Category: Culture

Muscular Bonding: How Dance Made Us Human

Do we dance simply for recreation? Or is there a primal urge that compels us to do it? Historian William McNeill claims it saved our species by creating community togetherness and transforming “me” into “we.”

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“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”  

— Voltaire

Why do we dance? To most, it might seem like a trivial topic. But if you contemplate the sheer pervasiveness of dance across all of human society, it becomes apparent that it is anything but.

It’s more useful to learn foundational principles that won’t go out of date than it is to go all in on the latest fad. When it comes to understanding people, we can learn a lot by studying human universals that exist across cultures and time. These universals give us insight into how to create connections in a way that fosters social cohesion and cooperation.

Once such universal is dance. At every point throughout history, all over the world, people from every walk of life have come together to dance; to move in unison alongside music, singing, and other rhythmic input, like drumming or stomping. The specifics and the names attached vary. But something akin to dance is an ever-present cultural feature throughout human history.

Soldiers perform military drills and march in time. People in rural communities carried out community dances at regular events, like harvests. Hunters in tribal communities dance before they go off to catch food and have likely done so for thousands of years. We dance during initiation rites, like coming-of-age ceremonies. We dance before going to war. We dance at weddings and religious festivals. Countercultural movements, like hippies in the United States, dance. Fanatical leaders force their followers to perform set movements together. Calisthenics and group exercise are popular worldwide, especially in parts of Asia.

The more you look for it, the more examples of dance-like activities appear everywhere. From a biological perspective, we know species-wide costly activities that are costly in terms of time, energy and other resources must have a worthwhile payoff. Thus, the energy expended in dance must aid our survival. In his 1995 book, Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, historian William H. McNeill made a bold claim: he argued that we owe our success as a species to collective synchronized movements. In other words, we’re still here because we dance.

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In the 1940s, the U.S. Army drafted William H. McNeill. With limited supplies, there was little to occupy him and his peers during training. So, whenever things got boring, they performed marching drills. For hours, they walked in circles under the hot Texas sun. On paper, it was dull and pointless. What were they even achieving? When McNeill reflected, it seemed strange that drills should be an integral part of training. It also seemed strange that he’d quite enjoyed it, as had most of his peers. McNeil writes:

Marching aimlessly about on the drill field, swaggering in conformity with prescribed military postures, conscious only of keeping in step so as to make the next move correctly and in time somehow felt good. Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved . . . marching became an end in itself.

Upon further thought and study, McNeill came to identify the indescribable feeling he experienced during army drills as something “far older than language and critically important in human history, because the emotion it arouses constitutes an indefinitely expansible basis for social cohesion among any and every group that keeps together in time.”

What exactly did he experience? At the time, there was no term for it. But McNeill coined one: “muscular bonding.” This refers to a sense of euphoric connection that is sparked by performing rhythmic movements in unison to music or chanting. Few people are immune to the influence of muscular bonding. It played a role in the formation and maintenance of many of our key institutions, such as religion, the military, and politics. We can all relate to the endorphin hit that comes from strenuous dancing, as with other forms of exercise. If you’ve ever danced with a group of people, you may have also noticed a remarkable sense of connection and unity with them. This is the effect of muscular bonding.

Seeing as there has been little study into the phenomenon, McNeill puts forward a theory which is, by his own admission, unprovable. It nonetheless offers one perspective on muscular bonding. He argues that it works because “rhythmic input from muscles and voice, after gradually suffusing through the entire nervous system, may provoke echoes of the fetal condition when a major and perhaps principal external stimulus to the developing brain was the mother’s heartbeat.” In other words, through dancing and synchronized movement, we experience something akin to what we did at the earliest point of existence. While most likely impossible to prove or disprove, it’s an interesting proposition.

Since the publication of Keeping Together in Time, new research has lent greater support to McNeill’s theories about the effects of muscular bonding, although studies are still limited.

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How exactly has muscular bonding aided us in more recent times? To explore the concept, let’s look at the type McNeill was closest acquainted with: the military drill. It enables collective organization through emotional connections facilitated by synchronous movement.

Drills have obvious, tangible benefits. They encourage obedience and compliance with orders, which are valuable attributes in the fog of war. They can fit in with maneuvers and similar group efforts on the battlefield. In ancient times, it helped units stay together on the field and work together cooperatively when communication was difficult, and all fighting took place on the ground.

