A Journey to Understand Game B

For the past few months, I’ve been intrigued by a concept I first heard of at an online community: “Game B” (see https://futurethinkers.org/jim-rutt-game-b-fifth-attractor/ for instance). One of the main reasons for why the concept seemed attractive was (and remains) an intuition that the “game” that most people in Western civilizations are playing collectively (capitalism) has some serious issues–or at least, if the issues are not with the game, then there are issues with the way we play it.

And over the course of these past months, I started on a journey of trying to understand what those issues are, and why some people are extremely enthusiastic about “switching” from the current system (Game A = capitalism as we know it) to a new game, what would make that new game different, whether that difference could actually “work” (in the real world) or not, and why it then also is that quite a few people I talked with seemed very reluctant (to say the least) about changing anything about the current system, lest we damage it and our means of (relative) cooperative survival.

As I said, I started on this journey, and have not reached any definitive end–and if I understand the underlying assumptions of “Game B” I will also never reach any such end point. It might be worth, however, to describe a few relatively concrete aspects that I (at this point in time) would consider strong candidates for answers to some of the questions above.

What’s the source of enthusiasm about “Game B”? I assume that for most people who are proponents of (or at least seekers for) an alternative game, there are a few key elements that seem to be “off” when it comes to capitalism (again, as it is usually played): first and foremost, it appears to be a game that must be played, and that must be played by relatively fixed rules. As such, it is roughly the difference between the two scenarios A and B described below, and I’ll start with B (for a reason that’ll become clear afterwards):

Scenario B feels roughly like walking into a small casino and deciding to play a couple rounds of poker, and if after a few rounds you don’t like the game–in exactly the form it is being played–you have not only the liberty to leave the game, but you can also suggest a slightly different game, in other words, you are neither bound by a (meta) rule that the game must be continued, nor are you bound by any specific rules–assuming that the casino is small enough and the player who is the bank is willing to consider an adaptation of the game that is.

Scenario A feels like being deposited in a casino, and receiving a short set of instructions, and part of the instructions sounds like this: “In a few minutes, a dude with a gun will pick you up and show you to the poker table, and once you start playing the game, make sure not to lose too much money! If you win, you’ll have a great time, and the ladies will bring you great drinks, and you’ll get to enjoy the amenities during the breaks, but if you lose, damn, your experience in the casino sucks man, so pay attention now, while we show you the demonstration video on how the game works, OK?!” In other words, people are told (roughly at age 6 or 7) there is ONE game to be played (employment), and they need to pay attention to learn how to play the game (get smart and cram your brain with all the stuff being shown in school), and when you start playing, you have to earn as much money as you can. If you earn enough, life is great, if you don’t, well, you’re a loser. Importantly, part of the instruction is an often repeated and frequently only implicit suggestion that you have no control over whether you want to play the game or not–at least, trying to rebel against the system leaves you “in trouble”, like with bad grades, and the consequences of those–, and that you have no control over the game itself: that’s the invisible hand of the market, and we cannot interfere with that!

As you can see, I’ve folded into the description of scenario (game) A the parallel experiences in how many people grew up. And if you believe in that kind of description–that you have no choice but to play the game “as it is presented to you”, an inevitable reality–your enthusiasm for Game B will be limited. For one, you will not believe it can exist “realistically”. If on the other hand you grew up with little restrictions on your fantasy as it imagines new rules, new games, or even new meta rules (for the game of games), and you see a lot of people struggling under the current game (A), then you probably will have a high motivation to try and come up with a new game that could replace Game (scenario) A, no?

So, what would make Game B different? Well, from the description of the two scenarios, the main differences (as I see them today) can be described as follows: players of the game (human beings in the real world) do not experience their life as a “you must do X to live a decent life”–which is Game A, an extraction of value against one’s sovereignty and autonomy)–but rather as a true game embedded in a meta game with two features: people can choose to not play the game and, more importantly, people have the option to alter the rules according to their needs–that is, if the game being offered, on the playground of the economy so to speak, doesn’t suit them, maybe because they cannot keep up with the speed or some other aspect of the rules, they have the option to transform the game into one that suits them better in cooperation with the other players. This last bit is important, obviously. That is, no player has the right to dictate their rules onto others. In essence, the difference is one of awareness and experience, not of rules–or rather only to the extent to which people believe the rules are fixed rather than flexible, and the beliefs about who makes the rules, and how that rule making works.

