I've been thinking a lot about control and belonging lately and wondering how they relate to the dichotomy of freedom versus safety, especially in our current cultural experience of COVID-19. There is a lot of struggle between the two in the media, on social media, at the grocery store, and displayed at a diverse array of protests. Some people appear to be ready to accept the "new normal" of restricted movement and mandatory mask-wearing in the name of safety. Others vehemently oppose the removal of these "freedoms" and would rather take their chances with the virus than lose a shred of personal agency. Freedom is a form of having control over one's life. Whether it is scientifically sound or not, there is a message of safety in the action of wearing a mask in order to escape the virus and protect others from it. There is also an element of safety, virus escaping aside, that masking has on our sense of belonging. Belonging represents safety in the sense that we find safety in the herd. Baumeister elaborates on belonging in his article, The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation, "The innate quality presumably has an evolutionary basis. It seems clear that the desire to form and maintain social bonds would have both survival and reproductive benefits." Conforming to the rules of the group not only gives us a sense of belonging, but our desire to belong is also enmeshed with our need for safety. Elliot Aronson has described this dichotomy of needs in another way in his book, The Social Animal, "One consequence of the fact that we are social animals is that we live in a state of tension between values associated with individuality and values associated with conformity."
Aronson uses a story from humorist James Thurber's autobiography to discuss this topic further in the chapter on conformity in his book, The Social Animal. If the group around us is running in one direction, is it safest to assume they must be running from something dangerous and join the crowd? Alternatively, we could choose to be individualistic at that moment and declare our freedom to do our "own thing." But if we are wrong, the consequences can be deadly. Adding another layer to this decision-making process is considering whether or not our choice to buck the herd may cause harm to others. This is the conundrum of our present-day situation. To mask or not to mask. At the very least, that decision calls to question the impression of the potential for causing harm to others. Aronson describes this well in a different context, "That conformist reflex was undoubtedly crucial in our hunter-gatherer past; indeed nonconformity can be disastrous. Suppose I suddenly decide I am fed up with being a conformist. So I hop in my car and start driving down the left-hand side of the road—not a terribly smart or adaptive way of expressing my rugged individualism and not very fair to you if you happen to be driving toward me (conformist-style) on the same street."
On the other hand, Elliot warns, "Sometimes the need to conform will even silence an individual's certain knowledge of a forthcoming disaster." Evolutionarily speaking, our inclination towards conformity has proved to be a successful survival skill. Aronson also points out that historically, our tendency to conform has equally had devastating consequences. He cites the example of what occurred in Nazi Germany, among others, "In his memoirs, Albert Speer, one of Hitler's top advisers, described the circle around Hitler as one of total conformity—deviation was not permitted." Indeed, the Nazi’s had a phrase to justify and conceal their intentions for the Jews, ”für ihr sicherheit” which means, ”for your safety.”
I've been spending some time with horses lately. Horses are well known for their representation of freedom. However, they are also prey animals and find their safety in the herd. One interesting thing about horses is that what they really want from humans is the promise of safety. These prey animals will acquiesce to the will of their human captors but not without gain. In a sense, they revoke their freedom in trade for safety. Once in the safety of the pasture or the barn, they no longer have to worry about survival in the same way. Their handlers meet their food and water needs, and protection from other predatory animals is established. This is quite appealing to vulnerable animals.
What about human animals? We are at the top of the food chain because of our brains' capacity. But we are also incredibly vulnerable, naked, delicate creatures. Desmon Morris goes into great detail regarding this unique quality of our species in his book, The Naked Ape, "The temperature-controlling devices are of vital importance, and the possession of a thick, hairy, insulating coat obviously plays a major roll in preventing heat loss. In intense sunlight it will also prevent over-heating and damage to the skin from direct exposure to the sun's rays." Our vulnerability goes far beyond our hairlessness. If we were alone and naked in a field with no weapons, our food chain status would suddenly drop significantly. Part of what keeps us a dominant animal is our connection to each other. Our society and culture functions in a similar fashion as does the horse and it's handler.
