The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Maslow, Chakras, and what drives us

A 2005 Gallup Poll said that American teenagers fear the following things most.

  1. Terrorist attacks
  2. Spiders
  3. Death
  4. Failure
  5. War
  6. Heights
  7. Crime/Violence
  8. Being alone
  9. The future
  10. Nuclear war

I'd like to find such polls for all ages and cultures. I openly admit that "American teenagers" is hardly indicative of world attitudes, but I only spent five minutes Googling. Please--someone look more deeply and find us more references. But note how many fears on the list are different forms of fear of loss of life (Terrorist attacks, spiders, death, war, crime/violence, nuclear war). I doubt there is any single thing worldwide, that is as agreed upon as a "I don't want that to happen for as long as possible." Biologically, we are set up to do almost anything to avoid it.

In no way am I saying we should value life above everything else. I certainly don't. But unless someone produces surveys where most people value power or money above life, I have to think that any evaluation of the relative health, happiness, or success of different groups HAS to factor in life expectancy, or it is missing a factor which, world-wide, has driven much of human history.

I'd love it if people would go out on the web and find "top ten things valued" type lists or "top things to be avoided" type lists, and help me see if I'm right. Life itself will be at or near the top of the list of things people want. Death itself will be at or near the top of things people want to avoid. And money and power, the things that men have in greater abundance (in most of the world, without much doubt) aren't the things that people really want the most. And lack of them isn't at the top of the list of things to be avoided (being dead broke and utterly helpless is nobody's idea of a good time, of course.)


Dan, you actually did a fine job of presenting your position. But you said I thought death was "the" compensating factor between men and women. No, I think its "a" compensating factor, and a very important one.

Certianly, you did not mean to gloss over the service of every man who ever died believing he was protecting his family and country. You say that men die largely because of risky behaviors. Yep, lots of truth in that. So...if the Huns come over the hill, and the men of the village mount up to protect their families, this doesn't count, huh? What, in your world, are they supposed to do? Send the women? Not fight at all?

I've had this conversation with at least a dozen feminists who share your position--that men have the advantage in life. And they discount the deaths of men in wars because "men start the wars." That's simplistic, and even when women reign, if there is a war they STILL send men out to die. Because that's kinda what we're built for.


I find this worthy of commentary because I respect Maslow's Heirarchy greatly, especially when I map it over the Yogic Chakras. THAT was what I meant by "Yoga"--not the asana exercises, but the entire system "Yoga" that tries to organize the techniques of human mental and physical development.

I fear you've misunderstood Maslow. If I understand him properly, he was saying that, in general, human beings move from more basic needs to more evolved and complex ones. That IF the lower needs (survival, shelter, food) are not met, it is difficult to evolve to the more elevated ones (self expression, intellectual growth, spirit.) That makes perfect sense to me, but of course doesn't apply to every human being--it's just the way to bet. People who have managed to become saints, or massively self-sacrifice for spiritual ideals, (like Masada) set standards we admire for a thousand years--BECAUSE IT IS RARE.

The Chakras say much the same thing, and have been used to understand human behavior for some six thousand years. That doesn't make it correct, but it does happen that I've used it to understand the world for at least forty years, so a challenge to it catches my attention instantly. I don't want to THINK I'm right about this stuff. I want to BE right, and a good challenge is necessary to see whether the model holds up.

Let's see if I have any trouble understanding the aspects of human behavior you've brought up, IF Maslow/Chakras are an accurate tool.

1) No one would fight in a war? Nonsense. Cultures that fight survive. Those that won't, or can't, had better be protected by water, mountains, or have nothing anyone wants. So you have that tricky thing that willingness to risk your life decreases chance of death. A warrior who enters a battle WILLING to die, and READY to die, is less likely to die. The one afraid of death will not have the confidence to use his training, and be cut down by someone with less skill, who has mastered his fear. Every military knows these things, and devotes massive amounts of their training to helping recruits deal with their fear of death. Cultures understand that if the individual members will not risk their lives, it will die, and so will they. One might suspect that religion is one of the tools evolved to deal with this. What if I die? You go to the afterlife. And if you have fought bravely, you will sit on the right hand of God, or Allah, or whatever.

