Inclusion and evolution


In the past few weeks, I have read 3 books that are deeply connected – The Essentials of Social Psychology by Wind Goodfriend, The Moral Animal by Robert Wright, and Influenceby Robert B. Cialdini.

I had been looking deeper into the idea that inclusion is, for many of us, an evolutionary step. Even though we are people of goodwill and compassion we are still influenced by deep seated reflexes and biases that only selectively favour inclusion. The basis for that selectivity is whether a person is like us, part of our ‘we’ group (in group).

We have multiple identities these days – our cultural, racial, and religious identities, our families, politics, and affiliations with geographic, sporting or interest-based groups. It’s a far cry from the tribal settings of our ancestors. Back then identity was clear cut and comparatively simple.

Nested identities

Our sense of identity matters because it is the basis upon which we include or exclude others. 

‘We’ group membership can be multi-layered in a work context. We can be employees of organisation X, members of work team Y and members, or not, of a leadership team.

So, we have elements of identity that are formed at biological, cultural, and work levels – and they all exert influence at the same time. That’s a lot of processing pressure for our brains if we are trying to figure out how to be the best person we can be – inclusive and compassionate.

Mostly, given the circumstances, we do pretty well. We live in a complex pluralistic community that works okay most of the time. This is partly because we have set up our exclusions and inclusions in a way that does not cause strife – but can still leave inequity and cause injustice.

A complex pluralistic community with a commitment to equity and inclusion is a relatively novel idea. Its not something we are naturally tuned to – not on a biological, psychological, or cultural level. It is an aspiration. The ‘we’ group expands from the tribal to the societal. That’s a big evolutionary step.

Intentional change

Melinda Briana Epler, the host of the podcast Leading with Empathy and Allyship, opens each episode with a reminder of the need to take consistent action. She says that change is as much about unlearning as learning, and that intentional action is needed on a daily basis. It isn’t easy.

Neither should it be. Moving toward an aspirational goal always requires personal commitment and intentional actions consistently performed. Our natural goodwill is a great foundation for creating reasonable conditions in which people are treated in an okay manner. But it’s not sufficient if our goal is to attain that aspiration of inclusion and equity.

Of course, we may not have agreed to sign on to that aspiration. This can be something of a problem if governments and organisations frame aspirations on our behalf and then assume we assent. Even if we do assent the mere presence of legislation or policy is not sufficient to guide change.

Robert Cialdini explores the idea of commitment to action. There is a powerful difference between action commitments that are elicited as part of a persuasion strategy – often manipulative – and those that are freely and intentionally given by an individual or a group.

Commitment, compliance, and consequences

Imposed aspirations are rarely thought through by those who develop the ‘good idea’. Conformity is never complete across a population, and among those who do conform and aspire to the goal, there is no uniformity.

Positive change is a messy business. Nothing is clear cut. Provided there are no particular impediments, things will change for the better – albeit slowly and messily.

Cialdini addresses an unexpected version of the ‘we’ group. It is when leaders naturally see themselves as forming a ‘we’ group, and their staff as ‘them’ or others. A feature of ‘we’ groups is leniency toward members. We are, for example, more forgiving of family members. The same might also apply with one’s work team members versus another team.

For Cialdini a code of conduct, which establishes minimal acceptable standards, does not have any real power if ‘we’ group members are lenient towards those who breach those standards. This becomes important when we consider conduct which is considered so unacceptable as to have a ‘zero tolerance’ declared. Cialdini argues that major breaches of a code of conduct, or repeated minor breaches, should lead to dismissal. Why?

Aspirational goals are part of the mechanism for evolving a culture. We can seek compliance through encouragement or formal accountability. We need both – applied in the right measure. The presence of formal accountability measures that cannot be circumvented because of ‘we’ group leniency are crucial to the community. They affirm the value of the aspiration. They say, “keep moving in the direction we are going.”

Formal accountability has always been present in human culture – from the tribal level up. It has always been associated with what has been highly valued – to protect it and reaffirm its value.


We are creatures of habits ingrained at a deep level in our biology and psychology. But we are also aspirational and adaptive – responsive to opportunities to exhibit ‘the better angels of our nature’.

Inclusion in our communities and our workplace – in our complex pluralistic culture – is an aspiration to which we are adapting (messily and unevenly). It is part of governmental and organisational policy.

There are impediments to this intentional change that can be managed better by using the insights of evolutionary psychology and methods of ethical influence. Two are especially important:

  1. How commitment to the aspiration is shared and affirmed – leading to consistent action. The goodwill that responds to the aspiration must be supported.
  2. How the more egregious acts of non-conformity by influential people are prevented from being subject to ‘we’ group (in group) leniency and exemption. Leaders must lead.

Of the 3 book Cialdini’s Influence is perhaps the most pertinent – because it encapsulates the content of the other 2 and draws out the most important principles. Do read it.

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