Problem: As we get busier and more distracted, we lose more long-term memory, capacity for recall, and even collective memory.
This is because, in order to increase our pace to keep up with change, we are constantly practicing and reinforcing quick intuitive and instinctive thinking, while avoiding deliberation. Deliberation is slow and takes effort, but is usually more effective and reliable. We reduce our use of long-term memory and therefore lose the ability to access it easily and regularly.
Unfortunately, the stresses of life can be cumulative as well as collective. So society as a whole, complete with our culture, economy and governing bodies, can forget past problems and their solutions. We lose memory of the long-term trends and cycles, which is important since that historical context is the foundation of meanings. No context — no meaning. No good!
Solution: Intentionally set aside more time daily to recall your life experiences and try to draw new lessons from them to explain what is happening today. Share those memories and reflections with others. Look for bigger patterns that have shaped your life and figure out how you can use them to manage some strategic planning – family, education, career, business, community …
We all need to find a better balance and step out of the short-loop mindset to add meaningful context. We used to call this “wisdom“. Use your long-term memory or lose it.
Stress is drive. Too little stress and nothing gets done. Too much and you collapse. You want the Goldie Locks zone where your stress level is optimum for performance. Manage your stress level or you may enter a vicious circle – at some tipping point additional stress reduces your capacity to manage stress.
Stress makes you go to your areas of strength. Its instinctive. This brings out your best performance, but because most tasks are complex, it also implies that you need to be engaged in a group, or collective intelligence.
In the collective intelligence of a group, you are working with diverse other specialists who are also focusing on their greatest strengths. It helps then, if your second strength is either to empathetically collaborate or just take orders from those who lead. Its easier to work with people who share values and goals.
I believe people can generally become more collaborative under stress. Sometimes you can want to withdraw because people who are new or different add to your stress. If you are going to collaborate, you should find people who share common values and goals but have different skills and knowledge bases to contribute to the common good of the group. You need to have people on your team whose strengths align with aspects of the tasks or problems you’re working on as a team.
If you are an introvert, then under stress you may become more selective about social relationships and spend more time in reflection. If you are an extrovert, then you spend more time seeking out social relationships and less time in reflection.
If you are more of an intuitive type, then you will do more imaginative problem-solving and disengage from the box of the concrete world. If you are more oriented to your senses, then you will seek greater grounding in the facts, and spend less time dreaming about possibilities.
If you are more of a feeling person, then you will spend more time evaluating how you feel about things. If you are more of a thinker, you will spend more time figuring out how things work.
If you are more of a perceiver, you will spend more time exploring, pivoting, testing and changing your mind. If you are more of a judge, you will spend time persisting and staying the course.
We live in an ecosystem of talents that together match the opportunities and demands of the natural ecosystem. Each of these personal strengths are important to sorting out reality and taking the best path forward. But no individual is going to get it right alone. Collective intelligence is needed to integrate the best ideas from all people. In this way, we all win.
In February 2020 the world population was shocked to find a species-threatening virus was spreading quickly around the world and killing people at random. Suddenly we realised we were living in a science fiction nightmare. People were traumatized and in emotional shock. We locked down schools, businesses and governments. But when people are in shock they seldom realize it. In a state of shock people cannot assess the reality or magnitude of events, including their own assessments, decisions and actions. Thoughts and feelings become disordered. We try to make things make sense, sometimes with bizarre and contorted extrapolations.
There is a long history of the study of these kinds of events driven by shock. Shock comes in many shapes and sizes. Similar events affect different people in different ways. In the past we have seen outbreaks of mob behaviour against innocents, such as mob lynchings, vandalizing and looting businesses. There is often an controllable rage triggered by some subsequent event not necessarily related to the initial event. There is an instinctive drive to follow your leader like schooling fish, flocking birds or herding cattle, to avoid a predator.
Frequently those participating in an action wake up later, asking, “what was I thinking?”. They were overcome by some invisible psycho-social compulsion. Studies show that under duress cognitive function drops precipitously. You are charged for a primal fight or flight reaction. Still, you are generally able to conduct a guarded conversation in a normal way. You keep your extreme views to yourself because you suspect that others may disagree and you don’t want open conflict. Not yet.
Depending on your mood and other life events, you moderate to greater or lesser extent. In a moment of self-awareness, you regain a sense of coherence. All is well. You proclaim good mental health. At critical moments you might lose that control and your fears come pouring out as anger. Then maybe you have regrets at your loss of control. There will be personal consequences and fences to repair.
You can see that other people are delusional, even paranoid. You don’t understand that they are trying to make sense of their fears. You cling more tightly to your views on public matters in fear that those who are delusional will change your world. You don’t know which of your own ideas are valid and which are as delusional as those of others. Your biggest delusion could be that you are not suffering from shock. We instinctively defend ourselves from the paralyzing fear of failure.
“Crimes the individual alone could never stand are freely committed by the group [smitten by madness].”
Carl Jung, The Symbolic Life
The threatening virus is invisible so our imaginations search and see the threat all around us. We see the threat in each other, along traditional fracture lines, by long-standing family grievances, gender, sexual preference, wealth discrepancy, ethnicity, race, generations, and of course, political allegiance. The fears and tensions escalate across all dynamics. Self-awareness is dramatically diminished. You will see those who oppose your positions as the true existential threat. They are trying to grab power. There will be a hyper-reaction from those “others” who are now seen as evil threats against whom no action can be too excessive. Shock and trauma escalate.