But drills are also a powerful form of muscular bonding. According to McNeill’s theory, they assist in creating strong connections between soldiers, possibly because the physical movements promote the experience of being a small part of a large, cohesive unit.

While we cannot establish if it is causation or correlation, it is notable that many of the most successful armies throughout history emphasized drills. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans both incorporated drills into their military training. And around the sixteenth century, drills became the standard in European armies. McNeill explains how this helped soldiers develop intense ties to each other and their cause:

The emotional resonance of daily and prolonged close order drill created such a lively esprit de corps among the poverty-stricken peasant recruits and urban outcasts who came to constitute the rank and file of European armies that other social ties faded into insignificance beside them.

These armies were cohesive, despite the different backgrounds of members. What made this possible was the allegiance soldiers had to each other. Loyalty to the army replaced former loyalties, such as prior alignments with the church or their families. Many soldiers report experiencing the sense that they fought for their peers, not for their leaders or their country or ideology. And it was moving together that helped break down barriers and allowed the group to reconstruct itself as a single unit with a shared goal.

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“You can’t dance and be sad. You can listen to music and cry, you can read and cry, you can draw and cry but you can’t dance and cry. The body wont let you.”

Esther Perel

Today, a growing percentage of people find themselves alienated from any particular community, without strong bonds to any discernible group. Loneliness is on the rise. More people live alone, remain single or childless, move to new geographical locations on a regular basis, and otherwise fail to develop close ties. This is a shift that is unprecedented in human history.

What that means is that there is tremendous value in considering how we can bring connection back into our lives; we must figure out how to help alleviate the dangerous effects of isolation and alienation from each other. There is an incredible precedent in history for using dance to create a sense of community and intimacy. Physical movement helps us forge connections that can override our differences. For instance, countercultural movements of those people rejected by mainstream society have often danced to create their own distinct community, as was the case during the hippy movement in 1960s America.

Giving thought to what it takes to unify people is even more important now as we face problems that affect humanity as a whole and require wide-scale collaboration to resolve. Again and again, history has shown us that keeping together in time forms groups that have a power greater than the sum of their parts. The emergent properties of moving together can be achieved even if we are not physically in the same space. As long as we know we are moving in a way that is being done by others, the bonding effects happen.

McNeill writes: “It is and always has been a powerful force at work among humankind whether for good or ill. . . . Our future, like our past, depends on how we utilize these modes of coordinating common effort for agreed purposes.”

Muscular bonding is not a panacea. It cannot instantly heal deep rifts in society, nor can it save individuals from the effects of social isolation. But it will pay off for us to look at history and see the tools we have at our disposal for bringing people together. Dance is one such tool. Whether you’re able to attend a concert or club, or simply have a dance party in your living room with your kids or over video chat with loved ones you can’t be near, when we move together we have an experience that deepens our connection to one another and gives us the openings for unity and cooperation.

The Code of Hammurabi: The Best Rule To Manage Risk

Almost 4,000 years ago, King Hammurabi of Babylon, Mesopotamia, laid out one of the first sets of laws.

Hammurabi’s Code is among the oldest translatable writings. It consists of 282 laws, most concerning punishment. Each law takes into account the perpetrator’s status. The code also includes the earliest known construction laws, designed to align the incentives of builder and occupant to ensure that builders created safe homes:

  1. If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.
  2. If it causes the death of the son of the owner of the house, they shall put to death a son of that builder.
  3. If it causes the death of a slave of the owner of the house, he shall give to the owner of the house a slave of equal value.
  4. If it destroys property, he shall restore whatever it destroyed, and because he did not make the house which he builds firm and it collapsed, he shall rebuild the house which collapsed at his own expense.
  5. If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction meet the requirements and a wall falls in, that builder shall strengthen the wall at his own expense.

Hammurabi became ruler of Babylon in 1792 BC and held the position for 43 years. In the era of city-states, Hammurabi grew his modest kingdom (somewhere between 60 and 160 square kilometers) by conquering several neighboring states. Satisfied, then, with the size of the area he controlled, Hammurabi settled down to rule his people.

“This world of ours appears to be separated by a slight and precarious margin of safety from a most singular and unexpected danger.”

— Arthur Conan Doyle

Hammurabi was a fair leader (from the little we know about him) and concerned with the well-being of his people. He transformed the area, ordering the construction of irrigation ditches to improve agricultural productivity, as well as supplying cities with protective walls and fortresses. Hammurabi also renovated temples and religious sites.

