This is a short summary of a broader research. Please find more details under the links. The introduction to the research can be read here.
The topics discussed under the research are:
Exit, Voice, or Stockholm Syndrome
Stockholm syndrome is not only a thing that happens to hostages on the cold marble floors of Scandinavian financial institutions. It is a more ubiquitous coping mechanism in the face of the inevitable, of dependence (positive or negative). It is more precisely called ‘dependence bonding’.
In order to speak of dependence bonding, the following conditions must be met:
1) Helplessness: The victim must perceive no way out of the situation. (If a hostage still hopes for rescue, he will not bond, he may pretend it though.)
2) Fear: The situation must be perceived as threatening.
As a result of these two, the victims will show symptoms of dependence bonding:
1) Loss of individual perspective and identifying with the aggressor, seeing the world from his perspective, putting his interest above their own.
2) Gratitude for not making things even worse. (A hostage is grateful for every minute the aggressor is not taking his life.) ‘Love’ is no longer warranted by some appeal from the aggressor, but merely from gratitude for not making things worse.
When Albert Hirschman came up with his classification of responses to a disintegrating system, he named exit, voice and loyalty as the three options available for a disgruntled citizen/client.
What he called ‘loyalty’ has a lot in common with the dysfunctional coping mechanism of dependence bonding. And thus, it explains the seemingly illogical phenomenon when a citizen (or a customer) neither exits, nor tries to fix it (voice), but stays and develops a dysfunctional loyalty that defies reason and even his own best interest.
It is similarly difficult to understand how flight or fight responses have a third, inexplicable option: adopting to a bad situation. As the individual sees no chance of effectively fighting back, nor of fleeing the threat – he may choose to try and adapt to the bad situation. It may be self-defeating in the long run. It may look illogical. But you need to understand which options the victim can see – not the options he actually has.
Some argue that Stockholm syndrome or ‘dependence bonding’ is hard to study because it is rare. But what if it is a basic tendency of human nature – only we don’t pay attention to it when it seems ‘logical’. Everyone bonds with the person, who cares for them. We only notice the phenomenon when it makes no logical sense: when someone bonds with an aggressor. Even though both are examples of dependence bonding, we don’t count a child’s love for his parents as a manifestation of the same psychological phenomenon. We only study that when it bonds the child with an abusive parent, for instance, because then it looks illogical and it is self-defeating.
Bonding can be achieved through threats and oppression, not just by being very nice to someone – and the victim will find it hard to tell dependence bonding from actual love that is deserved by merit and appeal, because people are awfully bad at telling love from gratitude and pleasure from mere relief. But gratitude for not hurting even more is a powerful force.
Somehow, autocrats play on this instrument with instinctive talent, probably because it is very similar to bullying. And their opponents find it hard to address the seemingly illogical bonding phenomenon between oppressor and victims. It has massive political implications for the transition to freedom and consolidating it.
How Oppressive Regimes Rob Their Victims of Their Sense of Agency
Starting with the obvious (and political) helplessness is the way oppressive regimes rob their citizens of their sense of control, agency – and make them feel helpless. Helpless against the threat of the day, not in control of their own future, and helpless against the dictator himself.
And that is when the childhood survival strategy, dependence bonding kicks in. People don’t have separate reactions in store for political and personal oppression. The mechanism for survival is the same. If you can’t change your world (or exit it) change your mind about it.
When a new democracy is established, we talk about new economic and political institutions. Going through the motions of democracy/freedom is supposed to automatically deliver the state of mind necessary to thrive in freedom. But does it? What happens when victims carry their coping strategy over into freedom? Can a strategy designed for survival work under the conditions of freedom? Is it just a very safe strategy, or does it do harm under conditions of freedom?
Survivalism vs. Freedom
We regard freedom as a luxury, only to be sought when all else is safe and secure – but we are wrong.
Authoritarian thinking is just a survival tool. It is internalized during childhood under the condition of complete dependence and we are all capable to regress back into it when we don’t feel in control of our lives to a pathological degree. It may feel like a super-safe strategy for the victim, but in reality, it is self-defeating in the long run.
If the victim (mistakenly) believes that it is not the time for aspirational values, but a time for mere survival, he causes more damage than he hoped to remedy by adapting to a bad situation, like an autocracy.
