Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

Ethnocentrism and Violence

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Humans are naturally ethnocentric. From an early age, we are programmed to establish ourselves as part of a tribal in-group, in order to identify and categorize potential allies and potential threats. This is an important part of the pre-existing psychological landscape upon which we gradually build up our identities and beliefs as we mature. It’s a part of “human nature”, you could say, if you wanted to phrase it more misleadingly. But at the same time, there is no greater significance to this fact, either – it’s simply one of the strategies that helped our ancestors survive, which is why it has persisted to the present day. It’s like a wing, or an eye: shaped by the natural selection of varying traits, with no foresight or intelligent interference.*

This is the kind of discovery that a lot of people, even those who are generally enthusiastic about science, sometimes appear to be afraid of. These fears usually stem from the idea that if we discover a genetic basis for certain behaviours, then suddenly these behaviours will be rendered an immutable aspect of human nature, and any political or social arguments against them will be instantly voided. It’s a fear of genetic determinism, in other words. Richard Dawkins gives an example of this in one of his books (I think it was The Extended Phenotype but don’t quote me), recalling a science lecture he attended where afterwards, a woman asked the lecturer how much scientific evidence there was for genetically-based gender differences (other than traits relating directly to biological sex, obviously) – the trembling emotion in her voice suggesting that all her feminist beliefs were riding on the answer. A similar fear of (or appeals to) all-powerful genes overruling our better judgment can be found pretty much across the spectrum of political and social ideologies.

Let’s assume the existence of a single gene with a single allele that controls for the aforementioned tendency towards ethnocentrism, or perhaps just a more generalized tendecy towards tribalism. This is by no means certain to be true; it could be a trait controlled by the combined effects of multiple genes, or a gene with a complex subset of alleles, or some other weird biological curve ball that nature delights in throwing our way. And it could also be possible for this gene to have additional pleiotropic effects which make it extremely difficult to mess about with. But since this is a hypothetical scenario, we’ll keep it simple. What would be the consequence of discovering such a gene, learning how it works, and perhaps even figuring out a way to remove it entirely?

At first glance it seems like this might be a useful course of action, given the problems associated with our tribalist heritage. You could easily imagine media reports proclaiming that scientists had uncovered the “racism gene”, with the suggestion that either removing the gene or blocking its expression could be seen as a “cure for racism”. Strictly speaking this doesn’t add up, but only because the logic is incomplete. Race might be a social construct, but as long as we use this construct to denote tribal divisions, you can effectively argue that we are evolutionarily predisposed to racial prejudice and that genetic engineering could therefore offer a solution to the problem.

This view is much too simplistic, of course. There are many other ways in which tribalism manifests in human behaviour, and a wholesale genetic slash and burn job would eliminate these, too. We can take “predisposition to tribalism” as a basic psychological building block and say that this is the thing that cultural evolution has transformed into religion, nationalism, organised sports, and all the other things that involve large groups of people pooling resources to achieve things beyond the simple pursuit of individual survival that we normally see in more “classical” Darwinian settings. Secular humanism is perhaps the most important product of this branch of cultural evolution, but it, too, is reliant on our hypothetical “racism gene”. To an alien observer who did not possess this trait, these behaviours could well seem bizarre and difficult to relate to – but to us, they are quite meaningful, for better or worse (and don’t worry; through observation and a little game theory, our alien friend would eventually come to understand this too, at least intellectually).

This is the main point I want to make with this little hypothetical scenario: that our increasing knowledge of the human genome and the various behaviours that have filtered down through our evolutionary history don’t automatically equate to a justification for these same behaviours. In this example, we see that there are many different ways in which a basic instinctual impulse can manifest, especially once cultural evolution takes hold of it. This is a key fact we need to keep in mind when new scientific discoveries come to light, to ensure that they expand our knowledge without being used to reinforce old prejudices and outdated worldviews. And the reason I chose to use the increasing knowledge of our tribal heritage as an example is because of our inspiring reaction to this information: we didn’t justify racism, we (re)invented humanism. We turned a potentially divisive weakness into the greatest of strengths.

Now we can turn to the subject that I am normally going on about. There is no sound reason why we can’t use this same principle to argue against violent behaviour as well. The more we learn about how violent behaviour works, the better equipped we are to develop strategies and philosophies to circumvent these psychological shortcomings – and the dumber it is that people keep trying to use this knowledge to justify violence instead. As I have discussed before, to a large extent cultural evolution is steadily chipping away at this problem even as we speak (and not out of any sort of benign interest either, but simply because it works). Humans today are much less violent than they were during pretty much any other period of history, and the gradual trend towards nonviolence shows no signs of slowing down. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to help the process along, as there is still work to be done.