Would such a different game actually work? I think this is maybe the most critical question for the average person, and I do not have an answer that holds. The enthusiasts are obviously convinced that such a game can exist–although it hasn’t been developed yet to the point where they could demonstrate it on a scaled up way, such as at least a regional economy if not a national economy. Part of the problem here is that so long as the vast majority of people are “happy enough” (or maybe don’t despair while) playing “Game A”, there seem to be quite some restrictions on how to identify and “vet” the honesty of potential Game B players. Why would such vetting be necessary? Well, the main issue with Game B is its voluntary nature–anyone can choose to leave a game whenever they wish, in order to preserve sovereignty and autonomy. That means that there are, by design, no hard enforcement mechanisms. And that will require a different consciousness of the players. There is a requirement, which cannot be enforced by violent means, that players are aware that the collective’s success depends on all players willingness to cooperate with one another, and to not become “free riders” of the society (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free-rider_problem). Proponents of Game A (capitalism as it is) are most likely to point out one version or another of this problem: take free healthcare (Medicare for All) for instance. The reason why this would not work in the system we’re currently having, and the game we’re currently playing is that it reduces the pressure on people to “work for their healthcare”. Once all basic needs are met–so the theory, backed up by some credible evidence at least–people will “slack”, and once that starts, there’s no end to it, leaving in the end the “stupid and ideologically naive” to provide for the rest of us, and services being provided at a much lower level, like in communist countries. So, let’s be clear: Game B is **not** another name for communism

For me, personally, a more interesting question is this: why am I so driven to explore this topic? My hunch is that Game B, as dreamed of by its most fervent supporters, may for many decades or even centuries be an unattainable goal–simply because our genetic inheritance shaped by evolution has put too much fear in our minds that makes it difficult to stay with a consciousness of abundance over scarcity. But that doesn’t mean we have to be content and contend with Game A as it is at the moment. Over the course of the past several hundred years, the game has been transformed already many times. We abolished slavery, for instance–where slaves are players that really are not even given a hypothetical choice (for instance to become homeless bums). And for a while we had a pretty good thing going, called “The American Dream”. Clearly some of it was a dream to the extent that it wasn’t attainable for everyone, but at least it changed the awareness of people to not believe life was bound by current rules, and that instead through entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity, one can make one’s own rules and still succeed in a game yet to be defined and discovered. It is this, by the way, that I believe populism in Trump’s message (as well as with Brexit) represents: a rebellion against an establishment that has formulated a version of Game A they can comfortably live with that doesn’t work for the average person. It is just that populism has never been understood in terms of sovereignty of players re-establishing against an already established elite that tries to keep the rules “as is” and in their favor.

So, yes, it does make sense to open up Game A–at least far enough for people to re-experience the freedom that comes with the thinking that the game isn’t fixed, and I use fixed in these two meanings: inflexible as well as made by other people against one’s own interests. It is this message of Donald Trump (“the game is rigged”) that caught so many people’s attention. And it is this very same message that makes Bernie Sanders such a formidable candidate. And to the extent that establishment sections of both parties have an interest in “keeping the fixed rules in place”, they will work against Trump and Bernie.

Is it necessary to believe in Game B in order to work against the inflexibility of establishment rules? Not at all! All that is necessary is to wake up and no longer believe in the story of Scenario A. The gun against your head is in your head. You are the one keeping yourself playing the game as provided to you. If you start to decide to change the rules by which you play, you can do so. It is just incredibly important to be aware that this has consequences, and to be very careful when starting to experiment with those rules.

Maybe you can start by talking with colleagues and coworkers how they experience their “game play”. Do others feel equally “played” (toyed with) by the system? How much sovereignty do you currently have? Does that seem fair? Who gets to decide on the rules? Probably not your boss (unless he’s the CEO maybe, but sometimes even the CEO doesn’t decide, unless it’s a privately owned firm). What does “ownership” have to do with “making the rules”? And if owners make the rules but don’t have to play by their own rules but play a different game (owning and extracting value), what kind of fucked up game is that?

So, the first step in exploring new rules is to become acutely aware of what is going on. I’m not suggesting upending the apple cart in favor of anarchy. What I am suggesting is that before anyone could attempt a scaled-up version of Game B, it is necessary for players to wake up and to know exactly what game it is they are playing–or which game is played on them–and why the current game may or may not work for them as it is being played.

Language: a weapon and a bridge

Just about an hour ago, I woke up from a dream-like state, slowly, gradually. In my dream I was talking to someone who I perceived as having some very strong opinions, some of which I didn’t agree with. And in the conversation, I observed myself making very incisive, yeah, almost “deadly” arguments–there is a reason for all those “so-and-so destroys this or that guy” video titles on YouTube… And it felt so very good!