In some cases, it seems apparent that, in the chaos and confusion, it is possible for leaders to catalyze a movement and remake the world in their image of goodness. Of course, this raises the fear level of those who do not see or share that vision and already feel vulnerable. Again, this cycle compounds the anxieties generally. The movement leaders sense an urgency to remake the world once and for all, while they still have a chance. The leaders too could be deluding themselves as to the rightness of their actions, or perhaps the visionary end justifies the radical means. Everyone, even confessed criminals, believe they are good people. How could you operate otherwise?
Upon brief reflection, one might conclude that of course, with all this happening around us and among us, “how could we not be traumatized?”
We have been making decisions and taking actions that will have long term effects for generations to come. More importantly, we have been taking dramatic actions along these fracture lines that accumulate and compound the impact of the original pandemic shock. The human species is perpetuating, perhaps even heightening, the state of emotional shock. A positive feedback loop (vicious circle) may be in place that escalates our collective well-being to a new threat level. The longer this goes on, the less likely we will be able to recover. More people are talking seriously about the end of civilization.
We need to wake up somehow and come to a realistic assessment of our situation and work ourselves out of our state of shock. In the past, outbreaks of shock have been relatively isolated. The influence of those not affected would bring back a sense of normalcy. Today, however, the shock seems to impact just about everyone across communities and demographic segments. The shock seems to be a major secondary pandemic – a pandemic of the mental trauma. Even as life goes on, there is apparently little to remind us of our old normal. Authorities tell us about the Great Reset and the Great Resignation.
For the past two years, no one believes we are in any kind of normal. No one knows how this pandemic will end, so our imaginations fill the gap. When someone expresses the same familiar fear, our imaginations resonate, our truth is validated, and our commitment reinforced. A movement emerges, complete with leaders, followers, a shared belief system, viral memes and a common enemy. Historically wars have been triggered in similar tumultuous conditions.
What can we do to restore a sense of normal? How do people usually recover from shock? Most normal shock experiences, such as coping with loss of a loved one, a house fire, divorce or losing a job, need a few weeks or more time, and fortunately, most of us have supportive people to guide us in our lives. We eventually find a new normal by being reabsorbed into the ebb and flow of life around us.
To some not-insignificant extent, the global population was primed with anxiety prior to the pandemic. People already felt confused and deceived by divisive politics, invasive propaganda, fake news, popular conspiracy theories and general distrust of authorities and institutions. By some estimates, over half of western workers found their jobs empty and meaningless. We had FOMO, Snowflakes, Cancel-culture, people with Impostor Syndrome, and studies that showed that, despite our positive assessments, we are actually poor multi-taskers. Our IQs drop when we are overloaded.
The promises of success were not forthcoming. People already had doubts about their own worldviews. These preconditions made the current pandemic world unprecedented, and therefore, its consequences unpredictable. This uncertainty, once again, compounds the fears. We see many of our leaders as useless at best and pathetic narcissists at worst. And, by the way, clinical studies in narcissism were showing an unexpected rise in narcissism since around 2000.
Traditionally, those individuals who are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Shock Disorder, such as soldiers and victims of family abuse or violent crime, are treated individually or in small groups with some form of psychotherapy. In self-doubt, one could ask, “is it just me or…”. And one could get a bearing on reality from those around you. We would help one another find a new sense of reality. If the same pandemic shock was isolated to only a few people, we could have reassured and guided those in shock back to a sense of normal.
At this point, however, with people on guard against the evil ones, who do you trust? You trust an obvious ally in your battle against your greatest fear. But if you are living in a delusion then there is a good chance your ally is operating under the same delusion. You will seek truth where you find it. Once again, under normal conditions, other people and their ideas are stabilizing influences. Under chaotic conditions, other good people and their wrong ideas can be destabilizing influences.
I believe that Nature, through evolution, has created a diverse range of personalities and strengths to be shared. Recent work in collective intelligence indicates that group IQ rises with a combination of diverse talents and interests as well as a strong sense of social awareness. In other words, we are designed and constructed for collaboration. We are each born with roles to play, depending on the opportunities and threats we face. Inasmuch as we are born to constructively collaborate, we also resonate in group fear and prepare for the clear and present danger.
Personally, I have lived my entire life as an outsider observer, moving from the outskirts of one peer group to another and never setting down in one camp for long. It’s been lonely to be isolated and misunderstood. But then I find that in my innate personality, this was predestined. I no longer hold moral judgement against myself or others. While I live to help others succeed and actualize their potentials, I am naturally detached. There is no moral vice or virtue in this. As a 1/100 personality type, I have a unique functional role to play when things get weird. I have always observed and felt the pleasures and pains of others and I got good at it.
I have tried to establish a community of diversity, inclusion, trust and respect. From my earliest studies in philosophy, psychology and community development, I have tried to establish a reputation as a detached, credible, yet compassionate thinker. I feel called upon at this time to draw on that reputation to tell people that they are probably in a state of shock.
You should not trust the negative thoughts prompted and promoted by fear. You should daily dive deeper in quiet reflection to recover and relive past successes and good times. Use your happy memories to feed your imagination to relive the best normal and then share that state of mind with others as though it was real today. If a critical number of people do this within their social circles, then we can become confident, clearly focused, deliberative, productive and, once again, happy. The delusions and anxieties will dissipate. We will resume progress toward building a better civilization and defining a better humanity.