By today’s standards, Hammurabi was a dictator. Far from abusing his power, however, he considered himself the “shepherd” of his people. Although the Babylonians kept slaves, they too had rights. Slaves could marry other people of any status, start businesses, and purchase their freedom, and they were protected from mistreatment.

At first glance, it might seem as if we have little to learn from Hammurabi. I mean, why bother learning about the ancient Babylonians? They were just barbaric farmers, right?

It seems we’re not as different as it appears. Our modern beliefs are not separate from those of people in Hammurabi’s time; they are a continuation of them. Early legal codes are the ancestors of the ones we now put our faith in.

Whether a country is a dictatorship or democracy, one of the keys to any effective legal system is the ability for anyone to understand its laws. We’re showing cracks in ours and we can learn from the simplicity of Hammurabi’s Code, which concerned itself with practical justice and not lofty principles. To even call it a set of laws is misleading. The ancient Babylonians did not appear to have an equivalent term.

Three important concepts are implicit in Hammurabi’s Code: reciprocity, accountability, and incentives.

We have no figures for how often Babylonian houses fell down before and after the implementation of the Code. We have no idea how many (if any) people were put to death as a result of failing to adhere to Hammurabi’s construction laws. But we do know that human self-preservation instincts are strong. More than strong, they underlie most of our behavior. Wanting to avoid death is the most powerful incentive we have. If we assume that people felt and thought the same way 4000 years ago, we can guess at the impact of the Code.

Imagine yourself as a Babylonian builder. Each time you construct a house, there is a risk it will collapse if you make any mistakes. So, what do you do? You allow for the widest possible margin of safety. You plan for any potential risks. You don’t cut corners or try to save a little bit of money. No matter what, you are not going to allow any known flaws in the construction. It wouldn’t be worth it. You want to walk away certain that the house is solid.

Now contrast that with modern engineers or builders.

They don’t have much skin in the game. The worst they face if they cause a death is a fine. We saw this in Hurricane Katrina —1600 people died due to flooding caused in part by the poor design of hurricane protection systems in New Orleans. Hindsight analysis showed that the city’s floodwalls, levees, pumps, and gates were ill designed and maintained. The death toll was worse than it would otherwise have been. And yet, no one was held accountable.

Hurricane Katrina is regarded as a disaster that was part natural and part man-made. In recent months, in the Grenfell Tower fire in London, we saw the effects of negligent construction. At least 80 people died in a blaze that is believed to have started accidentally but that, according to expert analysis, was accelerated by the conscious use of cheap building materials that had failed safety tests.

The portions of Hammurabi’s Code that deal with construction laws, as brutal as they are (and as uncertain as we are of their short-term effects) illustrate an important concept: margins of safety. When we construct a system, ensuring that it can handle the expected pressures is insufficient.

A Babylonian builder would not have been content to make a house that was strong enough to handle just the anticipated stressors. A single Black Swan event — such as abnormal weather — could cause its collapse and in turn the builder’s own death, so builders had to allow for a generous margin of safety. The larger the better. In 59 mph winds, we do not want to be in a house built to withstand 60 mph winds.

But our current financial systems do not incentivize people to create wide margins of safety. Instead, they do the opposite — they encourage dangerous risk-taking.

Nassim Taleb referred to Hammurabi’s Code in a New York Times opinion piece in which he described a way to prevent bankers from threatening the public well-being. His solution? Stop offering bonuses for the risky behavior of people who will not be the ones paying the price if the outcome is bad. Taleb wrote:

…it’s time for a fundamental reform: Any person who works for a company that, regardless of its current financial health, would require a taxpayer-financed bailout if it failed should not get a bonus, ever. In fact, all pay at systemically important financial institutions — big banks, but also some insurance companies and even huge hedge funds — should be strictly regulated.

The issue, in Taleb’s opinion, is not the usual complaint of income inequality or overpay. Instead, he views bonuses as asymmetric incentives. They reward risks but do not punish the subsequent mistakes that cause “hidden risks to accumulate in the financial system and become a catalyst for disaster.” It’s a case of “heads, I win; tails, you lose.”

Bonuses encourage bankers to ignore the potential for Black Swan events, with the 2008 financial crisis being a prime (or rather, subprime) example. Rather than ignoring these events, banks should seek to minimize the harm caused.

