You can’t accurately understand or predict human behavior until you understand that human beings are animals. The biggest difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom (aside from our hands and feet) is that humans have evolved brains with a slightly higher capacity for logic than the rest of the animal kingdom. However, we tend to overestimate the overall role that logic plays in our lives.
Our species has spent the majority of its existence and its evolution as ignorant beasts ruled by our instincts. Even today it’s still possible to get all the way through life using about as much logic as a bird uses to successfully navigate a complicated flight path. You can easily let your instincts guide you through all of your life decisions.
It would be a mistake to think that everyone is born logical and only the most misguided, weak, cowardly members of society give up and surrender themselves to their instincts. We’re all born set on autopilot, and our instincts don’t turn off after they’ve led us to our mother’s milk. By default we stay on autopilot our entire lives. Logic is a relatively unnatural ability that has to be consciously and deliberately chosen and refined over time in order to override our instincts.
Naturally, everyone assumes they’re the exception to the rule and they’ve taken control of their lives, but if everyone was as independent-minded as they believe they are we would live in a peaceful, equitable and logical world. The world is the way it is because we’re still a society of animals who consciously use the logical part of our brains as little as possible.
Evolutionary psychology is finding that there isn’t one aspect of society that can’t be better understood by looking at it through the lens of evolution. All of our emotions are animal instincts: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, anticipation…even love…especially love. Parents tend to automatically love their children for obvious evolutionary reasons. Guys are attracted to beautiful girls because they appear to be healthy mates. Girls are attracted wealthy and strong guys because they appear to be good providers and strong mates. Guys want to sleep with as many girls as possible to spread their genes. Guys will even rape women despite all logic. Girls want to hold onto one guy to help them raise their offspring. Both men and women will even remain in abusive relationships despite all logic. We tell ourselves that falling in love is one of the “highest” intellectual activities we do. In reality it’s as primitive as taking a shit.
The list goes on. Masculinity reflects the hunter/protector role male animals traditionally filled for the past 2 million years. Femininity reflects the camp-tending/child-rearing role female animals traditionally filled for the past 2 million years. Today we look to leaders to run society for us because we’re pack animals, and that’s how we‘ve done it for millions of years. Tall people get promoted at work more because we see them as more “alpha” pack members. Feeble kids get picked on at school because even as children we feel compelled to establish our dominance in the pack hierarchy. The same instinct motivates bosses at work to bully their subordinates. Our brains go on to undermine our ability to use logic by providing us with mental shortcuts like schemas, conformation bias, the fundamental attribution error, fear of the unknown, etc.
This sounds sinister, but the fact that our species has survived this long is evidence that these instincts are helping us. They tell us what to do when life is too complicated to think all the way through. They guide us towards the path of least resistance and help us navigate our way through life with minimal need to think for ourselves. In other words, we’re not supposed to use our brains because we can’t be trusted to.
Infants can’t think objectively much less distrust the people they view as gods: their parents. So as infants, it’s only logical for us to trust our parents and assume that the way they teach us to live was the way to live. And since we assume that that’s the way it never occurs to us to question it. And when someone tells us we’re wrong it’s only logical for us not to believe them. Even if we do ever decide to look at our beliefs objectively we can only change the beliefs we have, not the ones we don’t have, and we don’t how much we don’t know. So we’re inclined to believe that we know as much as there is to know (or at least as much as we need to know). From that point of view it’s logical (or at least inevitable) to have a closed mind (initially). To make matters worse, the more we know the more we tend to believe we’ve reached the apex of human knowledge. So ironically, the more we know the more close-minded we tend to become. Even when we admit that we don’t know everything we tend to think that admitting our ignorance makes us wise, which again closes our mind.
It’s human nature to have a closed mind, and that’s why it was inevitable that the religions we created would say that blind faith in the answers you’ve been given will earn you a place in paradise while questioning the answers is a crime so terrible that those who do it deserve to be punished for eternity. It was inevitable that the governments we’ve created would say that to be a good citizen you have to be a patriot and support your government no matter what and anyone who doubts their country is a traitor or a terrorist or at least a cry baby. It was inevitable that our parents and school officials would say to respect them and that to question them is insolent, disrespectful, stepping out of our place, rude, etc. It was inevitable that society would tell us to be optimistic and grateful for what we have and that to question your position in life or your society’s social model is pessimistic and ungrateful. It was inevitable that our business model would reward those who don’t rock the boat (even if it’s sinking) and labels people who criticize the system as insolent, troublemakers, lazy, or not tough enough to handle “it.”