This is a call to action to all those who seek to overcome this trauma and create the normal world, complete with competing yet civil ideas of utopia. Now begins our work to rebuild our civilization, one group and community at a time, to find our common humanity and purpose. Now the work begins to heal!
I sense that our human notion of morality is shifting, perhaps in profound ways.
We used to think of moral behaviour in terms of the ancient codes of don’t do this or that. “If you do that you will be punished.” People were treated as ‘moral agents’ of goodness or evil, angels or demons.
Now, it seems, more people are paying attention to the reasons why people act the ways they do. We have learned a lot about psychology, parenting and personality conflicts and management.
Rather than quickly condemning others, we are better prepared to empathically listen, ask questions and metabolize – “What would I have done if I was this person in this situation?”
It seems that we have learned a great deal about the different lives that we live and we can’t take for granted that everyone is just like us. People clearly have different strengths and challenges.
Yet we still believe there is a common moral code concerning doing no harm, charity, fairness, loyalty, order and sanctity.
And we have now seen (on media if not in person) how this morality plays out in the behaviors among animals of all sorts — our pets and livestock, and those in the wilderness, even across species. A moral code has some universal foundation.
This often goes wrong, however, insofar as admonishment and corporal punishment miss the point. These are often emotional ‘sledge hammer’ responses to bad behaviour — blunt instruments for the non-discriminating.
Moral correction has to be more surgical and administered from a place of loving and caring. Much of this has been laid out in the psychology of socialization, or how we produce good responsible and compassionate citizens.
The other piece of morality that has been neglected is the positive side. Instead of ‘do no wrong’, why don’t we put more emphasis on doing good? I believe we are all designed to be natural self-actualizing value generators. Let’s embrace that and support one another in this quest.
Different people are affected by the pandemic differently. Its well known that in excessive stress we resort to our areas of strength, yet overall performance drops. With a shift of priorities our weaknesses may freeze up.
Many people are changing jobs now while others are not going back to work, and still others are preferring to work from the comforts of home. More than 40 per cent of workers had found their work meaningless even prior to the pandemic.
This job changing and other actions may be because these people (us) have been thrown into a new frame of reference. Pandemic conditions have been a catalyst for personal change, for better or worse. Things aren’t working. Try something else.
Our subconscious minds are telling us we need to express that inner self, and actualize our potential against or in spite of the constraints set upon us.
We are natural value generators. Our genes expect a fair give and take, a reciprocity. That is the survival mechanism of social animals. The fact that we resort to areas of strengths means we then specialize. It is the division of labour, as well as symbolic communication, that made civilization possible.
Like schools of fish, flocks of birds, herds of cattle, we seek and join our pack for mutual aid and defense. We seek fellow travelers for mutual aid against the threats. We share common values and complementary talents. When our brains specialize we are preparing to collaborate with people who have different strengths so we can then create a collective intelligence through synergy. A new social organization emerges.
That collective intelligence provides heightened strategy framework and a sense of productive flow. In days of old our warriors would gather and rehearse war tactics. They held war dances and wrestling matches to not only improve personal and collective performance but to anchor a bond of trust and spontaneous synchronicity. They marched in rhythmic unison. They discovered personal strengths and reassigned the warriors for different roles.
Women prepared and practiced defense of the home and village. They sang in chorus and danced in choreography to retell stories of past successes against the odds. They cheered their warriors to pump their testosterone for battle. Men watched to know what they were fighting for.
The collective action calls for coordination. Historically that comes from our known leadership, the confident charismatic ones who maintain the big picture, decide a course of action and set a compelling vision. Managers assemble the crew and delegate pieces of the puzzle. Workers and warriors take up the charge with communal pride.
We experience a need to control our spaces. We may wish we could look the leaders in the eyes and assess their character and demeanor. This is not realistic in today’s world. We are left to mass media and social media spin and contort. We hold little more than a thread of truth.
Politicians, CEOs and other leaders may feel extra pressure and need to exert their authority. We may see some drama. But in the flood of drama, this becomes the new normal. Civilization may be permanently changed. The historians may never know what really happened in these chaotic times.
But we now find ourselves isolated and unable to talk openly lest we hit a raw nerve on any given controversy… and there are many in a world of uncertainty. Bonding has lapsed, community disintegrated. There is an instinctive drive to compromise, conform and comply to support the common good. Trust our leaders, even as they argue, as solidarity against the common enemy is paramount.
Personally, I have always been a freak. I have the rarest personality profile, shared with just one percent of the population. I truly am misunderstood (poor me!). I learned this early in life. I do not expect anyone to listen to me, let alone accept what I have to say. But now I feel no delusions about my assessment of today’s human condition. I must speak out.
This over-analyzer has spent a lifetime studying human nature and the changing human condition so I can protect my hyper-sensitive self. Knowledge is power. I have studied the Nature of time and space, energy and information, knowledge and value, cybernetics and systems theory. I have studied enough physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and social science to know that the changes we have been facing started long before covid-19, hundreds of years ago. We face an accelerating accumulation of knowledge, technology, values and beliefs. We are over-taxed with processing complexity and uncertainty. Covid is just the latest “straw”.
