One cannot help but notice that migration is increasing. Over the past century, the trend has been towards greater mobility for more people around the world. Many people today live in a different place from where they were born, with different social norms and customs.
A new study by researchers at the University of Maryland highlights a surprising by-product: Increased mobility can help people treat themselves as individuals rather than members of a defined social group. The work suggests that mobility counteracts the tendency of populations to become more ethnocentric – or inclined to favor members of their own ethnic, tribal or national group while being hostile to other groups – over time. The study appears online in the journal Scientific reports on nature December 8, 2015.
“Our study marks the first time that a computer model of evolutionary game theory has been used to examine whether the well-studied psychological phenomenon of ethnocentrism develops differently with increased mobility,” said Soham De, senior author of study and graduate student in computer science at UMD. “The underlying message is very encouraging: ethnocentric behavior is not inevitable, so perhaps there are additional steps human societies can take to reduce conflict.”
Historically, most group conflicts have taken place between people who define themselves primarily by the groups to which they belong. Previous research in psychology has established that such categorization is natural, with humans classifying others into “groups” and “groups out.” A common result is that individuals favor those in their own group while being hostile to strangers. Indeed, numerous studies of cultural psychology have suggested that this tendency towards ethnocentrism is inevitable in the development of human societies.
The present study supports the idea that ethnocentric behavior is not inevitable, but is affected by structural conditions within a society, including overall levels of mobility.
The team started with a well-established computer model of human behavior based on the principles of game theory, a concept that economists, political scientists, and psychologists use to study models of human decision-making. Such collaborations between computer scientists and sociologists have become more common, the former being able to use computer models to test the theories advanced by the latter.
“Evolutionary game theory models can help explain how the characteristics of a society may change over time, as individuals modify their actions and strategies to suit their current conditions,” said study co-author Dana Nau, professor of computer science at UMD with a joint appointment at the UMD Institute for Systems Research. “While these models are much simpler than actual human societies, they can help unravel causal relationships and support social science theories.”
By introducing mobility into their model, the researchers considerably reduced the emergence of ethnocentric behaviors. Their results indicated that when societies are more mobile, their actions are more likely to depend on seeing people as individuals rather than as part of a perceived group. In addition, the results show that there is less hostility towards other groups in highly mobile places compared to those with low mobility.
Cultural psychology research suggests that in mobile societies, people strategically adapt to their circumstances by frequently changing their relationships, having a large network of casual acquaintances, and being open to strangers. They are likely to rate others based on their individual reliability and worth. But in places where people aren’t very mobile, opportunities to form new relationships are limited – and ending existing relationships can have dire consequences. In these places, maintaining loyalty to one’s own group while keeping a safe distance from other groups is a good coping strategy.
“In mobile contexts, people are constantly coming and going from different relationships; being open to strangers is likely adaptive in these circumstances, ”said study co-author Michele Gelfand, professor of psychology at UMD. “On the other hand, in low mobility contexts, individuals have far fewer opportunities to form new relationships. They get most of their needs met through the group they identify with; in this context, it makes more sense to treat people according to the groups to which they belong.
The researchers ran their game theory model over tens of thousands of iterations, spanning various scenarios on UMD’s Deepthought2 supercomputer cluster. In the low mobility scenarios, the researchers found that 75% of the population adopted strategies that favored their own group and were hostile to others. When the researchers increased the amount of mobility in the model, the reverse scenario developed, with around 70 percent of the population using strategies that depended more on individual behavior. Thus, mobility thwarted the evolutionary dominance of group perception and ethnocentric strategies.
The team then tested their results against actual data from the US Census Bureau, which provides mobility measures for all 50 states. Mobility was positively correlated with responses to the question “I am interested in cultures of other countries” and negatively correlated with responses to questions about ethnocentric attitudes. This analysis of census data was consistent with the model results.
“It’s always good to test if what you’re predicting in your model actually happens in real life,” Nau said.
Gelfand is careful to note that the research does not address how mobility affects people’s attitudes, but rather how it affects people’s interactions with each other.
“One characteristic that an agent can have in our model is whether they treat another person more like an individual rather than a member of a particular group,” Gelfand said. “As the level of mobility increases a bit, they start to need to interact with new groups. They do a lot better in these kinds of circumstances if they treat others as individuals. becomes adaptive. “
Gelfand also cautioned that the model is very abstract, so it will not apply to all real-world scenarios. “But overall, in a context of mobility, we start to treat people as individuals rather than just recognizing them as part of a category,” she said.