Do things feel weird to you these days?
Are you having trouble understanding why other people are acting the way they do? Are you having trouble understanding why you are acting the way you do? Well, you’re not alone. What’s going on in the world today is very strange, and it’s unique in the experience of almost everyone alive.
When I refer to what’s going on, I’m not speaking so much of current events, but rather about our individual and collective reactions to what we read and hear about.
I’m speaking about what’s going on with us.
We tend to think of ourselves as making mostly rational choices, and then we look out at others and observe so many who appear to be acting irrationally. Unspoken, and often unrecognized, is the question, “What’s wrong with them?”
As the most obvious example today, we saw first a perfectly sensible reaction to the presence of the coronavirus. We typically see the virus as an invisible “enemy” which creates havoc with people’s health and wellbeing. As the pandemic took hold, people behaved more-or-less sensibly in the face of an unseen threat: we stayed home, businesses closed, and folks started hoarding toilet paper. Well… maybe our reactions were not entirely rational. In any case, predictably, the economy then went into free-fall.
Pretty soon, we began to see resistance to the social-distancing measures we were told can minimize the medical havoc. At first, almost everyone at the grocery store was wearing a mask. Then people began to refuse to do so. Empty beaches began to fill up again while we were still being told to stay away.
“Rugged individualism” reared its head, expressing some form of “Don’t tell me what to do.” The president, the person with the loudest megaphone, has consistently put forth messaging in direct opposition to those trying to keep us safe. This seems to have resulted in collective behaviors that show clear defiance of those sensible rules and guidelines and which have apparently turned out to be a recipe for the spread of the virus.
So what is going on with us?
And how would you even approach answering a question like that? Most of us would probably be inclined to take any individual person, either ourselves or someone else, and apply what we know about the basics of psychology to try to understand our behavior. I find it’s hard enough to understand my own behavior; to “get inside someone else’s head” seems impossibly difficult under any circumstances.
My experience has been that when I try to analyze my own behavior in this way, I often wind up identifying what I believe are my character flaws. My presumption that I am a rational being forms the background against which my irrational behaviors stand out in stark contrast.
Those moments tend to make me feel inadequate, as if there’s something I need to correct or make up for, so that I can return my mind to its supposed “normal” logical functioning. That turns out to be a very tall order. And it invokes comparisons in which I try to feel better by finding ways to look at my actions so that they aren’t as “bad” as someone else’s. Add a thick layer of justification to human behavior and the whole thing becomes quite complex.
It seems to me that this process is nearly universal for human beings. We hold some idealized vision of ourselves, against which many of our choices stand out to others as aberrant and even self-sabotaging. And then, if we recognize that some of our choices have been indeed been inappropriate, we have to spend a great deal of energy fixing that problem by making new decisions which are subject to the same flaws we’re trying to make up for.
Allow me to offer another viewpoint from which to look at all this.
This other viewpoint requires that we take a rather large step back from whatever aspects of human behavior strike us as strange, and look more broadly at larger numbers of people in a more generalized way.
This shift from looking at one individual to looking at large groups is, of course, neither new nor unusual. If insurance companies, for example, could only analyze whatever risk is of concern in the affairs of one individual person, the amount of data required to have strong confidence in their assessments would be unwieldy, if obtainable at all. By shifting their focus to large groups, however, statistical methods allow them to spread the risk among the members of the group, thus greatly simplifying the entire process.
The question then becomes, how can we apply this methodology of considering large numbers of people to understand how we are behaving in the face of stressful conditions such as those we experience today? Today’s challenges, of course, encompass not only the coronavirus pandemic but also societal forces, fractures and fissures in our social complacency which the pandemic has widened and whose long-suppressed energies seem to be flooding our consciousness. The current debate over racism and its symbols, statues and flags and so on, stand as just one stark example.
When we consider humanity in general terms, we can identify a number of phenomena that together comprise what has been called mass psychology, or crowd psychology. Among these many behaviors are: trying to look good in the eyes of others, competing with one another in what we’re convinced are zero-sum games, lying to protect one’s image, relegating other people to secondary status when doing so seems to give oneself a financial or emotional advantage, and so on. Again, we usually apply this kind of analysis to “others”, and this amplifies our feelings of separation and superiority, or sometimes inferiority, with regard to those others.
However, what if, in regard to human behavior in stressful situations, what I’m referring to as mass psychology can be viewed as characteristics of a single, planet-wide “Thing”? We could even think of it as a global organism.
As all organisms are, this global “Thing” is wired for survival.