In the past few decades we just have started to realize the implications of accelerating civil complexity. We have faced information overload, burnout, cocooning, FOMO (fear of missing out), impostor syndrome, and snowflakes (what else am I missing?). We all thought we were good at managing disruptions… to a point. But then we saw clinical studies that showed that multitasking causes your IQ to drop by 10 to 15 per cent.
We delude ourselves about how well we are managing. To a point, deluding oneself works. It helps us stay confident, focused and productive. But if deluding becomes a habit we get really good at it and repeat constantly. It gets easier to delude oneself. Denial becomes a crutch and we no longer see reality in a constructive manner.
We need to gather and talk about our common struggles.
I am impressed with the social media displays of personal resilience in the face of our common yet uncommon troubles.
I see landscapes that ground us. I see paintings that express us. I see humor that refills us. I see poems that reframe us in our world, and hear music that reminds us of our history together. I see family that binds us and pets that tie us in friendship with Nature. I see adventure, escape, exploration and discovery and I see invention and creation. I see mirrors of mirrors of our humanity.
We each pursue our diverse strengths and passions and offer them up to support others. We graciously accept the humble offerings of others.
And what have we left behind in the rush to be modern? There are few higher pursuits than those of identity, belonging, mastery and self-actualization. What is the meaning of self? We are value-generators. And I find there is no goodness, no value, without truth and no truth without meaning. For me, chasing the nature of meaning is an unparalleled paramount pursuit.
As for me, I am pursuing the nature of meaning. I am peeling back the layers to reveal a network of relationships among ideas. How are worldviews constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed? Ideas are connected by perceptual patterns, abstract classifications, cause and effect, patterns of conceptual similarities and differences.
Yet meanings as a whole are self-referential, grounded only in our often faulty perceptions. And then I see that there are innate ideas grounded in millions of years of evolved DNA. Our brains are wired by Nature to deal with elements of a reality that has changed very little in billions of years — energy and form, entities and events, causation and communication.
It makes sense that evolution, as a long-learning process, has discovered constant and reliable practical truths. Through centuries of progress we have sufficiently approximated reality with cultural constructs. Science and engineering are usually not wrong, but always incomplete. What have we missed that stalks us elusive in the darkness of ignorance? I mine that darkness.
The evolved innate ideas form the circuitry of our brains and set the foundations for meanings in our cultural and personal worldviews. They are ‘instinctive’, assumed and never questioned. I assume order in the universe. I’d like to reconstruct my worldview based on some yet undisclosed primal master fractal that organizes our universe.
Wish me well!!!
In the meantime, don’t take anything too seriously. Stay resilient!
I often need to frame my discussions in the broad context. We are value generators relentlessly pursuing top return on investment in a layered framework of valued options. There is no value without truth, and no truth without meaning. Meanings are based on placing the foreground against background context. I will continue and try harder to bring this subject down to concrete practical reality.
You may find the phenomenon of cultural lag interesting if you have not already checked it out. Essentially, not all civil change takes place at the same rate. Ethical questions often follow tech introductions and widespread adoption. Someone once said “we developed the nuclear bomb because we could before asking if we should“. This is often the pattern of developments. After all, we are all moral beings, right? We all know right from wrong!
Under the stresses of a complex society many people tend to become preoccupied with the here and now because that’s where the perceived slim opportunities and urgent threats fill our imaginations. Meaningful context is lost. We each have limited cognitive capacity for processing the information overload, yet the universal context of potential implications could be infinite.
The term ‘cultural lag’ was coined over 100 years ago but is still not widely known or understood (i.e. it lags). I believe cultural lag is also cumulative. We may have very little appreciation for what we are missing in the big picture. While our knowledge is always finite, our ignorance is always infinite.
For example, there is the known phenomenon of population overshoot in environmental science. Is the planet already over-populated? Do we know what factors are critical in determining the planet’s carrying capacity? Maybe, maybe not. We may yet be surprised. Remember climate change?
First we do what Nature tells us to do (reproduce) then when there are shortages or massive pollution we wonder if it was the right thing to do. Nature did not anticipate our tremendous reproductive success. We were designed for a foraging life-style within the constraints of local ecosystems. Technology has always been a game-changer upsetting the historical balance of Nature.
Everything has limits — a minimum, a maximum and an optimum range of performance. Performance changes with size and complexity. In other words, everything has an economy and diseconomy of scale. While this is a known phenomenon in microeconomics of organizations (and biology), very little has been done to explore the phenomenon in macroeconomics. What are the cumulative longer-term consequences of civil and technical progress on a whole society?
Joseph Tainter put some of these ideas together in his book on the Collapse of Complex Societies. When societies get too complex they begin to collapse. It takes too much work to keep things going. There are too many inter-dependencies, too much change and too much uncertainty. We exceed the upper limits of management capacity. Together, we are NOT too big to fail!
Essentially, diseconomies of scale in society, and consequent diminishing returns on investment across the board, will mean that people are going to be quite unhappy, feel cheated and bitter. The suppression of opportunities for self-actualization leads to anxiety, depression, anger and often violence.
We can see that fracture lines are opening between political left and right, among races, ethnic groups, genders, rich and poor, and religious groups. Tribalism is setting in, separating “us” (the virtuous) from “them” (the evil ones). And you cannot talk to the evil ones because of their false truths, propaganda and trickery.