Do you think I, a young man dying on a battlefield, care whether it was a man or woman who sent me to die? Whether it was a man or woman who pulled the trigger on me? Saying that it matters less if I die because of the gender of the person who killed me is heartless--so I can't believe that's what Dan is saying because he is a very compassionate man.

As a teacher once told me: "any culture that does not produce some minimum number of crazy, dangerous young men...will die."

2) Men die in risky jobs: hunting, building, mining, whatever. Men have traditionally taken the most dangerous jobs in a given culture. Someone has to do them, and if men and women do them in equal numbers, that culture will be out-bred by the culture that primarily sends men. How do you do this? By convincing men that it is "manly" to risk their lives, and by breeding men with enough testosterone to drive them slightly crazy. I've lost count of the old men, beyond their testosterone flush, who shake their heads at the insanity they thought they had to do as young men BOTH to take a place in the male heirarchy, and to attract women (and make no mistake: women who look like cheerleaders don't end up with guys who risk like football players accidentally. Guys didn't ask to be visually-oriented beasts. We're wired that way. Take it up with God, or evolution, or whoever you want.)

3) People smoke, drink, drive too fast, or eat too much often BECAUSE THEY LIE TO THEMSELVES. Discipline is painful. So we trade short-term pleasure for long-term pain because the long term pain ain't here yet. Then people anesthetize themselves to the results. In order to motivate yourself to exercise (or whatever) you have to BELIEVE that you can actually do it, that you will actually get the results, and that the results will make you happy. How the hell does that compete with laying on the couch eating Screaming Yellow Zonkers?

Is there a parent out there who hasn't had to explain long-term benefits to their children? Explain why it is necessary to do homework, go to school, be honest, or whatever? Haven't you seen how hard it is? As animals, we're wired up to do what feels good RIGHT NOW, because in a natural situation, that will keep you alive. As human beings, we have to think longer and longer term.

Pollution happens because people don't think long-term about energy usage, garbage disposal, use of non-biodegradable products. What is the solution? Convincing people that the long-term costs utterly eclipse the short-term gains.

4) People will work years to buy a house. But put a gun to their head and tell them to burn it down or else, and they will. I use a very simple formula: if the threat of death will convince you to give up something, you care more about your life than you do about the thing you'll give up. Carjackings, rapes, forced labor, of the painful things to look at is that every black person in this country (almost) descended from people who decided they would rather be slaves than be dead.

Because the myth of America is that we are a country filled with "give me Liberty or give me death" heroes, I think that blacks were, and are, subtly disrespected. As other groups have done throughout history, they had to be willing to fight in wars to prove this wrong. How do people manage to march off to fight? Couple of the big ones are:

1) They convince themselves that they would rather die than suffer whatever they would suffer if they do not place their lives at risk. (losing honor, families dying, dying running away as opposed to running TOWARD the guns, betraying his brothers, etc.)

2)They convince themselves that THEY aren't going to be the ones to die. "Nobody ever won a war by dying for his country. He wins by making the other poor sonofabitch die for HIS country." Who the hell do you think that's directed at? The guys sitting there shitting their pants, trying to act brave. If I trust my training I'll survive? Hell, yeah! Hoo-Rah!

ᅠMen didn't choose this. It simply isn't efficient to put women into combat under most circumstances (an exception: if you lose a battle, you will be exterminated. Oops! Time to put the women and children on the line!)


Here, exactly, is my thought on it. In the nature of things, men's lives and women's dreams are disposable. Women breed and condition males to defend them, men brainwash and intimidate women in to surrendering their individual ambitions. The result is a culture which produces more children who will reproduce.

If you believe, as I do, that women are the equal of men, then it is impossible to genuinely suppress your women without reducing the efficiency of your culture, right? I mean, aren't you diminishing your talent pool? Or are you saying that men are actually better than women, so it doesn't matter if women don't rise to their highest good?