After maybe like three or four minutes of observing myself in this conversation situation, I became aware of how I was feeling. And the elation I had experienced until then vanished almost instantly. I had been using language as a weapon, and I suddenly had lost all interest in winning. Instead I felt very sad, because in my dream I had obviously forgotten that language can be used to build bridges as well, and that when I’m awake, most of the time I feel deep within that building bridges is typically a more wholesome way to use language.

So, very briefly, I’d like to draw attention to that distinction in everything we can use as a tool, which I believe is true for language as it is for guns by the way–and before my conservative friends reading this might get ready for a fight, let me build this bridge: I feel very much supportive of the Second Amendment! In its entirety, though. And the part about being in a state of adequate regulation matters. The real question is who is doing the regulating? For guns, I don’t feel in a position to answer that question, because I have never owned a gun, I haven’t even fired a gun once in my life, so my emotional and intuitive answer would be dominated by that I’m afraid of guns being used in harmful ways.

Coming back to language! In that case I am, or so I believe, in a somewhat better position to answer the question about regulation, because the use of language depends so very much on emotions: how we feel is a big component in determining the words we use, and after having worked for almost 10 years with a psychology professor and his students interested in emotion regulation at Columbia University, I feel quite comfortable having and expressing an opinion on the value of people being capable of regulating their emotions, and in consequence language.

Similarly to the Second Amendment talking about guns, the First Amendment says that the responsibility for regulating language lies with people, and that the government–which in my mind is more about the law, the police, and the justice system, rather than any other kind of institution the government might happen to financially support–is not in a position to exert its position of power to use coercive tactics when it comes to preventing the citizenry from using language in any way.

This does not mean however, as I understand it at least, that people aren’t responsible for how they use language, rather that it would be some kind of overreach if the government were to get involved preemptively, in an attempt to regulate who is allowed to hold what opinions. The responsibility for using language being on the people to me suggests that everyone needs to learn how to use language well.

From my understanding of how emotion regulation is something productive and a wholesome aspect of personality development, it is a necessary part of the naturally occurring socialization of children by their parents: children can learn to consider the consequences of different ways of expressing emotions, especially those expressions that are damaging to the relationships that they could develop. In the simplest example I can think of, a child whose toy has been taken away against their will by another child on the playground may experience a sense of injustice and wanting to seek revenge. If the child is sufficiently physically equipped, it may then engage in a relatively more violent attempt to get the toy back. And if this scene is observed by a parent, whatever the parent will tell the child in response afterwards is transmitting a kind of blue-print of regulation to the child.

This might take the form of a demand: “Don’t turn into a bully! No-one likes to play with bullies!” Or something like this: “You’re not supposed to get into a fight like this, what if the other kid hurt you real bad! Next time, come and get me, and I’ll sort it out.” Or maybe the parent will encourage the child: “Well done, if you let people get away with taking your toy, you’ll be out of toys soon! Always fight back!” In other words, parents transmit their values for acting, and that’s often not very conscious to either the parents or the child.

The exchange could also take the form of a much more exploratory conversation: “Hey, so I take it you really wanted to get your toy back, because you felt angry that the other kid just took it away from you, and you didn’t like that at all? I find it’s great that you feel you can do that by yourself! Still, I would really want you to be aware that by punching and taking your toy back by force, you might have missed an opportunity to make a friend. So to be clear, I’m not upset, really! It’s more that if you can learn to take a moment or two between feeling angry and deciding what to do, I believe you might be able to think of a way to talk to other children and turn a situation of a toy being taken into an opening up, and you have the choice to try to make it about playing together. Would you like me to role-play with you so you can see what I mean?”

In other words, I think it is possible in almost any situation in which we are tempted to use language as a weapon, to “destroy” the other person’s position so to speak–something parents are incredibly good at when teaching their children by the way, which they then also implicitly learn–, to do something entirely different. We can reach out, and inquire why the other person did what they have done, or said what they have said. And from there, we can explore whether there is a way to build a bridge between the other person’s position and ours, and if we achieve that, we can actually play across the bridge, learn to take each other’s perspective, and become more integrated and knowledgeable. And what it takes is those two, three extra seconds before we speak, to ask ourselves, “am I trying to destroy this person’s position and win, or do I want to play with them cooperatively?”

For a very long time, in Western countries, we have been trained with increasing sophistication, in schools and at home, in the art of using language as a weapon. And we’ve become so good at it that it is often no longer visible that that is what we’re doing. It’s a very sneaky and stealthy business, really. We can use technical jargon and very complicated arguments seemingly based in reason and logic putting us on the right side of an issue, morally speaking. But in the end, we might just be out to “destroy the other person’s position” in the process. That’s a form of warfare.