So, through Wayfinders Business Co-operative, we are trying to create a new path forward. This path demands a higher level of awareness of both self and our environments (natural, social, cultural, etc.). It will take a lot of energy (see Tainter) and intelligence to redesign our place on the planet and with each other.
Fortunately, we have the phenomenon of “path dependency” to count on when we have reached a sufficient level of development. Whatever we do gets easier. As more people adopt this path, more will follow. Unfortunately, being creatures of habit, we will not be happy with the initial ultimatum to change.
Change takes a lot of mental energy and focus. Yet with unhappiness there is a desire and a curiosity to find a new path forward. We will need to be convinced of the benefits through an iterative process of rapid prototyping of minimal viable products with proofs of concept.
We will leverage our personal, collective and artificial intelligence to get this done.
In process management we know the starting conditions have a disproportionate impact on eventual outcomes, so we want to ensure we are sufficiently anchored in ethics, psychology, systems theory and technology.
To me, this is the only venture worth pursuing. If we don’t get this sufficiently right, everything else eventually collapses. Don’t mess with Nature’s laws! She has no favorites!
Historically when we can’t explain a blessing, we call it a miracle and thank our gods.
When we can’t explain a tragedy, we call it a curse and blame our demons.
When people behave with goodness, we call them saints. No explanation is needed.
When they behave badly we call them stupid or evil. No explanation is expected or excuse accepted.
When you REALLY hate someone, you are resistant to any possible explanation. You cannot listen to the devil, his accomplices, spin-doctors or apologists.
You will resonate with the enemies of your enemies and form a coalition of truth-speakers.
Still, no explanation is possible. We know the other is evil and any postulated explanation is trickery!
Yet, while our knowledge is forever finite, our ignorance is eternally infinite. Learning must endure and carry us through civil complexity and chaos to some better world beyond. Like love itself, forgiveness, tolerance, gratitude and compassion will support and nurture the learning process, the seeking of explanation. Don’t wait for the evil ones to capitulate, confess and surrender. Good people initiate and propagate goodness. The wise do this strategically.
The greatest advancements in the past 150 years are largely ignored. They have come in the realm of our essential being. Progress in psychology is more than mythology. It is more than an entertaining curiosity. It is a continuous improvement process in human self-awareness and human relations. It is the path toward human enlightenment and actualization of all human potential.
Psychology, as a scientific discipline has come a long way from Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Wundt. It needs to be further moved from the clinics and classrooms and from the pages of journals. It needs to be placed in daily practice in each of us who would aspire to full health and well-being.
Worst Case Scenario: Critical anchoring ideas may become dislodged from our shared worldviews causing disordered thinking and profound chaos
Just toying with some ideas. I am not trying to scare anyone. I merely suggest a level of preparedness for more to come. Maybe there is a solution if we admit the problem. We live within a semantic web (web of related meanings) within our global culture where ideas (memes), true or not, can go viral very quickly and cause rapid cultural drift, perhaps at an exponential rate, without anyone comprehending either the causes or consequences. There is no single authority to correct our collective path. This could lead to semantic entropy, the loss of shared meanings, which would preclude meaningful communications. A process of degeneration may not be reversible. Loss of trust, confusion, anxiety, frustration, anger, withdrawal, depression, and open conflict may persist and prevail.
Evolution did not anticipate civilization. A community of up to 300 people was our largest natural organization as we lived in our natural habitats. Our social brains may now be over-taxed. We have long forgotten what “normal” looks and feels like.
In recent decades we have discovered the physical remains of many lost and abandoned civilizations. The story of Babel was documented in ancient holy texts. Are we living in such times once again, but now on a global scale?
We shudder to think of the worst case scenario. What is the probability? What are the triggers to avoid? What are the preventative remedies? Do social scientists have strategic answers?
Rebirth of Civilization
Another scenario is that our global culture is actually self-organizing and self-regulating. That is, without our knowing or understanding, we are collectively about to develop some emergent properties in our civilization that are totally unlike anything we have seen before. After all, civilization is a living system with an intelligence of its own. Well, we do live in unprecedented times. Anything is possible.
Are we over-estimating or under-estimating the chaos of the day’s world?
I know I risk losing friends for spilling my truth. Alas, the time has come to reveal. We say we follow the science, yet we usually choose the science that validates our suspicions and assumption. Why? Because we are animals, not divine or semi-divine beings.
Even the greatest scientists are human animals first and subject to the constraints of our brain wiring and hormones. As philosopher David Hume said, “reason is the slave of the passions’. Recent studies in psychology show this to be so. We are not the demigods or titans that we think we are. I expect members of any species, if asked, would say they are the superior beings. What do we know for sure?
There is a hierarchical structure throughout life, with egotism at its foundation. Of course you are the centre of your universe. You need to be right and good. How could it be any different? We all need to be positive about ourselves in order to function. People nearly always over-estimate their virtues, their attractiveness, their values, and their IQs. We are egocentric by Nature.
We scale-up ego-centrism to ethnocentrism, the notion that our group or community is superior to others. From there we have anthropocentrism, the idea that our species is, for obvious reasons, superior to all others on the planet. We still have lingering geo-centrism as well, believing that our planet is the centre of the universe and that life could not possibly exist on other planets, although this is starting to change.
