The Old Lady and the Rebels

I recently read a story told by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He described a truck full of ISIS militants being berated by an old grandma. A group of five or so young men, armed with automatic weapons, being scolded vigorously for damaging the panes of glass in her windows with their weapons. Any of the men could have killed her at a whim, but none of them did.

This story will be our door into another dimension. In this world, we understand that any attempt at a logical explanation for behavior is pure fiction. When you say that a man who was booed off stage walked away because he felt embarrassed, it seems reasonable on both a logical and emotional level. What I’m saying is that both of these views are complete illusions. And yet if you stick your head through the door to take a peek at the other dimension, you will see that what I write here makes perfect sense.

A little backstory for this thought experiment. The Syrian village I am describing is a small town where generations of humans live and die. People move out of the village to the city, not the other way around. So if you live there, you know everybody, and everybody knows you. The older folks remember not only the time you peed your pants in school, but the time your parents did, too.

Humans have a natural urge to help each other. According to cognitive science, when you help out your own family members, the brain even activates the same regions as when you are helping you out. That’s a pretty good feeling.

I speculate that this feeling extends further than we might be able to show in a modern setting. As I often say, identity is one of the most powerful persuasion tools out there. We are literally wired for life in a tribe. We lived in tribes before we descended from trees. The rituals looked different, and we probably didn’t wear clothes, but it was a tribe all the same.

This is probably why we are hardwired to help other humans. When you want to help someone and resist the urge to do so, it even feels bad. And if you live in a small town where everyone is literally your not so distant cousin, I wager the feeling is intensified. To be clear, I am saying that growing up with the same group of people around for decades on end makes them feel like family. The result is that helping each other feels better for people in small towns than it does for people in big cities.

As our tribal genes evolved, it makes sense that we would also pick up natural inclinations to defend each other. Simply, the genes that cause you to help other people make your entire tribe (made of people who share your genes) do well. The first dude with a mutation that caused him to throw himself in front of danger was probably someone his group wanted to keep around. Ask your female friends how they feel about firefighters if you don’t believe me. And women would have picked up their own version of this gene too, causing them to lift cars to save their children and hallucinate that the bouncer’s jokes are very funny. Now back to our grandma.

When you live in a village with the same people for your whole life, you probably spend a lot of time helping the other people with favors. You give your father’s cousin’s new wife a job helping you weave blankets, which you then trade for wines from neighboring countries. You help your neighbor raise their children. You break up a bloody fight between two feuding brothers, saving one from killing the other. The social debt rolls in until you wake up one day with your children’s children taken care of, and because seniors in poor countries still do work (instead of being pushed into old homes), you continue to accumulate even more social debt from your neighbors. But by this point, you are happy just to be helping, and so they love you.

What is the cumulative effect of this story happening a million times over the history of our species? We have an instinctual urge to protect the elderly. But I told you we were going to look at another dimension. That was just the warmup.

Inside your brain right now is a memory of a time somebody helped you. We could sit and talk for hours, extracting stories about how your parents helped you, your friends helped you, your teachers helped you. It would require asking the right questions to get them all, because your mind will not light up the region containing a particular memory unless we stimulate it. During this time, you could move your body to feel immense gratitude towards these people, and if they were there, you could express it in a hug, or privately, tears. If I ask you why, you will say you love them, you want to thank them, and the conscious mind will feel that it is true. In this dimension, you know it is a story. But we feel that it is real. And the characters in Taleb’s story believe it too.

As I often write, your brain is an association machine. Your consciousness does not have access to all of your memory at the same time. You do not remember the first place you saw a gun, but you know what will happen if it is fired, particularly at an old grandma. The simple image itself may cause you to move your body away slightly, close your eyes, tilt your head, close the window. I wrote nothing about you protecting the grandmother, but your body reacted with a watered down version of the real event, as if preparing for the action itself. That is how powerful it is.

These ISIS fighters were described as being visibly distressed by the old woman’s scolding. They had no way out. Driving off would mean looking scared, and their egoes could not accept that. They could not will her to stop because after many decades of life in the village, she is used to respect and knows the men will take a severe hit to their reputation by acting against her. The village consciously feels a debt of gratitude towards her, and it will compel them to act, maybe throwing out the ISIS fighters in a riot. The militants don’t know, so they freeze.

Now pause. I said rationalization is all fiction. To clarify, reasons are the actual reason for action in some cases, but rarely do they give a comprehensive explanation. Stick your head through that doorway again and take a closer look.

The brains of the ISIS fighters are busy imagining a mob of people attacking them, or their commander punishing them, or their own grandmother. Any of these possibilities leads to a bad outcome for the fighters. Their brains bind their hands to their sides and their heads droop, a biological response to defeat. She eventually grows tired, the activation in her mind shifting to another state, and she walks away.

It is more like observing physics. I bump the ball with my hand and the force causes it to take off in the direction I sent it. Likewise, extreme heat sends a signal to your brain, “move away,” and your whole body leaps to remove the pain. But the pain isn’t pain. It’s your biology understanding, “I move now or my odds of reproduction drops.”

You can see this as easily as I can in any context. Next time you are with a friend, notice the personal space between you. Wait a moment and step closer to them. Wait again if they do not move, and inch a bit closer. Especially if it is a group conversation, they will eventually move away to increase their own personal space. Unless they noticed you doing it, they will have no idea why they suddenly felt compelled to move.


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