I don’t really want to get bogged down in another long blog post here, so I’m just going to write about a couple of discomforting truths which I feel are usually neglected during discussions on this topic. The obvious one to start with is the fact that you don’t have to be crazy to think that violence is a useful solution to your problems. Violence is a sound evolutionary strategy, and probably one of the oldest, too, because evolution is a process that occurs without foresight, so the long-term consequences of violence are irrelevant. Moreover, the wastefulness of natural selection – wiping out the vast majority to filter out a select few survivors – also mitigates the consequences of violence, from that perspective at least. Indeed, in many instances, violence is precisely what propels natural selection onwards. (And it’s worth noting here that natural selection ultimately doesn’t favour organisms, it favours genes, so unpleasant outcomes are hardly of any concern to it in that resepect also.)

The key predictors of violent behaviour in humans remain the most dangerously banal ones: young, male, low socioeconomic status, substance abuse. Mental illness is rarely a factor, and when it is, usually the other factors will also be in play to a larger degree anyway. In fact, mental illness is actually much more likely to make a person suicidal rather than homicidal, and this is an important factor in a special kind of statistically-rare but highly publicized kind of violent behaviour: mass shootings and suicide bombings. In these cases, the pathological desire to die will naturally change the brain’s internal risk-vs-reward analysis and make violence seem like a more attractive option, but even so, regular suicides are far more common than murder-suicides. Even in these rare outlier cases, the triggers for violent behaviour are usually just the same as the ones that influence the behaviour of mentally healthy people; the difference in outcome is due to the way these triggers interact with the person’s suicidal desires. Considering that the vast majority of violent acts are committed by mentally healthy people, that is where our focus really ought to lie.** The problem is that the kinds of violence that are most common – domestic violence, rape, street violence, etc – are also the kinds that people don’t want to talk about, whereas the rare outlier cases get widespread media attention and therefore alter people’s perception about the reality of violent behaviour. If we are constantly told that “the man with the gun was crazy” then inevitably it will sink in, regardless of the level of truth in that statement. But in reality, automatically attributing all instances of real-life violence to “craziness” is like dismissing all car accidents as being caused by ice on the road – you’ll be right occasionally, but you’re ignoring all the most common causes of the problem, and your calls to combat car accidents by increasing the public’s awareness of icy road conditions will just look silly and ill-informed.

As usual, an evolutionary perspective can shed some light on why this is the case. Prior to the advent of civilisation, the “typical” social arrangement for hunter-gatherer tribes was a dominance hierarchy headed by a small number of polygamous males who monopolized all the mating opportunities. From my feminist perspective, I see this as a sort of “proto-patriarchy”; the thing that cultural evolution would later shape into the familiar patriarchal societies of today (not with any foresight, of course, but we can apply these labels in hindsight, for convenience). For the present discussion, however, the key point to note is that this proto-patriarchal social order did not benefit all males; only those at the top of hierarchy. An inevitable by-product of polygamous, “harem-style” mating strategies is that there will always be groups of males, often adolescents who have not yet challenged the alphas, who are left on the outer, and are frustrated by a lack of mating opportunities and, usually, harrassed and shunned by the rest of the group. Under these circumstances, any risk-vs-reward calculations will now swing towards the violent end of the scale, and aggressive behaviour will become a potentially winning strategy. (This is true not just amongst our ancestors but of pretty much all species which have adopted this kind of social structure.) So now, we see that violence is a conditional strategy, triggered by environmental circumstances.

At this point I was considering trying to stretch the feminist analogy and suggesting that we should be thinking in terms of alpha-male privilege versus regular male privilege, as a way of linking our current cultural conditions with the behavioural patterns of our ancestors – but of course, the more obvious approach would be to suggest we are looking at the beginnings of class-based privilege instead. There is already a wealth of analysis on the intersectionality between these two concepts, so I won’t dwell here. Again, the key points are that aggressive behaviour, as an evolutionary strategy, is triggered by certain social conditions which, in a modern context, look a whole lot like the predictors of violent behaviour I listed above. The only outlier is substance abuse, which, in common cases such as alcohol-related violence, acts as a remover of inhibition and thereby enhances the role played by other factors which, on their own, may not have been powerful enough to influence the person’s behaviour. It’s worth remembering that one of the primary functions of the neocortex is simply to act as an inhibitor of lower brain functions, so disabling it through artificially altered brain chemistry provides an important shortcut for those who have not developed violent behaviours habitually, and therefore have greater difficulty overcoming these barriers through more natural means.

