The ‘Free Rider’ Problem

Whenever the topic comes up of the need to help the less fortunate and disadvantaged, invariably someone will bring up the ‘free rider’ problem: that there will be people taking advantage of such assistance and get undeserved benefits from it, at the cost of those providing it. I don’t deny that such people exist and that they throw an unfortunate blemish on the genuine desire to help people that really need assistance. But is that a reason to stop such assistance? Even more important is to stop for a moment and wonder if people taking advantage of help offered by people that are better off are the only ‘free riders’ in the equation, or the ones we should worry about most.

I believe most people want to be good and do good. And most people want to help people in need. There is plenty of evidence that helping others is more than a cultural imperative – a learned behaviour – but a much deeper, instinctive behaviour, genetically programmed into us because it has proven beneficial to our survival as a species. Yet when we look around we see plenty of people in need, plenty of people not getting help, and plenty of well-to-do people not really sharing their wealth freely with others. Why?

One reason often given is that freely helping people is a sure-fire way to end up being taken advantage of. Whether the help is given by an individual or a collective (such as the state), so runs the argument, people will abuse anything that is too easily given to them, and profit unfairly from it, at the expense of the donors. This is often referred to as the ‘free rider problem’, and brought up as the reason we cannot simply go and help people in less fortunate circumstances than ourselves.

Free riders are everywhere and unavoidable, it is claimed, and would profit from the hard-earned wealth of other people, without having done anything to deserve this, and without giving anything back. It is because of those free riders that we cannot expect hard-working people to share their wealth with just anyone: that would not be fair. Instead we need to be really careful with any help we may want to give, and make sure that the recipients are made to feel that they are in no way entitled to that help, should feel guilty for needing it, and are actively discouraged from seeking it.

The sad thing is that such reasoning doesn’t distinguish between people that just need some help; that have fallen onto hard times through no fault of their own; that simply drew the short straw in the big lottery of Fate; versus the – in my observations minority – who rather take advantage of other people’s naive good nature than make even half an effort to fend for themselves. So help is withheld on the basis of a generalization that does grave injustice to a large number of people.

But there is another assumption underneath the free rider problem and the way it is used to stop or hinder assistance to those in need. And that is that it is always the weak that profit from the strong, the poor from the wealthy, the sick from the healthy. After all, the weak are in need of what the powerful have in abundance, so they are the only ones that can take advantage of that fundamental inequality.

That is a dangerous assumption, and deeply flawed. Dangerous because it ascribes to the needy not just weakness but envy as well. They are not just needy, they are also greedy – greedy for things they did not earn. Deeply flawed, because in reality the direction of advantage runs as easily from the needy to the wealthy, as the other way round. It is probably easier for the rich to take from the poor than the reverse; easier for the healthy to profit from the sickness of others; and easier for the powerful to suppress and disempower the powerless.

There are at least as many, if not more – because it is easier – free riders amongst the people that are well-off than amongst those that are in need. People that have taken advantage of other people’s misfortune; slaveholders getting rich from the suffering of people that lacked the power to defend their freedom; industrialists coercing masses of workers to spend dismal, long hours in dangerous and dark factories, because those people had no other means of income; pharmaceutical corporations raking in massive profits from people desperate for medication; banks taking advantage of people caught out by natural disasters or economic downturns; … the list goes on. And don’t think I am just talking about some small group of evil-minded people we could single out and blame for their greed and avarice. If we take an honest look at ourselves, our Western society, our own wealth and relative power, how much of what we at present consider our birthright and product of our ancestors’ hard work and diligence was in reality stolen, under threat of violence or worse, from people that had no way to defend themselves?

So, here are my three reasons to reject the free riders problem as a reason to limit or stop help to those in need:

  1. Psychologically, once you can master your fear of scarcity and lack of control, giving is more likely to make you happy than receiving or hoarding. By clinging to your wealth you are denying yourself a chance to feel that happiness;
  2. Amongst those seeking your help there are more genuinely needy people than free riders. Most people don’t actually like asking for help, and will hesitate to do so, unless they feel they have no other choice. By pre-judging anyone asking for your help as a free rider you are probably doing them a grave injustice, not just not helping them, but contributing to their psychological suffering of feeling helpless and unwanted;
  3. If you are amongst the wealthy people in your society, you are probably a free rider yourself, taking unfair advantage of many people all over the world, that are exploited and suppressed to provide you with the many luxuries you surround yourself with. You may not do so on purpose, and oppose these practices in principle, but since our society is built on these practices and you are part of these systems, you are profiting from it, and thereby complicit. So the least you can do is to share more of those profits with those in need, and help, if not to abolish this unfair advantage completely (which may be beyond any individual’s power anyway) at least to somewhat alleviate the pain and suffering caused by them.
Sharing can be messy, but it's much more fun.
Sharing can be messy, but it’s much more fun.

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And that, my dear readers, is my parting thought for this year: dare to care more and share more. It will make the world a better place.

  1. (Image by Kathy on Flickr – published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

On Success

Whether deserved or not, success is not an objectively measurable state. It is a construct of the human mind, experienced only by comparing a person’s actual circumstances against a mental model of what success looks like. One way to achieve success is by attempting to match or succeed that model. Another way would be to change the model to match the reality of one’s life.

