Hierarchy

We are not born with a “tabula rasa,” rather we arrive pre-wired with a number of emotionally based systems and circuits. Mental circuits do not require previous learning, but they do provide the basis for learning to occur. These instinctual systems begin immediately to interact with our experiences and the context of our lives, so that it becomes very difficult to tease apart nature from nurture. These “emotional operating systems” lurk behind the scenes of our conscious experience both shaping and being shaped by it.

Wolves.dominanceOne such system that emerges in social animals is an instinct for social status which results in dominance hierarchies. Hierarchies evolved to help groups develop a more stable and less conflictual way to regulate access to resources. How these hierarchies are organized vary between and within species. Hierarchies allow for a resolution of conflict that does not lead to serious injury. Game theory and computer stimulation analyses have demonstrated that this “limited war” strategy benefits individual animals as well as the species.

All human societies appear to have hierarchies, ascribed systems tend to be very rigid (e.g., caste, class, or rank-based systems), while achievement-based systems allow for more flexibility (egalitarian systems). They develop everywhere, and blossom even when groups try to mitigate their development. The founding fathers declared their independence from an ascribed hierarchy…

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

 …then developed a system that excluded other races and genders from sharing power.

Our mental circuits lead us to feel status, even when it is not made explicit. We seem to have hard-wired “social status detectors.” Human imaging studies at the National Institute of Mental Health have identified brain circuitry associated with social status. When a person moves up or down the pecking order or merely perceives social superiors or inferiors, distinct brain areas are activated. Feeling inferior activates brain regions associated with emotional pain, while rising in status feels pleasurable and is associated with improved mental and physical health. Rising in status comes with a price; the more we stand to lose, the higher our stress levels…the higher we fly, the further we can fall.

Given that we have inherited a social rank system from our ancestors that natural selection kept around to make our survival more likely, it is unlikely that we could eliminate hierarchies in society. They dwell in our subconscious mind and leak out when we try to eradicate them. As a result, human history is a long-running experiment testing many types of organizations and power structures. These have led to our greatest achievements and our most horrific crimes against humanity. Power feels good, and those with it do not want to lose it; the powerful want more power and will go to great extremes to hold it and increase it.

This inherited pleasure and pain based mental system, that once served to help small family and tribal groups live together harmoniously, now influences the fate of more than seven billion people and every other living organism on the planet. Life is no longer harmonious, and the planet’s homeostasis seems to be out of balance, perhaps it is time to make this implicit mental circuit’s role more explicit. The human experiment involves adding reason to our emotional nature, hopefully we can discover a way to sustainably and compassionately organize ourselves for the good of all life on Earth.

Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.

— Thomas Jefferson


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Hot Potato

open-mind-for-a-new-world-paulo-zerbatoI construct my world. My selective sensory input percolates through my unique brain wiring which has been shaped by my experiential mélange. Even the events I have shared with others are singularly mine. This constructed world appears to me so instantaneously, so automatically that I find it almost unfathomable that billions of worlds are simultaneously appearing to other perspectives. I interact with these other perspectives daily, encounters that hold the potential to transform my constructed world. Most of the time, I resist transformation by clinging tightly to my world and viewing my experience in such a way that my world is validated anew. This is easily accomplished when others corroborate my perspective. Group consensus authenticates the “realness” of my world. Those that fall outside my chosen consensus, my tribe, can be easily stigmatized and perhaps ostracized.

My challenge is conflicting with those in my tribe, those I love and whom I generally agree with. My reflex is to regard them as wrong. While this feels true, it seems to exacerbate the conflict because they seem to have the same reflex. They think that I am wrong when I think that they are wrong. It seems that no one appreciates being told they are wrong or bad. Being wrong challenges the world we have constructed and it has the potential of wreaking havoc to its foundation and maintenance. The coherence of our world is essential to our stability, so our world must be defended. Blame is a weapon, Fortress on a hilland most of us keep it readily accessible. Blaming others removes the stench of wrongness or badness and allows us to feel virtuous, perhaps even superior. Superiority feels safer, like a fortress on a hill which keeps threats below us. It preserves our constructed world, it helps us feel stable. However, no one seems to appreciate being blamed, thus, a hot potato game of blame ensues — escalation in the war of righteousness.