So, as the causes and origins of our built-in behavioural repertoire come to light, we are faced with much the same choice as in the previously-examined example of ethnocentrism: we can either use these facts to try and justify violence, or we can use them to develop strategies to prevent violence. On the surface, this might seem like a no-brainer, but the real problem with most anti-violence philosophies is that people will readily agree to them in principle, but they will then often reserve a few exceptions to this rule in order to preserve instances where they either benefit from violence or are too afraid of letting go of violence as a coping mechanism, even if it is not the optimal choice. We need to keep in mind that violence is a selfish strategy with short-term benefits which serve to blind people to its long-term consequences. We therefore cannot expect people to willingly change their behaviour unless some solid alternatives are provided, and the consequences of a failure to act are highlighted to the point of being impossible to ignore.

I’m not going to drive myself crazy (again) by trying to come up with all the solutions here. But the most obvious starting point, at least, would be to focus on the hierarchical nature of our society and examine the ways in which it turns violence into a statistical inevitability by recreating conditions that favoured violence in our evolutionary past. Deconstructing hierarchies is already a necessary task faced by feminists and atheists anyway (which I’m guessing is the direction your views already skew if you’re reading this), so we have plenty of pre-existing ideas to call upon. It’s just a question of synthesizing all these different perspectives into a coherent whole, and perhaps also, convincing ourselves that such wide-reaching change is indeed a goal we can realistically work towards. I certainly think it is within the realms of possibility, even if it will take a long time. Societies can’t remain in stasis; new ideas are constantly being generated, and the best of these will rise to the top and oust the old ideas. It’s just a question of whether “best” means “best for everyone”, or “best for those at the top of the hierarchies” (or even “best for the ideas themselves”, selfish meme style, but that’s a whole other thing). But whichever way it goes, change is inevitable, so we might as well try and make it a change for the better.

I began with a reminder that behavioural patterns are naturally-selected artifacts, no different from an eye or a wing. This is important because humans are the only animals that actively modify and rework their bodies instead of just having to settle for whatever evolution provided them with. Eyes and wings can be augmented and improved upon, and the same will hold true for just about anything else we care to turn our attention to. We are humans; that is what we do.

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*This is something of a digression, but I point it out because it’s easy to get caught up in the complexity and subjective strikingness of some evolutionary products and start thinking to yourself, wow, this must mean something; it must be important. But would you say the same thing about some of the more humble yet, by most measures, far more successful Darwinian progeny, such as cyanobacteria? The significance we apply to a thing needs to stem from more than just its ability to survive in relation to other things. Evolution is the closest thing we have to a science of teleology, so it can therefore powerfully inform our moral and ethical judgments, but that is all it can do; it cannot dictate morality, which is key. As primates we have a built-in desire for morality to be dictated from an authoritarian source (originally the alpha male of the social group, which eventually evolved into increasingly-powerful tribal leaders and up to spirits and gods and so forth), which is why we need to approach claims of such authority with an additional level of skepticism, to compensate for our innate biases.

**Of course, mental healthcare is worth advocating for regardless of the role it plays here, so obviously I don’t wish to downplay its importance. We just need to recognize that pursuing that path won’t lead to the decrease in violence that many people seem to think will naturally follow from it.

In Which The Complaint Is Longer Than The Original Piece

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Something that caught my eye in the news the other day: an article about scientists discovering a potential genetic link to depression. Whilst the subject itself is interesting, and we will get to that in a moment, this article also provides us an illustrative example of the problem with overly-simplistic science reporting. In this case, it is playing up to a popular misconception about the nature of genetics, by stating that the genes in question actively cause depression. This is almost certainly wrong, for reasons which experts would have a much easier time explaining, but I will give it a shot.

All human behaviour, to varying extents, is the product of a complex interaction between genes and environment (additionally, you could also say that genes construct phenotypes – some of which, such as the psychological makeup of the human brain, become a kind of third player in this interaction, transcending their genetic origins but also acting independently of any environmental influences). The idea of genes playing a predominant role in this process is kind of like suggesting that all you need is the recipe to know how a meal is going to taste. If you don’t go to the trouble of gathering the necessary ingredients, cooking them, and actually eating the final product, you’re going to miss out on a lot of important information. And even then, you can’t speak authoritatively about the recipe, because variations in ingredients and the cooking process will produce subtlely – or even substantially – different results each time.

