Rant #1

POSTED IN: Rant #1

Listen to the news, experts, social commentator, or activists, and it is likely that in-between the news on wars, famines, indiscriminate shootings, harassment, discrimination, poverty and homelessness, you will hear calls for “change” and “progress”. Implicit in this call for change is a better future that we are or could be striving for, in order to improve and make life “better”.  Obviously, how we define and understand a “better” varies depending on our point of view: cultural and individual values and ideals. And clearly, the notions of “change” or “progress” are meaningless, unless we know and desire the goals towards which we might want to be progressing towards. Perhaps, the constant competition among various groups with seemingly opposing goals and interests render the notion of “progress” meaningless.  Indeed, humanity may be in a state of continuous battle of opposing interests where ultimately, might is right.  Yet, from an idealistic point of view, one might assume that our common humanity, translates to basic, shared values that could translate into a common purpose. What are those key features of our common humanity? Are there basic features of human nature that could define what is a “good” life and how to achieve it? What can we learn about human nature from the current state of knowledge in social, psychological or biological sciences?


These are crucial questions.  For the past few hundred years, most human societies have been going through substantial change and upheaval, often in the name of “progress”.  In the West, technological innovations have led to rapid and continuous change in the modes of production, communication, social relations and conduct of war, all leading to power and domination over the world, both in terms of material resources and cultural hegemony.  Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world has come in contact with this power and succumbed: either died out as viable cultures and systems of life, or undergone fundamental change, whether in an effort to embrace modernity or even when trying to reject it. 


The pace of change is unabated.  The world has become increasingly interconnected, and with it cultures and people are in greater contact with each other.  Although there is some acknowledgement of the value of “diversity”, greater contact has only increased the Western infiltration into other cultures.   Meanwhile, in Western societies, technological advances are looking to end “work” as we know it, and to build human colonies on Mars, where our grand children might be residing.  So it becomes crucial to ask where are we going? Towards what goal(s) are we “progressing”? If we had any choice in the matter, where would we want to go? If the ultimate goal of all the technological innovations and human activity is to increase the chances of our survival and happiness, are we on the right track? And if not, what are some visions of the future that could maximize our chances for survival and well-being? 


Here I want to emphasize a few points that I think are essential to such discussions, intuitively obvious, and yet often ignored.  Namely that (i) how people feel and their psychological well-being should be a prime indicator of the success of any social order and way of life; (ii) our psychological well-being requires a level of stability and a relatively slow pace of change; and (iii) these requirements are the direct result of some of the basic features of our psyche, and thus relatively universal. Therefore, (iv) the social order we might consider progressing towards, is not just some technological utopia, or a place that meets humanities basic material needs, or has the highest level of wealth or economic growth, but instead a place that strikes a balance between meeting the populations’ material needs AND psychological needs, which necessarily includes a degree of predictability, continuity and thus meaning.   In other words, we might want to aim for a sustainable system that is well adapted to both economic and psychological needs of the human beings involve.  


Emphasis on this notion of sustainable adaptation leads to a meaningful shift in several common ways of thinking. First, we might revise our evaluation of the past and traditional societies (which remained relatively stable for hundreds of years i.e. ancient people all over the world!).  Namely, we might switch from an automatic negative evaluation of those ancient orders as “stagnant” and “backward”, and instead ask how did they achieve their sustainable adaptation for hundreds of years? This might be a purely academic exercise for a Westerner, but profoundly useful shift in mindset for inheritors of those ancient cultures, as they struggle to define their identities in a modern world.  Second, in figuring out who we are now and where we are going, we might decide to change, but not for its own sake, not as a reaction to feeling that we are inadequate or that change is inevitable, but change for the purpose of achieving a new adaptation, mindful that our past adaptations have valuable lessons that we might want to absorb, as we adapt to new circumstances.  Third, in forging new adaptions, we might put a greater value on diverse, non Western cultures and points of view, not just as a superficial appreciation of “ethnic cultures” that add flavor to our diet or musical experience, but by understanding ideas and practices that those cultures fashioned in achieving their past sustainable adaptation.  Fourth, we might better understand the “reactionary” movements, anger and resentment that is evident in various popular movements across the world, from Islamic fundamentalism to white supremists, maybe there is a common tread: Perhaps these “reactions” reflect a resistance to rapid change and a reminder that multiculturalism is not easy.  Cultural integration takes time. When large segments of society have not had time to absorb the beliefs and views of the “elite”, the most natural reaction is rejection, fear and anger.  


Here I want to elaborate on these basic features and justify why they lead to the need for stability and a slow pace of social change. 


First, much of human behavior and psyche depends on automatic processes that are shaped by our social (cultural) and natural environment. These automatic processes (i) occur below the level of conscious, freeing cognitive processes that deliberate in decision-making and problem solving; and (ii) reflect the predictability of the environment. Thus, in stable environments, the person and the environment may form a chain of automatic processes (i.e. stimulus, perception, affect (valuation: good or bad), action) that over time becomes internally consistent (due to the malleability of the nervous system). That is, stability allows predictability and a consistency between subjective expectations and objective outcomes, increasing the probability of reward and avoidance of negative outcomes.  


When change occurs in a social setting (i.e. the rules of the game of change) habitual patterns of valuation and action become ineffective.  Individuals have to use trial and error (i.e. failure and negative affect) or cognitive resources (deliberation and discussion) to find new patterns of response that can be effectively integrated into their past knowledge and ways of life (culture).   Thus, change is costly, even if every one agreed that it is a “positive” change (i.e. consistent with the values and goals of that culture and people).  


When the pace of change is sufficiently slow, the cost is bearable. (i.e. Individuals can make small adjustments, evaluate the out come of their choices, and form new habits. New learning and integration is more complete with practice and thus, the stress of change is lower).  When the pace of change is fast, old automatic processes (valuations and actions) remain active and are more likely to contradict with new realities, increasing the chance of negative outcomes, negative emotions and stress. This is a hidden cost of cultural change.


Second, a (related) feature of human psyche (relevant in understanding the cost of social change) is the need for “consistency”. Our brains detect conflict and violations of expectations.  These violations of expectations (i.e. “errors”) are often experienced as cognitive dissonance and negative affect.  Thus, encountering ideas, values, and ways of life that differ or contradict ours, are often experienced as unpleasant.  Individuals are likely to experience substantial levels of conflict and cognitive dissonance at the interface of different cultures 


We use a variety of strategies to regulate these negative emotions.  The easiest maybe to avoid or dismissal the new information that is incongruent with our enduring values and familiar habits of thought and action.  A more costly strategy is finding cognitive solutions to the new information that contradicts prior knowledge. Namely, we may deliberate and use cognitive “tricks” to integrate the new information with our old models of the world (either by reinterpreting the new information or the old models or do both).  Our motivation to choose either  dismissal or integration depends on many factors.  Perhaps we feel sufficiently safe to be motivated by our intellectual curiosity and learn about other cultures. Or perhaps we threatened and can afford avoiding the “foreign” culture.  Or we may be weak and threatened by a dominant culture that we cannot avoid, leaving various forms of integration as the only option.  Frequently, this can amount to a wholesale embrace of the new culture and devaluation of ones own culture, a common outcome of colonialization.     



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Golijeh Golarai

Golijeh Golarai

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Created: March 27, 2018