Proximal Differentiation

A thought has been rattling in the back of my head. I can hear it when the voices take their nap.

In “A Beautiful Mind” John Forbes Nash Jr. and his friends visit a bar seeking companionship. He realizes if they all go for the same girl, few of them will succeed. But if they spread out and target different dates, more people will succeed, and collectively, they will be happier. He went home and demonstrated this mathematically and won a Nobel Prize. Bar-math and a prize. Not bad.

So, here’s a thought; the more similar we are to others, the harder we try to differentiate ourselves from them. Put another way, we work hardest to distinguish ourselves from people who are most like us. We do this with siblings, in sports, and (God help us) politics.

I’m a Vikings fan, and we have a great rivalry with the Green Bay Packers. Games between these teams are more interesting because of the rivalry, and the ‘us’ against ‘them’ aspect dominates rhetoric among fans. But if you were from another culture, you would likely be struck by the similarities between them. Its hard to find two populations more alike than those in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Both are hearty midwesterners in agricultural states where men like to hunt, fish, and snowmobile. The ethnic and religious backgrounds are identical, as is the landscape, and average level of education. To an outsider, these are the same people, despite the rivalry.

For another example, recall the US Presidential elections of 2004, where George Bush ran against John Kerry. Both candidates were white men, about the same age and from privileged backgrounds. They had gone to the same Ivy League college, at the same time, belonged to the same fraternity, the some of the same clubs. Both men went into politics, and the same democratic institutions defined them, their beliefs, and patriotic fervor. To an outsider, there might have seemed little variety in the choice between them, save for the intense (and successful) efforts made to differentiate them. To Americans, the voting choices were vastly different. The reality is that, despite their differences, they had far more in common than what separated them. This is the case with Democrats and Republicans today, although it appears the current body politic is incapable of understanding this.

Sports and political rivalries may be little more than an effort to distinguish ourselves from people like ourselves. Furthermore, this “Proximal Differentiation” is proportional to similarity, meaning we try hardest to separate ourselves from people who are most like us.

Consider the possibility that our most vociferous disagreements are with people who are exactly like us, and not the demons we make them out to be. Given the degree of polarization in politics today, recognition of our tendency toward Proximal Differentiation would go a long way toward creating a more cooperative environment. Perhaps we would actually solve some problems.


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