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In defiance of our defiance; hacking our primal selves: Research to aid humanity get out of its funk

Post by Anton Botha


Durham PhD candidate - Anton (right)

With the Brexit vote now out of the way and the US presidential elections ahead of us this November, the question on many peoples’ minds has been how these surprising election outcomes came to be? The accession of Boris, Trump, Bolsonaro, too mention a few, has come as a shock to many observers with what seems to be the buckling of the traditional political order.

There is of course no shortage of talking heads out there ready to provide ‘expert analysis’ which ranges from, “it’s the economy stupid” to the well-worn “blame it on old people” trope. Some other commentators have provided a more considered analysis, like Professor Brian Castellani in his book on our Defiance of our Global Commitment, which builds a complex social psychology to explain this, and other related, phenomenon. Castellani builds a compelling case for how our primal mammalian brains have betrayed us in the face of a world which is perceived as overly complex and out of control.

While there is probably varying degrees of truth to be found in all these analyses, what I find so interesting about the outcome of these elections is the relatively slim margins of victory enjoyed in most cases. Trump famously lost the popular vote but won the US’s Electoral College with about a hundred thousand voters deciding the election in only three states. In the same vein, Bolsonaro did not manage to obtain a majority in the first round of the 2018 Brazilian presidential elections and only won with a slim majority in the second round of voting. Brexit was a similarly narrow victory for the Leave campaign with only about 2% of the eligible voting population tipping the scales in favour of unprecedented change.

When one considers that an election, which can change the course of human history, can be swung by such a small fraction of the population it invokes, to me at least, complexity and its accompanying ideas of tipping points and sensitivity to initial conditions.

With this in mind, and while reading an article in the popular press on Attachment Theory and its impact on later-life personal relationships, I started to think how this theory, viewed at a macro-level, and when placed within our larger socio-economic context, could help add explanatory value to our current predicaments.

Attachment Theory viewed from 10,000 Feet

Readers may recall learning about Attachment Theory in introduction to psychology and is credited to John Bowlby. At its base, Attachment Theory states that humans have evolved to seek security through proximity to their primary caregiver from infancy through early childhood. Depending on how consistently the primary caregiver reacts to these demands, individuals develop either secure or insecure attachment styles (Bowlby, 1982, 1969). Bowlby (1988) also proposed that these attachment styles follow people into adulthood and likely colour their socio-relational views.

Subsequently, it has been shown through an insightful body of research that attachment styles impact how individuals process information about the world around them. Those with a secure attachment style are open to new information, comfortable with uncertainty and flexible with changing their views considering new data. However, those with insecure styles can be closed off and unreceptive to relevant information, distort social cues and exaggerate threats while being avoidant of people and instead become focused on protecting themselves. This in turn can make them cling to negative stereotypes of others in the face of ample evidence to the contrary.

While much of this research is focused on the impact of attachments styles on close personal relationships, I was left pondering two inter-related ideas.

Dual income households’ impact on attachment style

The first was how modern dual income households impact the manifestation of attachment styles? It doesn’t seem unreasonable to hypothesize that given that child and caregiver are separated at an early age, thanks to the ever-increasing economic demands faced by parents, that the proportion of the population likely to develop insecure attachment styles may be on the increase.

According to the Pew Research Centre the percentage of US dual income families have increased from 25% in 1960 -as a percentage of married couples- to 60% in 2012. The US also notoriously has no statutory maternity leave requirements. This, in turn, means that families eager not to suffer additional loss of income due to the ‘disruption’ of birth, return to work within weeks of meeting their new arrivals. In fact, one in four mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth in the US. It is hard to imagine that these new-borns get the same chance of developing a secure attachment style as their single income parental peers. This idea is at least partially supported by the findings of Isaacs et al. (2017) which demonstrated that paid maternity leave “promotes healthy parent-child relationships”.

While the trend in the remainder of the world is towards more compassionate maternity leave policies, OECD data suggests a trajectory in favour of dual income families follows a similar pattern to the US in most, if not all, industrialized nations.

This is of course not to say that most dual income families are not capable of raising children with secure attachment styles, and it certainly does not imply that having a stay-at-home caregiver will always result in a secure one. But there is at least initial support for the idea that the scales are being tipped ever so slightly in favour of insecure profiles in the general population. Research on adult attachment style and political ideology found that those with secure attachments styles were significantly more likely to have liberal political views.

Attachment style and ideological predisposition

Secondly, I was left to wonder how sensitive people with insecure attachment styles would be to political messaging? Especially the kind of targeted advertising that stokes fear and mistrust like those found on social media. Here too Gaziano provided some interesting insights with her finding that secure attachment styles predicted trust in media reporting and government. Given the findings of Mikulineer and Shaver, as well as Gaziano , it would not be unreasonable to conclude that our attachment styles are not only impacting our interpersonal relationships, but also the way we view society and our global social commitments.

These two interrelated ideas, taken together, may well help provide some additional explanatory value to these unexpected electoral outcomes given, as we discussed earlier, it only takes a small fraction of the swing voter population to see the world as a hostile place to alter its outcome.

