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In our current post-truth, corona-ridden, climate-battered, and profoundly polarized world, our worldviews seem to be more in turmoil than ever before. People are fighting ~ online and offline ~ about […]
Understanding our polarized political landscape requires us to take a long, deep look at our worldviews.
Guest blog published in Scientific American, June 28th 2016.
Brexit, Trump, the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, and more can be explained by examining evolving categories of fundamental beliefs.
Historians often look at society with the aim of seeing larger, overarching patterns in how humans tend to relate to the world, and how their understanding of reality changes throughout time. These worldviews are the lenses through which people see and filter reality, shaping our world in many seen and unseen ways.
Worldviews inform both individual choices as well as our group identities, and they tend to underlie our disagreements and add emotional spice to our societal debates. Therefore, if we want to fathom the unexpected (and in many ways unprecedented) support that candidates like Trump and Sanders have garnered, and understand the intense polarization that characterizes our contemporary political landscape, we better take a long, deep look at what is happening with our worldviews.
With respect to a contentious issue like climate change, currently the extremes almost couldn’t be bigger, as the political landscape now stretches from a highly influential climate-denier on the far right (and presumptive nominee for the GOP), to a probably comparably influential climate-hero on the far left. Though Sanders did not win the nomination for the Democratic Party, his influence on the debate within the party has been enormous, and he has garnered passionate support among his followers, not in the last place because of his positions on fracking and a carbon tax.
Looking at these political positions from the perspective of worldviews, we see that Sanders appears to rally people with predominantly postmodern worldviews. The postmodern worldview arose in response to the shortcomings of the modern worldview, and therefore tends to be critical toward its model of society: its (narrow) ideas of progress, the frequently materialist and reductionist orientation of modern science, the risks and environmental impacts of its technologies, and the injustices of (global) capitalism.
In antithesis to the culture it arose from, postmodernism emphasizes values like pluralism, authenticity, relativism, indeterminacy, egalitarianism, and skepticism. It is marked by a shift from “material” to “post-material” values: that is, from a focus on welfare to well-being, and from quantity to quality.
We see this worldview expressed in Sanders’ suspicion of a modernist, corporate-ruled system favoring the rich and powerful; his focus on the emancipation of the oppressed (particularly the poor); his welcoming of cultural diversity; and his advocating of environmental care as an important social responsibility. In postmodern style, Sanders’ unfashionable authenticity became a major ‘selling point’ for him, rather than it being a liability as it probably would have been with both more traditional and more modern supporters.
Also the campaign slogan“Feeling the Bern” is telling, as it hints at the idea of leading with feeling rather than with (modern-style) rationality or cost-benefit reasoning. There are also indications that the postmodern worldview appreciates more complex, systemic ways of reasoning, which is expressed in Sanders’ overarching analysis of all that is wrong with the American political and economic system as a whole.
Trump, due to his impulsive and unpredictable character, is a little harder to pin down. However, he seems to mobilize people mainly with a mix of, or bridging between, traditional and modern worldviews.
People endorsing a traditional worldview tend to uphold a range of values that are not always easily reconcilable with the controversial and pragmatic figure that Trump is, such as their focus on family life, communal values, social order, lawful authority, humility, and the sanctity of their (generally religious) beliefs. At the same time, Trump exhibits the kind of authoritative leadership, winner mentality, attitude of disciplining through punishment, simplistic solutions (“build a wall!”) and moral hierarchy (e.g., the strong above the weak; our country above other countries; men above women; whites above nonwhites) that may strongly appeal to people with this worldview. The shadow of this worldview tends to express itself in ethnocentrism and a questioning of science when it challenges one’s beliefs (e.g., climate change!), which are both obvious in Trump.
Some of the more modern values that Trump emphasizes, as well as symbolizes, are business success, wealth, achievement, freedom, power, and individual self-sufficiency and responsibility.