“It” wants to stay in control. And in order to do so, it has to keep all us humans distracted from the real issue, which is that we’re all running around in circles at the behest of this organism instead of truly thinking for ourselves.
Now, how does this endless running around show up in our daily lives? For one thing, we are all engaged in constant searching for solutions to problems that were created by that very search process. This is often called the Law of Unintended Consequences. In general, we’re not accustomed to simply “letting things work themselves out,” especially in regard to ourselves. We typically feel like we have to solve our problems using rational analysis and determined actions. In the process, we continually create new problems. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, you cannot solve problems with the same kind of thinking that created them in the first place.
What is it that predetermines this kind of thinking that causes us to go round and round in circles? Consider the possibility that the answer lies in our consistent identification with the many phenomena I referred to earlier as being typical of mass psychology. Nearly all of us believe that we have to look good, that we have to be effective competitors, that we have to dominate discussions even if that requires lying or bending the truth, that we have to use force to try to control the actions of others, and many more misguided propositions.
All this is part of the story we learned to tell about the world and about our place in it. We all “know” that’s the way the world works. We constantly tell ourselves how we live in a world of random occurrences, some of which are wonderful but which are often tedious or even dangerous. We are reminded how we must protect ourselves against danger, whether it lives in the actions and intentions of others, or whether it’s inherent in the natural world, or maybe even in our own misguided actions. And how, we might ask, did we get acquainted with this story? I suggest that we learned this story as we learned language.
What almost always escapes our notice is that those who teach us their language do so from within the way they look at the world. For us, in our Western, privileged culture, language constitutes a delivery mechanism for the perpetuation of that culture. All our assumptions about what is required for successful living are embedded in the words we teach our children.
Most of us don’t need to distinguish 50 different types of snow, as is said of some native Alaskan populations. However, we do use a richly detailed classification scheme to describe different types of human behavior. Mostly without noticing that we’re doing so, we use this schema to constantly compare ourselves to others, searching for relative advantage and for alleviation of our feelings of inferiority. And then, we codify these categories in our laws, our religions, and our medical diagnoses, so that we can control which types of behavior are permitted and which types are not.
As we grow and mature, we absorb the viewpoint from which our teachers choose the words they offer, and this common understanding becomes a consistent platform on which we can communicate with one another about our shared experience. This much is relatively clear, but what is not so obvious is that the understanding of the world we acquire forms a context in which all of our ideas must find their place. If a new idea is consistent with this understanding, it fits right in. If it’s not, it is usually disregarded, and often isn’t even visible. Our shared cultural understanding, the “Thing,” then, acts as a filter, determining what we are able to think.
Let’s consider a practical example.
Many people believe that on a day-to-day basis in today’s economy, it’s not possible to have a rich choice of job opportunities. Suppose further that we have looked for work in this type of economy, and that our experience looking for a job has shown us that, in fact, there aren’t a lot of good choices. Our experience provides ample demonstration of the accuracy of our belief. This suggests that “what everybody knows” is constantly reinforced by our individual experience, and we tend to consider ourselves to be right about our expectations as a result. (A broader view of the market’s possibilities might allow us to land the perfect job.)
The most significant feature of this shared understanding of the world and of who we are is that it’s largely invisible to us. We never look at that shared understanding; we instead look out at the world through it. It’s like the fish which has spent its entire life in the water. It knows nothing about water because it cannot distinguish water from anything else. If, instead, we were to imagine ourselves as fish who are caught and then released, we could then distinguish the water from everything else, because we would then have experienced its absence.
So we have this shared viewpoint, this shared understanding of the world, which we never see but only see through, and which restricts our thoughts to those that are consistent with that viewpoint. This, then, begs a very consequential question: how can we enlarge our understanding so that we can consider thoughts and possibilities that are not consistent with the story we’ve learned to tell virtually all our lives?
May I suggest that we can make some progress in this effort by thinking of our shared understanding of the world as a whole, and studying its behavior as we would a creature in the wild. Again, it seems to me that this “creature” behaves like an organism whose design function is to survive. To do this, the “creature” has to maintain its domination of anyone who looks at the world through its lens. In watching it, we may notice that when we poke it, it reacts defensively. But it can only react; it cannot respond like we can. I call it the “Thing,” a label which conjures up science-fiction and its preoccupation with creepy aliens.
