Power Part III: The power of Bandwagoning
Getting on the right side: the one everyone else is on.
About twenty years ago, I was on a ski trip with a colleague1 and we were on a mountain in the Poconos, on a blue square, an intermediate level trail. Suddenly, a young woman plowed into another skier, a cloud of snow billowing on the mountain. We both stopped to see if they were ok—they were, thankfully—and they both got up, dusting the snow off. A man, clearly the woman’s partner, had arrived as well, and asked her if she was hurt. She was not, and indicated with a certain peevishness that she was unharmed despite this jerk.
Now, to understand the import of the next words, it’s important to know that the rules on the ski slope dictate that the responsibility to avoid collision lies with the uphill skier—they are the one bearing down on the other skier and have the opportunity to turn.
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“Ummm… You were clearly uphill of him, sweetheart.”
Now, she had pushed her facemask up to her forehead, so we all could see the ferocious expression she shot at her now-possibly-former partner. The other skier shrugged. She mumbled an apology, replaced her mask, and skied off.
In keeping with my pattern of using examples from both real life and fiction, let’s visit another case, poor Fantine from Les Misérables [SPOILERS] by Victor Hugo. I asked ChatGPT for a summary of a scene I had recalled from the book:2
The scene begins when Fantine, out of desperation, has turned to prostitution as a last resort. One winter night, an affluent man named Bamatabois comes across Fantine. Bamatabois is a dandy who thinks it is amusing to torment Fantine, and he puts snow down her dress. Humiliated, Fantine reacts violently. She attacks Bamatabois and, in turn, attracts the attention of Inspector Javert.
Javert sees this as an opportunity to arrest Fantine. He doesn't consider her circumstances, only seeing a prostitute who has assaulted a "gentleman." He's about to take her to prison when Jean Valjean (Mayor Madeleine) intervenes.
For my purposes, the crucial element of this story is the part I put in bold. From ChatGPT’s account, while Bamatabois started it, Javert is only seeing a prostitute who has assaulted a “gentleman.” This is, of course, Hugo’s point. French culture at the time was one in which the instruments of state—embodied by Javert, in this case—chose sides based on who one is—one’s position in society--rather than what they have done. If there were social media in Paris in the 1820s, the hashtag would have been something like #believegentlemen. Members of the nobility were to be sided with based on who they were, not what they or the other party did.
Why am I telling you these stories?
In the first Power installment, I suggested that, in humans, the question of who sides with you when conflicts emerge is a—if not the—crucial aspect of power. If you know before any fight starts that everyone will be on your side, you can get into fights with confidence. That’s power. The non-human animal examples illustrate this. The baddest hyena clan can dominate because when conflicts arise, all hyenas will join the side of their kin. The coalitions are fixed by relationship. Similarly, in other species, alpha males, while they retain the support of their group, are in a similar position: as long as they know—believe—that the others will support them in conflict, they can do as they please, advancing their own interests.
The stories illustrate two importantly different ways in which humans make decisions about which side they will choose in a conflict. This difference is crucial to power because, again, among humans, how people choose who to support is a core determinant of power.
Let’s first take hyenas and the Les Mis cases. They reflect what I’ll call Identity-Focused Side-Taking.3 By this I mean that a third party to a conflict chooses who to support—and who to oppose—focusing their attention on the identity of one of the combatants: hyenas always side with their kin, Javert always sides with the person of noble birth.
Now, consider the partner in the ski story. We’ll call him Mike, though I never learned his real name. Mike could have supported his partner, siding with her against the person she collided with. He could have shown loyalty to his partner, despite what had transpired.
But Mike didn’t side based on identity. Instead, he consulted, in his head, the rule relevant to the action that had taken place. He chose the side of the other skier, using what I’ll call Action-Focused Side-Taking.4 This refers to choosing whose side to take in a conflict based on the actions the people involved took, taking into account whatever the relevant rule is, in this case to do with the code of safety on the slopes.