The rise of both Sanders and Trump starts to make more sense when we extend our usual socio-economic analyses to include more cultural-historical perspectives. While the postmodern worldview only really emerged about half a century ago, it has been steadily growing ever since, extending its influence far beyond the academic and artistic elites. Once a leader embodying the values of this worldview stood up, this group showed an overwhelming commitment to get this unusually like-minded leader elected.
As recognized in the social sciences, culture is transmitted from one generation to the next. Older worldviews therefore tend to ‘die off’ with older generations, while newer worldviews tend to come into being with newer generations. This explains the disproportional support from younger people for Sanders, in comparison with what (a much more modernist) Clinton has been able to generate.
Although much has been said to explain the rise of Trump, one reason that stands out is the ways in which the more traditional (bridging to modern) oriented segments of society have been feeling encroached upon, and threatened by, the emergence of more postmodern views and values. As some have argued, Trump supporters feel they can’t keep up with the pace of, and direction in, which the world is changing, especially as more immigrants have arrived, as the country has become less white, as more women have moved into the workplace, as gays have become more visible and gay marriage acceptable, and as the economy and the job market have become more unpredictable and more knowledge and creativity centered.
These existential uncertainties may lead many to seek out a strongman leader who promises to preserve a status quo they feel is under threat, and imposes order on a world they experience as increasingly alien. As they feel oppressed by social pressures challenging their views, supporting Trump, who forcefully and shamelessly expresses what they feel, means their views are heard and given credibility, thus giving them a sense of self-respect, authority, and power. So in some way, it is precisely the widespread rise of the postmodern value-complex that may partially explain the powerful conservative backlash that we see now, as exemplified by the Trump-movement.
However, this phenomenon is for sure not limited to the American political landscape, as shown by the Brexit-vote as well as a range of right-wing nationalist movements that are gaining momentum across Europe. These movements are fueled by anger toward political elites and mistrust of immigration. And although the postmodern and traditional worldviews are of a fundamentally different nature, they do hold certain views in common, as many commentators have pointed out.
They share a critique of the system as “rigged”, a deep suspicion towards those in power, and a questioning of the elitist expert-knowledge the system is founded upon—even though these emerge out of substantially different ways of thinking. In many ways, the postmodern worldview is quite far removed from the potentially ethnocentric tendencies of the traditional worldview, as it embraces diversity and proclaims to strive for emancipation for all. Yet its incessant critiques of the biased, unjust nature of the political and economic system strongly resonates with some of those who have been most marginalized by it.
Thus, worldviews are not merely abstract or theoretical ideas that intellectuals like to speculate about! On the contrary, they have massive implications for (and interact in many complex ways with) our social, economic, and political life. However, more important than any typology of worldviews is the reflexive attitude a worldview-perspective supports.
Worldviews are a fundamental part of individuals’ group identities, and people often react as strongly to perceived threats to these social identities as they do to defend themselves against personal attacks. We see this in the heat and emotionality of our political debates! However, once we become more aware of our (naturally partial and biased) worldviews, we start to see them in a larger context of a wider range of perspectives and values. We realize that there are also other worldviews, and that the people who hold them are not all idiots!
Psychological research has shown that when we are less invested in these social/worldview identities, and we can look at them with more distance and mindfulness, we are less inclined to respond as if we ourselves are threatened when our assumptions about reality are called in to question. Then a more truly open dialogue, which honors a wider range of perspectives, may start to take place. Supporting individuals to explore and reflect on their worldviews is therefore perhaps where the real change happens.
This is, in my eyes, where the true hope for our deeply polarized world lies.
People often want change, yet resist it. Psychologically this makes sense. Through a simple exercise we can overcome our ‘immunity to change.’ (6 minute read.)
Have you noticed this curious phenomenon of people desperately desiring change, yet fighting it as if their life depends on keeping the status quo?
You may have seen it in a loved one (it’s always easier to see this stuff in others). They want to grow, and yet when somebody points out a way they can grow, they resist, they deny, they defend; they may even get upset. You may also recognize it in yourself. You so want to change something, you commit yourself to it over and over again, and yet you keep on failing.
