Robert Dawson Ph.D.

In Spite of Yourself

Extremism, Terrorism, Groundhog Day and Hope

Human nature is the elephant in the room.

Posted Mar 18, 2019

In general, all life instinctively prioritizes survival and reproduction to ensure continuation. In humans, instinct makes everything personal; in one way or another, it's all about "me."

None of us wants this to be true, because to admit it means accepting or condoning actions we would describe as selfish, anti-social, greedy, cruel, lacking in sympathy and empathy, and worse.

However, the human focus on self-interest is hardwired in the limbic system, an area of the brain inaccessible to conscious influence. Taking everything personally is an automatic given. Constantly comparing ourselves to others (e.g., on Facebook), anxiety, anger, and judgement are survival habits that we are born with and that we automatically indulge in every day. Every generation is a "Me" generation.

There are exceptions to this rule of me, me, and me.

Most of us can think of times when people put others first. However, these exceptions mostly occur either when there is little or no threat to "me," or when the danger is so extreme that there is a perception of no chance of personal survival. In the first case under limited or no threat, there is little chance of me losing anything important. In the second case in extreme circumstances, if I perceive that I have lost (or will lose) everything, I have nothing else to lose.

When a threat is manageable, we cooperate to help others and ourselves.

If the risk continues to build, it reaches a level where personal survival is threatened. If we believe that we have options to save ourselves, we put ourselves first. We won't risk ourselves for others: "When the oxygen masks drop out of the overhead lockers, place the mask on yourself first before you put masks on your children."

At even higher levels of threat, where pessimism about the futility of survival becomes intense, extremism is born. Extremism replaces the importance that instinct gives to personal survival with an even greater importance: the importance of species survival (e.g., family, values, religion, a way of life, life in general). In conditions of strong pessimism and futility about possible improvement, a perspective arises of having lost everything and having nothing left to lose. This perspective causes extremism in thought and actions, including terrorism and suicide, when justified with the purpose of ensuring the survival of the species (family, values, religion, a way of life).

As pessimism and extremism become increasingly powerful, so does the motivation to choose death to achieve the survival of others.

The rise and fall of civilizations is a recurring phenomenon. It begins with a group where most or all are fighting for survival. As things improve and society becomes civilized, some people accumulate more than others. As civilization continues to grow, the gap between the minority who have "everything" and the majority who by comparison have little or "nothing" widens. Inevitably human nature (looking out for number one) in the minority group extends the gap so much that pessimism and futility intensify to the point of extremism in thought and terrorism in action. Once this stage is reached, the fall approaches with increasing speed.

After a fall, the cycle starts over again — Groundhog Day. Right now, courtesy of the internet, we are seeing it happening on the big screen. Global conflict and distress are almost everywhere increasing. Rational action to ensure the survival of self, family, friends, community, nation, and religious beliefs is being overwhelmed by extremism. The shift towards extremism increasing is happening now, and the shift towards self-sacrifice and terrorism is also increasing.

The Doomsday Clock is currently at two minutes to midnight — that's two minutes to the next end of the world as we know it. Based on human history, that won't be the end of the human species. A very few of us will survive and eventually rebuild, and history will repeat itself again — Groundhog Day.

It's a hard ask to be positive and optimistic at two minutes to midnight, but let's put the question out there. Is it possible to get out of this Groundhog Day loop that the human species keeps repeating?

I believe it is.

The answer revolves around teaching an understanding and acceptance of human nature and our limitations to our new generations of kids and using this knowledge as a foundation to teach strategies to manage the groundhog influence of instinct.

Policies that focus on achieving lasting outcomes, rather than on changing temporary feelings, have a chance to reduce the gap between those who have and those who don't. Reducing the deficit means a reduction in pessimism and futility about self-survival and a decrease in extremism and terrorism. To achieve this, we need to accept our nature as it is. We also need a commitment to focus on outcomes in spite of our feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and unhappiness, in spite of our nature.

While human nature remains essentially unchanged throughout recorded human history, there is evidence of human ability to act contrary to this nature in certain circumstances. What are those circumstances? How are we different in them? Can this information help us this close to doomsday?

Let's start with acknowledging our nature.

Human nature — The default human condition

  • In non-stressful circumstances, we cooperate and help others.
  • In increasing stressful situations, we automatically begin to prioritize ourselves over others to survive.
  • In extreme cases, we may sacrifice ourselves; we may put the survival of others ahead of our survival.
  • Although we all have some ability to "read" the motivations of others, we have next to no insight into our behavior (our behavior is mostly reflexive, automatic, and habitual).
  • The explanations we provide for our actions are mostly a rationalization to excuse our perceived self-centeredness.
  • Our instinct sees some form of threat in almost everything.
  • We unconsciously seek to reassure our instinctive fear.
  • External sources of reassurance come from recognition, approval, and relative importance (we pursue achievements and acquisitions).
  • More (greed) is always better than less when it comes to reassurance; we can never have enough, and we can never be satisfied with what we have for very long.
  • Internal sources of reassurance come in three forms: feelings (from natural endorphins and effects of drugs and medication), thoughts (justifying), and actions (e.g. doodling, fiddling, rocking, drinking, exercising, eating, etc.).
  • Our feelings set the atmosphere for our actions and thoughts (feel sad, think sad, act sad).
  • In general, feelings have more power and are more reliable than ideas in influencing behavior.
  • Thoughts can overcome the force of feelings in extreme circumstances, but this outcome is extremely unreliable.
  • The power that feelings have over actions and beliefs makes our feelings the weakness that others use to manipulate us.
  • The standard formula for manipulation is to trigger anxiety, then offer respite through the acquisition of something (e.g., attention, power, drugs which are sold to us and which further widens the gap between the sellers and the buyers).

All of the above is natural and normal.

Until we accept that this is our nature and what we are as a species, we will continue to be miserable over failed attempts to be happier, more satisfied, better, more beautiful, or stronger.

We need to accept that no matter how much luck or success we have, it is natural to revert to our anxious, dissatisfied nature as described above.

Continuing to focus on our feelings and buying things to change them temporarily will always keep us in a Groundhog Day loop.

If, instead, we focus on the importance of actions and thoughts that reassure our survival instinct and pay less attention to the importance of feelings, we may be able to remove the conditions that cause extremism, and consequently improve the survival prospects for ourselves and humanity.

My next post will be on a different approach we need to take in raising our kids with this end in mind.

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