We're in for a wild ride. Exponentially accelerating technological, cultural, and socioeconomic evolution means that every year will see more developments than the previous one. More change will happen between now and 2050 than during all of humanity's past. Let's explore the 21st century and ride this historic wave of planetary transition with a confident open mind.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Future is Positive Psychology

Positive psychology focuses on strong healthy individuals and thus finds ways to improve everybody regardless of label

Current negative psychology studies and helps miserable people and thus creates a counterproductive black and white duality of  broken vs. healthy

Psychology is a very young science. It only began to blossom productively once the power of the field's 19th century founding fathers declined. It only really started integrating biology and the corresponding physicality of pharmaceuticals half a century ago. Nothing seems fundamentally more important than the study of our mental faculties and of constructs to better explain why we think or feel the way we do. That is the road to finding ways to modify ourselves more to our liking.

We've heard the ancient suggestion "know thyself" many times but we still treat psychology as the co-equal of other soft "sciences" like sociology, economics, or cultural anthropology. Surely all those are important, have connections with psychology, and should be studied alongside it in an integrated manner. However, as Nietzsche put it, psychology is the mother of the sciences and we need to prioritize study of ourselves over groups, rockets, and interest rates. We as humans and our thoughts and personalities are more important and more physically tangible than concepts of marginal tax rates, legislative structures, and cultural evolutions. Understanding how we think and feel, learning to augment and modify ourselves, and to think in new ways obviously has direct effect on how we approach and view other sciences.

So why the socio-cultural neglect of psychology? The answer, besides it being such a young science, is that being labeled crazy, dumb, and different often got you killed (often horribly) for most of human history. Psychology did a lot of classification of human behavior and has labeled much of that behavior maladaptive and in need of change. However, most humans have a difficult time thinking in shades of gray so anything different or maladaptive is viewed through the binary lens of normal/abnormal, healthy/sick, self reliant/dependent, good/bad, crazy/sane etc. Nobody wants to be on the other side of the absolutist fence. In most of the world, you either buck up and survive long enough to have kids or you might as well not live at all.

 Reality is much more complex. Human population varies greatly in how much personal power individuals have. Personal ability to influence the environment directly affects how many resources one will have, how one will be treated, how likely one is to combine one's genes with a really good mate, etc. The more power one has, the more one is happier, wealthier, and better treated by others. People give attention/support to expanding growing organisms and create a virtuous cycle for that organism. Powerlessness as we all know creates a vicious cycle.

Figure 1, which is just grafted onto an IQ bell curve chart for a rough example, shows that most of the population just has an average amount of personal influence that is physiologically possible. Personal power is determined by a multitude of factors (many of them roughly co-equal in importance) which can combine in various way and which all influence each other.

Some examples of many are:

1) Bodily health (getting up every morning and coughing blood or feeling pain is no way to live even if wealthy or attractive)
2) Wealth
3) Neural structure (psychological health. getting up every morning with panic attacks and phobia of the outside is also not a way to live even if famous and intelligent)
4) Attractiveness
5) Intelligence
6) Uniqueness/strength/attractiveness of personality
7) Social class
8) Race
9) Age
10) Ethnic background
11) Gender

The factors vary from culture to culture and contribute to personal influence in constantly changing ways. To illustrate with a simple mathematical example, say there are 10 factors and each can be measured on a scale of 1-10. We can easily see how 2 people can roughly have the same amount of power while having very different factor strengths. Such measurement is obviously impossible but is useful to keep in mind as a construct. Many of the factors can obviously be lumped together or further subdivided.

The socially determined nature of some of these factors can have a drastic effects on the individual. Lets say there is a very bigoted society and there are 5 people in the room. They are all roughly the same in intelligence/neural structure/attractiveness/forceful personality/health (these 5 come close to being universal in terms of being socially constructed internationally). If one of the people in the room is of the race/gender/ethnic group/age/social class that is being discriminated against, that person will not be given as much power through attention/support. That person can be level 70 while others around him/her are level 68-71 yet the discriminated person will not feel like an equal. A person discriminated against has to be stronger than nearby people just to be treated as an equal.

As soon as two people meet each other their brains do a very rapid unconscious appraisal of the other person's strength versus their own. Immediately, the person labels the other as either a weaker competitor in the world, roughly equal competitor, or a stronger competitor. Often the initial meeting is enough for such assessment but often it becomes distorted through being in an atypical state such as on some drug or being extremely tired. The above mentioned factors all give a person a sense of where he should rate the person he meets as well as himself in the larger social sphere. Obviously if a person is a recluse, his ability to self rank and rank others is greatly dulled since social intelligence is not as developed. The sense of one's influence in the world as determined by the natural biology and environment is fluid and can swing forward and backward on the Figure 1 bell curve. Every person on the planet wants to expand personal influence infinitely in all directions. It is a very useful genetic command since it allows more reproduction, nutrition, as well as adapting the environment to oneself rather than the other way around. Infinitely means just that.

