a multi-pronged, same-place-and-time approach. These more complex issues require identifying with people who are similar and different, each bringing their own unique contributions, and focusing on short and long-term outcomes, a uniting form of human interaction.
While our human cognitive biases tend to carry us toward separation, we prefer and need to be able to also unite, to collaborate on many of the more difficult challenges and opportunities facing us. We can choose to interact in a more united way. It is a choice, an agreement we can make, for ourselves, with each other, for our present and for our future, which is what we prefer.