This is why we need to revisit Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs and realize that it was never meant to suggest that aspirational values (such as freedom) can only be aimed for when all lower-level (more pressing) needs are taken care of. Maslow merely stated that this is how we perceive needs.
Authoritarian thinking is not an appropriate thinking pattern for everyday, goal-centered living, or prosperity. There is a qualitative difference between the mindset of survival vs that of living, and one can’t just do both to be absolutely safe and to prosper at the same time.
One always has to make a judgment whether he is pursuing mere survival or if it is time to aim for something more. Prosperity. His judgement is based on perceptions, it is subjective, relative and non-linear. This contributes to the difficulty of diagnosing when a society tips over the line of (perceived) survival level values.
One needs to be able to tell the difference between the things that can be changed and the ones that can’t be. And it is always good to see an option to exit if one wants to keep a free mind.
This is also why an authoritarian mind cannot afford looking forward to the future – and the death of futurism is the most alarming sign of an era of political depression approaching. Who would be dreaming about e future one only aims to survive?
Economic anxieties and helplessness
The economy can be a ‘dragon’. We use the term ‘middle class’ as proxy to describe people who are in an aspirational mindset. We use income range as a definition for said middle class – but only for lack of a better proxy. We should really be able to identify whether they are still in survival mode – or whether they have things they want and a certainty that they can get them by their own effort.
One of the strongest correlations of social science is between the size of the middle class and the strength of democratic values (whatever they mean). Establishing and maintaining freedom in a society depends on a large chunk of its people switching from survival to aspirational mode. The term ‘middle class’ is meant to capture that status, which is a mindset, more than a certain level of income. ‘Middle class’ doesn’t mean a certain amount of income (even if statistics are limited to counting that). It means the sense of economic security that allows people to raise their eyes above the need for survival, and gain aspirations, things to pursue in life.
Economic anxieties are a major culprit in backsliding of freedom in a society. As the middle class is shrinking, people step down from aspirational to survival values. Economic security and belonging to the middle class is meant to cover the same thing. But whether anyone feels secure or is in a survival mindset is not an objective thing. It depends on his or her own perceptions.
How welfare contributes to populism
Looking at political behavior through the prism of helplessness leads you to a few surprising conclusions – and answers some puzzling and seemingly illogical political behaviors. One of these conclusions is that welfare provisions can induce the sense of economic helplessness – and thus prime a population to crave and accept a strongman.
The welfare state is (rightly) credited with making the existential fear from abject poverty go away and thus calmed the economic anxieties that contributed to the rise of many dictators in the past. But is this a solution to disempowerment or did it just prolong the period between two populist uprisings?
In the long run, the welfare-only approach cannot work. Firstly, it cannot soothe economic anxieties anymore when the money runs out. (When, and not if it runs out.)
But more importantly, it does nothing to empower the recipients – to make them feel in control of their own economic standing. One’s dependence and disempowerment under a welfare system only becomes obvious when the welfare provision is shrunk, during austerity, when the recipients become painfully aware of their own helplessness to control their income. It may sound great to be a pet in a zoo, but no one likes to think about what happens when provisions run out or the zookeepers turn evil.
How overregulation contributes to populism
Looking at political behavior through the prism of helplessness leads you to a few surprising conclusions – and answers some puzzling and seemingly illogical political behaviors. One of these conclusions is that overregaulation can induce the sense of economic helplessness – and thus prime a population to crave and accept a strongman.
If you want to create a world where dictatorships won’t happen again on the back of economic anxieties, think a bit harder than just handing out money. The solution must entail empowerment, reaffirming the link between one’s action and one’s economic standing. And to achieve that, one must leave people’s freedom to trade, make money, cooperate, alone. That means cutting back drastically on occupational licensing as well as on overregulation – or benefiting the incumbents in any other way.
That means being pro-market, not pro-business. That means stopping support for the obscene amount of regulations on the assumptions that they are designed with the zoo animals’ safety in mind. Tens of thousands of pages of regulations regarding something as simple as selling hot dogs (and paying taxes on it) is the definition of inducing the sense of helplessness in a population. Regulations also keep newcomers out of industries. The people who need to start with the simplest of things like selling stuff on the streets cannot do so legally and get a leg up the economic ladder if they can’t comply with those thousands of pages of regulations (and often pay fees to get licenses in advance). As a result, the most vulnerable, least skilled members of society are kept away from the lowest steps of the ladder.
