Sunday, October 28, 2012

How Humans Work

A perfectly complete and accurate description of humans would require a book of some seven or eight billion chapters.  And you can understand why, since you would most likely concur that everyone is different.     But wouldn't it be possible to create a manageable number of categories or general archetypes of humans and describe them instead?

Attempts to do this have been made ("He's an A-type personality, she's introvert-impulsive B-sub-dominant," and so on) with limited usefulness.  To be really accurate, the number of categories, sub-categories and sub-sub-sub-sub-categories grows until there are at least seven billion of them.  Yes, people are all different, but did you know they were different in at least seven billion different ways?

Mathematically the problem can be described as a seven-billion-dimensional data set, and here we are, trying to pick out some kind of overall pattern or rule.  By analogy, a ".WAV" file with 44,000 measurements per second of a sound waveform can be compressed to about a tenth the size by approximating the waveform with polynomials, giving you an ".mp3" file that contains basically the same sound information while taking up a lot less space on your hard drive.  This is called a "projection" and allows us to represent high-dimensional data sets by re-casting them in terms of a handful of really useful, definitive parameters.  Provided such useful parameters can be discovered or guessed.

The first approach with categorizing humans required way too many parameters because people are so complex and dynamic.  Someone can be a "type A" at breakfast and a "Connector/dealmaker" at lunch. So what about categorizing behaviors instead?  Again, even behaviours are so complex that we'd need thousands of categories, and in the end there would still be no explanation for them. We do not give up, but instead go up one level further.

What creates behavior?  Our conditioned thinking creates behavior.  Can thinking styles be grouped into a small number of distinct categories?  It turns out that they can.  In the 1950's, Dr. Clare W. Graves Ph.D. administered questionnaires to thousands of people, and dived into the data looking for patterns. What he discovered was the following.

There are identifiable systems of thinking or general groupings of values that people have which largely predict and explain their behavior.  A "value" is an idea which people hold to be important and which underpins their beliefs about right and wrong, expected norms, their understanding of the world and of other people.  Sometimes values can be in conflict, such as the value placed on truthfulness versus the value placed on kindness.  Can you always be both truthful and kind?  Often one value has to take precedence over the other, and the specific hierarchy of values is like a fingerprint identifying a group of people as distinct.

These values hierarchies or systems of thought fall into distinct strata of social evolutionary development, beginning, naturally enough, with Level 1: basic survival.  At this level, right and wrong are defined in terms of the organism's survival.  Right is what fills my belly, wrong is anything that doesn't.

Few individuals other than infants and extreme sociopaths exhibit this style.  The obvious weakness of this level of thought is that all alone, survival is quite difficult.  We need other people, but we can't treat them like objects to be used for our own survival and expect to be given any different treatment in return.  This creates an evolutionary pressure to expand the thought style to Level 2: Tribal/Family thinking.

At Level 2, right and wrong are defined by what is right or wrong for the tribe, as determined by an absolute Matriarch or Patriarch.  Any specific ideas about ethics are extended to members of the tribe, but usually no further.  You may feel badly about hurting a fellow tribal member, but have no qualms whatsoever about killing a person who is not a member of your tribe. Tribal thinking is fairly successful for small, isolated populations, but has two major drawbacks.  First, where do good leaders come from if everyone always lets the chief do all the thinking?  Second, and closely related, is the lack of opportunity for self-expression, self-determination, and individual freedom. This creates the evolutionary pressure for the next stage, Level 3: The Self.

In Level 3, the typical style of thinking is one of developing one's own tastes, preferences, property and domain.  Any leader of a Level 2 structure must necessarily embrace at least some of these values, if not even higher ones.  Right and wrong are a considered decision about one's best self-interests, both long-term and short-term.  The major drawback to Level 3 thinking is the high level of R-rated violence that inevitably follows when two or more Level 3's attempt to claim the same property.

As populations expand and tribes come in to close contact with each other, the pressure to limit such violence creates the next plateau, Level 4: The Institution. Most political bodies, schools and churches exhibit this style of thinking and systems of values.  Right and wrong are now written down in rules that apply to everybody.  They are no longer relative, but absolute.  Ethics become universal in the sense that hurting a complete stranger is just as wrong as hurting a close family member; stealing a bean is just as wrong as stealing a sack of gold.  One weakness of this level is that each institution assumes that all other institutions have the same rules as it does. This leads to misunderstandings between nations, churches, political parties and your major bowling leagues.

Because individuals steeped in Level 4 values believe those values to be absolute and universal (aided by the strong desire of the institution to promote that belief), they have a hard time explaining the actions of strangers.  When someone doesn't behave in the expected way, we think, "What is wrong with that stupid person?  Is he insane, or just evil?"  Republicans think that Democrats are either stupid, malicious or misinformed, and Democrats think exactly the same about Republicans because they both think that their specific hierarchy of values is the only possible one to exist.  Baptists think that Mormons are all going straight to Hell, while Mormons think that Buddhists are really missing the big picture. Muslims think that everyone is a Muslim, just that most of us are really, really bad at it.

Similarly to the Tribal/Family level, Level 4 has two major disadvantages.  One being the formation of suitable leaders, and the other being limitations to individual self-expression, innovation and expansion of one's horizons. This sets up the evolutionary pressure for yet another dimension which Dr. Graves imaginatively called Level 5.

The focus again turns to the self, but this time integrating the values of all previous levels.  Ambition, creativity, the urge to explore, and the desire to lead all characterize the style of thinking that many have termed "Entrepreneurial" or "Creator" style.  Right and wrong are defined in terms of what works both for the self and for the institution.  There is a willingness to bend the rules somewhat while holding to the underlying principles of the rules.  There is also the ability to reconcile disagreements between Level 4 groups by identifying their common ground.  All notable leaders of Level 4 groups such as nations, religions and schools have exhibited Level 5 or higher thinking styles.

While some individuals who find themselves transcending the rigid structures of human society return to those structures to lead them, others go off in their own directions to make scientific discoveries, start companies or entire new industries, found new religions or start entirely new bowling leagues.  But to many Level-4-thinking people, these mavericks will appear to be recalcitrant Level 3 individuals who need to be brought back into the one true flock before they hurt themselves or somebody else.

This story continues with the obvious disadvantages of Level 5 individuality leading to new, post-modern styles of organizations for the benefit of some collective purpose (Level 6), and then to yet another transcendence to a higher, even more flexible and powerful Self (Level 7).  But these individuals are very rare, and we doubt that they can even be spotted at all since they take on the characteristics of a chameleon, adapting easily to the style of thought best suited to any situation.

Most of us today will find ourselves juggling a combination of Institutional, Tribal and Self (Levels 4, 2 and 3) styles of thinking and systems of values that influence our behavior and make us who we are.  We may think like an institution while at work (Level 4), like a tribal  member at home (Level 2), and at some other level within a specific relationship we may have.

When circumstances open a door, we may either be pushed or move voluntarily using our free will through it into a terrifying new world in which few safety nets exist, where we thrive or die, publish or perish, sink or swim, lead or get out of the way. The ultimate, highest purpose of any level 4 institution is not to keep people locked safely inside, but to prepare them for that day of transcendence.

Any description shorter than the book with seven billion chapters in it isn't going to perfectly describe humans.  But I personally found that this model describes how humans work to a degree sufficient to be at least interesting if not actually useful.

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