Every once in a while Mercedes reminds me that I need to do a better job of tying my ideas together into something coherent. My ideology is a work in progress, but here it is in its current state. The ideas are expressed using four dichotomies. Each pair can be understood to have an “inner” and an “outer” aspect (i.e., a Yin and a Yang):
Personality and Culture
Personality is the inner aspect of identity, which represents our power as an individual.
The five key aspects of personality are Extroversion (the power to win), Openness (the power to comprehend), Conscientiousness (the power to work), Agreeableness (the power to unify) and Neuroticism (the power to avoid failure). Personality traits are associated with certain chemical pathways (e.g., dompamine, oxytocin, cortisol, etc.) and emotions (excitement, curiosity, determination, sympathy, anger, anxiety).
Personality depends on many factors, but primary among them are genetics and feedback (i.e., nature and nurture). Everyone exhibits all personality traits to various degrees, but there is value in recognizing where our greatest powers lie. Knowing who we are, and collaborating with others who have complimentary powers, can lead to great success.
Culture is the external aspect of identity, which represents our collective power.
One of the main things that sets humans apart from animals is our ability to adapt by changing culture (i.e., instead of our DNA). This requires both a high-fidelity cultural transmission (the ability to unquestioningly adopt the behaviors we observe around us) and a mechanism for adaptation (i.e., the ability to seek out new and better ways). In some sense, Extroversion and Openness facilitate adaptation whereas Conscientiousness and Neuroticism promote preservation of existing cultural norms.
There are different levels of culture that determine how we think about who we should trust (i.e., what our communities should be like), what success means, and how we can achieve it.
Just as animals do not generally understand the purpose underlying their instinctual behavior, human beings do not generally understand our cultural behavior (or the emotions underlying our personality). We do not need to actually understand our behavior for the emotional and cultural mechanisms to lead to evolutionary success. However, our brain does generate a “rational” narrative that “explains” this behavior. Even though this narrative isn’t necessarily complete or even true, it is a useful adaptation that helps us harness what limited rationality we have at our disposal.
Security and Status
Security (specifically, emotional security) is the inner aspect of happiness. It represents the joy of intimacy.
Emotional security is achieved by grooming a small number of close relationships. We are biologically predisposed to have a certain number of these relationships (around a dozen). A strong intimate relationship is characterized by commitment and understanding, both of which lead to trust. The people you trust are the people who will have your back no matter what.
It is much easier to develop trust among people with whom we share a common cultural understanding. However, it is not the case that it is necessary to share a similar personality. In fact, some of the most powerful teams are formed when members having different personality attributes can develop an intimate level of trust. This isn’t easy, however, because our personality dictates the kinds of things we value, which can lead us to devalue the contributions of those who bring something else to the table.
Grooming intimate relationships takes a significant amount of time, and something inside you can tell if you aren’t getting enough attention. Your brain interprets loneliness (either acute loneliness, or the more common low level loneliness that comes from having too few or too weak/transitory intimate relationships) as a major threat to survival, and it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy (i.e., there is a strong effect on physical and emotional health).
Status is the outer aspect of happiness. It represents the joy of social recognition.
Status is highly correlated with wealth, but they are not exactly the same. Money can buy many status symbols, and in fact, that is one of the main uses for money. But money can also be saved, invested, squandered, or spent on immediate gratification. The close association of money with status is a relatively recent thing. On an evolutionary time frame, money has only existed for the briefest of moments. Even a few hundred years ago wealth was mostly in the form of land, not monetary assets, so status was largely associated with land ownership.
Status is relative. That is, we evaluate our status based on how we compare to our neighbors. However, in some cases, we achieve (i.e., feel the emotional benefit of) status from being a part of a high status group. That is, status doesn’t have to be based on individual achievement. In fact, I would argue that true happiness is found in seeking status together with your circle of intimate friends.
Status is subject to diminishing returns. That is, the more you have, the harder it is to get more. So, for example, the relationship between wealth and happiness is logarithmic (which is the inverse of exponential). In other words, it starts to go up very slowly after a while. Once you are a few standard deviations above the norm, achieving more wealth is probably not going to result in significant increase in happiness.
Education and Career
Education is the inner aspect of work. It refers to how we develop our personality and learn our culture. Education happens in many places, but for children it primarily takes place at home and at school.
A worthy school environment focuses on helping children develop their personality in addition to their culture (i.e., skills). Furthermore, a proper school environment has a balanced emphasis on the pursuit of emotional security and social status.
Such a school employs techniques that engage the brain in ways similar to what we would have experienced in our evolutionary small-group context. That is, it employs observation and participation in meaningful work, ample play, bi-directional conversation and immediate feedback. An optimal school environment functions seamlessly together with the home environment to provide such an education.
Changes in culture have made it impossible to teach economically relevant skills in a way that perfectly corresponds to our evolutionary environment. The kinds of skills that are valuable these days often cannot be learned by simple observation and play. Furthermore, it is very costly to keep children around and try to teach them while working at the same time. Still, these cultural changes haven’t changed how our brain learns, so an attempt should be made to understand and cater to the way the brain evolved.