Depression is no different in this regard, and its status as a problem that has both genetic and environmental roots is fairly well accepted by most experts. And yet the idea of a neat genetic cause remains appealing, both here and with many other problems, for a couple of reasons. First is just the basic simplicity of it – but whilst simplicity is of course highly valued in science, this simplicity should never come at the expense of fact. Elegant simplicity, encompassing all the known facts, is the real ideal to strive for. And secondly, there is a strange comfort that people seem to derive from the idea of genetic predeterminism, even when it causes significant problems, because it negates responsibility for any actions that may have otherwise caused said problems. In other words, no one has to modify their behaviour to prevent depression in this scenario, because it’s just genes and there’s not much you can do about it. Naturally, this is especially appealing to people who don’t actually suffer from depression, but whose actions or beliefs may have contributed to other people’s problems with the disease.

In reality, most people with depression can trace it back to an environmental cause, though the actual nature of those causes can vary greatly, from interpersonal problems to physical injuries to any number of odd and unexpected things. But of course, if the causes are so varied and widespread, why do some people suffer from it and not others? This is where the genetic component comes in: theoretically, genes may provide a predisposition towards depression in some people, explaining why they react differently to others when presented with the same stimulus. As a general rule of thumb, this is usually how genes work: they can only create a predisposition towards certain behaviours, which is then fulfilled or altered by environmental conditions. Some predispositions are easily changed, whilst others require a more complex confluence of factors before they will start to shift, but generally speaking, humans have evolved to be highly malleable and to adapt to a wide range of environments – including entirely artificial environments of their own creation. Indeed, one of the largely unique functions of the human brain is its ability to override its own predisposed behavioural patterns, which is why we can adapt so readily to new environments, and is also why we possess some semblance of biologically-constrained free will. Additionally, contrary to what you may at first assume, knowledge of our genetic predispositions doesn’t excuse behaviour (ie. you won’t be able to say, “this person has the dickhead gene, therefore they can’t help being a dickhead”) – in fact, this knowledge is actually more likely to make it easier to change these predisposed tendencies. In much the same way that it’s easier to control your hands when you can see what they’re doing, as opposed to groping about in the dark, self-knowledge often empowers the brain to overcome its own limitations. So, you know, it’s not something we should be particularly afraid of, even though many people seem to be, in my own experience at least.

The real trick here, if you want to understand how human behaviour works, is trying to unravel a tremendously convoluted chain of cause and effect – which is why simplistic explanations like “genes cause depression” usually fall apart fairly quickly. I expect the actual answers will be somewhat harder to pry out.

While we’re on the subject, one interesting point to come out of this discovery is that a genetic predisposition to depression may help strengthen the theory that depression has some adaptive value, under the right circumstances. This will largely depend on whether these genes have been actively selected for, as opposed to just being a harmful mutation or an unfortunate by-product of some other beneficial process. Whilst depression is generally a debilitating problem, especially once it spirals out of control, it is also unusual in the sense that it actively reshapes the brain’s thought processes to make it better at solving problems. Most of the harmful symptoms of depression only occur because the brain is devoting too much of its finite resources to this effort, thereby neglecting other important functions. Which means that if depression occurs in response to a genuine problem, the person may well be in the optimum position to solve this problem, assuming their depression doesn’t go too far and drag them under entirely. If it does give people an edge when it comes to problem-solving, then this benefit may be enough for natural selection to favour it, despite the unpleasant side effects (especially if the side effects of failing to solve problems are significantly worse, which is not hard to imagine). But this idea is still fairly speculative, and the debate is far from over.

To return to the original article, we should probably ask the question: did the reporter actively misunderstand the concept, or were they simply trying to create a quick summary and didn’t realise the implications of their imprecise language? (This is a common problem in science – as I have often discovered in the past, even if you have a basic understanding of a concept, there’s still like a thousand ways you can get the terminology wrong.) Or alternatively: is it perhaps an accurate record of an overzealous announcement by one of the research teams in question? Well, here is one of the papers referenced in the article, so check it out for yourself. You’ll notice they are rather more conservative in their wording, revealing the actual nature of their discovery: they are merely documenting an interesting and potentially significant correlation, not the be-all and end-all causal link suggested by the subsequent article reporting their findings. Unfortunately, as usual, the real science is rather more boring and messy than most people would like.

Ultimately, this is just another reminder to remain skeptical about information that has filtered through the science news cycle.