The power that alpha animals and 1820s gentlemen wield is due to Identity-Focused Side-Taking. I cannot over-emphasize this point, which is why I put the sentence in both bold and italics. The power of alphas and nobles derives from the fact that they can enter conflicts knowing that others will side with them. This is why Bamatabois chooses to torment Fantine: he knows the law will take his side. These facts make alphas and gentlemen formidable—powerful—and able to do exactly what power allows one to do: advance their own interests at others’ expense. Notice how the power of each lies in the (invisible) beliefs in the heads of those around them.
History is replete with examples of Identity-Focused Side-Taking. The most obvious is, of course, Nazi Germany. What Jews did or did not do was irrelevant. The state and the populace sided against them—or did not side with them, at least—in virtue of their identity. There are any number of similar historical examples, though few are so tragic.
I’ll visit one other such case, having read a book that has, over the years, really stuck with me, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, by Gilbert King. I have rarely been as affected by a book as this one, and I commend it to any who hasn’t yet read it.
The story is difficult to discuss but I think important to tell. The book follows a case handled by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund led by Thurgood Marshall, who would of course later become the first African American Supreme Court Justice. The case involved four young Black men, known as the Groveland Boys, in Lake County, Florida. They were accused of raping a 17-year-old White woman in 1949. The Groveland Boys were named Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas. After the accusation, a White mob went on a violent rampage, killing Thomas before he could stand trial. Greenlee, Shepherd, and Irvin survived and were beaten into confessing to a crime they did not, in fact, commit.
There is a chilling scene in the courtroom in which the alleged victim is on the stand and is directed to identify the people who sexually assaulted her. In fact, she is asked to do this twice, as the case is retried on appeal. She dutifully names the defendants and points to them one by one, referring to them by their names and a racial epithet, as the all-White jury looks on.
The book makes clear that the accused were innocent. It even seems likely that the members of the jury—and the prosecutors and the judge—knew this fact. But in that time in that place, the people with power—who controlled the people with weapons and jails—chose their side based on identity—White versus Black—not action, what had actually occurred. The fate of those young men came down to the decision of those involved to choose based on their identity. It probably also bears noting that the people in the mob who killed Thomas, as much as the jurors, no doubt felt virtuously on the side of angels, as members of all mobs have felt and still do.
This tragic case illustrates another feature of side-taking. Whether third parties focus, in reality, on identity or actions, they will nearly always say—and might even believe—that their focus is on actions. By referring to people’s actions, third parties can coordinate their attacks effectively on the individual alleged to have taken the action.5 This fact explains why we observe perplexing cases such as witchcraft accusations. Attacks must refer to actions, so if one wishes to launch an attack, a candidate action must be specified, even if it has not, and could not, have taken place. So, in American courts, while participants knew that the accused were innocent, they had to clothe the process in the ambiance of Action-Focused Side-Taking. In the case of Thomas, killed by a mob, there was not even the formal pretense of the judicial process, but the reason for the attack, the justification was the alleged action.
Many though not all cases of Identity-Focused Side-Taking are presented as cases of Action-Focused Side-Taking. When members of one group want to side against someone in virtue of their identity, as in the case of the Groveland Boys, there is often a fictional action that is used as pretext. The façade that group members are focused on the action rather than identity is because of the way that human bandwagoning works: people coordinate against others using actions as the stated reason even if the action is not, as a matter of fact, the reason. Providing actions as pretexts occurs even in extreme cases such as the Third Reich, in which the reason given for the attacks on Jews was not, as many people believe, simply that they were Jews: it was that they were doing harm to society.6
That the action is pretext rather than the genuine reason is incredibly obvious when the actions couldn’t possibly have taken place: witchcraft, for instance. Nonetheless, witchcraft accusations can be effective for generating bandwagoning, providing third parties with actions to focus on. Because human psychology is drawn to actions to use to choose sides—actions allow groups to coordinate their wrath on a victim—7an accuser can nominate an action and, if successful, create the bandwagon even if the action didn’t take place or, indeed, couldn’t take place.
It should be clear from this analysis that when a group of people are in an Identity-Focused Side-Taking regime, the results are often disastrous. Nazi Germany is a well-worn example, but there are countless others to choose from. The key point is that an Identity-Focused Side-Taking regime confers tremendous power to people of the correct identity. White people in Groveland. Non-Jewish Germans during the Third Reich. Nobles in Hugo’s France. These people wielded literal power of life and death over others because those around them would choose sides based on identity. An Identity-Focused Side-Taking regime is a license to attack others, secure that the bandwagon is behind you and places in mortal peril people of the non-powerful identity. Black people in Groveland, Jews in Nazi Germany, and commoners in 19th century France.
