Tolerance and Tipping Points


(Addressing a left-leaning friend who remains generously tolerant of our conflicting view — Thank you.)

I think we agree that there are huge advantages to getting people of different groups to cooperate.

We probably also agree that there’s a tipping point where the advantage of tolerance gives way to the liability of bad behavior. Beyond this tipping point, universalism is exploited and trust erodes.

The social conventions which westerners take for granted are not cheap. The good behavior that creates these social norms is payed for with opportunity costs. (People forgo the opportunities of behaving badly to create a cooperative society.)

Eventually, erosion of trust exacerbates the prisoners dilemma of civilized society — “why should I keep paying the opportunity cost of good behavior when everybody else is parasitic upon our social norms, benefiting without contributing?”

I think we probably agree on my description above but have two differences:

1) I’m probably more sensitive to where this tipping point is. This may be at least partly genetic. (Did you know that people who call themselves conservative rate higher levels of disgust when shown of rotten meat? See Jonathan Haidt for more such biologicizing of political beliefs.)

2) I cannot help recognize a pattern when I imagine the globe and ask: Which societies expect out-group individuals to be treated as in-group? Can you see the pattern?

Hypothetical question: If my society is open to them, but their society is closed to me, how should I react? You may think the answer is obvious to me — but it actually isn’t. I recognize the advantage of being able to incorporate talent from other cultures. At some level, non-mutual tolerance may still be an advantage.


  1. Michael

    Axelrod’s Evolution of Cooperation described a mathematical simulation that played several interactions against one another in a prisoners dilemma problem. “Tit for Tat” consistently won: start nice. Next turn if opponent is nice, be nice again. If opponent moves against you, move against them next round, but reset to cooperation again.

    1. Roman

      Yup, punishment works. This is confirmed very broadly. What’s more, and what’s very encouraging, is that humans are also willing to bear very high costs to ensure that people get punished.

      Perhaps this explains our enormous tolerance for excessive government.

      Here’s a phrase I wish to use as a guide for political evolution: incremental suppression of bad behavior.


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