Depression

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

A few weeks ago, in that entry I wrote about happiness and belief, I briefly mentioned depression and how it may be related to a breakdown in the way the brain processes belief, and I also linked to this article which explains some of the physiological changes the brain goes through during depression, and the possible evolutionary causes behind this changes (it’s not the only thing I’ve read on the subject by the way, it’s just a convenient summary). I’m going to expand on that part a little more here. I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I really want to talk about this, but I guess we’ll see how it goes.

As I said in that previous entry, beliefs act as a sort of interconnected network of proven, reliable thoughts, and we use this network to interpret new information. We build up our beliefs through experience and education, and strengthen them through repetition – which is not always a good thing. Due to our limited knowledge, we are forced to adopt illusory beliefs in order to function. But whilst in an ideal world these could just be necessary stepping stones to increased knowledge, in the real world we tend to buy into these false beliefs, and fall into repetitive patterns of behaviour, stunting our growth. Human behaviour often moves in repeated patterns, after all, because the overriding influence on our psyches is fear – the central survival instinct – and anything we can do to placate that fear is something we naturally want to stick with and reuse over and over. We all have our individual tics, unique ways of doing things, flaws, bad habits. Sometimes these patterns are relatively harmless; sometimes they are an inconvenience but still bearable; other times, they can significantly impact our ability to function.

This network of beliefs exists on a deeper level than conscious thought, and so we don’t normally notice its existence or reflect on it at all. Moreover, if you were to try and analyze your own beliefs, you would have to use your belief network to do so, which means it is not possible to gain a truly objective view of them. This is important to keep in mind, because the result is that reflecting on your own beliefs usually just reinforces them, even if you are genuinely trying to find fault. If you could see the flaws in your beliefs you would have accounted for them already; it’s the flaws you can’t see that are the real problem. And considering our finite knowledge, you can be quite certain that such flaws do exist, and that you’ll probably end up encountering them at some point in the future. What happens next, however, is far more important – because you can either acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them, or you can try and preserve your beliefs by rationalizing the discrepency away (in other words, you can turn justified belief into blind faith). This is why most people generally don’t change their beliefs much, because unfotunately, rationalizing them is simply the much easier option. After all, our brains are extremely powerful rationalizing machines. This gives us a rather astounding capacity to understand the universe around us, but only if we employ this power wisely.

When people do change their beliefs – and I’m talking about major, significant changes here, like switching religious or political allegiances – it is often the result of a rare and devastating blow to their entire belief system, which leaves them with little choice but to change their ways. This is not always the case, of course, but it accounts for most sudden and short term changes. When people change their beliefs through reflection and personal growth, it usually takes a lot longer for the changes to manifest, as they sort through all the details at their own pace. For example, I gave up my religious beliefs quite voluntarily, but I also did it over a very long period of time, as I was never faced with any direct challenges to my beliefs. I just gradually changed them on my own terms, as I learned more about the world and decided that some of the things I had been taught to believe were wrong. I realised fairly early on that the idea of a “god” in the conventional sense was a rather tenuous concept, but I held onto other aspects – like an afterlife of some sort – for quite a bit longer, purely because of the basic appeal of the idea. And that’s the thing with a lot of false beliefs: because they have no basis in reality, they are free to appeal to our emotions without being constrained by truth, like any good piece of fiction. They can be extremely hard to dislodge – except under special circumstances, when you encounter something which breaks through your rationalizations and brings the whole structure down at once.

It is this sudden and short-term collapse of the belief network which I will be focusing on here, because it seems to be one of the primary causes of depression (perhaps there are other causes as well; it probably manifests in a variety of complex ways, but this is the one I am interested in today). And as an aside, I think that this type of breakdown of beliefs also accounts for the “light” that people claim to see when they discover religion. It doesn’t have much to do with the intrinsic properties of their new belief system (all you need is a concept that carries its own internal logic, as I discussed in that previous entry); rather, it is just the enormous sense of relief that comes with finding a replacement for their old and broken beliefs. Because make no mistake, when your belief network breaks down, the pressure to build it back up again is quite severe. I know, because I have experienced it firsthand. And personally, I’m just glad that I had already tried seeing that particular light – and I didn’t find any answers there, either.

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Anti-violence post #1

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Some things in life are predictable: death, taxes, humorous non-sequitur third option. Others – like my update schedule – are less so. Sometimes you can see the car headlights moving inexorably towards you, and you try to get out of the way, only to realise the road has been covered with crazy glue, and your shoelaces have been tied together. Other times, they buy an electric car and switch off the headlights, and sneak up on you. Christ, I hate my neighbourhood.