Some part of me understands this conundrum, can observe its carnage and wants to escape the push and pull of blame, criticism, defense and avoidance. While it is easy to see that those who disagree with me live in subjective and very biased worlds, this part understands that my experience in life is equally subjective. It takes a lot of work and practice to act on this understanding. This work feels worthwhile. Since no one wants to hold the hot potato of blame, it is relieving that there is an alternative to tossing it to someone else. This hot potato can be abandoned in most conflicts. I can be upset without the other person having to be wrong, bad or even at fault. The negative impact of another’s actions, does not imply negative intent — correlation does not imply causation. This is a very hard lesson for a mind programmed for debate, though it can learn to dialogue. As I learn to escape the blame-game, conflict is more easily and more successfully resolved, but escaping this game will take significant practice.

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” — Robert J. Hanlon


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

 

Status

58949722 / State Opening of ParliamentFrom the schoolyards to the networking events to the red carpet, it is intuitively felt. As a social species, humans are highly attuned to social status; one might say that we have a built in “status detector.” Natural selection has rewarded individuals having higher status with better access to mates and food and subsequently more offspring, along with other benefits that improve quality of life. Research suggests that our brain chemistry and subsequently our emotions, mood and behavior are heavily impacted by our position in the social hierarchy.

“Serotonin levels are not innate and inflexible. They are themselves the product of social status. The higher your self-esteem and social rank relative to those around you, the higher your serotonin level is…. There is little doubt that the monkey’s mood is set by its high serotonin levels. If you artificially reverse the pecking order so the monkey is now a subordinate, not only does its serotonin drop, but its behavior changes, too. Moreover, much the same seems to happen in human beings.” — Matt Ridley

Lance Armstrong Tour De FranceHumans ascribe status in many different ways, but these typically come through two basic pathways: gained through achievement or assigned in some way based on aspects such as sex, age or physical characteristics or through background such as lance-armstrongone’s ethnic group or family. Societies can differ on which types of status they emphasize and how rigid the boundaries are between the layers. Status systems create a hierarchy within society that provides those at the top more power and privilege. One might say that these entrenched ways of assigning status create a strong current that can make it difficult and at times impossible to contravene. Within these systems, there are frequently crosscurrents, when various categories of status intersect (for example, women high in social status before women’s suffrage). And, just as status can be gained or assigned, it can be lost or forfeited.

The concept of fraternization occurs when someone within a given status system engages in social relations with people from a different strata as though they were siblings, personal friends or lovers. The resulting impact of these systems is to effect inequality, which leads many institutions and societies to enforce strong prohibitions against fraternizing. This flows from the recognition that intimate relationships work best between peers. Unequal power can distort romantic relationships and create conditions of imbalance that may lead to unresolvable conflict. So, although it is based on a perceived place in the hierarchy, it has dramatic results and impacts our emotions, mood, even physiology and behavior, which one can clearly see in the conduct of winners (arms and chest held aloft) and losers (shoulders and head lowered). Feelings of contempt towards others reflect a perceived higher status, while feelings of resentment reflect perceived lower status. Those above judge and criticize, while those below defend. Aggression comes from a place of power, while passive-aggressive or terroristic behaviors spring from perceived lower status.

Status emerges in human relationships from deep within our subconscious minds, often catching us unaware. It is often reified in institutions and in society as a whole, even considered to be imbued by nature or divinity. Resistance to this idea has been germinating for years challenging nature’s push and society’s hold. There is growing concern about the levels of inequality in the distribution of wealth and resources. We almost universally find it humorous when the pompous are brought down, and some say this is the essence of much of our humor. We are also keenly aware of hypocrisy, especially of those in places of power and prestige. If we notice this force in our lives, and notice that it is based on perception, then we can more consciously consider what role we want it to actually play in our lives and relationships. Significant healing can be achieved when the lowly are lifted up and the playing field starts to level. Given our propensity towards ascribing status, perhaps with greater consciousness, healthier systems of status might emerge which draw out the best in us rather than our baser instincts.