Somehow, we seem deeply wired to resist the change we are craving for. To protect ourselves from the development we deeply desire.
It turns out that our failure to grow is generally not due to a lack of will power, or a courage to face ourselves. Instead, it is a universal, ‘natural’ phenomenon. Two Harvard developmental psychologists, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, describe it as our ‘psychological immune system’ at work.
You could say that, psychologically, our life does depend on keeping the status quo, and resisting certain changes.
Your psychological immune system at work
These psychologists propose that the mind, like the body, has an immune system ~ a beautiful, intelligent force of nature that works continuously to protect us and keep us alive.
However, and this is important, it does this beyond our conscious awareness.
Based on experiences of fear, pain, or any other threat, we all have developed what psychologists call ‘defense mechanisms’ or ‘ego defenses’ ~ attempts to keep us safe in environments that were threatening in some way.
Although the dangers are generally not there anymore (i.e., we are no longer subjected to a manipulative mother or an abusive father), the immune system is still fighting off these threats, resulting in reactions that often seem disproportionate and counter-productive to others.
Thus, like the body’s immune system, our psychological immune system can misread reality and see dangers that are not really there, making us respond as if we are threatened.
If you have an allergy you probably recognize this. Your body is aggressively trying to fight off the pollen in the air, or the hairs of a cat, even though they don’t pose any real threat to you.
Our psychological immune system does the same thing. It works 24/7 to protect us and keep us safe, but by doing so it frequently ends up sabotaging our attempts for change.
So, the all-important question then is: What’s the way out?
These psychologists created a simple but powerful exercise to help people break through their immune responses. This exercise leads you through a contemplation of your ‘immunity to change,’ by letting you explore four fundamental questions.
Doing this exercise myself, I had a profound breakthrough, including new insights into why I was not doing what I so badly wanted to do.
Looking back almost three months after having done the exercise for the first time, I realize the change I wished for has lasted, and is now a dependable part of my overall system. Many other people have reported similar results.
Thus, in other words, this exercise really has the power to transform!
If you want to do the immunity to change exercise, here is a useful map supporting the process. Actually journaling on these questions, rather than just thinking about it, is highly recommended (and potentially vital to your success with it).
The change you desire and how you resist it
First you’ll have to find out what your central improvement goal is, your growing edge. Think about a goal that would be a game-changer for you, that would bring your daily life closer to your dreamt-of life. Perhaps it is something you have been trying to change for a long time, but somehow you haven’t managed to accomplish it.
My goal was about being more disciplined in my morning routine, as I know I thrive when I get up early to do my practices. And although I have made great progress on this goal in the past years, I still found myself skipping my yoga or being lazy with journalling and setting my intentions.
Then, instead of saying, “in order to reach this goal you just have to muster more will power” (something I told myself for years), you are asked to reflect on the behaviors that you find yourself doing instead:
What are you doing (or not doing) that is stalling your efforts?
Make sure your list consists of actual behaviors (instead of thoughts, intentions, emotions, et cetera), and be brutally honest with yourself. This may be a powerful and perhaps painful exploration in itself.
I wrote all kinds of stuff on my list, such as allowing myself to get distracted by reading the news, listening to a voice that tells me I don’t really need to do my practice (“I already did my yoga yesterday”), postponing (“I’ll start with that discipline tomorrow”), or telling myself I don’t have time to do my practice (yeah, right?!).
Why you resist the change you desire: competing commitments
But then, and here is the trick, we are guided to look deeper, and search for the ‘hidden commitments’ that these behaviors reveal. Look at the behaviors you just listed and ask yourself:
How would you feel if you did exactly the opposite?
What fears or worries would that bring up?
What would be the worst thing about that for you?
Is there any feeling or experience associated with your desired behaviors that you’d rather avoid?
In this way, you are uncovering the deeper roots of your ‘immunity behaviors’, as you start to see why you act in ways that are contrary to your goals.
