In my last post I talked about some of the reasons why gadgets are so appealing from a neurological perspective. I also suggested that modern living (and the gadgets) are, in part, responsible for a lack of connectedness with the people around us. Interestingly, a part of the reason we get so obsessed with our gadgets and with social networks, is because, neurochemically, they help us to feel connected to others, something that’s deeply inbuilt for humans.
I also suggested that, by extension, we’re losing our sense of community and meaningful national pride, and replacing it with something a lot more generic. I cautioned, however, against nostalgia, and the assumption that, just because it happened in the past and we feel a sense of loss, it doesn’t mean that it was better.
So let’s have a guess at what’s happening – and attempt to figure out where we’re going.
Going back to the deep human need for connection to others. This is as deep a drive in humans as the need for sex, food and water. One of the nastiest things that can be done to other human beings is to isolate them, and we suffer remarkably when this deprivation occurs. We are indeed social animals. There’s an interesting irony at work in the modern world: with increasing population we might expect increased opportunity to connect with others, but more people find themselves feeling disconnected, often manifesting in anxiety or depression. The gadgets that are supposed to connect us don’t actually fulfil the basic need, but we cling to them anyway – much like the early behavioural (and highly disturbing) experiments with monkeys that showed that physical connection was more important than food.
Population density works against us. We’re incapable of forming relationships with more than about 200 people – evolutionary psychologists suggest that this is because of the maximum size of early human tribes, beyond about 200, other humans are viewed as a potential source of threat. So, although we are excellent at collaborating with those with whom we have an immediate connection, larger groups make us extremely uncomfortable. If you’ve ever tried taking public transport in a really big city at rush hour (like London or New York), you’ll know what I mean. Humans stop cooperating and start competing. At some level though, we’re convinced that our tribe is more important than others, and so we often collaborate with our tribe to bring down others. This behaviour is seen at just about every level, from cliques at high school, to football supporters, to fanbois, to nations.
But humans are also moderately clever. We’ve created systems for dealing with large groups (called governments), as well as an economy (for regulating large numbers of transactions) and organisations (for regulating people at various levels as they participate in the economy). Governments can be very good at convincing people that they’re part of a larger tribe, reducing their discomfort from feelings of disconnection and anonymity. In particularly scary instances, this results in horrible consequences. Unfortunately, governments are nothing but collections of people, and we’re also hardwired to try to get what we want, and to rise in the pack. The further we rise, the harder it is to maintain a real connection to those around us – think dictators, or the mega-rich (with a few notable exceptions) – and the higher we rise, the easier it is to treat others as if they aren’t actually human.
Let’s come down a few steps and bring this back to the individual level, because I’m getting closer to a point. Put together the deep-seated need for connection with others alongside the desire to rise in the pack. Now start to remove the various layers of connectivity that our ancestors used (e.g., local communities), and that were enforced by a lack of technology. At the same time, increase the feeling of anonymity by increasing the number of people without raising the connectivity to those people (they are now competitors). Last, provide lots of gadgets that inspire desire and that reinforce their perceived importance through neurochemical rewards (making us think they’re important for connection to other humans but, in reality, isolating us from others).
All up, we’ve got a great recipe for (i) entitlement and (ii) reduced resilience.
Huh? OK that needs a bit of explanation…
i) Entitlement comes from the belief that we’re more important than those around us and, by extension, that we deserve more. So if we’re disconnected from those around us (and besotted with the need for shiny new things in an attempt to fill this need), and because other people aren’t seen as supportive (because we have no connection to them), we’re likely to experience the belief that they are competition, making it a lot easier to justify uncivil behaviour – we don’t know them, they’re taking what we want, and we should be able to get it… Entitlement makes it that much easier to behave in ways that seem advantageous to us, but that end up reducing our sense of community and connectedness even further. When we’re pushy and rude, others respond in a similar way, demonstrating that the world is a competitive and unpleasant place, and reinforcing our antisocial behaviour.
ii) Resilience is the human ability to adapt to unexpected and difficult situations. It requires psychological flexibility and the psychological resources to cope with and overcome obstacles. The flexibility comes from being able to view the world from a variety of angles, and not to react automatically or stereotypically when presented with a challenge. The resources come from our connectedness to the people around us, and both their example to us, and our willingness to learn from them. Without connections from whom we can learn effective, human-centric behaviours, our reactions are distinctly limited; the outcome: low or no resilience.
And what happens when we become a nation of entitled psychological weaklings? We shop…
No seriously. We’ve now got access to almost unlimited goodies. Credit is easy to come by, and the items that would have been considered toys of the mega-rich 20 years ago are commonplace. Every time we buy a new object, we get a neurochemical reward. We feel special for a short period of time. But it doesn’t last and we feel empty, so we want more. Instead of finding meaning in our lives by fostering deep human connections, or by working to achieve something bigger than ourselves, we become mean and spiteful, hankering down in our goodie bunkers, lusting after more and begrudging others what they have.
We’re facing an epidemic of loss: of humanism, of patience, of identity, of manners, of ourselves.
OK – this is a big downer, I’m depressing myself. The world isn’t nearly as bad as I’m making it sound (I hope) – so let’s flip the coin and talk about what can we do – read on for Part 3!