“Human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse.” — Robert Wright


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Contempt

“Nothing living should ever be treated with contempt. Whatever it is that lives, a man, a tree, or a bird, should be touched gently, because the time is short. Civilization is another word for respect for life.” — Elizabeth Goudge

Four horsemen

Relationship researcher, John Gottman, has identified four maladaptive emotional reactions that are so toxic for relationships that he has used an end times metaphor from the Book of Revelation to describe them. Gottman’s four horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling) often occur in a negative cascade between partners and represent increasingly severe complementary adverse behavior. While each of these behaviors is destructive, Gottman’s research has identified contempt as the single greatest predictor of divorce. Contempt often becomes mutual and this generally foretells the end times of the relationship, or at a minimum, years of misery.

Robert Solomon, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas, distinguished the three emotions, resentment, anger and contempt from one another based on whether the object of the emotion was deemed to be of higher, equal or lower status. When you have contempt toward another, you are judging the other as beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn, which simultaneously places you in the superior position of a judge. Interestingly, judges preside “over” and sit “above” the courtroom, and violation or disrespect of the court proceedings can lead to a charge of contempt.

The emotion of contempt combines the primary emotions of anger and disgust; thus, one might say that the person feeling contempt, likely feels threatened by someone for whom they feel revulsion. One can see the insidious, damaging impact this emotion has on a relationship; contempt is a cold, condemnation of being an object of disgust, which communicates to the condemned that they should remove themselves from the presence of their superior. This is precisely what happens.

When contempt transpires within couples and families the impact is particularly devastating. To be judged as disgusting by those from whom you most crave acceptance cuts the deepest wounds where we are most vulnerable.  Tragically, children will inevitably align with their parents’ opinion and feel self-contempt, which can lead to a lifetime of highly critical internal dialogue. The devaluing impact of contempt is so painful that many will try to fight off its sting through defensiveness, withdrawal or by developing an impenetrable emotional barrier.

The emotion of disgust, which is part of the contempt formula, evolved to protect us from disease and became part of our behavioral immune system. As it started being applied to people, usually those who carried disease, it became a more established part of our emotional repertoire and was applied to foreigners or nonconformists. In today’s interconnected world we find ourselves drowning in a sea of contempt. Contempt is modeled daily by our leaders, leaders-to-be and the pundits who analyze them. Society’s disadvantaged feel it the most.

We fall into contempt far too easily, and it seems that we have lost sight of its calamitous repercussions. If only we could maintain a sense of shared humanity and keep the playing field level; then we might be able to experience our anger and upset without having to degrade the other person’s dignity. This takes humility, a natural antidote to contempt. Humility is aided through recognition of our subjectivity and drawing upon compassion, both of which will require some reprogramming of our natural tendencies. Our eyes point outwards and we mistake our perceptions for objective truth. Perhaps, we could come off our high horse and remember that there is always more to the other than what we experience.

“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying looking at the surface of the ocean itself, except that when you finally see what goes on underwater, you realize that you’ve been missing the whole point of the ocean. Staying on the surface all the time is like going to the circus and staring at the outside of the tent.”
― Dave Barry


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

 

Reality

Virtual Reaility“Reality” is a term frequently used, yet it may be poorly understood and unhelpful. As a concept, it represents that which exists independent of mind. In using the term I think we are trying to make a distinction between that which is objective, observable and measurable from that which is subjective, hidden and unmeasurable. Common sense suggests that we can easily make this distinction. The “real” is valued, seen as superior and is equated with truth. Our language suggests that something which is not real is subordinate, counterfeit or fictitious. If someone is out of touch with reality, then they are considered insane.

