The Green Shirts and Uncle Albert

The Green Shirts and Uncle Albert

November 20, 2020

I was reading about a researcher named Michael Tomasello, who has long studied what makes us human. A study he conducted compared 2- or 3-year-old children to chimps. When two children were faced with a task that yielded more toys for one than the other, the 'lucky' children in the study would, unbidden, share the extra toys with the other children. Chimps, by comparison, would not: they would keep the extra spoils for themselves.

I found this incredibly wise; the study speaks to a deeper truth about who we are. Humans are natural collaborators, predisposed to seek help and give it. By giving to someone else, we feel good. If we stop and think about it, all of the greatest things in our lives come from collaboration. Someone mentored us, someone decided to share their life with us, or someone worked together with us to accomplish a goal. It is a beautiful predisposition, isn’t it?

At the same time, Michael’s research also shows us why we need to be careful about our natural inclinations. He found that children, not surprisingly, bond to those with whom they share a cooperative relationship. It does not take much, either. In another study, children who put on a green shirt and were told they belong to the Green Group quickly built a tight identity with other children who also wore green shirts. Given the chance to share within their group, they did so generously. However, they were much less open to sharing with non-green shirt children.

Michael calls it “the dark side” of cooperation. Our natural predisposition to share and collaborate and relate to others creates human culture, which can be wonderful. However, it also can create conformity as we do our best to cooperate and fit into our group. In some circumstances, it can also create the sense of “Us and Them” if we are not careful.

Whenever I disagree with someone’s perspective, I try (sometimes unsuccessfully) to remember that we are people who, as a whole, have the same needs and desires. We usually share common values, want the best for each other, and are willing to cooperate. Our ideas about how to achieve these things may be different, but most people are trying to be good.

Cooperative thinking implies the ability to accept the perspective of others. We are capable of reconciling other perspectives with our own—our intelligence allows us to hold both what we think and what others think at the same time. We all see the world through a little different vantage point. Remembering that can keep us from dismissing someone else’s ideas when they don’t perfectly align with our own ideas.

Coming from a position of trying to understand is powerful. It blurs the “Us and Them” mentality and creates the beginning of positive change.

Of course, this is easier said than done. When Uncle Albert comes over for the holidays and starts in on his favorite soap box, he may just be beyond help. His ears don’t seem to work, and his sympathy muscle is woefully underdeveloped. He wants to be heard, but he is not open to other ideas.

As a great example, my partners and I experience this all the time. We hear people in our industry make sweeping statements about how certain kinds of investments are good or bad, or how people who make certain financial decisions are wrong. Insurance, debt, and certain types of investments are controversial hot buttons. Whether we agree or disagree with them, what we tend to notice even more is their attitude: are they open to another perspective? Would they listen if we suggested they explore another direction? Or are they just talking at us and trapped in the “Us and Them” storyline?

Sometimes they seem to fall into the Uncle Albert category. But every once in a while, if I really strain, I can just make out the “Us and Them” line I seem to be drawing in my own head. If I am truly on top of my game, I look down and realize that although I am wearing a green shirt, we may not be so different after all.



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