I received a number of comments on my previous blog about luck. Some supported my main thesis that success is more luck than merit; others pointed out that opportunity alone is not enough: without preparation, skills, and hard work opportunities are easily missed or wasted. And there was also the notion that a person creates their own luck: that luck is somehow influenced by the individual’s actions, not simply the random workings of a mechanical, uncaring Universe.

I don’t disagree with the notion that opportunities alone are no guarantee for success. An opportunity is a potential, nothing more, until you put in the hard work and dedication to bring it to fruition. In other words: there is merit in having made the most of an opportunity that presented itself – that part of success can be said to be deserved. But do you really make your own luck? Does Lady Fortune really favour the bold and prepared? Or is that the narrative we tell ourselves to uphold the feeling we must have some power over our fate?

Of course it feels good to be told you deserve your success. It’s a nice compliment to get and I know the people that say it really mean it. But there is a flip side to this compliment, an unspoken implication, I think we need to be aware of and very careful with, because it seems to be a source of suffering for many. I am referring to the notion that if success is deserved, then so must be the lack of it. Which means that millions of people that fail to achieve success (by whatever measure – but I will get back to that later) have only themselves to blame.

That doesn’t feel right to me, and I don’t actually believe this to be the case. It also easily leads to a sense of entitlement in the successful people that can stand in the way of their empathy and compassion with those less fortunate. It is this ‘entitlement effect’, I think, that can turn an inspirational concept like the American Dream into a dismal nightmare for those missing out through no fault of their own.

So my first point to make here is to urge all successful people to stop themselves from time to time and reflect on the incredible good fortune that brought them to where they are now; to tone down their sense of entitlement and self-satisfaction; and realize there is not all that much that separates them from those that failed. “There, but for the grace of God, go I” I think is the more appropriate way to look at it.

But what about all those people that are not successful? That feel they have failed. That get stuck with the lousy hand that Fate has dealt them? Telling themselves that the success they see in others is not deserved is not likely to make them feel much better about themselves. The opposite, in fact, is more likely: on top of being disappointed with themselves, they may easily slip into bitterness and resentment towards the successful people around them.

For all those people that feel they are not successful, consider this: by which definition of success do you fall short? Success is not an absolute state, with clear and unchanging criteria; what constitutes success depends on what you define it to be, and is different for different people.

Success is subjective and easily influenced by the people around us. We have a tendency to compare our situation with that of others and then wish to ‘get’ what they ‘have’.

And that is where we unwittingly cause ourselves much unnecessary suffering.

To begin with: what other people have may not be the best model to define our own success by. We may be aiming for something that is simply not suitable for us, because of our circumstances or abilities. We may be aiming for something that – should we get it – doesn’t make us happy or feel fulfilled. We may easily misinterpret other people’s success, and model something that doesn’t actually exist. When we then commit our time, energy and passion to accomplish what we mistakenly define as success, we are almost certain to be sorely disappointed.

The other downside of looking at other people for our definition of success is that we tend to use as role models people that appear to be better off than we are. We raise the bar on what we call success, then measure ourselves by that bar, only to discover we are falling short. And then feel unhappy about our perceived shortcomings.

Success by any definition
Success by any definition

I have personally found that a regular critical examination of my own definitions of success has been a great help in leading a more balanced, more fulfilling, and somewhat ironically, more successful life. Once I realized that success is something I specify myself, I could begin modifying my definitions to my own standards, not those of other people. I also found that instead of only looking up to people, it really paid to take stock of people less fortunate than me, and realize that many people would consider most of the things I take for granted as the pinnacle of success.

To name a few things: I am (reasonably) healthy, have food on the table, a house to live in, and friends and loved ones around me. And I live in a country that is not at war, is prosperous, democratic and free. Each of these is something many people would envy me for. Each of this things is bound to be someone’s definition of success.

So, whenever you feel you are not successful (enough), first of all do not fall into the trap of believing you don’t deserve success. Success is fickle and erratic, sometimes it comes, sometime it doesn’t. And then look at how you define your success, what model you use to compare and align yourself to. If that model is causing you pain and disappointment, why not adjust it a bit? Make it match more closely with the plusses of your current situation. There are always things to be grateful for. And the more you can make those the standard for your success, the more successful you will feel.

On Luck

We always tend to attribute our successes to our hard work and smart decisions, down-playing the elements of chance and opportunity. Looking at my own history of ups and downs, it is easy for me, now that things have turned out for the best, to think it must have been all my hard work, perseverance, and honesty of the past that allowed me to finally turn a lucky opportunity into a success story. In reality, however, there were so many factors completely beyond my control it could easily have turned into a complete disaster. In all humility I have to acknowledge that I have been incredibly fortunate and got to where I am now through “a series of fortunate events” I cannot honestly take credit for. Sure, once things turned for the better, I’m sure hard work, and perseverance helped to stay on course, but compared to just happening to be in the right place at the right times meeting the right people, my hard work was a minor part of my success at best.

I would love to say “I made it, because I deserve it”. That would definitely make me feel good about myself. But in all honesty, “I made it, because I was incredibly lucky” is a lot closer to the truth.