It is quite difficult to communicate or carry on a relationship with someone who does not see reality as we do. Communication depends upon finding some common ground. Relationships and societies are built around shared perspectives. The concept of reality is explicitly or implicitly at the center of almost all interpersonal conflict whether at the micro or macro level. From marital conflict to disputes between global powers, disagreement about “truth” and “reality” are at the core. As individuals, we crave understanding and empathy from others in part because we want our view of reality validated. When others do not see life as we do, we start to feel isolated, alone and somewhat crazy. This activates our innate stress responses of “fight or flight.” Globally this can lead to terrorism, war and a host of other crises. Interpersonally, it can lead to ongoing conflict, fighting, divorce and alienation.

If reality is “really” out there and it feels so real, why do we have such a difficult time seeing it the same way? That it actually exists can be disputed, and because it can be called into question, it makes me think that reality is not a very helpful concept. Physicists and other scientists strive to identify the fundamentals of matter, which for most of us are at the heart of what is real. Unfortunately, the closer they look, the more bizarre it appears to be. Social scientists increasingly understand the impact of gender, culture, language and personal experience on our worldview.

Since language influences our perception and our thinking, we might look for ways to get away from using terms like reality. If we can achieve this, the need for common ground will be no less important, but the way we think about that common ground will need to change. I suggest this shift will highlight subjectivity and move away from concepts such as reality towards terms such as empirical and intersubjective. The former term already involves the latter. Since the scientific method involves observation and measurement along with peer review it already incorporates and tries to account for the impact of the subjective. With science, observations can be confirmed and validated but an awareness of error remains.

The more our vernacular can incorporate the impact our biology, experience and who knows what else has on our perception, the easier this change can be achieved. While this transformation can happen quickly at the individual level, there is evidence it is gradually transpiring at the global level.

Moving away from reality, in this sense, is not insane. It begins to level the playing field among Earth’s creatures. It moves us away from leaders who claim to know the truth and want to define it for the rest of us. It moves us away from shame and judgment. This moves us towards dialogue. This moves us towards consensus and cooperation. This moves us toward peace.

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.
— Nelson Mandela


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Life is a game

Game: a competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules, usually for their own amusement or for that of spectators.

Board-Game-LifeIt could be that life is a game. You are assigned a player; you get an avatar and you are placed on the board. The player you are assigned seeming to make a big difference in this game, as does the appearance of your avatar and where you happen to be placed on the board. Some players seem to start with many more advantages, while many others seem to have been significantly handicapped. These handicaps can dramatically effect the results of a player’s game and there are locations on the board that can make staying in the game very challenging.

Games involve rules, but in this game you do not know the rules in advance. You pick them up as you play or the game ends. You absorb most of the rules without even realizing it. Other players, especially those closest to you on the board, may share the rules that they think are the basis of the game, however, it can be quite confusing when you see that everyone seems to play under slightly different rules. There are only a few rules that are sometimes called “laws of physics” which appear to apply to everyone. There are some rules that seem especially important and many other rules seem to work like guardrails to keep you from breaking the critical rules.

It is quite likely that you will never realize that you are playing a game. The stakes appear to be very high and most of the players are taking the game quite seriously; players rarely acknowledge to one another that they are even playing a game. There seems to be all manner of strategies that other players take in the game and this too can be quite confusing. This may or may not lead you to try to figure out what the game is all about. Most of us absorb an implicit understanding of this and just play accordingly. It is often easier to judge that others are playing the game incorrectly or just do not know the rules than to go through great efforts to determine the purpose of the game. These players adopt someone else’s rule book and let that calm their uncertainty and angst about the purpose and rules.

Managing energy level and hedonic tone seem to be very important in the game. The interaction with the other players seems to be a primary way this is done. Players seem to spend much of their time figuring out a strategy of how to establish and maintain relationships with other players and how best to earn and use their tokens (a.k.a. money). Players grow very attached to other players and find it very difficult when they are struggling or when their game ends.