Another thing that can be placed in the “predictable” category is the storyline of my comic. Well, large chunks of it, anyway – especially if you are already familiar with my political and social views and the way I like to express them in my work. I’m hoping to mix in a few surprises along the way, within that overall framework of inevitability, but I don’t think I’m really giving much away when I say that the main theme of the first half of the story will be the causes and consequences of violent behaviour. Since it’s a subject which will no doubt continually crop up as the story progresses, I’m going to jot down a few musings here, mostly to help keep my thoughts in order.

So, let’s start off with the basics. Violence is essentially a reaction against vulnerability, sought because it delivers feelings of safety and control – but ultimately, these feelings are just an illusion. You can see this across the board, from full scale warfare right down to one-on-one encounters. A telling example is the way governments use euphemisms like “security” to justify expanding their own power and hegemony, revealing that even large and powerful groups of people still function with the exact same deep-seated fear that drives all violent behaviour. Because what is security, exactly? The ability to gain so much control that you will never have to fear violent attack? Such a situation is patently impossible, yet it is the very thing that violence promises to deliver, and so people continue to fall for it. This psychology scales down with surprisingly little change, even to an individual level. The school bully, looking to control the other kids because he feels threatened by them. The guy who starts a bar fight with almost no provocation, because he is trying to compensate for feelings of powerlessness resulting from social isolation and emotional disconnection. The husband who has been taught all his life that emotions are effeminate and wrong, and thus ends up being so filled with fear when it comes to relationships that he tries to exert control by beating his wife. In fact, sex itself is, for a number of different reasons, one of the most vulnerable experiences in life, which is why some people will turn to violent behaviour to try and deal with it, either in reality or fantasy (the psychology is basically the same either way, despite how illogical and contradictory it seems from a more superficial perspective).

The consequences of violence are numerous and well-documented. History books are filled with innumerable accounts of lives that have been ruined through senseless and careless acts, and the media takes a certain macabre delight in delivering fresh tales of similar woe each day. It’s not exactly difficult to see that violence causes far more problems than it will ever solve. So why, then, do people keep returning to it? Why are they so unendingly inured to the obvious outcomes? There are numerous factors at play, but in the end, it all comes down to perception versus reality. The real problem here is that even though violence only delivers the illusion of safety and control, this illusion is the result of the brain equating mastery of its immediate surroundings with a more general and wide-reaching feeling of empowerment. It still feels very real, in the mind of the person committing these acts. And its absence is very noticeable. This is why violent behaviours, once learned, are amongst the hardest to let go of.

Human behaviour is driven primarily by fear, so anything which creates a feeling of safety is naturally going to be very attractive. Violence, however, actually decreases safety whilst making the user feel safer. It’s like buying a gun for protection: you might feel safer with a gun at your side, but in reality, a society full of people carrying guns is far less safe than a weaponless one. It’s easy to see how this works with something like a gun, which so obviously changes the balance of power, but this same psychology extends to all violent behaviour, to varying degrees. Because the feeling of safety increases whilst actual safety decreases, the result is an unending behavioural loop, driven by fear, in search of something which by definition can never exist.

Even when you recognise this reality, finding a way out is still extremely hard. To revisit the gun analogy: a society full of people carrying guns might be dangerous, but a society where everyone except you is armed is even worse, from your own perspective at least. Trying to go against this system means putting yourself in an even more vulnerable position – which, when you’ve formed behaviours around compensating for vulnerability through violence, is not only a truly daunting task, but it seems quite illogical if not outright stupid (I mean, get rid of your gun, when everyone else still has theirs? That’s crazy, right?). Fear can build up to such a level that abandoning violence can become seemingly unthinkable; so instead you run in the other direction, deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, despite knowing full well that you’re moving further and further away from the only path out of this mess.

I believe it can be done, however – so long as people are actually willing to make that choice. And the more people who do, the easier it becomes, because people naturally feel less vulnerable in groups than they do alone. More importantly, though, the need to move on from violence is becoming increasingly urgent, as an examination of human development will reveal.