For as long as that is our intention, I think it’s difficult to imagine that the other person would take it laying low, and enjoy agreeing with us. Instead, they will fight, and if we win, they will give in grudgingly, resentfully, and when the opportunity comes for them to win the next battle, they will gladly do so.

If what I expressed here does feel even remotely useful, my request for you would be to take a moment, whenever you experience that a part of you feels elated about the prospect of talking with someone to win an argument, to consider whether by winning you might score a point for your team’s position, but in the process also close a door or burn a bridge to a person. Would it be valuable to think about a way to build a bridge instead?

Misunderstanding feelings

Over the past few days, several thoughts occurred to me, which I believe might be really helpful–if I can remember the gist of them–in future situations in which I feel less good than I wish. And I would like to share these thoughts with anyone who might be interested. So, if after reading this post and thinking about it a bit, or maybe after trying it out you actually get a sense of, “hey, this might actually work”, please feel free to share it, in any form or shape you believe could be helpful for the people around you.

The gist I myself want to remember is this: feelings or emotions are like a map together with a compass, and not like an arrow–which is what I guess a lot of people might make of their feelings, even if they wouldn’t necessarily put it this way. For myself this now makes perfect sense. Still, I appreciate that using this very short idiom, it might make no sense at all for you at the moment. If that is the case, or at least you remain curious enough as to what I mean by it, and how I came to this tentative insight, please stay with me.

If possible, take a deep breath, close your eyes for a moment, and, as much as you can, put yourself into a somewhat relaxed and neutral-feeling state with maybe a hint of positive anticipation of learning, which I believe will make it somewhat easier and enjoyable to follow my line of thoughts below.

First, imagine that you are in a situation with someone you know well, and the person has done something you don’t like, which you also have some clear notion of the person already knows you don’t like. In my case, I might imagine that while I talk to a friend, explaining something, the person cuts me off in the middle of a sentence and tries to jump ahead, saying, “yeah, yeah, and what’s the outcome?”

So, if I imagine myself in that situation (and I hope you image yourself in a situation in which, for you, a person does something you don’t like), I feel annoyed and if I had to put that into words I might say to myself, “this person knows that I don’t like what they just did, they shouldn’t be doing that!” And in that case the feeling of annoyance might then seem to me (at first) like some sort of “push into a certain direction”, like an arrow, nudging me like someone saying, “you need to correct that person for what they did!” or “I really don’t like it when that happens, that’s so rude, and I don’t want to talk to them any more, let them figure it out by themselves, that’ll teach them a lesson!” That is, I imagine that people generally think of emotions more as an instruction or a set of directions, a sign of “what to do next”.

If so far you are “with me”, I’ve at least done a decent enough job of not getting us lost yet. Whew. If you are a bit lost, maybe the next scenario will make more sense… Either way, just briefly close your eyes, and take another deep breath, and try to get out of the weeds again for the moment.

Imagine you get stuck in a forest, with a kind of dense thicket of brambles undergrowth with lots of thorns, where every additional step might also lead further in, rather than out. And you feel around in your pocket and find a compass. You take it out and put it on the palm of your hand, and then you can remember the following, “my house is to the west of the forest”–which is in essence a map of the landscape with where you are and where you want to be. If you then would like to get out of the forest and back home, it would be fairly easy to do that with the help of the compass. However, you wouldn’t just follow the red arrow (that would be following the instruction “my house is where the arrow points”), but rather you would know, OK, the arrow points north, so I need to walk in a direction such that the arrow points to the right.

If you have never used a compass, I now realize this image is totally useless to make my point. Put into a different image, if you think of feelings as (a set of) directions, it then would indeed seem most plausible and reasonable to follow them, but if you think of feelings more like an indicator about your state in relation to a landscape or map, then it isn’t necessarily true that you need to “follow” your feelings, but rather that you can use them as an indicator that you are not “in a place you like to be” and “the place I’d like to be in relation to where I am now is this way”.

So, coming back to the example with the person who has done something I don’t like, I could ask myself: instead of feeling the way I do–annoyed, frustrated, ticked off, misunderstood, distrustful, etc., in other words, in a specific thicket of brambles–how would I like to feel, in relationship to this person? In other words, taking the feelings as a sign or indicator that I’m not in the place I would like to be, that is, emotionally speaking, as an indicator that within some kind of emotional map or landscape, I am in a place I find myself “getting tangled up in”, I can then use my feelings as a guide to get home, but not by “following them”, but by taking them as an indicator of how I’m doing with respect to finding my way out of the brambles.