Businesses love to talk about thinking inside and outside of the box, but these terms are misleading. There’s no inside or outside the box thinking. There’s being guided by your instinct while repeating the patterns you’ve learned from society and then there’s thinking, period. And for those who define their reality by repeating the processes they already know, anything and everything outside of their experiences appears radical. To them the world is black and white, and they tend to view anybody who thinks at all as an extremist and a heretic. We say we value thinking, but nobody takes it upon themselves to practice thinking as an art form. We don’t think on our own time, and even when someone barges into our life and pushes into our hands an idea that doesn’t fit into our preconceived schemas we tend to automatically naysay it and label it stupid…and the more we label everything outside our box stupid the smarter it makes us feel and the more it cements us into our box.
Just like our individual brains, society seeks the path of least resistance. Society is set to autopilot. It embraces beliefs that are familiar, vague, and shallow. It embraces behavior that is routine, immediately gratifying, and physical. It shies away from beliefs that are too unusual, self-critical, complicated, or far-sighted. While society will accept superficial forms of deviance such as wearing slightly unusual clothing and using slightly unusual slang, it opposes behavior or beliefs that contradict or undermine society’s fundamental values, which again, are vague and shallow. After generations of this modus operandi, cultures naturally sift out a functional level of equilibrium that it calls maturity, responsibility, being grown up, sane, normal, moral, acceptable, natural, etc.
Though children usually don’t have all of these standards explicitly spelled out for them, society will give them (sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle) hints when they step off the path and will guide them to normality and mediocrity, and when they get there they’ll be rewarded with acceptance, praise, and the internal peace that comes with having your mind completely white washed. All of this sounds sinister, but again, these tendencies have evolved because they help us survive. However, our instincts are blind, and when left unchecked they can actually drive us to our deaths through overconsumption, overpopulation and overcompetition.
Unfortunately, despite possessing the ability to reason, our individual instincts and our societal tendencies oppose the development of logic, the fail-safe that could save us from our instincts. The more you question yourself and take yourself off of autopilot the more you have to come face to face with your own inadequacies, and the truth hurts. The more you confront these difficult truths the less simple your world will become, the more responsibility you’ll have to take for your welfare and the harder life becomes for you. The more you question society and see the world more clearly the more society will reject, ridicule, fear, hate and persecute you. So we’re classically conditioned to become safe, unthinking, self-congratulatory automatons who are going to over consume, over populate, and over compete ourselves into extinction.
History provides plenty of examples of individuals who pursued the art of thinking despite the immediate, negative consequences, and while they did find answers that lay outside the accepted model of human understanding and improved life for future generations…many of these individuals were killed for their trouble. Make no mistake, society is not a docile herd of sheep following a sly pied piper. They’re a ravenous pack of wolves kowtowing to the fiercest wolves, and the only thing worse than being at the bottom of the hierarchy is to be outside the group because that makes you a common enemy, and pretty much the only thing they’ll all put their differences aside for is to kill an outsider who threatens to upset the status quo of the pack.
Yeah, we all want society to improve, but all we really need to do to improve society is become better individuals. We don’t become better individuals though because anytime anyone tries to become a better individual they’re descended upon by the wolves (who are usually their friends and family). We all want the system to improve, but anytime someone tries to change the system for the better they’re descended on by the wolves (who are the people they’re trying to help). Theoretically we all want change, but in practice it’s the one thing we fear and hate most.
The point of all this isn’t to say that change isn’t possible. Obviously, society has changed a great deal throughout the history of civilization. It’s just worth knowing why you’re unlikely to see all the changes you want in your lifetime. Don’t get me wrong. You’ll see some change in your lifetime, but most of the change will be unimportant (like fashion). You’ll see some baby steps on the important issues even though people will fight that progress kicking and screaming and then spend the rest of their lives bitching about how these advances in society are proof of the crumbling of society and the end of the world. Then you’ll see the children of this generation grow up accepting those baby steps as true, but most of our children won’t think any farther past that. Only a few of our children will grow up to be sinful, heretical, preposterous, ungrateful nerds who will push the envelope of human understanding. They’ll be persecuted by those of our children who grow up to be good, normal, decent people. Then our children’s generation will die off, and their children will grow up accepting some of the advances that the deviants of the previous generation made, and the cycle will continue improving at a snail’s pace…
unless we start rigorously, systematically teaching children to think. If we can raise just one generation of children with legitimately curious, logical, objective minds we can break the cycle of ignorance. But in order to do that we’re going to have to teach them to be sinful, heretical, preposterous, ungrateful nerds, and most parents will fight that tooth and nail. That’s why society won’t change…much… unless you can think of a way to undermine the system.
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