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Positive Psychology

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

If you follow my twitter or liverjournal then you’ve probably seen me linking to videos from TED.com in the past. I love that site. It is basically an ideas forum, featuring short speeches by a variety of experts on diverse subjects relating to technology, entertainment and design (ie. T.E.D.). Some of the speakers are quite prominent (Al Gore, Richard Dawkins, etc) whilst others are simply there for being experts in their field, even if they aren’t celebrities. Because the speeches are generally short (usually around 18-20 minutes), I find it’s a convenient site to visit when you need to take a quick break from whatever you’re doing, or if you need something to do over lunch or whatever. Taking this approach, I’ve gradually worked my way through a large number of speeches, most of which have been really fascinating, and some of which have even been quite astounding (mushrooms! Who knew?!). There are inevitably a few weird and silly ones which really don’t seem to belong there, but for the most part, the quality has been high. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a long post linking to a whole bunch of my favourite talks, but for today, I’m just going to focus on one: Martin Seligman On Positive Psychology.

So, uh, it would probably help if you went and watched that now, but if you can’t be bothered or if you’d rather find time for it later or whatever, then here’s a quick summary: Seligman is a psychologist working on the idea of positive psychology, ie. studying what makes people happy, as opposed to the more traditional approach to psychology, studying what makes people unhappy. He briefly runs through some points on why this seemingly-minor switch in focus is actually quite important to psychology in general and has opened up new areas of understanding about what makes humans tick, but he also makes note of the advances made by the older model of psychology and why they are still important as well, even though they were only part of the larger picture which is beginning to unfold. He then explains that there seems to be different types of happiness, which can be approximated by three broad categories. The first and most obvious category is things that provide an immediate pleasurable reaction, the second revolves around activities which you can lose yourself in and become completely immersed by, and the third relates to the desire for meaning and knowledge. This is the part that I found most interesting, and the reason why I decided to write this blog entry, because I can really relate to a few of the unexpected findings his studies have revealed.

Perhaps the least surprising of his findings is that the first category – things that provide an immediate pleasurable reaction – is the most superficial and short-term form of happiness. The example he provides is the experience of eating something which is delicious to start off with, but you’re sick of it by the time you’re done eating it. This is a very fleeting form of happiness, and interestingly, you can’t really stretch it out by continually moving from one pleasurable activity to the next – it is simply not enough to provide real and long-term satisfaction. This is probably a conclusion that most people eventually reach on their own anyway, even if they don’t give it much conscious thought. People tend to naturally gravitate towards certain things which provide a deeper and more fulfilling sense of happiness, and gradually leave behind more superficial pursuits. Or else they don’t, and can’t figure out why they are unhappy.

The second category is kind of a subtle one. Again, it’s not something that usually receives much conscious thought, but I can certainly relate to the idea of losing yourself in an activity and feeling better afterwards. For me, I can most easily accomplish this through playing videogames, especially a platforming game like Mario, which doesn’t require too much planning and forethought, and instead revolves around simply being in the moment. But I can also reach a similar state of flow through writing, and occasionally, when I am drawing, though I’m still not very good at that one. There have, however, been times in the past when I’ve spent several hours in Photoshop bringing some silly comic to life, and then I look back at the time that has passed and wonder how the heck that happened. It’s easy to understand why people would seek out activities which provide that feeling of accomplishment, even if it’s not always easily obtained.

The third category, though, is the one that really caught my attention. There is a definite sense of satisfaction and contentment that comes from having an understanding of how the world works, and from searching for the meaning behind what you see around you. The important thing to remember, though, is that this feeling is subjective, and entirely separate from reality – ie. it doesn’t matter if your explanations are objectively correct, it only matters that you can convince yourself that they are accurate. And because your head only contains a finite amount of knowledge, it is often very easy to convince yourself to believe in the accuracy of your own thoughts. I think a good illustration of this is religion. As an atheist, you will often find me arguing that religion is illogical, but from a certain point of view, that isn’t really accurate – all religions contain their own internal logic, and that is what makes them so appealing. They offer answers to just about any question you can think of, so if you accept that internal logic, you are essentially given a complete worldview, which is a very basic human desire. I think this stems from the fact that our brains evolved to understand the real world, and it wasn’t until they had grown much more powerful that we started turning our thoughts towards abstract concepts. Hence, we had no mechanisms for discerning objective truth, because until then, everything had been literal and there in front of us. Additionally, because we lacked a true understanding of the world anyway, we really relied on illusions for much of our development, until we could finally advance far enough to supplant these illusions with the real answers. Modern scientific progress is largely just a process of stripping those illusions away, one by one, so that hopefully we can make some progress towards a more accurate understanding of the universe.

So uh basically, the problem is not that religion is illogical, but that in order to accept the logic it offers, you need to ignore reality, which inevitably contradicts it.