How would that look like in practice? Well, in the case of my imagined situation, I could think something like, “I would really like to feel understood, and I would want to feel respect for my colleague, but also respected by my colleague, and I enjoy feeling calm and relaxed when I explain things, not rushed and anxious”. Once I have a clear enough description of where I want to be on the landscape, I can use that information and imagine different actions, and instead of using feelings as an arrow, I can ask myself, which of the actions I am imagining is taking getting me any closer (if not closest) to where I want to be on the emotional landscape?

Practically speaking, I could, as I said in the initial description, think along the lines of “I need to correct this person for cutting me off,” or “That’s so rude, I don’t want to talk to this person any more.” OK, so let’s imagine doing either of these things. Will I then feel closer to how I would like to feel in relationship to that person? I would say, “not really…”

Maybe you might say, “not immediately, but if they learn their lesson, they will treat me better next time!” That’s a really important point… Learning lessons through negative emotions… It seems that a lot of people have the belief that punishing others will give them the information they need to “correct the error of their ways”. Unfortunately, it is my experience that this approach rarely works the way people believe it does or they intend it to work. Instead, what happens is that someone who is punished (experiencing bad feelings on their part, as a result of their actions) may be able to understand they did something “wrong”, but since they are now feeling bad (they themselves experience an arrow that pushes them into a direction), they may just as much get stuck as anyone else “following their feelings”.

So what’s the alternative? Well, my suggestion would be to simply start by telling the other person how you feel and also how you would like to feel. That may sound like this, “hey, what just happened really made me feel annoyed and a bit resentful. I really don’t like feeling that way with you, instead I really enjoy feeling collegial respect for one another, and that I am not rushed and feel like having the time to explain, and then experience being understood. If you’re in a rush right now, maybe we can talk later?”

In other words, I believe that feelings are indeed an incredibly (and awesome!!) tool, if we can understand their utility not so much as an arrow or set of directions, but as a kind of signal of “I’m not where I would like to be on my emotional map.” And together with just a little bit of smarts, I can figure out some action among a large enough set of possible actions that will increase the likelihood of being in the place on the map where I would like to be, rather than blindly following in the direction where feelings “point”, which might even be in just the opposite direction, leading me further into the forest…

Basing action on limited knowledge

Over the past few days, I’ve experienced a sense of “I know so much less than I think about the climate change debate…” And I really want to spend some time over the weekend to look for answers.

I realized that the few things I do know–although knowing is probably not the best term, let’s say things I perceive or believe I know–now seem to me like the result of overestimating the accuracy and detail in visual perception from the clarity perceived at the center of visual attention: I “see” a few (to me, personally) important aspects, and from those aspects then extrapolate and, crucially, generate a sense that “I know what I need to do, and I must do it, to avoid a bad outcome.”

If you don’t know about differences in acuity across the visual field, maybe look at Figure 7 from this article; when you look at the central letter (at the correct level of magnification or distance), you can probably read (correctly perceive) most any other letter. Look at a letter on the periphery however, and many other letters become “illegible”, though you may still see them as letters. And whenever you look at a natural scene, your experience is probably that you see everything equally sharp, crisp, and clear.

How and why does this “acuity illusion” apply to the climate change debate? And why does it matter?

As far as I understand the evolutionary principles of gene selection over time, it would seem incredibly important, whenever there is a potential threat, to select an action in order to save yourself even if you only have a glimpse of any threat. Or rather, to the extent that, among a set of individuals with some variation in their perceptual threshold between being certain enough of having seen a threatening stimulus, say a lion, and acting upon that threat, by running and hiding, it would seem clear that genes that predict lower thresholds leading to certainty will find themselves at an advantage, at least to the extent that the costs–running and hiding means you cannot keep foraging for food during that time, and spend calories for the running and hiding–don’t outweigh the benefits of having one of your conspecifics being eaten by the lion. That is, in an environment “full of threats”, genes that favor hyper-vigilance are probably passed on preferentially, given that those with lower sensitivity end up being eaten.

And to create the necessary motivation (to run away from a lion), you really have to believe the threat is real, not just have the experience of “there is a 0.3 per cent chance I saw a lion.” That would probably not really work. So, your perceptual system is fooling you into believing that what you perceived, at a very low threshold, is real whenever your survival depends on it, because genes that favored this outcome had a higher chance of being passed on.

