Collective self-deception

I just finished reading Global Brain. There were lots of parts deserving of comment, but I wouldn’t really be adding anything to the discussion except saying “Look, THIS” and pointing at quotes. Suffice to say, I think it’s worth reading (and if anybody wants to borrow it, they are welcome to – it’s actually quite short, since the book is essentially half references and notes).

Anyhow, there was one part that resonated with me that was related to my attempt to be open and honest about certain aspects of my life, which is unfortunately in conflict with what the law deems to be true. This particular piece is discussing a Baptist town in New York State which is fervently against this “era’s godless sins”, and how the reality was that most individuals indulged in those same sins to their holy shame, assuming that they were the only transgressors:

“How completely the annointed had commandeered collective perception became apparent when Schanck asked the closet dissenters how other people in the community felt about face cards, liquor, a smoke, and levity. Hoodwinked by suppression, each knew without a doubt that he was the sole transgressor in a saintly sea. He and he alone could not control his demons of depravity. None had the faintest inkling that he was part of a silenced near-majority.

Here was an arch lesson in the games subcultures play. reality is a mass halucination. We gauge what’s real according to what others say. And others, like us, rein in their words, caving in to timidity. Thanks to conformity enforcement and to cowardice, a little power goes a long, long way.”

Obviously that’s an extreme version of the issue I’m obtusely referring to, since within our personal groups there is openness about these things. But to go beyond that, and announce it to your work colleagues is to risk job loss. However, without facing that risk, we are buying in to the validity of those laws. I don’t suggest anyone do so, but it’s a difficult catch 22 situation to be in.

Maslow’s hierarchy, conformity, and diversity

I’ve recently been rereading Howard Bloom’s Global Brain. A book I originally read in my second year of university. The first time, I found it incredibly interesting and it became a running joke with my girlfriend at the time about me saying “Global brain this! Global brain that!”. Anyhow, suffice to say, I felt it was influential to my intellectual life and wanted to revisit it with the wisdom of 8 more years (the other two major books that influenced me being Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace and his later book Visions, which I may reread and possibly summarise here).

One serendipidous clash of ideas that occurred recently was me stumbling across the triangle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For those that haven’t come across this pyramid before, it’s a frequently mentioned model for representing the psychology of human motivation. What it purports to show is that the higher level desires only really manifest once the lower needs are met. So at the very lower level we have physiological needs like breathing, water and food, and at the level above that we have the need for safety, and then social needs. In other words, it’s very hard to be concerned about whether you’ve got a date this weekend if you can’t breath right now! If you’re interested in more detail about what falls in each level, check out Wikipedia as I’m going to move on and connect this to something Bloom talks about in Global Brain…

Basically, Bloom talks about the rise of systems with ever more complexity and the sharing of information. From self-assembling molecules that pre-dated life, all the way to the internet. Bloom points to 5 or 6 characteristics of these complex adaptive systems that lead to them evolving and proliferating. Two of these characteristics are conformity enforcers and diversity generators.

Conformity enforcers are things that ensure the system maintains coherence. It’s why all our cells work together and why we kill off foreign bodies (since they don’t conform to the antigen mould expected by cells of the ‘self’) and why conservative society frowns on errant behaviour.

Diversity generators allow a system to try out new ideas, and often a certain amount of diversity is needed for a system to actually properly manifest itself. Since after all, despite our cells having essentially identical DNA, they differentiate into physiologically different forms. Likewise, in human society, we all specialise… even in the most conservative of cultures.

My hypothesis is, that the ratio of diversity to conformity in human society is related to the fulfilment of individual’s hierarchy of needs. A bias towards lower levels will lead to a pressure for conformity, whereas a large number of society’s members reaching the level of self-actualization leads to individuals following more independent and unique paths.

However, that’s all well and good, but since adaptive systems need conformity to retain coherence, many societies enforce or promote a deficiency in one of these needs, in effect inhibiting self-actualization.

For example, institutions such as religion instill an inferiority complex: e.g. you are born with original sin putting in a firm block at the ‘esteem’ level. Many others try to convince it’s practioners to refrain from sex except under particular conditions or circumstances, making it difficult to even go beyond the first physiological level without first meeting these conditions.

Sparta was one of the greatest conformity enforcing societies (see Global Brain for details) and was able to push it’s citizens to the very bottom of the triangle. They were deprived of food growing up and forced to steal (all part of the training). My hypothesis does fall down a bit (as does Maslow’s hierarchy) as the Spartans apparently did have some higher needs such as sociality and esteem met. They were essentially a big gang, and considered the people of the societies they ruled over as inferior.

Global Brain frequently compares Sparta and Athens as opposing ends of the conformity vs. diversity balance. One of the things that lead me to the hypothesis was that, in Athens – the diversity king, individuals had a wealth of choice. They could find the group they fit in best and there was plenty of potential to explore new ideas, both of which I’d consider major aspects of self-actualization.