When we talk about male dominance, isn't the primary tool men use to control women threat of violence? Someone unafraid of death is unafraid of violence, friend. If death isn't an extreme bugaboo, the rape statistics would be almost zero. In all but one case of rape I know of personally, the motivating factor was fear of violence. (In that other case, it was the threat that the rapist would rape a sister instead. The woman submitted to save her sibling. Wow.)

We go into denial about the long-term results of gambling, drugs, unprotected sex, whatever. The sex thing is a powerful one. Intellectually, we may know that we increase the risk of catching a disease. But skin-on-skin just feels so damned good, and our hindbrain wants to make babies so badly. So we do a mental calculation, and figure: "oh, what the hell! I PROBABLY won't get it"---the CHANCE of getting AIDS looms less than the CERTAINTY that it's gonna feel "real good, right now."

But what if the person KNEW that his partner had AIDS? Knew, and believed, that having unprotected sex with this person would kill them? Not maybe, but certainly. Most people wouldn't have PROTECTED sex with that person, let alone unprotected.

We lie to ourselves. We play the odds because it feels good right now. And this is one of the core things that therapists and counselors have to do: demonstrate the long-term effects, and convince the person that that's where they're going.

Any worm will move away from pain and toward pleasure. Using that principle alone, you can understand a massive amount of how Madison Avenue works (get laid or live longer), parents discipline children (massive pain from parental disapproval, or bleak visions of the future), societies control citizens (be afraid! Vote for the authoritarian and don't question military spending! Obey the law or face shunning [death for a communal organism], fines [subtracting the fruits of your time and energy], incarceration [loss of freedom, and increased risk of death/pain] or execution.

This stuff is such a part of my core believe systems--that all things being equal, you can learn what is driving someone by seeing where their fears of death and loneliness are wired in. That you can only take your brakes off in life when you are not afraid of death or shunning (the very thing a society tries so damned hard to keep foremost in your mind.)

How much do we spend as a culture to deny the passage of time? Aging? How did our culture go a little wonky when we were afraid planes would start dropping out of the sky, and how many times did you say "yep" when liberal commentators accused the Bush administration of manipulating us with fear by constantly changing the terror alert status? The entire funeral industry exists to take the sting out of death. Some would say that religion itself, one of the most powerful forces on the planet, exists largely to help people deal with their fear of death. That art, children, love itself is shelter from the inevitability of that final breath.

The fact of altruism, self-sacrifice, Cherry-Blossom Squadron type suicide, drug addiction, overeating, and everything else has been debated endlessly by Evolutionary Biologists, and while their explanations are hardly exhaustive, the amount of human behavior explained by the drive for individual or group survival is gigantic. The amount of behavior that is related to the neurological sensations which, in our original evolutionary context were survival-positive but has become problematic is even greater.

Sugar? It was damned hard to eat enough sweet stuff to hurt yourself before processed foods. Now, it's a killer. Obesity? In the history of the human race, what proportion of people died from obesity as opposed to starvation? Maybe 1%? Is it any wonder it's so hard to control eating? Drug addiction? We're wired to avoid pain and seek pleasure. It can be murderously hard to convince someone that something that feels good will hurt them. OUR BRAINS DON'T WANT TO BELIEVE IT.

Maturing means understanding that everything that feels good isn't good, and not everything that hurts is bad. My point of view is that neither men nor women "decided" about much of this. We were biologically designed to operate in certain ways: women to have babies, men to be short-lived worker/fighter drones.

And our cultural mythologies cover up this bare wiring with all kindsa happy bullshit. It's how you get guys to march into cannon fire, and women to remain with brutal husbands or sacrifice their dreams.

If you want to go beyond that, you have to look more carefully. That's MY position, Dan. We are angels built on a monkey's chassis. And we're doing the best we can. We ain't so bad, but we can, and will, do one hell of a lot better--if we can just take the blinders off and see how biology has used us to its own purposes.


Pagan Topologist said...

Yeah, this really gets to the heart of things, Steve. I certainly don't see much to disagree with.