A Critical Examination of Democracy – What Do We Assume About It?

Democracy is a powerful concept that many of us are taught to believe in. But what exactly are we asked to put our faith in?

In a previous blog I called for a critical examination of modern democracy. Not because I don’t believe in democracy as an idea, but because I feel we have become complacent and much too accepting of a system that is far from perfect. Only a critical examination can help to uncover its flaws and – I hope – help us find ways to improve and strengthen the system.

One way to explore a human-designed system is to look at its underlying assumptions: the ideas implicit in the system itself or the way it is being presented. So here is a rather random list, in no particular order, of assumptions I believe are usually seen as part and parcel of most Western people’s perception of democracy. Since they are implied assumptions, they are mostly taken for granted, and seldom questioned. I am quite sure there are many more of such assumptions upholding our current system of government. But at least this is a start.

In a Democracy, people choose those individuals that can best govern the country for the next few years.

That is the whole point of democratic elections, isn’t it? So that the whole population has a change to critically look at the state of the country, make up their mind about the kind of government that would be best suited to deal with the current problems and challenges, and then carefully select the people they think are best suited to form that government.

The reality is, I suspect, far less rational and far less deliberate. Most people, it seems, do not actually vote for candidates because of their abilities, skills, or track-record in managing the country, but base their decisions on much more emotional grounds. They look at candidates and judge how well they like them, based on what they see them say and do in public. And that judgement of likability is necessarily skewed by the media, the careful orchestration of public appearances and press releases, and the kind of scandals candidates can unleash upon each other.

The problem is that this way of selecting likable candidates is hopelessly inadequate as a way of choosing a capable government. Since there is no direct way to interact with the candidates, or at least observe them in action when the spotlights are not on them, elections have turned into a popularity-driven media-circus. Public debates are not set up as a meaningful debate about issues, options, and arguments, but as shouting matches and point-scoring exercises, where no actual content needs to be discussed in any discernible depth. And instead of politicians being expected to be serious, well-meaning, and capable people, the system filters such people out in favor of the publicity-seeking, grand-standing, empty-gesturing, media-attention seekers the public seems to like. Which leaves us with people who may be able to secure enough votes to win an election, but have not much of any value to offer beyond that. In fact, the way many politicians behave in order to get elected would disqualify them for office would they be asked to undergo a standard job-selection process.

Candidates come from the people and govern for the people: they are themselves just normal citizens, with only a temporary mandate to govern. When their term is over they return to society as ordinary citizens

That may have been true once, but over time politicians have become a professional class, a group of people that chose politics as a career, not as a calling next to or after a normal career. While there are aspects of politics that require professional training to really understand and perform well in, the problem with having a class of professional politicians is that such people become closer to each other than to the people they are supposed to represent. Someone who has never worked a job other than politics has not been exposed to the kind of challenges life presents to most people. And the more politicians surround themselves with politicians, the harder it will be for them to even empathize with the very people they are meant to be spokesperson for. Instead of representing the people on whose behalf they are meant to govern, professional politicians are almost bound to represent themselves more than their voters, and have the interests of the political class closer at heart than that of the people.

Democracy is a transparent form of government: a government of the people by the people is free and willing to share their information, decisions, and actions with the people as a way for the people to stay informed and provide feedback and control over the actions of their elected government.

Whether is is because of the second assumption above, or because power craves more power, or because governments believe there is power in secrecy, whatever the reason, even the most democratic of governments end up hiding behind layers of secrecy and deception. And it is not just individuals trying to keep things secret. The bureaucratic system itself seems designed to obfuscate rather than clarify the true workings of government. And on top of that we seem to have entered an era in which fear has become such a constant narrative that our democratic governments have been allowed – one could almost say forced – to create more and deeper power structures, for the apparent purpose of keeping us safe from harm. But, and this is the catch, one cannot be safe and free at the same time. And the same goes for information: it’s either safe and secure, and therefore unavailable, or it is free and accessible, but not safe. Our governments by erring on the side of safety, are eroding the basic principles of transparency and accountability democracies need to maintain even the semblance of a government under control of its population, rather than the other way round.

Democracy is a balanced form of government: the extend of power bestowed on the elected government is limited by a body of law that is enforced by an independent policing power, and interpreted and overseen by an equally independent legal power.

This works well in theory, but how well does it work in practice? Only when those three forces are truly independent can they keep each other in check the way they are supposed to. In most modern democracies, however, there is a fourth force in play that is both much more pervasive and much harder to control than the other three: the power of commerce. We live in a commercial society, where business for business’ sake has become a rule unto itself. Because of this, in spite of the supposed delicate balance of the power triangle, commercial interests can overrule each and any of the other forces, rendering the checks-and-balances design obsolete and unworkable. Privatization of public services is one example: when public services become privatized they become largely removed from the kind of transparency and public scrutiny expected of public services. And because of this lack of transparency they are no longer kept in balance by the power triangle, nor can the public form an informed opinion about how well or badly these services fulfill the functions they are expected to.

Democracy in the hands of commercial interests

In a democracy every voice counts.