Players seem to vary in how much amusement they get from playing the game. I suspect that many do not enjoy the game. This seems to be a function of the rule book, and how others play the game. The concept of winning is a big question due to the obscurity of the rules and purpose of the game. It does seem that many feel that only some players can win. These players seem hell-bent on “winning” their game regardless of what it means to the other players. There are also players that think that no one can win the game, while others believe everyone can.

New players are continually being added to the game. They require the help of others if they are going to make it in the game. Players at all levels are just as consistently exiting the game. Remaining players may try to learn from these exits. It seems like the game ends when the avatar can no longer function in the game, but game-overs remain a big mystery of the whole game.

If life is a game, then I wonder whose game it is and who these players really are? Who is manifesting all of these avatars? Could they come from one source? Could it be that there is only one player —a source that is capable of actualizing all the players on the board? This source might have imagined this amazing game, perhaps even many other amazing games — imagining and fully immersing in the games, so fully that for a time true identity is lost in the characters played.

If this is what the game is all about, then why should my avatar fear the end of the game? If he is playing, then the game is not over. If the game is over, then he is not playing. Why should he fear games that he is not a part of?

Why should I fear death?
If I am, then death is not.
If Death is, then I am not.
Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not.
—Epicurus


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

I need, therefore I am

Our life existsyinYang in death’s shadow. Investment in life is our resistance to the pull of death, but survival has its requisites and so to live is to have needs. Unfulfilled needs have a cost — potentially life itself. To have needs is to feel alive and to be vulnerable. Vulnerability inspires a drive to seek out or to protect; in this way vulnerability is the foundation of emotion. Emotion literally means “to set in motion,” “to stir” or “to disturb.” This is the function of our emotionally organized “executive operating systems” (EOSs)*; they each activate us to manage our vulnerability, our needs and life itself.

Our needs percolate through us to stimulate feelings, thoughts and impulses to action. Needs begin upon life’s arrival and our strategies to meet these needs develop in response to the circumstances confronting us.  This personal disposition we try so actively to define and make sense of reflects the melding of what we have brought into the world with what we face during our life’s journey. Like a river carving a canyon, life shapes our personality.

Personality is a significant determinant of what draws us towards one and repels us from another. The pull of approach or push of avoid is felt in response to the process others engage in to satisfy their needs; we measure how that might facilitate or interfere with our own efforts. Difficulties with others are not because they have needs but in response to the path they take to assuage their needs. We are capable of having empathy for the needs of others because we too understand and experience need. Connecting around this insight might help lead us away from conflict and towards awareness and dialogue.

CaptainPhillipsIn the movie Captain Phillips, we are introduced to a Somali pirate named Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi), who with a small crew hijacks an American cargo ship and takes Captain Phillips (played by Tom Hanks) hostage. In this character’s introduction we see the context in which Muse must try to meet his needs. While we may denounce his actions, we can have empathy for satisfying needs in such difficult circumstances. Empathy also opens us up to see how his actions occur within a larger global framework that makes judgment more complicated. In the midst of violent conflict, seeing needs, accessing empathy and gaining awareness of the complex interrelationships between people and the larger systems in which they are embedded is our only hope of seeking peace in war’s shadow. This is as true at the micro level as it is on the macro level.

Our ability to see through behavior to the needs and vulnerability from which it springs helps to engage our capacity for empathy. Each of us is born vulnerable and in our struggle to live we are drawn to what meets our needs in our particular circumstance. Our unique story is embedded in a larger whole and seeing another’s need, as well as their strategy for meeting the need, allows us to see their story. These are the stories of life’s dance with death.

*see Who’s Driving Now, River Running or Trial By Combat


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

What if?

You are a function of what the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is a function of what the whole ocean is doing. 
― Alan Watts

UniversalMindThe existence of consciousness remains the greatest of mysteries. What if consciousness is not a byproduct of matter but the source of matter? What if a universal mind is the field that holds together our world of matter? … each speck of life, a unique portal through which this mind pours forth its creative impulses. A creativity that further blossoms as “matter” awakens to consciousness. “Awakened matter” ultimately notices itself as an object, and a sense of self is galvanized. Self grows cognizant of its awareness, and an unshared subjectivity is conceived. This individualized perspective can neither be replicated nor fully understood by another.