But I’m digressing from my original point here. Regardless how and why this desire for understanding developed, it’s safe to say it definitely exists. We have an undeniable curiosity, and a need to at least feel like we understand things, even if we are merely operating under illusions because we’ve reached the limits of our comprehension. This desire to learn is what makes us so intelligent, but also what leads us into logical traps that provide that contented feeling, despite being built around inaccurate logic. In many ways, the goal of a skeptic is to avoid that feeling of contentment, because there are still so many things that we don’t know, so however much we feel like we understand the world, the only thing we can really know for sure is that we are still held under the thumb of illusions that we don’t even know are there. That, I think, is the real strength of a skeptical worldview: not that it explains everything, but that it reminds you that you can’t explain everything. In spite of our awesomely powerful ability to rationalize abstract concepts, we are not truly rational beings, and our preconceptions can’t be trusted.

Interestingly, there could well be a fine line between this type of happiness, and depression. According to one possible explanation, depression is the result of a breakdown of that feeling of understanding, so that the world doesn’t quite make sense anymore. It stems from encountering a problem or problems which can’t be easily solved, thus sending the mind off in all different directions in an effort to find that elusive explanation, so that a more stable worldview can be reestablished (hence, depression of varying levels being common amongst teenagers, as their childish illusions crash headlong into the real world). This often happens on a much deeper level than we are consciously aware of, which is why it can be difficult for depressed people to really articulate what the problem is, even though they are acutely aware of it. This makes illusions such as religion even more attractive, because without that feeling of understanding, we are lost and confused. So an explanation, even if it is merely an illusion, becomes a much more agreeable alternative… until that illusion becomes the source of the next problem, of course.

The main reason I brought up this possible link with depression is because even though the pursuit of knowledge can be a deeply satisfying form of happiness, it doesn’t necessarily result in the smiley-cheerful kind of happiness. As I said, the line between happiness and depression in this sense seems quite fine, and is largely dependent on whether your search for knowledge is yielding any results. Staring down the barrel of a particularly large problem can be quite daunting and frustrating, blurring this line even further. But just because the outward indicators of happiness are absent, doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is unhappy. Personally, I am often told that I need to smile more, or receive enquiries as to why I am not all happy and cheerful. Often these comments are motivated by genuine concern, of course, but it can still be kind of annoying, because I actually find it far more satisfying to search for knowledge than to content myself with illusion, even if the result is that I’m sometimes too distracted to be appropriately, superficially happy. And certainly, I don’t want to discourage people from speaking up if they think someone really is depressed, because sometimes it can be vitally important to intervene when a person’s problems are getting the best of them, but just keep in mind that there are other forms of happiness aside from the more obvious and friendly kinds.

So anyway, how do you build up a stable worldview, as free from illusion as possible, when there are still so many things that we don’t know yet? You need to recognise what beliefs actually are. Despite the significance that religious folk place on their faith, the fact is, the brain processes thought and belief in the exact same way. Beliefs are merely thoughts that we hold to be unquestionably true, so much so that we don’t even really reflect on them. Which, again, makes sense in the context of brains that evolved to deal with real-world problems – once you’ve established that your prey behaves in a certain way or that certain weather cues indicate an approaching storm or a variety of other things, then it is helpful to have a method of mental categorisation that allows you to recall these tried-and-true facts immediately. So we build up webs of belief, interconnected thoughts which operate as a filter for new information, allowing us to immediately recognise familiar patterns and to interpret new patterns to the best of our existing knowledge. But when beliefs are built up around illusions, it distorts the way we view the world. An easy example is stereotypes, which cause us to place greater significance on behaviour which lines up with the prescribed stereotype, even if it is not actually typical or significant at all. Once illusions have distorted our worldview, they pave the way for further illusions, burying us under the weight of false belief.

The answer, then, is to ensure that no beliefs are held to be unquestionable. And instead of desperately clinging to our existing beliefs, we need the courage to let go of them, and search for the truth, as best we can determine it. Which, in the short term, may mean letting go of that feeling of contentment that comes from having a working understanding of the universe. Illusions, ultimately, are just another form of fleeting happiness, which cannot be sustained. And if I’m really honest, I think the ability to be consistently, superficially happy in such a flawed world as ours is something of a delusion anyway. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s worth pursuing, or anything like that. I just think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture when trying to carve out our own little place in the world.

And you’d be surprised at how much happier you feel when you let go of your illusions, and make peace with your incomplete understanding of the universe, safe in the knowledge that there are still so many things left to learn – for an animal with a natural sense of curiosity, that is perhaps the most exciting prospect of all.