Now imagine, for instance, what happens when someone comes running into your village and yells, “there’s a lion, there’s a lion coming, everybody: hide!” You haven’t even seen the threat yourself, and yet, so long as you trust a person warning you, it seems absolutely imperative that you scramble up a tree, and get yourself out of harms way. Unless…

What if the person who’s running around the village yelling is a bit “too hyper-sensitive”? Maybe they’re suffering from a too vivid imagination, and every so often they think they saw a lion, but no matter how often they try to warn people, no lion ever shows up? Or, even worse, what if you had several cases in the past where someone came running into your village, yelled something about a lion, people hid in trees, only to find that their huts had been ransacked, and all the food provisions taken. So, clearly, one aspect of this kind of “acting on someone else’s testimony” depends on one crucial factor: trusting that the person isn’t mistaken, let alone lying. In that case, you might simply choose to ignore that person.

Are the people who yell about climate change mistaken (myopic) or lying (ill-intentioned)? It would certainly seem to me that those who oppose the demands being made (“a lion is coming, do something!”) are being dismissive not so much because if the threat were real, those people are willing to wait and see what happens. Rather, it seems more plausible that maybe they have seen some minimal evidence suggesting that the alarm is the result of myopic vision or, worse, a hoax and distraction, and, just as much as the people who believe the evidence that climate change is real, they now focus their attention on another threat: in the worst case that of being made to act, in order to have something taken from them, losing their political liberty.

So, unfortunately, humans have this tendency to “oversell” evidence… I have become much more keenly aware how frequently even I am willing to tell people about things I’ve read or heard with an attitude of certainty when what I really remember is either somewhat vague or, at the very least, much more narrow in scope than my confidence might suggest. And even if I remember it clearly, who knows whether the person who wrote it or told me looked closely enough…?

If you are up for an experiment, try this: the next time you talk to someone about almost any topic on which you are not an expert, monitor yourself how certain you project you are about what you’re saying, and whether or not your certainty is really warranted. What do you know precisely, and where does that knowledge come from? Maybe a lot of it comes from sources where the people who collected that knowledge themselves were a bit “myopic”? How can you make sure that you’re not missing some crucial evidence that would speak against what you believe to be true? Would it be important to know? Are you willing to act without finding out? And if you want to convince someone who believes that you are mistaken, might it not be most important to find out what keeps them from trusting that whatever you could tell them is “true”? What are they afraid of losing if they believed what you believe?

In other words, I’m looking for ways of having a conversation about the mutual distrust, because without starting there, I believe that no evidence could ever penetrate this wall.

Potential mental-health concerns in a poorly understood democracy?

As you can see from the question mark in the title, I’m considering this not so much something I know, but rather a topic about which I would like to collect information and feedback on.

A lot of people at the moment seem to be quite upset with their experience of the “media landscape”, which includes newspapers, traditional broadcast media on TV or radio, internet publications (e.g. Huffington Post, Medium, Breitbart, podcasts, etc.), as well as individuals “speaking through” platforms, like wikipedia, YouTube, but also Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. These are sources of information about parts of reality that people don’t have direct access to. And people can select from these, yet the content is more or less a mere “stream of information”, in which the reverse channel is of questionable quality–who knows whether what someone contributes back has any real effect? Other than grabbing more attention, serving the advertising industry…

What does that have to do with democracy? And with mental health?

For me, one of the reasons that people are quite dissatisfied with the media landscape is that it seems less and less possible to “make sense” of the divergent “opinions” and “perspectives” being broadcast. Instead of people having an experience of conversation or communication, it more feels like “being talked at”–and often with relatively poorly concealed motivation to “influence” and “incentivize” opinions in the readers, listeners, and viewers. In other words, I have a strong hunch that people feel that what is being presented to them (across the landscape, not necessarily in their medium of choice) is not so much a coherent image as it is a cacophony of voices, each becoming shriller and more demanding by the day, in an attempt to denounce the other voices as either “lying” or as “dangerous” or “unstable”, or some other label, suggesting one need not listen to those other voices.

And that’s where democracy and mental-health come in–at least insofar as democracy is understood as “majority rule” (over a minority).

Let me take you on a brief detour… Imagine being given a computer game, and being told you get to play 10 rounds, and that it’s somewhat difficult to win. You start playing, and lose the first round, win the next, lose the third, and then win every remaining round. That feels like quite an accomplishment, doesn’t it? Now, imagine that the person who gave you the game told you that during the first three rounds the computer “learned” from your behavior, and then, starting in round four, your actual choices in the game have little to do with your success and that you aren’t really in control. If you can, for a moment at least, assume and try to “believe” this, try to sense how that “feels” inside. My own experience is that it feels like I’m powerless, not in charge over the outcomes in my life.