But I am still not convinced that there are not intrinsic, physiological reasons why women live longer, quite apart from the risky behavior factor. With the sole exception of a greater tendency to develop osteoporosis, their bodies just seem to be more durable than ours.

Marty S said...

Here are two statistics to think about relative to this discussion.

1)There is approximately 1 suicide very sixteen minutes ion the U.S. So apparently there are a lot of people to whom life is not something to be cherished.

2) The suicide rate among the dominant gender males is about four times that of females.

Christian M. Howell said...

Women should live longer. MEN SUCK! YES WE DO!!!

The only thing I think is worth ANYTHING is WOMEN'S RIGHTS.

I plan to do everything I can to move things forward. Unfortunately that will mean getting rid of a lot of "men," but what the hell. Most aren't worth anything anyway.

I can DEFINITELY PROVE that 2% of people do 98% of the work. That's pathetic from a patriarchal society that would keep "certain groups" out.

I may be jaded though because I have worked around a majority of white "men" and talk about LAZY.

Every assignment I go to people are taken aback by my level of work. They say, "you're doing too much" or "aren't you afraid you'll automate yourself out of a job?"

Pathetic excuses to under-achieve. At least I'll be getting out of NYC soon. The filth and depravity is too much for me.

Anonymous said...

"But I am still not convinced that there are not intrinsic, physiological reasons why women live longer, quite apart from the risky behavior factor. With the sole exception of a greater tendency to develop osteoporosis, their bodies just seem to be more durable than ours."

Kids with grandmothers survive better.

Scott said...

PT: They sure don't seem more durable on the mat. Consider the Barton Springs Pool Diving Board example: both genders going off the diving board showing off to their friends with front flips, screwing up and smacking into the water awkwardly and hard. Men: "That hurt; I gotta jump higher, throw forward harder, tuck tighter...." Women: "That hurt; I shan't do it again." There's your durability: brains. ;)

Christian: I'd be interested to see your 98/2 proof; I'm a Pareto fan myself.

Scott said...

Steve: I disagree with your conflating future value with dishonesty.

That said, you do get me distracted enough thinking about this stuff to walk into things; thanks!

Steven Barnes said...

Oh, I think women have an advantage in long-term endurance, absolutely. And even if you remove violence, they'd have a bit of an advantage. Men are better at burst strength, by a long shot. Never seen any real difference in pain tolerance, wound for wound, though.
And Christian, when you love yourself, the world will start looking much different. I sincerely hope you learn to open your heart, because if you don't, moving from NYC won't help at all--you'll take your private demons with you.

Steven Barnes said...

Suicide is one of the things that give some people problems from a "life is precious" perspective. To me, it's pretty easy to understand. The pain of existence can rise to a level that Nothingness is preferable. Or, the ego will definitely kill your body to keep itself intact. When someone's life is crashing in on them, the lies of decades coming home to roost or massive dishonesty is about to be discovered, it can be preferable to kill the physical form, while maintaining the "sense of self" to the end.

Quality of life is definitely a factor. I think almost anyone would reach a point where there was so much pain, so much fear or guilt or hopelessness that death seems preferable. But for the vast majority of us, that's a LOT of pain before we'd prefer to check out.

Dan Moran said...

People fear loss and change because they fear death of the ego. Loss of an arm, an eye, your good looks, your health ... we fear losing those things because we fear we won't be the same person on the other side. We fear dying not so much for fear of the moment, but for the loss it entails. We fear the death of others for how it will mark us, for our loss, for the way their deaths will force change upon us, and for the ego, for most of us, change is death.

Almost all fear is fear of death at the root. The dead are at peace; it is we the living who suffer and change and are no longer ourselves.

Longer post coming later.

Professor Timonin said...

Marty - I seem to recall reading something somewhere which argued that the critical difference re: suicides is "successful" suicides - if you look at attempted suicides, men and women are about equal, with women perhaps ahead. Men tend to choose methods guaranteed to work - jumping off of something high, gun in the mouth, getting in front of a fast moving vehicle. Women tend to choose slit wrists and overdoses, which have a greater chance of failing.