In a democracy everyone gets to vote so everyone has a voice to add to the total of voices that end up determining the government that gets chosen. In reality, however, since in a democracy only majority voices end up determining the chosen government, many minority voices get lost in the process, even those that represent better alternatives than those espoused by the majorities. More importantly, the whole democratic process must of necessity stay close to the majority consensus in its decision-making, prioritization, and social engineering. Voices that do not fit in with that consensus will not just be ignored, they will be actively shut down and persecuted since – it will be argued – they destabilize the social structure democracy itself relies on.

Of course not each and every dissenting voice should be acted on, but democracy – by limiting its perspectives to those that conform to the stable consensus – thereby limits its ability to read the signals and early warning signs of the sweeping changes happening around us. The majority concensus tends to downplay such signals or builds defensive arguments against them, trying to shut them down rather than considering how to act. This paralyzes a democratic society untill the signals get so loud they can no longer be ignored. By which time it may be too late to act.

I have been working on this blog for over two months now, and have just decided to stop here. There are many more assumptions I considered, but most of those seem variations on the 5 I describe here. Also, I think, several of those assumptions require much more thinking to figure out whether they are actual assumptions people have, or just flaws in the system most people acknowledge but choose to accept as inevitable.

And completeness wasn’t my goal here.

I just want to show that we must remain vigilant and keep questioning the systems we have created to organize our society. Not because they are necessarily wrong and need to be torn down – even if they are not perfect – but because unquestioning acceptance leads to a societal blindness that can lead us to move in a direction none of us want, but none of us tries to stop either.

Figure and Ground: A Problem With Identity

We tend to define our identity as much by who we are not as by who we are. But can you ever know yourself by always looking at others?

Figure and Ground: Are You Looking at Me?
Figure and Ground: Are You Looking at Me?

Without others to compare ourselves to, most people find it hard to define their own identity. It seems that we need others to become coherent as ourselves. Comparing ourselves to others, however, has huge drawbacks. It creates artificial separations – dividing lines that do not actually exist – between groups of people that prevent them from interacting freely and justly.

The ‘us vs. them’ effect is especially strong in cultural identity. And as soon as a group comes under pressure (even perceived pressure) our cultural defense mechanisms create emotional reactions that directly trigger very basic instinctual reactions such as fear, disgust, anger, and hate.

Setting ourselves off from others not just leads to separation, but also to a perception of superiority and stratification between groups. Everyone seems to believe their own group – for no other reason that it’s their group – must be superior to any other group. No actual evidence is needed to support this belief. Experiments have shown that simply by giving people randomly assigned markers (such as colored armbands, or different t-shirts) people will tend to segregate and start feeling there is something unique and superior about the group they are part of.

Since comparisons are never complete they can be very selective and dangerously so. People can always find ways of filtering out some of the other group’s strengths and amplifying some of their weaknesses to justify their own group’s superiority.

In addition to creating an unwarranted – but emotionally very satisfying – sense of superiority over ‘other’ people, this also makes us blind to our own true nature: our own strengths and weaknesses, functions and dysfunctions alike. By drawing conclusions about ourselves based on incomplete and twisted comparisons with others we do not actually learn much about ourselves. Even when we try to be unbiased and fair, we don’t learn as much about ourselves by comparing us to others as we would by looking in the mirror and honestly examining ourselves.

Only when we stop measuring ourself against others, and come to accept ourself for who we are – at the same time accepting others for who they are – may we hope to peel away our blinders, rid ourselves of reality distorting filters and dial-down our biases and preconceptions.

A Critical Examination of Democracy

We are often told that democracy may not be perfect, but it is the least undesirable of the types of government we know. But is that really true?

I was born in post World War II Western Europe. As a child I was often told to be grateful for that. Not only had I (just) missed the world’s largest global conflict in human history, but I had the incredible good fortune, so I was reminded frequently, to live in a democratic country – the best kind of country to live in. This was often contrasted with all the non-democratic countries (primarily the Communist countries of that time, or the fascist tyrannies of the recent past) I could have lived in, to stress the fact that I was living in a place that was as close to Paradise on Earth as human design could make it. Sure, it wasn’t perfect – after all, humans aren’t perfect, and compromises always have to be made – but it was close. Very close.

As I grew up I had very little reason not to believe this view of democracy. After all, there were plenty of examples of the alternatives, and none of them looked even half as good as my own democratic corner of the word. We had freedom of speech, proper education, proper healthcare, social security, our politicians were chosen by the public and were held accountable by that public, we had law and order without unnecessary police brutality, we had a growing economy, … all things that were in short supply or lacking completely in any of the non-democratic countries elsewhere in the world or in the past.

Over the years, however, I have begun to doubt modern democracy’s claim to superiority. Is today’s parliamentary democracy really as beneficial and functional as is claimed? And is it really the best system we can come up with?