From this analysis, it might seem that an Action-Focused Side-Taking regime is always or, at least, almost always, to be preferred. Well, it depends who you are. Such regimes limit the ability of members of a particular group from harnessing the power in the shared beliefs in a society, specifically that people should always side with individuals of a particular identity when conflicts arise. Identity regimes give power, often life-changing power, to members of groups, like Bamatabois, willing to use and abuse that power. Action-focused regimes protect people from attacks like the ones launched by Bamatabois and Whites in Groveland . So, yes, as a general matter, action focused regimes are better in that they prevent the use of power as we’ve seen in this post. From the perspective of the members of the groups with the power—people who will always be backed in conflicts—the regime is obviously very appealing.
In the next post, we look at the changes to and from identity-focused regimes to action-focused regimes over the course of history, starting with the Magna Carta as an example. As beliefs change about whose side to choose—focusing on identity as opposed to actions—power dynamics shift. This perspective allows us to answer key questions about who holds power in any given context, including the contemporary one.
DeScioli, P., & Kurzban, R. (2013). A solution to the mysteries of morality. Psychological bulletin, 139(2), 477-496.
DeScioli, P., & Kurzban, R. (2009). Mysteries of morality. Cognition, 112(2), 281-299.
DeScioli, P., & Kurzban, R. (2018). Morality is for choosing sides. Atlas of moral psychology, 177-185.
Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2010). Groups in mind: The coalitional roots of war and morality. Human morality and sociality: Evolutionary and comparative perspectives. (pp. 191-234). New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Colleague and, as it would turn out, future Chair. Always accept an invitation for a ski weekend in the Poconos with someone who will be voting on/chairing your tenure case—a big power carrot—whether you like her or not.
Ok, I remembered the scene from the musical not the book, which, to be fair, I read in high school. Ok?
I use this term a lot, so it might seem logical to abbreviate it (IFST). I dislike using abbreviations when I can avoid them because I feel it forces the reader to remember what it means, so I spell it out repeatedly, which is inelegant but, imho, better than the alternative. I’ll shorten the term to “action-focus” or something similar when possible.
I don’t want to make this overly confusing, but there is a better way to render this, in my view, but very few people agree with the way I would put it. I would refer to “action-focused side-taking” simply as “moral judgment.” Interested readers can see DeScioli & Kurzban (2013, 2018) on this point. At present, the (side-taking) view of the function of moral judgment—evaluating actions as “wrong” along with the desire that the actor be punished—is not shared by the broader community, so I retain this more theoretically agnostic phrasing here and in following posts. In contrast, the prevailing view is that the function of moral judgment—e.g., condemning young women to death because witchcraft—is that such judgments are in the service of “cooperation.”
From a game theoretic perspective, actions and claims about actions support what is called a correlated equilibrium. Traffic lights are the typical example. When people want to coordinate their behavior, they need something to act as the coordination device. In the context of side-taking, the device is (statements about) people’s alleged actions. Please see DeScioli and Kurzban (2014), p. 483, for a technical discussion. The short version is that moral judgment is designed to coordinate, dynamically, based on something in the world to act as the focus of condemnation, which is why moral judgment psychology is designed to name actions as the reason for attacks.
This aspect of the buildup to the holocaust is not, in my experience, frequently discussed. My view is that it’s crucial to recall that during this period of history, while Jews were attacked for many reasons, the propaganda machine consistently portrayed Jews as a threat. See, for instance, the film "Der ewige Jude" (The Eternal Jew), which claims, for instance, that unemployment and inflation in Germany were due to Jews. The flames of antipathy for Jews were fanned by claims about not only who they were but, crucially, what they (allegedly) did.
Tooby and Cosmides (2010) put it this way: “Allies are more easily recruited if there are cues that make it easier to arrive at mental coordination on the wrongness of the behavior of the target (as well as the "facts")” (p. 225) See also DeScioli and Kurzban (2013, 2018).