Leaving opportunities truly open needs to complement economic safety nets – or we all become the helpless stooges of the next autocrat who exploits the sense of economic helplessness inherent in welfare-dependence.
Political left and right are the same problem when it comes to authoritarian thinking
There are only superficial differences between them, but once you strip away their rhetoric, you find the same old fear+helplessness duo behind both left and right.
Whether you find meddling in other people’s wallets or sex lives more acceptable is just a matter of taste. (And very poor taste, indeed.) Using the state as a proxy to exert your will on others is also a universal sign of authoritarian thinking pattern on the roll.
Whether you want to live without the (economic) consequences of your choices or whether you want to deprive people of (lifestyle) choices but demand that they take responsibility – your problem is the same: trying to separate choice from responsibility. And to a lesser degree, trying to homogenise society.
What you are not doing in the meantime is more telling than what you demand.
Sexism as a form of authoritarian thinking
Sexism is universal, just as every other manifestation of authoritarian thinking. It carries all the symptoms, the victim blaming, the angry stomping on the weak, submission of the victim, aggression of the higher-up, dominance deteriorating into abuse – to name just a few.
A really disturbing example is the poor understanding of sex and war. Studies pushing the connection between ‘young men not having access to sex/women’ and violence or war – are downright disturbing. No wonder they led to ‘logical’ conclusions like the redistribution of female humans, like commodity. These studies regard men as dumb, instinct-driven agents and women as mere commodity. The authoritarian mind is also prone to support intervention to ensure certain ends (redistribution) and disregard the means to that end (the people who get redistributed or the enormous power it takes to enforce such a vile utopia).
But if lack of orgasm would lead people to violence, women would have started a war a long time ago. The sex-violence problem is about something else and the definition of the problem lies somewhere else.
Sexism and violence are merely two symptoms of the same underlying problem. Authoritarian societies are more prone to going to war. They are also more sexist because sexism (just as racism, tribalism, etc.) is just a form of authoritarian thinking. It reduces human beings to a function and thus the political seeps into private lives.
The imbalance and human suffering caused by sexist enforcement of hypocritical morals and social roles frustrate everyone equally, regardless of gender. The same thing that pushes down women (part structural and part internalized) in sexist societies pushes down people in authoritarian societies. People’s strategies to placate the stronger and learn to love the inevitable is exactly the same as women’s reaction to their unshakable roles in sexist societies. (That’s right, I’ve just said that we are all the autocrats’ bitches.)
Thinking with the head of your dictator
One of the saddest symptom of the authoritarian mind is how little he dwells in his own mind. He really hates being in his own shoes, being disempowered, feeling helpless and not being in control – it is much more rewarding to put himself in the shoes of the powerful. Not to mention highly encouraged – and taking your own viewpoint is highly discouraged.
Imagining how the powerful should push his peasants on the chessboard is safer and more pleasant than dwelling in one’s own head. It is the equivalent of recreationally daydreaming about being rich – it just does a lot more damage. It enables, for instance, the central planning approach to everything, people’s lives as well as the economy. It manifests itself in the compulsive thinking tick that wants to ban/enforce/tax/police everything it perceives as a problem, and it wants to do so from a central authority’s perspective.
It is not only more comfortable (mentally) but also safer (politically and otherwise) to regard the world from the strong’s point of view.
More on The Dislocated Locus of Identity…
Authoritarian reactions to the mere idea of AI
The research applies its findings to the human reaction to the mere idea of powerful artificial intelligence emerging.
Similarly to religionism, some humans have already resorted to worshiping AI, in case it emerges and we have no tools against it. And similarly to statism, many didn’t even assume that the emergent machine overlord would be malevolent. Or maybe it doesn’t matter. An authoritarian mind is primed to appease a bully – whoever is strongest – regardless of whether he is nice.
The question emerges: Would We Suck Up to an AI Overlord? And even more importantly: would it care?
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