The idea of species evolution is about 150 years old. Evolution is an ongoing learning and adaptation system. One early Russian scholar said the evolution of life is rock’s way of redistributing. Today many people still do not accept that Nature learns or develops according to a pattern.
Most people do not really understand the workings of evolution. Even evolutionary biologists do not agree on significant details of the processes. “Survival of the fittest” was not an expression coined by Charles Darwin yet it is used to capture the essence of the idea of evolution. Its not true. Evolution is about the survival of the sufficient! One only needs to survive long enough to reproduce. One need not be the strongest or fittest at all! Similarly, we don’t even need the truth. We only need a belief that is sufficient for our survival.
Although modern science has made amazing leaps forward, the knowledge breakthroughs do not penetrate the popular zeitgeist with proportionate impact. It takes a great deal of effort to rewrite your worldviews. Some of the new knowledge should really be transformative game-changers. But we don’t take time to metabolize these findings. Instead, at best we are likely to “wait and see” what the final outcome will be. Any discovery of how the brain works is treated as a mere curiosity by the masses and migrates through the usual pop-culture cycles of trendy bits you didn’t know about. Then it falls off the public radar like the latest Cardassian plastic surgery story.
Its been a century since sociologist William Ogburn coined the term “cultural lag” to capture the idea that change is not uniform across a culture. Many parts, particularly material culture (cars, computers, hardware, etc.), can be quickly adopted while other parts, such as values, beliefs and routines, are more resistant to change. Of course, and more importantly, some ideas are more deeply entrenched than others as well. Worldviews have inertia. It can takes a lot of effort to change your mind.
In the early 1960s Thomas Kuhn, a physicist and philosopher of science, wrote a book called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. In it he explained how science, as a body of accepted knowledge, has to periodically go through radical paradigm shifts when the legacy knowledge is not able to explain new data. Based on this work the new discipline of sociology of knowledge was born. Now we have a better idea of how all knowledge evolves, sometimes slowly and incrementally, and sometimes through dramatic paradigm shifts. We should really see science as an ongoing process of revelation, not a set of static bits of final truths.
Who cares? A few academics care, but they’re not talking to the public. No one would listen anyway. So we go on constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing our worldviews without the benefit of knowing what we’re really doing. Most people believe, and need to believe, that their worldview is not a thing at all, but is reality. If you travel abroad to a culture that is different from your own, you may have this reality shaken. You may be temporarily awakened to the ‘facts’ of your own worldview assumptions. Then you get over it.
In a highly complex world we really need to be far more self-aware of our own thought processes so we can find threads of simplicity to hold our worldviews together in meaningful ways. Yet this is when it is most difficult to deeply deliberate. Civil complexity creates a constant background anxiety that keeps us on our toes. It forbids us from deeper contemplation, if you don’t want to miss the next headline news. This is FOMO write large! Besides, any worldview these days is so complex you wouldn’t know where to start managing it.
We rarely change our worldviews when we hear of breakthroughs in science, politics or other areas of public knowledge. And when we do, we probably do not integrate that new knowledge in the most appropriate ways. As our lives get more complex, it gets harder to make appropriate changes and bring reality into sharper focus. We have failed to integrate some very fundamental ideas into our worldviews.
There was a lot of concerned discussion about scaling laws and network effects and diminishing returns on investment. These are all taken as principles, if not actual laws of Nature. They are mathematically proven theorems. We should understand them and incorporate them into our worldviews at a very low level, underlying most everything we know and believe.
Brains on Brains
Its been over 70 years since the brainiacs of the 20th century discovered the secret of life. But today few people even know about it. The reason why life exists against Nature’s forces of entropy has to do with feedback loops, which I will not elaborate on here. Suffice it to say, the followers of those original brainiacs went on to invent and commercialize computers and create the new discipline of management science. They were practical and made fun, fame and fortunes. The part about all living things was dropped so that even leading computer and AI scientists today have not heard some of the names of those brianiacs. Those original thinkers actually understood the physics of life.
We have all but forgotten the works of futurologist Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock (1970). In his books Toffler told us that there was an exponential growth of civil complexity that was going to become unmanageable. People would eventually become overwhelmed by too much information and the quickening pace of change. There had been more people, things and changes in his one lifetime than in the previous 800 lifetimes put together! Fifty years ago he was totally correct!
There were other scary scenario books on our global conditions, such as The Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth. Of course on a limited planet growth cannot continue indefinitely. But there were skeptics. Each revelatory book raised fears of climate change, and loss of species, ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole. None of them seems to have had much traction. They raised alarms and headlines but still, progress marches on, apparently indifferent to our collective and planetary well-being. Few people have been able to conceive of their own little footprint multiplied by 8B inhabitants.
There was a lot of concerned discussion about scaling laws,network effects and diminishing returns on investment. Essentially, there is a maximum, minimum and optimum size and complexity for any entity or event. These are all taken as core principles, if not actual laws, of Nature. They are based on mathematically proven theorems and they serve as parameters for all natural activity (and all human activity is natural). We should understand them and incorporate them into our worldviews at a very low level, underlying most everything we know and believe.
Another 20 years passed before another definitive book was written on the subject of civil complexity. Academic anthropologist Joseph Tainter laid out the explanation for the demise of complex civilizations. The book The Collapse of Complex Societies was not recognized for its great insights at the time, perhaps because it was not written for the mass market. But Tainter made it clear that civilizations become more complex over time, and eventually so complex that they become unmanageable. The cost of maintaining the system is no longer affordable. Society collapses. People scatter like the citizens of Babel. Are we there yet?