As long as we go along with society's rules, we get to enjoy a certain amount of safety and security. What we trade for that sense of safety are varying degrees of freedom. In 2020 as the media bombards the citizens with mortality reminders, real or imagined dangers lurking behind that conceptual curtain of security in our perception has ballooned. The media has thereby increased the appeal for safety in the human brain. The prospect of trading more personal agency for greater protection from the looming threat seems logical. In this sense, all that a manipulative social system has to do to gain greater control over its people is to present a more significant outside threat. As society adds more and more rules to its domain, the human-animal looking for safety will gladly follow each additional restriction and willingly succumb to submission.
On the other side of this spectrum, we have the freedom fighters. Many of which appear to be of the right-wing ideology (at least is is what is portrayed in the media). It is suspect that some of their behavior may be motivated by the need to display Sociopolitical Control. According to the article, "Desire for control, perception of control: their impact on autonomous motivation and psychological adjustment" written by, Camille Amoura, Sophie Berjot, Nicolas Gillet, Emin Altintas, "Sociopolitical Control refers to the individuals' attempts to defend their personal goals and values in the political and social world." Many people representing the right wing group have shown up at various state capital buildings across the country with their assault rifles to protest and rebel against the societal force of law that threatens their personal agency. What the media has not portrayed is that many have protested the same removal of freedoms in a more peaceful fashion.
Through fear tactics, the media puppeteer and its comrade social media seem to have convinced us that the majority of the left-wing has taken the safety the new rules offer and willfully given up their freedom to do so. While we are told the right-wing hasn't taken the bait or at least doesn't value society's protection but instead sees the government as the threat itself (What the media doesn't point out is that there are more than a few genuinely rogue non-partisans who oppose the mainstream storyline). Prominent social psychologist Jonathan Heidt talks about this polarization phenomenon in a recent interview in The Atlantic. "And when you look at the people who are loudest on Twitter and elsewhere, it's quite clear that this pandemic is turning into just another culture-war issue, where people on the left see what they want to see and people on the right see what they want to see."
Social psychologist Elliot Aronson expands on the driving forces behind this phenomenon in his book, The Social Animal. "These tendencies helped keep us alive when we fought with stones and clubs, but over the millennia the human tendency to see the world in tribal, us-and-them terms has laid the foundation for conflict, political division, hatred, and war." Our us-and-them tribal mind drives the stake of our confirmation bias' deep into the ground of our selective thinking. Thus, through the "us" group of our choosing, our biases and values become firmly rooted in our constructed reality's groupthink structure. Elliot defines it this way, "groupthink: a kind of thinking in which maintaining group agreement overrides a careful consideration of the facts in a realistic manner." This oppositional nature of politics is far-reaching, and the chasm that divides us appears to be growing deeper every day.
Those with a greed-driven intent have indeed been using the science of Social Psychology to weaponize against us our human needs for control and belonging for quite some time. Intentional societal manipulation has been in play, at least since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. This phenomenon has been made clear in "The Century of The Self - Happiness Machines" documentary. One iteration of this manipulation was the "Torches of Freedom" slogan calling for women to pick up the habit of smoking. In this example, "Torches of Freedom" preyed on the personal agency aspect of control. The control over one's life to do whatever they want, to have the freedom to smoke. Once enough women fell into the trap and started smoking, it's enticement would expand to include filling the need for belonging, since everyone was doing it. Knowing of the capitalistic manipulative nature of the media, it is a wonder that most educated people still take what they hear on the media as gospel and still believe the powers that be have the people's best interest at heart.
Looking through today's pandemic lens, the media’s use of the words "for your safety," might be interchangeable with the words, ”control over the population.” It all depends on what is true. And how are we to know what is true knowing that the media has been manipulating us for their own interest at least since the Industrial Revolution? In the face of a global pandemic, public relations has aptly targeted our need for personal control and safety alike. In the article "Desire for control, perception of control: their impact on autonomous motivation and psychological adjustment," they explain this universal need well. "Personal Control is close to SE (Bandura 1977; Skinner 1996). It refers to the individuals' perception (or belief) that performing the required behaviors can lead to the desired outcome. In other words, personal control is a judgment that one has the ability, resources, or opportunities to take action to increase the likelihood of obtaining positive outcomes or avoiding negative ones" (Thompson and Schlehofer 2008, p. 42). Take wearing masks, for example. Wearing a mask in public has become one of those new societal rules that we must abide by. The idea is that if we wear a mask out in public, we are gaining some sense of personal control in the hopes of a more favorable outcome. From a psychological perspective, regardless of the efficacy of masks to prevent viral spread, this "perception" of control may very well be helping people maintain their sanity in the midst of what otherwise feels like a completely out of control situation. Since science is ever changing and by no means free from political bias, there are a plethora of scientific studies that support both the idea that masks do help and also the idea that they are making things worse. But for this specific psychological exploration, that particular debate is beside the point.