Shouldn’t we remain critical, and keep looking for signs of disfunction, of things not working properly, for systems and structures that are, or have become, less beneficial to the general population than they are said to be? And shouldn’t we keep trying to come up with even better ways to govern the people on this planet? How can we claim with such surety that this is the best we can do, when so much has changed and is still changing:

  • the world population has grown dramatically;
  • humanity’s impact on the global climate is spiraling out of control;
  • technology is rapidly creating a truly global community, on top of an already global economy;
  • we have more data about anything than ever before, and more power to process that data and interpret it;
  • we have made great progress in our understanding of the attributes and behaviors of massively complex systems, such as economies, populations, and eco-systems.
The Complexity of Our Changing World - Old versus New, East versus West, Nature versus Humanity
The Complexity of Our Changing World – Old versus New, East versus West, Nature versus Humanity

But our politicians are still bickering about the same topics, and proposing the same (or very similar) short-term, local, overly simplified ‘solutions’ to problems that do not even come close to touching the real issues affecting our future. And they do so because that’s what they need to survive in the system we call democracy. It seems to me our current democratic system is encouraging all the wrong behaviors, and pushing all the wrong people into leadership positions. Even if the democratic system was as good as it was claimed to be 50 years ago, shouldn’t we at least consider the possibility that the changing conditions of the world we live in make it necessary to critically examine the system and see if we can improve it where it falls short?

Why Is It So Hard to Change Our Beliefs?

Throughout history human beings have believed in many strange and wonderfully complex things, from spirits and demons, to gods and goddesses, to worldwide conspiracy theories and little green men. Over that time our beliefs have changed many times, but our resistance to changing them seems as strong as ever.

The capacity and need for human beings to believe in things other than what they can experience directly is universal. We all do it. Even those that have turned away from believing in supernatural beings or otherworldly forces believe in abstract ideas such as truth and justice, imaginary concepts such as nations and markets, and narrative fictions such as history and political theories. We seem to emotionally recoil from the idea of living in a meaningless world, in which our existence is but an accident, where everything happens at random, and we are completely insignificant in the grand (or even daily) scheme of things. Instead we have this drive – call it an instinct – to make sense of the world. We categorize and structure the phenomena that surround us. We see patterns even in random configurations and evidence of planning and design in series of unrelated accidents. We see evidence of agency and intelligence even where nature may just mindlessly move of its own accord.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Enlightenment peeking through the chaos – Bard Papegaaij

It’s not that we are consciously making these things up; our minds need to see patterns, significance, and meaning and will do so fully automatically, on a subconscious level. By the time we become consciously aware of anything, our minds have already had plenty of time to overlay the raw data of our senses with layers of interpretation. We seldom, if ever, observe anything as it actually is; we always observe it in its narrative context – its meaning in relation to what we believe about the world.

And we have been astoundingly creative in the narratives we created and then ended up believing in. The variations we have come up with are endless: from millions of named deities to a single unnamable one; from simple spirits animating every single object on Earth, to complex hierarchies of celestial beings; from human-like creature with all our strengths and weaknesses, to fundamentally opposing forces of good and evil.

With such a wide range of things and concepts to believe in one could be excused for expecting people to be quite relaxed about changing their beliefs from time to time. If all we want is a narrative that conveniently explains and structures the world around us, one narrative would be as good as another, as long as it is internally consistent, and provides a satisfactory mix of explanation, meaning, and human significance.

Nothing seems further from the truth, however. Instead of treating our narratives as approximations of the truth – one of many alternative explanations with varying degrees of intellectual and emotional appeal – we seem to want to latch on to a single narrative and convince ourselves it is the only truthful one.

It’s not that hard to see why our minds prefer a single narrative. By creating a plausible – or at least internally consistent – story about the world around us we simplify things enormously. We can ignore things that don’t fit into the narrative. We can base our behaviors on the rules and instructions contained (explicitly or implicitly) in the story. And we can quickly judge people and situations by those rules, without having to do any detailed observations and analysis, since we assume that everything we need to know has been captured in the narrative already. Instead of confusing ourselves with many possible explanations we we only have to deal with one. That certainly makes life easier.

But that doesn’t explain why we find it so hard to replace one belief with another, or adjust our narrative from time to time. Is the need to keep life simple reason enough to often violently resist against even minor changes to the narratives we have adopted? Or are there other drives at play here?

Looking at the amounts of energy, passion, and even violence people bring to defending their adopted beliefs, there must be more at stake here than just an easier life. Such energy and passion must stem from something fundamental being touched and threatened, fundamental enough to trigger an extreme fight/flight response, which is usually connected to things directly related to our immediate survival. But beliefs are not reality, they exist solely in our mind. So how can threatening someone’s belief trigger such survival-based reactions?

At the core of our defensiveness towards our beliefs there seems to be the strong connection between our sense of personal safety and what we belief in1. Threaten to take away our core beliefs and we react as if you are threatening our very existence. The question then is: what is it about beliefs that makes us feel safe?

The answer lies, I believe, in the concept of identity and how we construct, maintain, and relate to that. Human beings are intensely social creatures. We owe our existence to our ability to cooperate with other humans, and our success as a species to our ability to do so on a very large scale and with a combination of complexity and flexibility no other species seems to have mastered. We are born with a very strong instinct to connect to the people around us and bond deeply with them. Just look at a baby’s ability to recognize voices and faces, and young children’s constant need to reach out to others, involve them in their games, mimic and respond to their actions. Obviously, from a pure survival perspective, our long, comparatively helpless childhood necessitates an innate ability to build deep social bonds with those we depend on for our survival.