Some career fields have a strict system of incentives and disincentives, both official and unofficial. Doctors get promotions and respect if they do their jobs well, and risk heavy penalties for medical malpractice. With the exception of experiments in which patients are fully informed of and consent to the risks, doctors don’t get a free pass for taking risks that cause harm to patients.

The same goes for military and security personnel. As Taleb wrote, “we trust the military and homeland security personnel with our lives, yet we don’t give them lavish bonuses. They get promotions and the honor of a job well done if they succeed, and the severe disincentive of shame if they fail.”

Hammurabi and his advisors were unconcerned with complex laws and legalese. Instead, they wanted the Code to produce results and to be understandable by everyone. And Hammurabi understood how incentives work — a lesson we’d be well served to learn.

When you align incentives of everyone in both positive and negative ways, you create a system that takes care of itself. Taleb describes Law 229 of Hammurabi’s Code as “the best risk-management rule ever.” Although barbaric to modern eyes, it took into account certain truisms. Builders typically know more about construction than their clients do and can take shortcuts in ways that aren’t obvious. After completing construction, a builder can walk away with a little extra profit, while the hapless client is unknowingly left with an unsafe house.

The little extra profit that builders can generate is analogous to the bonus system in some of today’s industries. It rewards those who take unwise risks, trick their customers, and harm other people for their own benefit. Hammurabi’s system had the opposite effect; it united the interests of the person getting paid and the person paying. Rather than the builder being motivated to earn as much profit as possible and the homeowner being motivated to get a safe house, they both shared the latter goal.

The Code illustrates the efficacy of using self-preservation as an incentive. We feel safer in airplanes that are flown by a person and not by a machine because, in part, we believe that pilots want to protect their own lives along with ours.

When we lack an incentive to protect ourselves, we are far more likely to risk the safety of other people. This is why bankers are willing to harm their customers if it means the bankers get substantial bonuses. This is why companies that market harmful products, such as fast food and tobacco, are content to play down the risks. Or why the British initiative to reduce the population of Indian cobras by compensating those who caught the snakes had the opposite effect. Or why Wells Fargo employees opened millions of fake accounts to reach sales targets.

Incentives backfire when there are no negative consequences for those who exploit them. External incentives are based on extrinsic motivation, which easily goes awry.

When we have real skin in the game—when we have upsides and downsides—we care about outcomes in a way that we wouldn’t otherwise. We act in a different way. We take our time. We use second-order thinking and inversion. We look for evidence or a way to disprove it.

Four thousand years ago, the Babylonians understood the power of incentives, yet we seem to have since forgotten about the flaws in human nature that make it difficult to resist temptation.

Krista Tippett: On Generous Listening and Asking Better Questions

Krista Tippett, whose wonderful book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Art of Living distills many of her conversations, offers us a window into exploring ourselves and others, through generous listening and asking better questions by moving away from the false refuge of certitude.

On the art of starting new kinds of conversations Tippett offers shining wisdom, countering the notion that we need to win or lose.

I find myself drawn to black holes in common life— painful, complicated, shameful things we can scarcely talk about at all, alongside the arguments we replay ad nauseam, with the same polar opposites defining, winning, or losing depending on which side you’re on, with predictable dead-end results. The art of starting new kinds of conversations, of creating new departure points and new outcomes in our common grappling, is not rocket science. But it does require that we nuance or retire some habits so ingrained that they feel like the only way it can be done. We’ve all been trained to be advocates for what we care about. This has its place and its value in civil society, but it can get in the way of the axial move of deciding to care about each other.

Listening is an everyday act, and perhaps art, that many of us neglect.

Listening is more than being quiet while the other person speaks until you can say what you have to say.

Tippett introduces us to generous listening, language she picked up from a conversation with Rachel Naomi Remen, who uses it to describe what doctors should practice. Tippett explains:

Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability— a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons one’s own best self and one’s own best words and questions.

Of the many reasons we would want to engage and renew our listening skills, asking better questions is near the top.

[W]e trade mostly in answers— competing answers— and in questions that corner, incite, or entertain. In journalism we have a love affair with the “tough” question, which is often an assumption masked as an inquiry and looking for a fight. … My only measure of the strength of a question now is in the honesty and eloquence it elicits.

Questions are the means by which we explore ourselves, each other, and the world.

If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words. Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking a better question.

Questions themselves can offer no immediate need of answers. Counter to our notion that everything must have an answer, some of the most worthwhile questions are the ones with no immediate answers.