This is your immune system at work, committed to helping you guard off the threats that the desired behaviors would impose.
For example, somewhat to my own surprise, I realized I had a largely unconscious fear of life becoming boring and dry, without any joy or juice, overly structured and rigid, mechanical and controlled.
My psychological immune system was thus keeping me safe and far away from my dreaded state of a mechanical and boring life, by making sure I wouldn’t do my routines in an all too disciplined way.
Make sense, doesn’t it?!
The thing is: we all tend to have perfectly sensible reasons for our behaviors, yet often we are just not aware of what these reasons are, as our immune system works beyond our conscious awareness. And as long as we are not aware of these reasons, we keep acting out of them.
What we can’t look at (as object; with neutrality and distance), we will look through (as subject; meaning that we are embedded in it).
Generally, even the strongest will power will not win this battle with our vital immune system. Hence, we are sabotaging the very change we crave.
The power of big assumptions in shaping our life
The last step of the exercise is to uncover the big assumptions, to see the deeper beliefs we have internalized, which lie at the root of our competing commitments.
I found big assumptions like ‘structure and discipline make life boring and mechanical’. And: ‘Joy is something that resides outside (rather than inside) of me, and that I need to seek out for in the form of pleasure and fun.’
Instantly, I could also recognize the deeper, psychological origins of these assumptions, as I grew up with a generally life-enjoying, pleasure-seeking father and a much more restrained and disciplined mother.
This exercise thus has the power to show us that our behaviors are often rooted in assumptions we are not even aware of, as well as what these assumptions exactly are.
And what we are not aware of will determine us.
It is thus in this awareness that our freedom lies, as we are now able to make a conscious choice.
For most people, just seeing the deeper assumptions and beliefs they operate out of, in full awareness that these assumptions are not serving their deepest desires, is enough to make a powerful shift.
It was for me. I really hope it will be for you. It is worth it. After all, we are talking about the quality of your life here. Give it a try and enjoy (even more) change and growth!
Please leave a comment about your experience with this exercise and/or attempts to change! And, of course, feel free to share it with people you think will benefit from it.
I recently wrote a guest blog for Scientific American. In this piece I argue that we need to rethink how we communicate about meat consumption reduction, which is one of the most effective ways to tackle climate change. As my own research shows, people still don’t get the link between meat consumption and climate change. In order to get this message across, we need to understand the different worldviews in society.
To me, this is compassion-in-action: instead of judging people who think differently, we try to understand how they think, and why they think the way they think. From that place of understanding of, and resonance with, the perspectives of others, we can start to communicate in a whole different manner.
In the first place, this means we need to move beyond what I in the guest blog call ‘finger raising tactics.’ For most committed carnivores, “guilt-tripping” them won’t work. The only thing that will do is create shame and stigmatization and activate psychological dynamics of denial and downplay ~ exactly the thing we don’t need more of.
Instead, we need an inspiring, uplifting, and empowering narrative about the impact of our diets. The good thing is, the situation around meat is empowering, as it puts the power back in our own hands (and mouths): We are not at the mercy of the system, but have substantial influence ourselves. Likewise, it is uplifting that the most effective way for individuals to do their part tends to also lead to better health, weight control, creativity in the kitchen, and animal welfare.
According to research, people in industrialized countries consume on average around twice as much meat as experts deem healthy. In the US the multiple is nearly three times. Adoption of a healthy diet would therefore generate over a quarter of the emission reductions needed by 2050! Isn’t that uplifting?! Moreover, many of us have had the inspiring experience of a whole new world opening up once we stopped centering our meals around meat: we start experimenting, discover new vegetables and ingredients, and generally become more creative in our cooking. In other words, it is fun and can lead to surprising, colorful, and delicious results!
So while environmental behaviors often involve sacrifices, the meat-reduction option offers a range of inspiring and empowering personal benefits. How would communications and campaigns look if they would emphasize that?
Read the full guest blog @ Scientific American.