Most of us in urban areas have lost our sense of belonging to a geographic community, with all the daily interactions that we would have experienced in a small hamlet. Instead we find a cheap substitute on our favourite social media platform. Instead of community, many people find their strongest sense of belonging in a community of interest. And perhaps the community with the greatest gravity is found in your political allegiance.
Politicians and their “parties” have geared up with the most advanced propaganda arsenal the world has ever seen. They put the hard core advertisers to shame. They tap into your greatest hopes and dreams as well as your darkest demonic fears. They can tap your inner instincts to find the buttons for blind unadulterated loyalty. It is hard to deny the machinery of politics. They follow you on social media. They forward stories you will find favourable to strengthen your allegiance. They have adopted the practices of not only past authoritarians but the latest in commercial marketing and even social psychology. And people love it!
People love to feel they belong to something bigger than themselves. They need a cause. They join the war against the evil ones who would take away all our freedoms and run roughshod over our rights. They are able to align the media in their cause to spread the news — the news the enemy is trying to hide from us. There is a cold civil war brewing within nations around the world. National leaders study and align with their international friends.
Who is drawn to power? All normal healthy people want to manage their surroundings to find their own way to self-actualization. Although we may sometimes become submissive, we still pursue what we can within certain degrees of freedom. But remember, we are mere mortals driven by our brain wiring and hormones. Who wants power? People with high testosterone! Its as simple as that.
People high in testosterone seek competition and domination. Some find power on Wall Street. Some find it in MMA fighting. Some find power in a righteous alignment with god. They can attach themselves to whatever political bandwagon is closest to them. They learn the language and culture of the party. They repeat the adopted sacred mantras. They will recruit followers and tell you what you want to hear. The ideology is mostly an adopted facade. “Egomaniacs” are loyal only to themselves.
There is a special class of people who are particularly drawn to power and control over others. They make up about six percent of any population. As a numbers game, there are many winners and losers in politics. Winners are usually verbally smart as well as high in testosterone and low in oxyticin. Those who feel defeated and stressed are high in cortisol. Winners may be high performers when it comes to social intelligence, but low in empathy. They know your emotions but don’t feel them. Testosterone makes people competitive and want to dominate others. The more you win, the more testosterone flows in your veins, and less cortisol.
Oxytocin makes us feel empathy and want to nurture and protect loved ones. The hormone combo that makes us submissive is cortisol and corticosterone. Together they can shut down testosterone and make you give up the fight and take flight. There is a systemic problem with democracy that needs to be culled. The six percent that fundamentally cannot be guardians of the public trust. They are the six per cent who suffer from any of the Anti-social, Narcissistic or Histrionic Personality Disorders. Without a strong sense of empathy their resources are set on power and influence over others for themselves.
Left or Right?
As a social scientist I have come to believe that our legacy left-right political spectrum is a gross over-simplification of reality. It grew up in a time when modern democracy defeated the archaic monarchy. It was not based on science at all. We now have science that tells us there are a lot of other factors in our political makeup, many of which are actually inborn at birth and tied to our biological hormone configurations.
Each of us has a natural disposition towards Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression. The influence of each of these can changed due to life experiences, just as your hormone levels vary with recent experiences. Your personal configuration of these, ‘hard-wired’ into your brain, does not necessarily align with your left-right status.
We now have drilled down into political science and created decision theory, which gets down to the psychological physics of decision making. Essentially, every decision is a return on investment decision, making every decision also an economics decision. It is not necessarily the pursuit of a maximum or best return, but often, a sufficient return on investment. At the same time, economic preferences are shaped by culture, which is shared through social relationships.
Not only that, but decision making, economics, values and beliefs as well a social relationships, all emerge from our biological constitution. That’s not all, since biology emerges from organic chemistry, from chemistry and, finally, from physics. But more to the point, all these disciplines are not the reality itself. They are parts of our shared worldview of Nature. So after all the work we’ve done to create separate knowledge silos, we find out that reality is not disciplinary at all. We need to reintegrate our knowledge on a new paradigm. We need a paradigm shift!
In today’s world it sometimes seems as though everything has been politicized and polarized. Unfortunately, the left-right political spectrum conveniently encourages formation of deadly tribes that trigger our war instincts. In the war of words we have spear-shaking, sabre rattling, war drums and dances going on right now in virtually every nation. If someone disagrees with you, he or she is CANCELLED! These actions are precursors to violence. Once we have clearly identified the evil ones, we shall have no compunction in killing them. Some will wait for the leader’s signal. Other will read into the leader’s intentions — intentions that are conveyed with subtlety so the enemy can’t see them. They are buried in the body language and peculiar choices of words.
On both sides of the political spectrum you can see the violence in the others. You see them as aggressors. They want to change your world and take what is rightfully yours. You didn’t ask for this. But now you are forced to defend your ideals. You have collaboration. They have conspiracies. Fight or take flight!
We no longer have authentic geographic communities. We don’t know our neighbours. We don’t know their personalities, their talents, values or beliefs. We don’t appreciate that the greatest diversity among us lies in our various talents and orientations. And we don’t appreciate that Nature gave us that diversity because no individual has all the answers to all of our challenges. We were meant to be collaborators.