And yet we insist on dividing so much of life into competing certainties.

We want others to acknowledge that our answers are right. We call the debate or get on the same page or take a vote and move on. The alternative involves a different orientation to the point of conversing in the first place: to invite searching— not on who is right and who is wrong and the arguments on every side; not on whether we can agree; but on what is at stake in human terms for us all. There is value in learning to speak together honestly and relate to each other with dignity, without rushing to common ground that would leave all the hard questions hanging.

In a way answers are like the goals that Scott Adams brought to our attention — a false, but comforting, refuge. Yet, for many of us probing ourselves with questions about how we should live and what it means to be a citizen in a global world, it is in the search that we find meaning.

Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive By

“Trust is the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behavior, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of that community.”
— Francis Fukuyama

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Our society is largely based on trust. In fact, it is so ubiquitous we suspect you don’t normally notice it’s influence; for most of us, it is largely habitual.

Trust has evolved as our interactions and influence have become more entwined over time, and the complexity of society has increased. It’s not just our social interactions that have adapted over the years; our tools and technology have also changed dramatically.

This backdrop makes for a fascinating discussion by security technologist Bruce Schneier in his book Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive By. The book outlines how society establishes and maintains trust and tackles some core concepts related to trust from the past, present, and future.

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Why is trust such an important aspect of our society? Part of it is because of the sheer complexity of how our species is linked and interacts.

All complex ecosystems, whether they are biological ecosystems like the human body, natural ecosystems like a rainforest, social ecosystems like an open-air market, or socio-technical ecosystems like the global financial system or the Internet are deeply interlinked. Individual units within those ecosystems are interdependent, each doing its part and relying on the other units to do their parts as well.

To get a better idea of the sheer breadth and depth of this, take a moment to think about situations in your day to day where you choose (consciously or unconsciously) to trust. In the act of driving you are trusting: your fellow drivers, your car manufacturer, the gas station, and your mechanic. When eating in a restaurant you are trusting: your waiter/waitress, the cooks preparing the food, and the farmers who provided the raw ingredients.

We have learned through experience that we can trust somewhat implicitly in these situations, it is rare that someone breaks our trust in the above examples but it does happen.

…all complex ecosystems contain parasites. Within every interdependent system, there are individuals who try to subvert the system to their own ends. These could be tapeworms in our digestive tracts, thieves in a bazaar, robbers disguised as plumbers, spammers on the Internet, or companies that move their profits offshore to evade taxes.

Or… a driver that passes you while texting and a restaurateur violating food health and safety codes to save money. These parasites are good examples of failures of trust. And what they all have in common is a conflict between the interests of society as a whole and the interests of specific individuals or a small group.

This conflict is perfectly normal. You will never have a state where absolutely everyone agrees, and this is a good thing. For example, someone might break the trust for what they believe to be moral reasons, not for selfish or petty reasons. History shows us that those who defy the group norm can even become the catalysts for dramatic, and much needed, social change.

Compliance isn’t always good, and defection isn’t always bad. Sometimes the group norm doesn’t deserve to be followed, and certain kinds of progress and innovation require violating trust. In a police state, everybody is compliant but no one trusts anybody. A too-compliant society is a stagnant society, and defection contains the seeds of social change.

On a micro level everyone defects sometimes. We are as complex as the society in which we live. We will agree with some societal norms and therefore cooperate in those moments, but at other times we may not agree and could defect. This is situational as well, we react differently when we are in desperate situations. We would all steal food if we had a starving family at home. (Or maybe worse, in the case of a truly awful situation.) We are far less likely to defect when all our needs are cared for.

Schneier argues it’s the scope of the defection that we should be worried about.

What we’re concerned with is the overall scope of defection. I mean this term to be general, comprising the number of defectors, the rate of their defection, the frequency of their defection, and the intensity (the amount of damage) of their defection.

The scope of defection is important because the level of cooperation/trust in a society is often indicative of health. Sociologist Barbara Misztal identified three critical functions performed by trust:

1. It makes social life more predictable,
2. It creates a sense of community, and
3. It makes it easier for people to work together.

If the rate of defection is too high then these critical functions are not being met. (As Charlie Munger likes to say, the highest form a civilization can reach is a seamless web of deserving trust.)