And that, in a nutshell, is what I believe a democracy (if poorly understood as majority rule over a minority) comes down to: the experience that a lot of voices don’t matter. Even worse, imagine that starting in round 4 you lose every round, and you are informed the computer learned from your behavior, and then became better at “controlling you”.

That’s where the mental-health problems set in. It’s not only unfair, but also deeply humiliating. And I really feel more and more convinced that the situation we’re facing in the US right now, with a Trump Presidency which a “majority of people” (by pure head-count) didn’t seem to want, and where the same majority of people now seems to push for changes that would make the minority (the ones who did vote for Trump!) even more powerless than they already feel they have been for the past decades, mainly through calls for reforming if not abolishing the Electoral College, making the nation even more “democratic”. People reject the idea that they “need to be controlled by elites”.

And what do you think the outcome will be, if we in essence say that, yes, we don’t need to listen to the people who are angry at the establishment for not listening in the first place? I really shudder to think what might happen then…

As an outlook, I would like to point out that democracy could also be understood as a process of common sense making, in which every voice is heard. And my weird intuition is that, among other instruments, the Senate Filibuster exists precisely for that reason: that in a situation in which there is only a “numeric” but far from “definitive” majority, someone can actually stand up and say, “no, you haven’t really listened to the arguments on my side to the point where I’m satisfied, so I ask that you to listen a bit more, until I feel that you understand why what you’re proposing is a pretty bad idea from my perspective!” In the case of the filibuster it is quite unfortunate that it has become a farce, since what the person is saying often doesn’t have any relevance for the matter in hand. But to some extent I believe that’s mostly because at the moment we no longer listen to the other side–at all.

So if we want to have a democracy that is a process of sense-making then, yes, I do believe we need to start listening more, and listening better, and deeper. Why is it that so many people seem to be angry, and afraid, and in pain? Does having access to an advertising-financed news cable TV channel and Facebook and Twitter really explain all that unease? All by itself? I find that rather difficult to believe, and strongly suspect that the main reason for the relatively strong “negative mood” (and expressions of frustration) in the general population have more to do with their sense that they “don’t matter”, and they experience a lack of autonomy and dignity and respect, and that their life has too little meaning. And that’s true whether you are in the “majority” as well as in the “minority”, because what would be needed is an experience of making sense together, with everyone involved, not just half the country.

Anger, Lies, Truth, Courage, and Forgiveness

This morning, I tried to answer a question that I’ve been mulling over in my mind for the past few days. I’ve asked myself how a truly genuine and still bold and courageous candidate for being “the leader of the free world” (someone believing in their ability of being an effective U.S. President) might want to address the public about the crisis I see happening going on. And what’s below is what I came up with. I wrote it, trying to be as “unscripted as possible”, writing “from the heart”, but given that it is in written form now, I fully appreciate that (especially in our current times) nothing will ever be as genuine as unscripted remarks–one of the many reasons Trump will always have an edge with people who have been woken up enough (by their anger).

Anyway, here goes–and I would appreciate feedback of any sort.


wow, this is hard
today, I’m asking for a favor
and it’s so damn difficult
because you’re used to being manipulated and lied to

and I’m afraid that I might not get through
because of all the lies in the past

and what I’m asking is hard for you as well
because of all the distrust, and all the anger
maybe you listen and think: bullshit! this guy’s a phony, too, he’s not angry!

I know you want the truth
and I guess that you may feel that someone who’s not angry, who’s talking calmly, just screams: LIES!

as I said, what I’m asking you is hard
because it goes so against what you’ve learned to do
to protect yourself from the lies and manipulation:
you built a wall around your mind and heart

what I’m asking you is to open yourself
maybe on the off-chance that what I’m telling you is the truth
I’m asking you to listen with your heart

and I get it: that sounds crazy
and it’s f-ing difficult to trust

I, too, am afraid to just say what’s in my heart
because I then feel weak and unprotected
and anything you might yell back at me will hit me, deep inside

but I believe I’m ready now
to give up on that flawed sense of being safe
by having a wall of my own,
by not letting anything in,
and by pretending to be hard as rock

and I hope you can believe that I’m being honest with you
because we’re running out of time

we’re living in a system that is based on selling us “news” for profits
and maybe when it started it got the job done
of informing people about what was going on

but then the people running the system found something out:
the more you tell people they need to be afraid, the more it sells
that was how news turned into stories and then into lies

and by selling us stories of how this group or that group is bad
and how we need to fear each other or even hate each other
the system became powerful,
but it also became blind