What if that perspective in us — which is aware, which notices and is our observing self — is universal mind seeing through the filter that is us with all our idiosyncratic characteristics? What if the world we notice “out there” is actually inside rather than outside — a dreamworld contained within universal mind? I, like many other seekers, desperately want to reify this mind of which I am comprised. Even naming it is a movement in this direction, but whatever is observing and experiencing through us, if it is singular, cannot be mentally captured any more than I can see my eyes with my eyes. We know this universal mind, this source of awareness, only through living and experiencing our unique perspective. Our life is this larger life, but embodied and limited in space and time.

If we believe a universal mind experiences through us, might it change the way we see ourselves and one another? Could we feel connected and unified rather than isolated and divided? Is it possible we would value ourselves and others in a more treasured way? Maybe we would be curious and open to others’ perspectives and less judgmental and intolerant. Perhaps compassion and love could flourish.

While it often seems that we dwell in separateness and look out at a world full of objects perhaps it is quite the opposite, and a knowing, experiencing and creative mind is “looking” within — seeing itself through myriad perspectives … a dynamic self with so many ways to experience, to interact … to be. Perhaps this self becomes so enamored and entangled in these multiple perspectives that in the midst of embodied experience it believes these dreams of separateness and loses a sense of unity.

Do we want “it” to wake up?

You are actually—if this is the way things started, if there was a big bang in the beginning— you’re not something that’s a result of the big bang. You’re not something that is a sort of puppet on the end of the process. You are still the process. You are the big bang, the original force of the universe, coming on as whoever you are. When I meet you, I see not just what you define yourself as—Mr so-and- so, Ms so-and-so, Mrs so-and-so—I see every one of you as the primordial energy of the universe coming on at me in this particular way. I know I’m that, too. But we’ve learned to define ourselves as separate from it. ― Alan Watts


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

 

Pick Your Poison

Clam 2

Life is difficult; we are here because we are surviving. All living creatures are vulnerable, and all have ways they protect themselves. Poison, camouflage, sharp teeth, speed, flight, claws, burrowing, strength, climbing, shells, intelligence, kindness, deception, social organization are but a few examples. Vulnerability and defense are yin and yang to one another. Since survival is not certain, our vulnerability becomes one of the elemental organizing principles of our existence. Much of who we are is a core of vulnerability enfolded by our protective strategies. The humble clam is a simple representation of these two aspects of our nature.

Our predicament is that we can only bond and grow close to others when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, yet vulnerability opens us to being wounded. Exposing our vulnerability can be one of the most terrifying moves we make, and our protective systems will sound the warning to terminate this action. Safety versus connection, how we negotiate this internal battle, sets the tone for how our life will be lived.

The battle is not so straightforward; connection reduces vulnerability and social isolation is one of the surest ways to undermine our health. Humans are a sophisticated pack animal with complicated social nuances to negotiate. Many of us get spurned, deemed unacceptable, a shocking impact which leads to a greater sense of vulnerability, which in turn leads to heightened protective measures. Ironically, these defenses often lead those most in need of connection to more social rejection or self-imposed isolation — an unfortunate self-reinforcing cycle.

However, the cycle rotates both ways. Risking can also lead to acceptance and communion, which allows the burdens of life to be distributed. Each companion can get reprieve to carry the load another day. This process strengthens the social bonds and reduces vulnerability. Defenses are softened leading to increased social accessibility.

So, pick your poison; you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Seek safety to avoid vulnerability and risk isolation, increasing your vulnerability. Seek connection to avoid vulnerability and risk rejection, increasing your vulnerability. Or, negotiate the space between the rock and hard place to find the solace of interdependence. Succeeding in this negotiation and developing protective strategies that allow you to love and be loved may be the single most difficult but most important of your life’s endeavors. 


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.