We are not just ‘managing’ our relationships with others, however, we actually define ourselves in the process. We are so tuned to the others in our social circle – their behaviors, their needs, their emotions – that we adapt to them and adjust our own behaviours, needs, and emotions in return. We become socialized: we subconsciously develop personae that enable us to fit in and function as members of the social circles we rely upon for our survival and internalize those personae as part of what we call our identity, our sense of self.

Our identity is not an independent ‘given’, but an adaptive, evolving response to the social pressures and influences surrounding us.

The socialized personae of the self - Bard Papegaaij
The socialized personae of the self – Bard Papegaaij

Since human beings never ‘just’ settle for behaviors, but have this strong instinct to embed everything in explanatory narratives, our socialized self, too, becomes embedded in layers of narrative. We internalize the stories others tell about us, we create stories that explain our personae to ourselves and to others: on top of our socialized self we create a narrated self. That narrated self, like all the other narratives we create, helps us simplify the complexity of our own behaviours, especially when we engage in self-reflection. It creates a sense of wholeness and consistency, which has been found by psychologists to be extremely important to our sense of stability and control: we have a strong dislike of internal inconsistencies and will perform all kinds of psychological ‘tricks’ to retell our narrated self in a way that maintains or restores a consistent self-image2.

Our narrated self is the complex set of narratives we create to explain our own behaviors and emotions to ourselves and others.

The self as a narrative construct - Bard Papegaaij
The self as a narrative construct – Bard Papegaaij

The building blocks of our narrated self are beliefs and assumptions: conceptual constructs that provide simple, consistent explanations of the immensely complex reality the narrative tries to capture. And because of our strong social nature, most of those beliefs and assumptions will come from the important others in our closest social circles. Our deep need to fit in and belong drives us to construct a narrated self that closely matches the narrated selfs of those around us, incorporating their beliefs and assumptions, and making them our own so we become, if not the same, at least very similar in their eyes as well as our own.

We must realize beliefs and assumptions are not just theories about the world and ourselves, they are the very building blocks we use to create our narrated self and our place in our social environment. Our beliefs both explain and shape our sense of identity. They provide the foundations that support the stories we use to explain our own actions to ourselves. They tie us to into our social circles by weaving a tight fabric of shared beliefs and assumptions that are shared by people that are ‘like’ us, and not shared by ‘them’: the anonymous others that are not part of our social circles. For most people their narrated self becomes the entire reality of their existence, of their identity as both an individual and as a member of the social circles they belong to.

Our beliefs become the building blocks of our narrated self, and our narrated self becomes the only visible proof of our existence.

The selves emerging on all levels of consciousness - Bard Papegaaij
The selves emerging on all levels of consciousness – Bard Papegaaij

And this may explain why it is so hard for us to let of go of things we belief in. Changing a belief or an assumption very often invalidates one or more building blocks of our narrated self. It disrupts the continuity and consistency of our self-image, and in the same process it can thereby unhinge the delicate fabric of shared beliefs that ties us into the social circles we feel we belong to. Even dislodging a single belief can threaten to unravel the narratives we rely on to explain our existence. Trying to fit in evidence that contradicts what we believe in can feel like breaking up the very foundation of our narrative self. And adopting beliefs that differ from those around us can feel like irreparably cutting loose the ties that bind us to others, and them to us.

For a social, narrative being like us humans, changing even a single belief involves much more than just admitting we had it wrong. It can feel like the end of the relationships we relied on to survive. And it can feel like the end of the self we so carefully built-up over time, and relied on to feel like a single, consistent, coherent human being. Is it any wonder then that most people choose to ignore the evidence rather than to adjust their belief system? And that most people, when pressured to give up their beliefs react fiercely, at times violently, against the ones that pressure them, rather than simply weighing alternatives and rationally choosing a new point of view?

Remember this, please, the next time you try to convince someone they have it all wrong. Don’t expect your clear and incontrovertible evidence to immediately make them see your point of view. Don’t judge them, scorn them, or make fun of their backward beliefs and outdated assumptions. In all likelihood you yourself have quite a few of such backward and outdated ideas in your own belief system you wouldn’t want to let go of if you were put under pressure. And maybe the very belief you’re trying to get someone else to accept from you is one of them.

  1. Most likely there are a number of factors at play here. Humans are complex creatures, and simple explanations seldom do justice to the full range of variables influencing our behavior. I do not claim to have a complete theory on this topic, just a ‘working theory’ at the moment, that goes some way towards explaining our observable behaviours around beliefs and belief-systems.
  2. Interesting enough, there may not actually be a single, consistent self anywhere in the human brain: current thinking seems to lean towards the idea that what we perceive as our ‘self’ is actually a complex, largely retrospective, phenomenon, emerging from the interaction from a myriad of semi-independent processes in the brain. Even though we think we are someone, there may not actually be anyone in control.

The Power of Symbols: A Story of Dragons and Phoenixes

Symbolic images are deceptively simple but incredibly powerful, each image containing whole worlds of stories, mythologies, cultural learning, and racial memories.