Complexity and unintended consequences

In addition, what these two interrelated ideas illustrate is an attempt to acknowledge the complexity of the world we live in. The social policies we choose almost always have unintended and interrelated consequences. In the case of attachment styles, the very conditions that are now driving a shift toward more insular politics was made possible by shifting global economic pressures which resulted in policies favouring economic growth over the well-being of people and the environment. This dominant neo-liberal dogma has left some of us financially wealthier, but most of us poorer in our quality of family life. This erosion in family relationships in turn drives up the number of insecure voters receptive to autocrats with messages of ‘stranger-danger’ while running on platforms of ‘law-and-order’, ‘taking back control’, and ‘make *place country name here* great again!’.

And while Attachment Theory is an interesting framework through which to understand these surprising political outcomes, it is likely just one of several primal human drivers which has contributed to it. As Castellani catalogued, there are a multitude of unconscious neurological and evolutionary psychological reasons why we act in ways that defy our responsibilities towards each other and our planet. These include a venerable menu of cognitive biases, emotional distortions, insecurities, and instincts. Yet, we are also beings capable of sober rational thought, pro-social behaviour, and self-sacrifice. And there have been times in history that we have managed to overcome our primal selves in favour of commitments towards something larger, for example: the United Nations, the European Union, the end of Slavery/Apartheid, the eradication of smallpox, Wikipedia, too mention but a few.

For Castellani though, the balance has shifted in favour of our primal selves thanks to the ever-increasing complexity of the world we live in. And there seems to be ample evidence for the manifestation of this, be it our inability to take decisive action on climate change, our growing disillusionment in democracy, or our shirking of our public health responsibilities. It seems that when faced with the challenges of contemporary life, people tend to retreat away from their global commitments toward isolation and nostalgia, albeit in different ways. Some hark back to some form of eco-primitivism (see Neo-Luddites), while others look back longingly at the good old days of patriarchy (see the Proud Boys movement in the US). For others, still it is the desire of an ethno-state (see Alt-Right in the US and nationalism movements in Europe) or some form of religiously pure community (see ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria).

It’s all about winning!

In turn, politicians and their pollsters have tapped into their populaces desire for retreat and nostalgia. And those who are willing to do anything in the cause of winning have unscrupulously exploited our primal desires for their political gain. The tools they have used are sophisticated. Through the clever manipulation of social media, we have seen how organizations like Cambridge Analytica were able to identify swing voters, and more importantly, cluster these voters into their ‘domains of retreat’. They then developed targeted social media advertising aimed directly at the primal concern of that population segment. Because humans generally process information emotionally before rationally, these messages, mainly because of their targeted nature, invoke powerful emotional responses well before our critical faculties have had an opportunity to question them (Bond, 2009). Unfortunately, once our emotional selves have been engaged, our critical faculties are more likely to be employed to rationalise our emotions than to counter them.

Is it any surprise then that the Trump 2020 campaign have planned the largest social media messaging blitz in the history of US elections? The projected budget for this effort is likely to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars just for targeted digital advertising which, in turn, will generate billions of views.

How then do we counter this trend?

My research agenda…

There are three basic questions that come to my mind when thinking about this:

  1. Are their ways to get individuals to resist knee-jerk emotional reactions to targeted social media advertising? Can we make individuals aware of the fact that they are being manipulated? More importantly, does raising awareness and elevating this to the level of conscious awareness mean we will be motivated to resist being influenced by this type of messaging? Are there ways to inoculate people against this type of messaging? The extensive coverage of the Cambridge Analytica scandal would suggest otherwise, but maybe there are alternative ways of achieving this outcome.

  2. What if we can’t achieve the above? Is it then possible to fight ‘fire-with-fire’? Given that we know the ‘name of the game’ so to speak, could one conceive of ‘counter-clusters’ and tailored messaging that would render these targeted ads ineffectual? Could one muddy the waters by appealing to other parts of the primal brain that would neutralize or perhaps confuse these emotions sufficiently to minimize the likelihood of negative action, such as the support of racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and/or anti-science ideologies?

  3. Is such an approach ethical? My second question raises all sorts of moral quandaries which are entirely legitimate and would likely keep philosophers concerned with such matters occupied for years to come. However, it should be noted that these ethical concerns are currently not being observed in the real world by those using these tools for their own gain, and unfortunately, given the lack of oversight, they are winning. Considering then that the stakes couldn’t be higher, perhaps now is the time for a bold research agenda? For if not now, when?

Broadly speaking, these three interrelated questions tie into my research goals as a PhD researcher in the Sociology Department at Durham University.

Motivation theory… a way out?

Put another way, these questions speak to ideas around motivated human behaviour, a most complex of beasts to slay. However, better understanding what gets us going or what prevents us from acting is essential as our anthropogenic impact continues to grow to our detriment. The field of human motivation studies in psychology have numerous theories to explain this phenomenon, yet I believe this is an area of theorizing that has largely been overlooked in Sociology.

Using the tools available in human motivation studies as well as the fields of cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, I want to better understand the complex interplay between our primal selves, our rational pro-social selves, and our environments as it relates to our attitudes toward our ecological crisis. In particular, I am curious to explore ‘Self Determination Theory’, as well as ‘Action Trait Theory’ further.

It is my hope that if we have better theories and frameworks through which to understand motivated behaviour in the context of our global commitments, these might then light the way for interventions, policies, and strategies to balance out our primal selves in public discourse. This will hopefully allow humanity to return to our global commitments of cooperation, sustainability, peace, and prosperity.

In short, it is time we begin to find ways to defy our defiance of our global commitments.

Follow Anton on Twitter: @antonibotha

#Complexity #Attachment #Motivation #Defiance #Brexit #Trump

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