Steve - re: Huns coming over the hills; historically, women were pretty much as likely to defend the home in those situations as men. Consider that the gendered division of labor really doesn't start on the broadest possible level until the agricultural revolution of the late 1700s. It's earlier in urban communities and among social elites, where women were expected to be decorative, but until farming methods allowed 1 man to produce the output of 10 men, agriculturally, women worked alongside men in the fields as a matter of course. I'd say then that what your looking at re: division of labor (dangerous and stupid vs. less risky) and concurrent death rates is a learned rather than an inherent difference.

Marty S said...

Professor Timonin: That's interesting about the suicides. I wonder if the difference in methods chosen to commit suicide is just one more difference in the natures of men and women or whether the women realize that the method chosen is likely to fail and are using the attempted suicide as a call for help rather than as an actual attempt to suicide.
On the subject of technological change and the roles of men and women the agricultural revolution is just one example. I believe that quite a bit of bias seeps into discussions of the historical relative roles of men in women due to an inability of most people to understand effect of the technology available at a given time on those roles.

Scott said...

"Consider that the gendered division of labor really doesn't start on the broadest possible level until the agricultural revolution of the late 1700s."

Agriculture's a blip; consider the hunter / gatherer split.

Steve Perry said...

Biology was destiny back at the hunter/gatherer split, you think? Babies were not weaned until they could eat solid food, and it's a lot easier to haul a baby around on you back digging roots than it is to do it chasing a mastadon.

And since the breast-feeding could only be done by the females, sending the women out to hunt while the men stayed in the cave wouldn't have worked out too well.

Not to mention that if the big curlnose turns around and stomps your mate and child flat, your DNA doesn't continue on.

Most of the science on this tends to allow that human female is the basic unit and that males are expendable once they have mated. The times have changes, but the last fifteen or twenty thousand years of history are a blip, too.

Anonymous said...

"We are angels built on a monkey's chassis."

I disagree. All evidence asserts that humans are African Apes, plain and simple. The gender-aligned behaviors oft discussed here, such as men being high rolling risk-takers and women peace makers, conform to the general primate pattern. Even the distressingly high incidence of women selecting abusive partners and doggedly persisting in life-threatening relationships a la Rhianna and Chris is akin to aspects of Chimp mating behavior. It's time we both cease deluding ourselves with pleasant but bogus fictions of "angelic natures", and stopped disparaging out primate heritage, which encompasses all our propensities, from base to grand.

As a fellow New Yorker (albeit displaced to CA), I think you disparage our city way too much. Yes, our city contains generous portions of filth and depravity. But NYC is also THE US business and intellectual hub, and an international culture and policy dynamo barely seconded by LA and DC. IMHO, all American cities are provincial compared to NYC. I think your jadedness stems from sojourning among the city more unexcelling circles. I simply refuse to believe that majestic metropolis, which the mind of native son Isaac Asimov fused with Rome to create Trantor,is simply failure and depravity through and through. Whenever I'm in Times Square, the titanic energy and grandeur infuses me with the exuberance Marlo Thomas radiates during the That Girl opening, when her character first thrills to New York's splendors.


Nancy Lebovitz said...

Self-destructive behavior isn't just about what would normally be considered self-indulgence.

There are plenty of people who overwork (without economic necessity), undersleep, undereat, don't let themselves relax, damage their joints with punitive exercise, etc. It's rare to find people who let themselves have enough air, though at least that isn't a matter of inappropriate use of willpower.

Any theories about where self-denial fits in as a basic drive? I suspect it's a pretty strong one.


In re suicide: I don't know-- women are heavily socialized to not leave a mess, and it so happens that obvious effective methods of suicide are messy.

I wonder if the high risk of suicide for women doctors is related to knowing how to use drugs effectively to kill oneself.

Steven Barnes said...

Ethiopian Infidel--
All evidence of our biological/genetic reality says we're African apes, yes. I see no reason to exclude art, science,and philosophy from the equation, and that tells me that we are reaching toward a higher reality. You, of course, are welcome to disagree. Neither of us can "prove" our contentions, really.

Louise said...

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