Why Do You Think?

Most motivations to take action or to try to influence collective action fall into one of three broad categories:

  1. Direct Self-Interest
  2. Tribal Interest
  3. Genuine Altruism

Most of your simple day-to-day actions fall into category one, which is totally fine. When you’re deciding which groceries to buy or which shirt to wear today, what else should you use as a motivator? Buy the groceries you like and wear the shirt you find comfortable.

Of course, sometimes even simple day-to-day actions veer into category 2. If you’re wearing a particular football jersey to a gathering of your friends, it may very well be that it’s not your favorite shirt, but the one that will give you the best boost in tribal status. That’s fine, too! As long as you’re picking your own tribes and you’re doing so for decent reasons, there’s nothing wrong with then wanting to embrace the ideals of that tribe.

And of course, sometimes you do things in category 3. Not very often, though. A lot of times what looks like category 3 is actually category 1 or 2, and even when it is category 3 it’s often done badly, usually for reasons that veer back into 1 & 2.

Effective actions in category 3 require a level of effort and study that most people don’t want to admit, let alone actually engage in. For instance, let’s say you donate 10 bucks to a local school library fundraiser. Great – there’s nothing wrong with that. But you probably did it more for category 2 than 3 – you want your local tribe to see you supporting their local interests and thus gain a little status. You want to believe you’re being genuinely altruistic, but if you were, you’d be donating to one of a thousand better, more effective causes than a local school library fundraiser. In your local community, 10 bucks buys like one or two books for your school library. In the broader world, you could probably feed a family for a month or save someone from malaria or something. But! You’d probably score fewer points with your local tribe.

But hey – even if you did donate to the Against Malaria Foundation (and you should!), maybe you’re only doing that because your “tribe” is econ nerds that value strict adherence to effective altruism principles. Maybe you don’t give a rat’s tail about malaria, you just want other nerds to think you’re smart.

That’s okay, too. If your desire for tribal status saves a few dozen lives from malaria as a side effect, I’m totally okay with this.

Ultimately though, this lens isn’t just about understanding you. It’s about helping you understand other people. Those are the three reasons people do stuff: they want to improve their own lives, or they want to improve their tribe’s lives, or they want to improve everyone’s lives. The case can definitely be made that the only people who really do things because of category 3 are people who have just mentally aligned “everyone on Earth” to be their “tribe” and are doing a hyper-idealized version of category 2, but again – I don’t care. I just want good done in the world.

If you do too, then recognize why people do the things they do. You can’t usually shift someone from one category to another, but you can shift their opinions of what’s effective within a category. If someone is fixated on doing something good for themselves, then you probably can’t convince them to instead spend that action on something selflessly beneficial to humanity – but you might be able to convince them that there’s something better they could do for themselves, and if that something happens to benefit mankind as a side effect – wonderful.

If someone says that they’re doing something because of category 3, but they remain stubbornly resistant to evidence that there are better things in category 3 they could be doing (or even that the thing they’re doing isn’t helpful at all to the larger population), then the chances are very good that they’re actually motivated by category 2, not category 3. That means that you’re wasting your breath trying to convince them to shift to a more effective form of altruism because their motivation isn’t altruism to begin with. It’s tribal status.

Category 1 and category 3 are much easier to work with. When someone is self-interested, they’re usually motivated to make maximum use of the available resources. If someone just wants to spend money on ice cream, then they’re usually open to the idea that they can get ice cream cheaper next door, or better ice cream down the street. And if they’re truly motivated by category 3 then they’re usually open to making the most of what they’re doing. But if you’re motivated by category 2, then you’re by nature somewhat inflexible. If your motivation is to score points with the tribe, then people outside the tribe won’t be able to convince you to change your actions, because you’re not after better outcomes. You’re after more points, and only the tribe can dictate what actions are worth the most points. The tribe will often pull a bait-and-switch; they’ll espouse certain “tribal ideals” but you don’t get points for embracing those ideals with your actions – you get points for performing the actions that the tribe says are in line with the ideals, even if they aren’t.

Watch what others do – and you, too.

2 thoughts on “Why Do You Think?

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