Several years ago, when I was regularly discussing the idea of writing a book with my dear friend Al Sheehan, the conversation veered to finding an appropriate title for our work in progress. Though my ideas have progressed considerably since those days, the central theme is still intact: the idea that our global society is on a dangerous course of self-destruction, fueled by greed, fear, and a mistaken belief in the superiority of modern humans over anything that existed in the past. Looking for a good way to capture the ideas of greed, fear, and superiority Al and I stumbled on the image of the dragon.

In Western mythology the dragon is an evil creature. It is huge, very often virtually invincible (unless you know its one weak spot), and uses the fire it breathes as a terrible weapon of destruction. Its sole purpose in life seems to be the hoarding of treasures (and occasionally stealing or seducing a virgin, though nobody is quite sure what for), which it will then guard jealously against anyone attempting to steal even a single coin or jewel. And when its anger is roused it does not hesitate to lay waste to entire cities and their surrounding lands, just because it can.

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I thought this Western dragon was the perfect symbol for the current economic industrial system dominating most (if not all) of the world today. This system, too, seems obsessed with collecting and hoarding treasures at the expense of anyone daring to cross it. It guards its treasures jealously against anything it perceives as a threat, and doesn’t hesitate to use its superior fire-power to destroy its attackers (real or imagined) along with anyone that had the misfortune to be near. The image of a dragon lying on top of an incredible amount of gold, jewels, and artifacts, surrounded by smoking ruins and a blackened, utterly destroyed landscape as far as the eye can see, is – to me at least – very close to the way modern industrial society is destroying the planet for the sake of creating wealth and treasures it doesn’t even know what to do with.

Once the symbol of the dragon was firmly established, the symbol of its opposite announced itself almost straight away. There is another fire wielding animal in the mythical realm, but this one uses fire not as a weapon, but as a means of regeneration and renewal. The phoenix is, in many traditions, a long-lived, gentle, noble bird that harms no-one, brings good fortune to many, and – when it feels it is reaching the end of its natural life – builds a funeral pyre for itself, commits itself to the fire, and rises out of the ashes fully rejuvenated, ready for another long, peaceful and fruitful life. What better symbol to put against the dragon’s utterly selfish and destructive use of fire than the benign, peaceful, and self-sacrificing phoenix, using fire as a transformative, rather than destructive power?

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So, there I was, perfectly happy to have found a nice juxtaposition of two powerful and well-known symbols from Western mythology. And it made an interesting sounding title, too: The Dragon and The Phoenix – evoking, perhaps, a battle between opposing principles, a clash of ideas, or perhaps simply two very different creatures encountering each other. The nice thing about symbols is, of course, that everyone is perfectly free to make up their own mind about their true meaning, based on their personal knowledge of and experience with these symbols in their life.

And then, about a year later, I happened to visit Hong Kong and mainland China. That visit made me remember something I had known but apparently mostly forgotten, that the Chinese, too, have dragons in their mythology, but that, contrary to ours, their dragons are mostly benign, and considered to be powerful protectors of humanity. Intrigued by this different view of the dragons’ nature I began looking for dragon imagery in art stores and antique shops, hoping that maybe I could find a nice image for the cover of the book. It was when browsing through images and carvings of all kinds of mythical creatures I made an unexpected discovery: not only does Chinese mythology have benign dragons, they have an equally benign phoenix, too, and the two are often portrayed as lovers! That’s right, in Chinese mythology the dragon and the phoenix are happily married together, as a symbol for the harmonic balance between the masculine (dragon) and feminine (phoenix) elements of the world. In this imagery they may be juxtaposed, but not as alternatives to each other, or as enemies, but as necessary counterparts, complementary principles that only form a whole when brought together in harmony and balance.

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I couldn’t be more happy with this discovery. I always liked the juxtaposition of the destructive dragon to the transformative phoenix, but the way I pictured it, the two were engaged in a battle where only one could win. I was on the side of the phoenix, obviously, since I feel our dragon-mentality is causing more damage than benefit. But the idea that it would have to be either/or, either the dragon or the phoenix rising to the top, did not completely satisfy me. I actually like the Chinese marriage of the dragon and the phoenix a lot better. Instead of a battle, we now have a balancing of complementary forces; a harmonic resolution, instead of a violent conflict. It brings together dark and light, destruction and transformation, East and West, masculine and feminine, …

With the Chinese overtones added to the symbology, I feel the title of the book/blog has become even more appropriate to my quest: to find a positive resolution of the destructive path we are currently on. Which brings me back to the power of symbols: the dragon and the phoenix came to me through my link to Western mythology, and that gave them meaning; by adding the rich tapestry of Eastern mythology the same symbols now reveal even greater depths of wisdom and understanding than I was even aware of. It’s like alchemy: making gold out of ordinary materials. Without destroying the world to do so.

The Narratives That Shape Our World

We are not just experiencing the world but constantly interpreting it as we go.

Pure experience is the immersion in whatever presents itself, without interpretation, categorization, expectation. Narration is taking what we experience and giving it meaning by giving it a place in relation to the pre-existing structures in our mind.