The neighbours today could be our enemies, so we avoid difficult conversations and keep a watchful eye on them. In many cases our neighbours come from different regions, countries and language groups. Diversity is great but it needs to be constructively managed. How can we constructively manage diversity if we don’t even have a sense of community of our own?
I’ve been studying moral psychology and the psychology of happiness. It has become clear to me that a small percentage of the human population is responsible for a disproportionate number of dysfunctional actions. In the midst of civil complexity, people with high testosterone as well as low oxytocin and cortisol are playing out their dreams of self-actualization. A small handful of these people have competitively risen through the ranks of organizations to dominate. They are surrounded by slightly less talented or less competitive pawns who carry out the leader’s deeds in hopes of some protection and privilege. The leaders don’t know that they suffer from Anti-social, Narcissistic or Histrionic Personality Disorders, and if they did know, they are likely to take this as an asset in the war against the opponent.
Few others recognize this condition in them either. Obscuring their disorders is the layer of mythology created about leaders in the media. Leaders with personality disorders are cheered on by loyal followers in the media and demonized by their enemies.
It does not matter whether the war cry is for personal freedom, equality or family values. It doesn’t matter if the chant is for rights or to shut down privilege. Nor does it matter what values are at stake. It all comes down to the role of our hormonal mix. Whether left or right, we are aligned with our fearless leaders and committed to fight to the death of the evil ones or to our own death. The line in the sand is drawn. You are either for us or against us. There can be no middle ground. Your hormones will decide for you – fight or flight. You will not necessarily know when you have crossed the line and joined the battle.
Nor does it matter whether the left or the right wins. The leaders will not stop until they have full control. Then their task turns to keeping the followers in line. You cannot leave this sacred religion alive. You must be vigilant against the return of the evil ones. Tyrants are paranoid.
Those who are infected with this war virus are not to blame. They are mere animals controlled by their brain wiring and hormones. At least that is what the aliens will say.
I have painted a dark and dire scenario here. I have surely lost a few friends. No one wants to see themselves as determined by their biological constraints. We certainly believe in free will. How could we believe otherwise? But there are two ways to err here — by over-estimating and by under-estimating. You can write me off as either Polly-Anna or Chicken Little or the Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Are there ways to turn this movement around? Historically, complex civilizations have eventually collapsed. There is usually a triggering event that cannot be overcome, such as famine, because civil complexity makes solutions stagnant and unworkable. But there is one small possible escape clause. Simplicity. How can we make a complex civilization simple once again?
If we again go back to our science, we can find a good possibility that there is simplicity within complexity. We see patterns repeat throughout Nature. In fact, the universe is probably a fractal, and that fractal has a mathematical algorithm. A fractal is a self-similar pattern, that repeats at all levels of organization. If we can understand the root fractal we can describe all complex phenomena in simple terms.
A good example of a model is the periodic table of elements. Before Dmitri Mendeleev came up with the table, scientists were at a loss to explain the order among the known elements. The table was a simple way to explain what otherwise looks overwhelmingly complex. Across the table the traits of the elements repeat in terms of being normally solid, liquid or gas. Once it was laid out it was then easier to find other elements hitherto unknown. Their existence and traits would be predicted.
There are some other simple ways to understand complexities. The universe consists of just two things — entities located in space and events located in time. In our languages we have corresponding nouns for entities and verbs for events. This enables us to put entities and events in place so we can navigate toward opportunities and avoid threats. For this navigation, Nature has given us a fundamental approach-avoidance response to keep us alive. We also have the pleasure pain principle built into our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
We also know that the elemental force fields of Nature have polarity. Things generally have either a positive or negative polarity field and are attracted to the opposite. This pattern is maintained throughout Nature in different layers of organization. It is the balance of forces (e.g. neutrons, marriage) that are stable and promote continuity. Likewise, it is the differences among us humans that make us stronger as a whole.
We know about small group dynamics in theories of organization and leadership. We know that dynamics change as we add more people to a group. It is impossible to know a large number of people so intimately as to work automatically with them. As group size increases the number of relationships grows exponentially. The large number of relationships, according to the mathematics of network effects, will become unmanageable.
Community is the largest naturally occurring social organization, topping out at 100 to 250 souls, according to the Dunbar Number theory. If we want to scale up beyond that number, we need to consciously and deliberatively plan a sustainable structure. We need to recognize the genetic constraints of our brain size, wiring and chemistry and build a civilization that is aligned with the forces of Nature. It will be an engineered artificial construct and a community of communities.
While we have been shaken from our original natural community settings in which we knew, appreciated and complemented other souls, it has been possible for us to reorganize in dysfunctional ways that will lead to our collective demise. For example, we have giant corporations that have reached diseconomies of scale and yet are too big to fail. Our unrestrained desire for more material goods and instant satisfaction have blinded our sensitivity to higher needs such as social belonging, mastery and self-actualization.
In important ways, the people on the opposite side of the political spectrum are the people we need most in our lives. If they differ in their values and ideologies it is to ensure that the human population as a whole continues in a healthy balance of lifestyles and governance, a balance of individual and collective requirements.
On the other hand, if there is one, maybe Nature has a plan to reduce our numbers by war for the sake of other species and the planetary ecosystems.