Well, it is creepy…
…because while pretending to be a neutral and objective viewer of events, the “Thing” manages to enlist all of us in its own doings. And it is also alien, in that, while pretending to be us, and while speaking to each of us in our own voice, it isn’t who we are. It isn’t even real. It’s a way of looking at the world, a way of organizing and filtering the massive flood of information to which we are each subjected so that we’re not completely overwhelmed. It’s a story about the world that each of us has internalized so thoroughly that we have mistaken it for the world itself.
All this makes it sound as if we are all enslaved by this “Thing.” I actually think that’s an apt characterization. It constantly interprets events in a manner that reinforces its dictates that we must continue to compete with one another and to fight for what we want and to guard against what we don’t. We are all so busy trying to achieve the objectives “It” has convinced us are important that we don’t notice that achieving those goals isn’t satisfying. We’re always craving more.
A natural question at this point might be, how can we get the “Thing”, our our shared view of the world, to be more gentle, more compassionate, more conducive to people behaving respectfully toward one another and toward the planet? If the “Thing” is so fundamental to our entire being in the world, and if its perpetuation is so intrinsically connected to how we raise our children and prepare them for successful living, surely our task must be to reform the “Thing”!
The problem here, the “fly in the ointment” so to speak, is that…
…the “Thing” is invisible.
Or perhaps we can say it’s our whole world. We spend our entire lives immersed in this “Thing”, and with nothing to compare it to, it’s all there is.
Thinking of the world the way we do is so natural to us that the assumptions on which our world view rests are never questioned. Virtually none of us ever questions the idea that the physical world forms the context, the container in which we live our lives. It seems so obvious that while we humans and other creatures come and go, the world remains. The “Thing” has always told us that the world exists more-or-less as we perceive it to be. Successful living must then be a function of conducting ourselves most advantageously against the fixed background “It” presents. How could we possibly reform a “Thing” if we were to discover that its entire foundation, the assumptions upon which it’s based, turned out to be nothing but a habit of thought?
Now, perhaps that statement, that the world’s status as the container of our lives might be nothing but a habit of thought, seems absurd. But consider that physicists have known for more than a century that the tiny building blocks of the world have no independent existence apart from their being observed. They’ve known for all that time that it requires an observation to bring any one of those quantum possibilities into tangible reality. So maybe the world isn’t what we think it is, and maybe the “Thing” is a world view that’s based on a set of assumptions that together might turn out to be a myth.
Well, if we can’t reform it, how can we be free of this “Thing,” otherwise known as mass or crowd psychology? I’m convinced that the place to start is to recognize that…
…its power is fake, illusory, and ultimately, a superstition.
It’s a story built atop false but mostly invisible premises: that we are separate from one another and from that which animates us, that resources are finite and thus limited, that the actions of others can and do restrict our choices and opportunities, and so on.
How can we disabuse ourselves of this debilitating illusion? It’s simple… just stop telling the story we’ve been telling all these years. This task is simple, but it’s not easy. Not with all those years of practice in telling that story. I’ve found that picking something simple, a part of my story I’m not overly attached to, is a good place to start.
As an example of how we might do this, suppose you have a person in your life, say a family member, with whom you say it’s tough to get along. Try making an honest list of their positive attributes, and looking carefully at that list whenever you’re likely to encounter them. See if they begin to show up in your experience more in accord with your list.
Suppose your Aunt Martha has expressed views about minorities that you find deeply objectionable, and as a result you tend to avoid family gatherings to which she’s been invited. Contemplating this situation, you might realize that your Aunt cares deeply about family, you included, and that she doesn’t understand why you avoid those gatherings. If you continue to emphasize your points of disagreement, things will probably stay the way they are. Shifting your focus to her love for family, and pointedly disregarding her apparent prejudice, will allow her to feel more fully her connectedness with others and over time this may soften her attitudes and give you the opportunity to share (with love) your thoughts on minorities.
If you do this experiment honestly, you may discover that the world around you is not “just the way it is,” but rather that your observation of what’s going on around you is related to your expectations, your beliefs about what is likely to show up. That would constitute the extrapolation of quantum principles to human behavior. What if we were to discover that the world view in which we have invested so much time and energy is only a view, a picture of something whose actual nature is far beyond our ability to define it? The “Thing” that has dominated our lives for millennia might then turn out to be a fraud. Snake oil probably did have a role in curing some illnesses, but only as a placebo; its supposed effectiveness was solely based on a fervent belief in it.
Yes, the task is not easy, but it is simple.
You can come to know the “Thing,” to understand its behavior, and gradually even to free yourself from its hold on you. And there’s no time like right now to get started. In fact, I could say that there is no time other than right now. Shall we begin?