Since a healthy, thriving society requires a certain level of trust, we can attempt to nudge possible defectors into complying with the societal norms. The dilemma occurs when an individual has to make a choice between the group interest and their personal competing interest. The idea is that we can add societal pressure that can induce cooperation over selfishness in these types of situations.

In the book Schneier outlines four basic categories of societal pressure:

Moral pressure — A lot of societal pressure comes from inside our own heads. Most of us don’t steal, and it’s not because there are armed guards and alarms protecting piles of stuff. We won’t steal because we believe it’s wrong, or we’ll feel guilty if we do, or we want to follow the rules.

Reputation pressure — A wholly different, and much stronger, type of pressure comes from how others respond to our actions. Reputational pressure can be very powerful; both individuals and organizations feel a lot of pressure to follow the group norms because they don’t want a bad reputation.

Institutional pressure — Institutions have rules and laws. These are norms that are codified, and whose enactment and enforcement is generally delegated. Institutional pressure induces people to behave according to the group norm by imposing sanctions on those who don’t, and occasionally by rewarding those who do.

Security systems — Security systems are another form of societal pressure. This includes any security mechanism designed to induce cooperation, prevent defection, induce trust, and compel compliance. It includes things that work to prevent defectors, like door locks and tall fences; things that interdict defectors, like alarm systems and guards; things that only work after the fact, like forensic and audit systems; and mitigation systems that help the victim recover faster and care less that the defection occurred.

The book goes on to explain these concepts in greater detail as well as taking a look back at the evolution of cooperation, trust, and security.

Schneier also tackles issues like the influence of technology and what the future will bring. In all, Liars and Outliers is a fascinating look at how society enforces, evokes and elicits trustworthiness and compliance, as well as an interesting look at the role of the defector as either a catalyst for social change or the creator of risk in a healthy society.

Kristin Dombek: The Selfishness of Others

I’ll bet you think this article is about you.

“We all know selfishness when we see it,” writes essayist Kristin Dombek opening The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on The Fear of Narcissism. She’s right. We see it everywhere from TV to family and lovers. Playing in the tension between pathology and common selfishness, her book offers a thought-provoking look at how narcissism became a cultural phenomenon and repository for our fears.

What is wrong with the narcissist she asks?

This is harder to know. If you see the smile on the face of a murderer, you must run. But if you are unlucky enough to love someone who seems suddenly so into himself that he doesn’t care who he hurts, someone who turns from warm to gone when he doesn’t need you, so self-adoring or wounded he meets criticism with violence or icy rage, who turns into another person in front of your eyes, or simply turns away when he said he’d be there—if you love someone who seems to have the particular twenty-first-century selfishness in some more subtle, or worse, invisible way, you will likely go to the internet for help.

The internet of course offers answers to even the wrong questions.

You’ll read, in that seizable portion of the self-help internet we might call, awkwardly, the narcisphere, a story that can change the way you see everything if you start believing in it, giving you the uncanny but slightly exciting sensation that you’re living in a movie. It’s familiar, this movie, as if you’ve seen in before and it’s a creepy one, but you have the most important role in the script. You’re the hero.

The basic script plays out like this.

At first, the narcissist is extraordinarily charming, even kind and sweet. Then, after a while, he seems full of himself. It could be a “he” or a “she,” but let’s stick with “he.” That’s what you start to think, when you know someone like this: he’s full of himself. But the narcissist is empty.

Normal, healthy people are full of self, a kind of substance like a soul or personhood that, if you have it, emanates warmly from inside of you toward the outside of you. No one knows what it is, but everyone agrees that narcissists do not have it. Disturbingly, however, they are often better than anyone else at seeming to have it. Because what they have inside is empty space, they have had to make a study of the selves of others in order to invent something that looks and sounds like one. Narcissists are imitators par excellence. The murderer plagiarized most of his manifesto, obviously and badly, but often narcissists are so good at imitating that you won’t even notice. And they do not copy the small, boring parts of selves. They take what they think are the biggest, most impressive parts of other selves, and devise a hologram of self that seems superpowered. Let’s call it “selfiness,” this simulacrum of a superpowered self. Sometimes they seem crazy or are really dull, but often, perhaps because they have had to try harder than most to make it, the selfiness they’ve come up with is qualitatively better, when you first encounter it, than the ordinary, naturally occurring selves of normal, healthy people.