Because we seldom, if ever, stop our internal monologue when we interact with the world, what we tend to call ‘experience’ is not the experience itself, but the narrated version of it. By the time we become aware of what is going on our ‘experience’ has already been shaped by our expectations, categorized, structured, interpreted, classified, …

Since the act of narration is strictly sequential, and limited to what can be fitted into our mental structures and frameworks, it is by necessity a diminished version of the total experience presenting itself to us. It presents things in sequence that may well have occurred in parallel, or in a different order, or non-consecutively; it leaves out things that do not fit the pre-existing structures, or misrepresents them so they do fit in. This constant narrative provides us with an ordered version of the Universe we live in. It soothes us by giving us a feeling of having some control: we feel we understand events, or at least their causality and sequencing; we feel we can reasonably predict events based on what has gone before; we feel we can control future events by modifying our actions based on our understanding.

To be fair, for many aspects of our daily reality this feeling is not without merit. Many aspects of our daily lives are structured enough to be somewhat understandable, predictable, and malleable. This is especially true for the social aspects of our lives, which are shaped by the collective narratives we all take part in.

But it is bound to fail for the more complex aspects; the chaotic, unbounded, unstructured, unclassified larger reality we only experience the filtered version of.

This leads me to the central thesis this blog revolves around: that our society is almost completely a narrated reality: a fictionalized and heavily filtered version of the reality that exists outside our socialized minds. If that is true it follows that our society can be changed quite simply by changing the collective narrative that keeps it going. Change the story, change history. It’s that simple.

But is it?

The problem with the collective narrative we call society is that it is very resilient and resistant to deliberate change. Sure, it is constantly evolving, adapting to forces both inside and outside its narrative construct. But it seems to do so on its own accord, without deliberate intervention from us humans, happily or unhappily living inside the construct and adapting our interpretation of the world as the narrative dictates. Even people that rebel against the prevailing narrative seem bound to do so using the same structures and frameworks as the narrative they are rebelling against. One could even say that by fighting it they give it credence, and demonstrate they perceive it as real. Real enough to fight against. After all, no one would fight an imaginary dragon, would they?

The societal narrative is both real and fictional, it seems. Fictional in that it consists only in the collective minds of the people taking part; it is a ‘mind-construct’, a fictionalized narrative constructed by all of us to make sense of the world around us, and to provide the mechanisms and controls we seem to need to cohere together as a society. Real in that this narrative has deep, wide, far-reaching consequences for the world we live in. By shaping our behaviors, expectations, and dreams; by informing our understanding of the world; by directing our attention and energy; by limiting and guiding our decision-making; our collective narrative makes us shape a physical reality that matches (as closely as possible) the fictional one. Not consciously, but by the simple fact that the fiction is the framework that informs, shapes, and drives our thoughts and actions.

I believe that the wider the gap is between the collective fiction and the physical reality it lives in, the more friction there will be in our efforts to shape the physical reality to our imagined one. That friction – as all friction does – generates resistance, heat, and debris. Resistance as a measure of how much energy is needed to effect the change or maintain its momentum. Heat as a measure of discomfort, dissatisfaction, unrest caused by our sub-conscious sense that things are not quite as they should be. Debris as a measure of the fall-out of our failure to line both realities up perfectly to each other: the people losing out; the inequality of opportunity and access; the disenfranchised; the discriminated; the exiled….

By this measure, it seems to me, we are not doing so well right now. Looking at the damage we are doing to the environment, the rising inequality, the fragmentation and polarisation we see across the globe, I personally feel our collective narrative has drifted quite far from what it should be. In my darker moments I cannot help but think we have created a collective nightmare we find almost impossible to wake up from.

I will not suggest that humankind should stop its narrative process. It is quite likely impossible for us to do so: it’s the very mechanism we use to be able to cope with the world we live in. But I will argue it is high time we examine this collective narrative we have developed over the past centuries and try, together, deliberately, and consciously to push it in a new direction. Looking at the state of the world, our story has always been a mixed bag: some had it good, some had it bad; wars were waged, peace was made and maintained; civilizations came and went. But on the whole the fallout caused by our fictional mismatches with physical reality was local in character and effect. Even when it wiped out whole civilizations, none of those civilizations covered more than a small part of our planet, leaving the rest of the planet unaffected or resilient enough to absorb the fallout and move on.

Now, for the first time in known human history (for if it did happen before and failed, we would not possibly know about it) we have created a truly global society, with a collective narrative that connects and binds us all. This narrative has brought us astounding technical progress, unimaginable wealth, and an avalanche of scientific discovery. But at the same time it is degrading our physical reality at an accelerating pace. Our planet cannot absorb this level of fallout, this level of mismatch between what we believe and what those believes make us do to our environment. If we do not find a new narrative soon, it will be the end of our existence: the planet will not be able to sustain us, and we will disappear like so many civilizations before us. Only this time it will be a global affair, quite possibly wiping humanity out altogether, or reducing us to a state more primitive than we’ve been in for a long, long, time. It may even be disastrous enough to threaten life on the planet as a whole – we seem to have that power.

So, let’s stop this juggernaut from crushing the world around us. Change the narrative that drives it. Find a new fiction. A fiction that takes all that we have learned, experienced, witnessed and incorporates it into new structures and frameworks to guide our future actions. Let’s find a story that leads to a new balance between us and the physical reality we live in. Let’s do it now, before one will be forced upon us or all possibility to have a collective fiction will be taken from us.