What if someone is not agreeable with trading their freedom for the safety of the herd or society's rules and regulations? What if they don't believe the media messaging and the imposition of fear? One might choose to head to the Capital wielding semi-automatics. This certainly is not a very diplomatic option. So, what can they do if they don't agree with the ideology of toting big guns around to prove their freedom? What of the citizen who respects the needs and feelings of those around them and yet also desires to maintain their own need for personal agency? Going back to the analogy of handler and horse as a metaphor of society's hold on the individual, this nameless character might feel like a captured horse who senses that its handler's intentions are impure. After all, it is the building of trust that makes this arrangement work. Building real trust with its people is something the United States government has failed to achieve in any real way.
The contrast of Sweden's response to the pandemic is stark. There appears to be mutual trust between their people and their government. Instead of mandates, they have simply advised their citizens to take common-sense precautions, and the people have gladly agreed. This difference may be attributed to the theory of external justification versus internal justification. In the book The Social Animal, Elliot Aronson defines external justification as "a person's justification for his or her dissonant behavior that is situation-determined." He describes "internal justification as "the reduction of dissonance by changing something about oneself (e.g., one's attitude or behavior) in the direction of one's statements." A government like the USA who uses mandates and fines, and scare tactics to impose mask-wearing, provides plenty of external justification to wear a mask. External justification works so long as the person thinks someone may be watching who could impose consequences if they don't wear a mask. But since it requires no personalization of the decision, the person is likely not to wear one when they think no authorities are looking. Contrarily, a country like Sweden has offered its citizens the opportunity to formulate internal justification. With no outside threat of consequences, if a person makes the initial choice to wear a mask despite it being uncomfortable, they will have to increase their internal belief in the benefit of wearing one. They will naturally do this to reduce the experience of cognitive dissonance that choosing to wear a mask even though it is uncomfortable, may cause. A causality of this as Aronson points out is that, “It is those who are threatened with mild punishment who develop a dislike for the forbidden activity; people who are severely threatened, if anything, are even more drawn to the forbidden activity.” Therefore the Swedes who were under mild to no threat of external punishment, if they have ever worn a mask, are more likely to continue to wear a mask even when they think no authority is looking.
Due to the mistrust between the United States government and its citizens, some may resist submission to either party and their groupthink agendas. However, as much as any of us claim to be non-conformists, rugged individualists, we still can't extract the particular spice that is ourselves from the soup of the society we swim in. Like it or not, we do not exist as sovereign animals. We are "Social Animals." As Fyodor Dostoyevsky puts it in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, "Rebel comrades are after all, not natural friends, not community, not family but merely, unchosen, inescapable company." In this sense, we may be inseparable from the herd and yet left with a feeling of being tribeless.
One of the most significant ways we are intertwined with society at large is through the media. Indeed it is striking to realize the impact of "media contagion." And the effect it has on the emotions and actions of those who are tuning into it. Which incidentally is almost everyone. Aronson writes about the impact of "Emotional Contagion, which occurs when one person's emotional behavior triggers similar emotions and behaviors in observers." He gives the example of the spike in teen suicide that followed the sensationalized media coverage of four teenagers who died after carrying out a suicide pact in the 1980s in New Jersey.