[…]

Because for the narcissist, this appreciation of you is entirely contingent on the idea that you will help him to maintain his selfiness. If you do not, or if you are near him when someone or something does not, then God help you. When that picture shatters, his hurt and his rage will be unmatched in its heat or, more often, its coldness. He will unfriend you, stop following you, stop returning your emails, stop talking to you completely. He will cheat on you without seeming to think it’s a big deal, or break up with you, when he has said he’d be with you forever. He will fire you casually and without notice. Whatever hurts most, he will do it. Whatever you need the most, he will withhold it. He cannot feel other people’s feelings, but he is uncannily good at figuring out how to demolish yours.

[…]

It isn’t that the narcissist is just not a good person; she’s like a caricature of what we mean by “not a good person.” She’s not just bad; she’s a living, breathing lesson in what badness is.

Immanuel Kant offered a formulation for how to do the right thing: Asking yourself, if everyone acted this way, would the world be a better place? Good people, we tend to believe, will treat others as the ends themselves, not the means. Narcissists, along with psychopaths, do the opposite. For them, people are the means toward other ends. “If everyone were to follow suit,” Dombek writes, “the world would go straight to hell.”

The realization that the narcissist, not so much selfish as not really having a self, changes everything. Suddenly you can see them for what they are: puppets or clowns. While they may look human, they are not.

So what should you do when you are confronted with a narcissist?

It seems no matter what you answer, you’ll be haunted forever. With equal certainty the internet offers two pieces of common advice: love them and expect nothing and hope that they change, or run as fast and as far as you can.

If the prevailing wisdom that narcissism is becoming more and more common is indeed true, today’s prevailing advice doesn’t scale.

Kant’s advice no longer holds. But that is not the worst of it. Running is an act of the very same coldness described by the diagnosis. What if the only way to escape a narcissist is to act like one yourself?

The question of the selfishness of others, though, leads quickly to the very difficult question of how we know things about others at all, and the mind-knotting question of how we know things at all.

Dombek goes on to explore provocative questions of ourselves—most of us can be put in environments where we display situational narcissisms; why is having a boyfriend or boss like having a villain; why do the narcissistic descriptions of others (“in moments you quietly bury deep inside you”) remind you of yourself.

 

Edward Deci: On the Relationship Between Need Fulfillment and Motivation

Edward Deci’s work on motivation is so often quoted (Dan Pink’s Drive comes to mind) that we decided to go back to the primary text by Deci himself, a book called Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation.

The author is probably best known for his thoughts on the role of autonomy in intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Deci co-developed the Self-Determination Theory with Richard Ryan.

Intrinsic Motivation

Deci and Ryan believed that people naturally develop through a process of engagement and interaction with the world and that said interaction tends to be driven by a “movement toward greater consistency and harmony within.”

The urge to develop an integrated sense of self is thus a central feature of who we are as individuals, and the activity — both physical and mental — that is necessary for this natural developmental trajectory is intrinsically motivated.

This intrinsic motivation is both driven by three innate psychological needs:

  1. The need for autonomy
  2. The need to feel competent
  3. The need for relatedness

In Deci’s view, when the needs are being fulfilled, we will have plenty of motivation. When there are obstacles between us and these needs, it will be demotivating.

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In our day to day lives, we will interact with the environment and we will integrate what we feel and learn from these interactions into our sense of self. Think of this like a continuous feedback loop. This environment is littered with societal influences, which can be motivating or demotivating, depending on how they interact with our innate needs and sense of self.

Deci uses an example of a young “artistic athlete.” This individual, who has talent both in an athletic arena and with artistic expression, will ultimately be tugged at times towards being an artist or athlete. To feel authentic to themselves, they will need to find a way to express themselves in both of these realms. If they don’t then they won’t be able to feel that sense of harmony; the self they are reflecting to the world won’t be consistent with the self they feel within.

Ideally, both aspects of this individual need to be nurtured, which Deci calls “autonomy support” — supporting the development of a whole, integrated person.

To characterize our perspective more formally, we view human behavior and experience in terms of the dialectic between the person and the environment – the interaction (and potential opposition) between the active organism striving for unity and autonomy and the social context that can be either nurturing of or antagonistic toward the person’s organismic tendencies. Synthesis occurs when there is enough support in the social context so that the natural, proactive tendencies are able to flourish. But in the absence of adequate supports, not only will intrinsic motivation be undermined, but so too will the development of a more integrated or coherent sense of self.

Deci and Ryan discovered that there are specific social contexts that can undermine this integration.

First, those social contexts that are excessively inconsistent and chaotic. These situations make it next to impossible for people to know what is expected of them: They can’t understand how to behave as there is no consistent feedback, which tends to leave people with little to no motivation (they can’t tell if they are being effective and will feel less a part of the group/situation – no competence, no relatedness).

Second, those social contexts which are extremely controlling. These environments pressure people into certain types of behavior and removes autonomy. The people who comply with the demands tend to become almost robotic at times. Whether the individual is complying with or actively defying the controls, they are not acting autonomously.

Autonomy is the key; without it, Deci believes people will lose their motivation and worse, it will hinder their development.

To develop in a natural and healthy way people need to perceive that they are in a “psychological state of feeling free.” People tend to know when they are being controlled, even if they can’t name it, they feel it. We can’t even trick ourselves, sometimes we think we truly want something but we are actually doing it out of a sense of obligation or fear.

Some people believe that our need for autonomy and our need for others is inherently contradictory. Not so, says Deci:

People have often portrayed the needs for autonomy and relatedness as being implicitly contradictory. You have to give up your autonomy, they say, to be related to others. But that is simply a misportrayal of the human being. Part of the confusion stems from equating autonomy and independence, which are in fact very different concepts.

Independence means to do for yourself, to not rely on others for personal nourishment and emotional support. Autonomy, in contrast, means to act freely, with a sense of volition and choice.

Internalizing & Autonomy

So how do we nurture those around us to help them become the best, authentic version of themselves? Deci and Ryan talk about this in terms of helping people to internalize values/regulations.

They believe there are two distinct types of internalization: Introjection and Integration. Introjection is akin to swallowing a rule whole without thought, whereas integration is more like chewing and digesting a rule. This the optimal form of internalization.

The behavioral output of introjection—swallowing a rule whole—are things like rigid compliance, halfhearted adherence and sometimes even defiance.

Introjected values and regulations can thus result in a variety of outcomes, but none of these is optimal. Clearly the half-heartedness and the rebellion are good for neither party. And while the rigid compliance may please the socializing agents who prompted it, there are serious costs to be borne by the people who comply.

This introjection manifests mostly in a lack of vitality and enthusiasm. It’s hard to be motivated when you are focused on pleasing others instead of being authentic to yourself.

So how can we focus on helping people integrate the regulations and values that will help them to develop to their full potential?

If you put a rooted avocado pit in a pot of earth it will probably grow into a tree, because it is in the nature of avocados to do that. It happens naturally. But not all pits become trees; some shrivel and decompose. They fail to thrive because the climate is inadequate, or the necessary nutrients are lacking. They need sun; they need water; and they need the right temperatures. Those elements do not make trees grow, but they are the nutriments that the developing avocados need, that are necessary in order for the avocados to do what they do naturally.

The metaphor is simple but poignant. Too often we ask the avocado pit to grow into an apple tree. You can try to nudge that avocado into becoming something else but it will never happen, and you will both be miserable.

It all comes down to autonomy support, according to Deci:

It is particularly interesting that autonomy support, which was a crucial contextual nutriment for individuals’ maintaining intrinsic motivation and as a result being more creative, processing information more deeply, and enjoying their activities more, also turns out to be essential for promoting internalization and integration of the motivation for uninteresting, though important, activities.

At one level of analysis, autonomy support means to relate to others – our children, students, and employees – as human beings, as active agents who are worthy of support, rather than as objects to be manipulated for our own gratification. That means taking their perspective and seeing the world from their point of view as we relate to them. Of course, autonomy support may require more work, but then, as socializing agents, that is our responsibility. For us to expect responsibility from others, we must accept our own responsibility as the agents of their socialization.

Autonomy support is not the same as being overly permissive. Having no limits or regulations will create inconsistent and chaotic environments that are no better to generating feelings of autonomy and full development.

Permissiveness is easy, but autonomy support is hard work. It requires being clear, being consistent, setting limits in an understanding, empathic way.

People will continue to make mistakes; that’s human nature (and it’s often a byproduct of trying hard things). Reacting with either heavy-handedness or permissive indifference does not help. Setting the environment for growth and trying to understand the situation from the other person’s point of view is the best course of action.

We all have the need for autonomy, to feel competent, and to relate to others. If you want to learn more about motivation in yourself and others pick up Why We Do What We Do, it’s well worth the read. The other influential book on motivation in recent years is Daniel Pink’s Drive.