Let's use an extreme silly example. The genetically hardwired desire for influence reaches for the stars by wanting to 1) control all the resources on the planetary surface, 2) having everybody else think exactly like him/her self by liking his/her ideas so much as to internalize them completely, 3) having every female utilize same donor sperm so one's genes are in all the world's population and thus "win" (or in case of female, have the finest genetic material from world's top men and then have her sons compete and the winner impregnate everybody). Such an extreme bodily goal obviously is ridiculous but it allows the person to never fully be satisfied with one's current position. Such a goal is the best motivator toward better quality of life since no matter how high one rises, there are always equals to overcome and struggle against. It might never create satisfaction or contentness but it gives an endless journey of improvement and feeling that one's influence is rising. Although all may be programmed to want that, everybody reaches a major obstacle as he/she comes across everybody else. That's when reality sinks in and various individuals find ways to expand their influence in creative ways that is based on their physiological predisposition. An emotional actor does it one way, a big hearted public speaker in another, an aggressive soldier in another, and a calm mathematician in another. Many even blatantly admit they want everybody on the planet to think and act like them (just ask people heavily into organic farming/veganism or religious missionary work).

What does this have to do with positive psychology?

For most of psychology's history, it was negative. That meant that psychologists looked at the statistically small amount of people on the weaker side of the power bell curve. Why the weaker side and not the other extreme? That is because powerless individuals are the most likely to have a lifestyle that is labeled "maladaptive". They are the most likely to not acquire basic things on Maslow's pyramid of needs such as shelter, self-esteem, love, nutrition, and sex. People want to have constant supply of these basic things so they can focus on self-actualizing or making the most of their physiology/social position to increase influence. They need all of them (obviously to various degrees) like one needs a constant supply of food/sleep to fully function. Not having love for example can be as detrimental as not having sex/self esteem/quality nutrients every once in a while.

Lack of sufficient influence over the environment creates a vicious cycle. Since people on the left of the bell curve are weak, they compete less effectively. Since they competitive skills are lacking, they are deprived of things they want and most others get. Since they are deprived, they stagnate in function or decline and demonstrate to the world that they are less successful than most of the population. Since they are less successful, they are treated as failures and the gap widens even more. They compare themselves to their competitors and see most people as stronger and more capable. They are forced to interact with people who are their equals or those even weaker than themselves so they can rank themselves better. Not struggling as often with those stronger than them (out of fear of failure) stagnates the competitive skills even more.

Then 20th century comes around and psychologists come along. They start studying the failures and labeling the weak by categories. Many of the weak come to the psychologists and offer them money to get help in acquiring things they know they want. Psychologists then see similar narratives and the categorization process is sharpened. Small amounts of powerful people on the right side of the bell curve are less likely to seek help. People in the middle would rather not even dabble with such things lest they be labeled by professionals or society. People on top of the bell curve want to be like the strong and so give them power through attention/support, and label the statistically abnormal (often very rare and abnormal) as successful.

Psychologists are stuck studying the weak population which they call unhealthy, sub-obptimal, "abnormal", or deficient. Since people in the middle of power bell curve make up the majority of the population, psychologists use them as a guide and call them "normal" and use them as a point of comparison when it comes to the weak. Since most people are numerically "normal", they are the ones who shape cultural perceptions. Thus everything left of the fatty bell curve or in need of psychological help is seen in horrid black and white terms. Even slight deviations are unconsciously associated with the worst extremes. A mildly depressed person can easily fall in society's eye into the same category as a suicidal person whereas there would be a vast gap between the two. Nobody wants to be labeled as below average in social functioning even when only a narrow aspect of life is affected. The historically ingrained connotation is too strong as it has to do with weakness, failure, lack of offspring, danger, foreignness, and unacceptable behavior.

Let's re-imagine Figure 1 and see the extent of the problem caused by negative psychology. Figure 2 shows that being born into certain conditions can mask certain neural structures that are causing the person to function below full capacity. A person with high attractiveness and intelligence factors can easily fit into statistically "normal" category even while having severe psychological disposition that would make a less attractive/intelligent person fail in many situations. Thus many people think they can wing it without help if they expand influence against the world with average intensity. A person further right on the power bell curve, is even less likely to understand that his/her thoughts/feelings can be enhanced (and thus corresponding influence/functioning).

click to enlarge
Now that neural science is rapidly expanding with better scanning technologies and techniques, a new pharmaceutical era is about to open. We are well aware that anti-depressants and mood stabilizers can do wonders to improve a person's standard of living and functioning. The people who are in deep enough of a hole to seek help from such drugs are those that repeatedly failed to improve in non-pharmaceutical ways. Most societies don't have pro-active testing of the population so the person has to be pro-active him or herself. That is often done when the person has already fallen below what is considered average functioning in some key life area. Most people getting pharmaceutical help these days have began their medication in an unnecessarily weakened state to begin with. A person who is a 45 on the power scale can become 55 with a drug. Similarly a person with similar neurology who is in the higher "normal' band of 65 can become a 75. A very successful powerful individual who is an 85 perhaps can even push up to 90.

Figure 3 shows the progress that can occur once psychology becomes positive and once statistically "normal" are encouraged to better themselves regardless of their current status. Once we figure out what neural structures are the most common in human populations (through constantly improving brain scan technology), we can begin to engineer precise mind enhancing drugs for vast majority of people. For that to happen and for the quality of life to rise for all we must get rid of the focus on the unhealthiest/weakest members of society and focus on the strongest and most successful.

Psychology must lose its negative association and develop a strong positive active one. Hopefully in 20-30 years one can be "doing" psychology like ones does yoga or exercise.

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