The mismatch between school and brain doesn’t just make it hard to learn new skills. The kinds of feedback kids get exposed to at school causes unnatural levels of stress that can have huge negative impact on social and emotional development. For some, the developmental problems caused by modern schooling are compounded by the fact that the environment is not personality neutral. Certain behaviors are celebrated and encouraged (conscientiousness and agreeableness and, sometimes, openness) while others are discouraged or aggravated (mostly neuroticism).
Career is the outer aspect of work. It is where we employ our personality and culture to achieve status. The mark of a truly worthy career is one where we can employ our full personality toward achieving status together with people who understand and trust us.
When our career is deficient, it causes alienation. A career can be deficient (i.e., cause alienation) in two ways. First, it can fail to provide us with emotional security. That is, our work relationships can be transitory and shallow. In some cases, those we work with do not really trust or understand us, and fail to recognize our value and leverage the power of our personality and skills. Since we spend so much time at work, the lack of positive work relationships will typically lead to an overall deficit in emotional security.
The second way a career can be deficient is that it can fail to provide us with an adequate path for achieving status. For example, some jobs offer no possibility of advancement, or equity. Thus, in some cases we grind away at the same thing every day without an incentive to apply our full emotional and intellectual power to our job.
Family and Society
Family is the inner aspect of community. It is the primary means by which we pass on our DNA, express our personality, and to some extent, our culture. It is the circle of people that we trust, which provides us with emotional security. A family should seek to provide a proper education and a proper work environment for each of its members.
Historically, families fostered complex relationship networks between a relatively large number of people. Today, when we think of family, we usually refer to the nuclear family. In other words, many people try to concentrate all of their intimacy into one adult relationship.
However, as discussed above, our brain is designed to maintain a certain number of close allies, so one relationship is really not enough to satisfy our need for emotional security. And true intimacy (i.e., trust and understanding) requires a significant level of commitment. Our work relationships and casual friendships usually aren’t robust enough to carry this kind of emotional weight. Thus, the modern paring down of the family to nuclear size has greatly contributed to an overall deficit in emotional security.
Furthermore, restricting the view of family to the nuclear family limits the family concept to a single generation, and makes it harder for people to identify as part of a lasting family entity. Families are not seen as carriers of a coherent culture apart from that of the society at large. These days we don’t really expect children to maintain family religious beliefs, career skills, connections to place, or other important cultural identifiers.
It is doubtful that our evolutionary history was based on people identifying with dynastic family entities that were completely immersed in a broader social context, but this is largely because at that point there really wasn’t much of a broader social context. The small band was pretty much all there was, and every individual’s social and emotional development played out in a world that was pretty much limited to extended family.
Thus, undermining the significance of the extended family (and replacing it with a combination of a restricted nuclear family and an impersonal society) can be expected to have very serious effects (which we probably can’t even understand any more than early practitioners of agriculture knew they were subject to iron deficiency).
Society is the outer aspect of community. It is the broadest group of people that serves as a high-fidelity carrier of cultural norms (I have termed the prevailing set of common cultural norms the Standard Model). Also, society is the stage upon which we vie for status (i.e., the people we compare ourselves to).
Recently, the prominence of society vis-à-vis family has been significantly increased. In the past, families were the basis of economic cooperation. However, cultural developments including Christianity (which led to greater trust among strangers), international bond markets (which allowed wealth to be held in money rather than land), joint stock corporations (which allowed strangers to invest together) and other developments have broken the connection between family and economy. Then of course we have the development of mass media and the internet, which allows individuals to bypass their immediate neighbors when seeking information or conversation.
Modern cultural and economic institutions have resulted in an increasing tension between the need for emotional security and the desire for status. Mistrust of strangers has been replaced by expanded cultural boundaries and effective ways of working together. As a result, we can now make more money cooperating with strangers than we can cooperating with family. Thus, cultural norms (and the accompanying cautionary myths) have evolved to teach us that trying to engage closely with family members (or pass on your way of life to your children) is inefficient (i.e., nepotism) and dangerous (e.g., as in the Dead Poet’s Society).
For many people, the modern tension between emotional security and status seeking is combined with an alienating work environment. Thus, we find ourselves on a status treadmill. That is, we compete with the rest of society for status without a sufficient foundation of intimate relationships to provide emotional (or financial) security.
As a result of these considerations, my recommendation is to re-imagine a role for an extended family in a modern cultural context. I don’t want to tear down markets or shut down the internet. I want to provide an education-and-work bubble that extends to the limits of our biological need for emotional security. This can take the form of a family based school, and a family based business. Within this bubble, a small, committed group of people will develop permanent bonds of trust and understanding, and this way of life can be passed on from generation to generation.
I recognize that we can’t completely recreate a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the modern world. But our institutions should reflect an understanding of our evolutionary origins, including our tendency to develop distinct personalities, our not-a-blank-slate methods of learning and transmitting culture, and the fundamental role played by small (but not too small) groups in our sense of emotional security.