In another example, Elliot wrote about the cyanide-laced Tylenol that killed seven people in Chicago in 1982. Even back then, when we didn't yet have internet or social media, the media's message of these poisonings we're unavoidable. This caused mass paranoia, and people began going to the hospital for every little discomfort, afraid they had been poised. Aronson expands on media manipulation as he tells us, "when the media bombard viewers with bad news about crime and terrorism, people will overestimate the prevalence of violence and disaster." In 2020, one could insert "COVID death tolls" into that sentence as we can see the effects of hysteria, causing some to wear masks even while driving alone in their vehicles. While Elliot referred to the perception of violent threats in the country, it stands to reason that anything repetitious that instigates a person's fight or flight response would have the same effect. He goes on to say, "Such coverage obviously presents a distorted picture of the world." Aronson points out, "It is good to be informed, and the media play a crucial role in keeping us informed. However, there can be a downside to this kind of exposure, as well. Whether it is intentional or not, repeated vivid imagery of this sort shapes attitudes and opinions."
One human cognitive skill of efficiency that we use regularly is called Availability Heuristics. “The availability heuristic is the tendency to predict the likelihood of an event, or judge how risky it is, based on how easy it is to bring specific examples to mind.” When we are bombarded with media messaging, whatever the message is, it will be readily retrieved through heuristics causing us to psychologically inflate its prevalence. This is one of the ways we make sense of a world in which we are continually required to ingest enormous amounts of information and make decisions based on that information. Awareness of the way external input affects our world view is paramount. But is awareness itself enough to reign in its effect on us? Or is it better to turn off or at least dial back the amount of media and social media we ingest?
Turning off the media may not be enough, either. We will be presented with choices like, should we send our children to school wearing masks all day? And wonder, what kind of psychological impact will this have on them. Perhaps this is the era where the commune may thrive. If we can not separate ourselves from the masses with whom we disagree, we might consider looking to create smaller communities of like-minded individuals with whom to strike the perfect balance between safety and freedom. Maybe this is our best option, considering how populated the planet has become and considering Elliot's assertion that human groups work most optimally with 150 or fewer members. "A useful implication of knowing the 150-person limit is that human organizations function better when they don't get too large when they can operate like communities rather than bureaucracies. Small schools have lower rates of violence and absences, better relationships, and higher-quality learning than larger, impersonal schools do. Being mindful of the limitations of our evolved hunter-gatherer minds provides ways of optimizing our lives and institutions." (Kindle location 502) .
To escape society's grip, we would need to develop a self-sustaining model of life. This would have to entail learning to live off the land, growing our own food, and developing our own form of government. However, we need to be ever mindful of our susceptibility to entrapment as it relates to cognitive dissonance theory. Even if we decide to join a smaller unit of communal living and renounce our larger society, we are still susceptible to the problems associated with groupthink mentalities. Aronson defines entrapment as "the process by which people make a small decision, justify it, and over time find themselves increasingly committed to a belief or activity." He describes this entrapment process to be precisely the way many cult leaders have gotten their followers to commit terrible atrocities.
To achieve harmony, peace, freedom, and belonging in just the right ratios, we will inevitably face the centuries-old human quest for Utopia and Self-actualization. Maybe it comes down to mindfulness and balance. Through mindfulness, we can gain awareness of our evolutionary biases born through cognitive dissonance theory and question our own perspectives. And if we are smart, we might adopt the strategy of the first president of the United States. In The Social Animal, it states, "As the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin75 pointed out, it was precisely for this reason that Abraham Lincoln chose a cabinet that included several people who disagreed with his policies about how best to end slavery." We can follow suit by including in our innermost circle those who are like-minded and also those who hold different perspectives from that of our own.
In conclusion, whether we call these diametric concepts, "safety and freedom," "control and belonging, or "conformity and individuality," just like horses, humans require a healthy balance between each. We are made from the fabric of our culture as much as we are a part of it. Like one piece in an elaborate quilt, we are bound together. Our humanity's very nature is to find ways to cooperate as we can not change the truth of our interdependence. And yet we all require the respect and dignity that can only be found in the personal agency to decide how we want the stitching and design to look on our particular patch of life.
1. Baumeister - The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation
2. The Social Animal by Elliot Aronson
3. The Naked Ape - Desmond Morris
4. "Desire for control, perception of control: their impact on autonomous motivation and psychological adjustment" written by, Camille Amoura, Sophie Berjot, Nicolas Gillet, Emin Altintas * "SE refers to "the belief in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations" (Bandura 1995, p. 2)
5. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky