A man is shot in the head, and joyous celebrations break out 7,000 miles away. Although Americans are in full agreement that the demise of Osama bin Laden is a good thing, many are disturbed by the revelry. We should seek justice, not vengeance, they urge. Doesn’t this lower us to “their” level? Didn’t the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say, “I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy”? (No, he did not, but the Twitter users who popularized that misattributed quotation last week found it inspiring nonetheless.)
Why are so many Americans reluctant to join the party? As a social psychologist I believe that one major reason is that some people are thinking about this national event using the same moral intuitions they’d use for a standard criminal case. For example, they ask us to imagine whether it would be appropriate for two parents to celebrate the execution, by lethal injection, of the man who murdered their daughter.
Of course the parents would be entitled to feel relief and perhaps even private joy. But if they threw a party at the prison gates, popping Champagne corks as the syringe went in, that would be a celebration of death and vengeance, not justice. And is that not what we saw last Sunday night when young revelers, some drinking beer, converged on Times Square and the White House?
No, it is not. You can’t just scale up your ideas about morality at the individual level and apply them to groups and nations. If you do, you’ll miss all that was good, healthy and even altruistic about last week’s celebrations.
Here’s why. For the last 50 years, many evolutionary biologists have told us that we are little different from other primates — we’re selfish creatures, able to act altruistically only when it will benefit our kin or our future selves. But in the last few years there’s been a growing recognition that humans, far more than other primates, were shaped by natural selection acting at two different levels simultaneously. There’s the lower level at which individuals compete relentlessly with other individuals within their own groups. This competition rewards selfishness.
But there’s also a higher level at which groups compete with other groups. This competition favors groups that can best come together and act as one. Only a few species have found a way to do this. Bees, ants and termites are the best examples. Their brains and bodies are specialized for working as a team to accomplish nearly miraculous feats of cooperation like hive construction and group defense.
Early humans found ways to come together as well, but for us unity is a fragile and temporary state. We have all the old selfish programming of other primates, but we also have a more recent overlay that makes us able to become, briefly, hive creatures like bees. Just think of the long lines to give blood after 9/11. Most of us wanted to do something — anything — to help.
This two-layer psychology is the key to understanding religion, warfare, team sports and last week’s celebrations. The great sociologist Émile Durkheim even went so far as to call our species Homo duplex, or “two-level man.” Durkheim was writing a century ago, as organized religion was weakening across Europe. He wanted to know how nations and civil institutions could bind people into moral communities without the aid of religion. He thought the most powerful glue came from the emotions.
He contrasted two sets of “social sentiments,” one for each level. At the lower level, sentiments like respect and affection help individuals forge relationships with other individuals. But Durkheim was most interested in the sentiments that bind people into groups — the collective emotions. These emotions dissolve the petty, small-minded self. They make people feel that they are a part of something larger and more important than themselves.
One such emotion he called “collective effervescence”: the passion and ecstasy that is found in tribal religious rituals when communities come together to sing, dance around a fire and dissolve the boundaries that separate them from each other. The spontaneous celebrations of last week were straight out of Durkheim.
So is collective effervescence a good thing, or an ugly psychological relic from tribal times?
Some of those who were disturbed by the celebrations fear that this kind of unity is dangerous because it makes America more warlike and prejudiced against outsiders. When celebrants chanted “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” and sang “God Bless America,” were they not displaying a hateful “us versus them” mindset?
Once again, no. Many social psychologists distinguish patriotism — a love of one’s own country — from nationalism, which is the view that one’s own country is superior to other countries and should therefore be dominant. Nationalism is generally found to be correlated with racism and with hostility toward other countries, but patriotism by itself is not.
The psychologist Linda Skitka studied the psychological traits that predicted which people displayed American flags in the weeks after 9/11. She found that the urge to display the flag “reflected patriotism and a desire to show solidarity with fellow citizens, rather than a desire to express out-group hostility.”
This is why I believe that last week’s celebrations were good and healthy. America achieved its goal — bravely and decisively — after 10 painful years. People who love their country sought out one another to share collective effervescence. They stepped out of their petty and partisan selves and became, briefly, just Americans rejoicing together.
This hive-ish moment won’t last long. But in the communal joy of last week, many of us felt, for an instant, that Americans might still be capable of working together to meet threats and challenges far greater than Osama bin Laden.
Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of the forthcoming book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.