and i’m not saying that the problems don’t exist
they’re real, man:

people are living in conditions so much worse than a couple decades ago
working multiple jobs, and still not able to make ends meet
families not holding together

but you know what the real problem is?
we live in a country where so many people don’t get the respect they need
and where so many are being denied the dignity of a free people

instead, people at the top and corporations are making decisions
about what we eat
about how we are being educated in schools
about what we can see and hear on TV
about what we can find on search engines and see on social media

but the system is so blind it didn’t see the change coming

now, if you’re still with me, if you feel that what I have said so far rings true, even if just a little bit
I’m asking your for one more favor

and that one might be even harder
because we’re not only lied to

we’ve gotten so used to that
we have created a lot of armor around our minds
because we feel it’s so damn dangerous to let anything in, and move us deep inside

maybe you’re angry about this whole mess, and rightly so
the anger is telling you that how things have been going is really bad
and that we need to change
, all of us,
because things can’t go on like this

what I’m asking may sound stupid and maybe also impossible
but think about it, please!

I’m asking you to forgive,
first and foremost to forgive yourself
for anything you’ve said and done
over the past couple years that, if you’re honest, you think hurt someone

when you look back, I hope you will see that most of that came out of anger
and the anger has played an important part
all the anger was necessary to wake us up to the fact that we’re being played

and then I want to ask you to forgive everyone else as well
all the people who said or did something that made you angry, or that hurt you

if you need a reason, other than that without forgiveness, we cannot move forward, consider this:
on our way to this point we had to go through many periods of pain and suffering
and each time, we learned a bit about how people sometimes treat others poorly
and each time, more or less, we were given the chance to overcome this

so the anger and distrust and fear and even hatred are part of the process
they tell us that we need to grow
but it’s important to understand that anger and hatred are not the solution
they’re really just the signal that we need to grow
and it’s on us to figure out how to do that

in the past, we often resolved this by having a war
and then the anger spills really out, and it turns into a bloody fight over who’s right
and I fear that if we don’t learn how to grow otherwise, this next fight will be the last
because we’re going to kill every human being on the planet
or if not, we’re going to make it uninhabitable for those who remain standing

so I’m asking you to forgive yourself and everyone else
because I hope you can see that anger and distrust and hatred were all part of a necessary process

so you didn’t do anything wrong by feeling that way
but that continuing on that path also doesn’t look like the solution we need, not this time at least

I’m asking you to look deep, deep into your heart
and trust that what you find there is not malevolence
and instead what you find is that you care

you care so much that you were willing to hurt those who you see don’t care the way you think is right
and you want to tell everyone what you care about

so that’s the last thing I’m asking of you
to find the courage to tell people what you care about
in a way that makes you vulnerable, and not hard as a rock

we can move on, all suited up in armor for battle,
and on that path lies, so I think, another war

or we can move on understanding that,
no matter how much I currently do not understand what people “on the other side” care about
it is worth understanding,
and that if we can all lower our guard, and listen
we don’t have to kill each other in the end

A Nonviolent Communication (NVC) cheat sheet

Last year I participated in a 10-week workshop on Nonviolent Communication (NVC). And as cliché as that may sound, it has helped me tremendously in experiencing making progress as a human being. It certainly has enabled me to engage with people on a much more connected level around difficult topics and conversations in a way that no longer feels as painful and “stuck” for me and, so I hope, also for the people I communicate with. Before going into detail, I’d like to try to offer a TL;DR short-hand in three phrases:

First, listen to and work with your feelings and the feelings of others–just not literally, rather as in your feelings telling you: “something important is going on” that requires your attention, but feelings do not tell you “the truth” or what you have to do.

Second, always remember, all human beings act out of the same values and needs, but often their chosen strategies (and goals) collide and seem impossible to reconcile–once you focus on and connect with these needs, you’ll live in a different world.

Third, to do this it is important to slow down your thinking and acting, and don’t get caught up in emotions, especially those that come from a long distant past, like experiencing always being blamed as a child for all the things that went or go wrong.

Watching the second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, left me with a strange thought: aren’t we all already living in a society in which others constantly tell us that they “know what’s best for us”? Only that instead of chopping off our fingers or gauging out our eyes, we simply are conditioned with (mainly economic) punishment and reward as pressure, and if that no longer works then through the judicial system, into behaving in ways that we feel isn’t really all that good for us or what we want, but we also feel we have little choice.

To bring this thought into clearer focus, I am summarizing the core principles and ideas I see as crucial ingredients of NVC into this cheat sheet. And if you were to consider and follow this to the extent that you not already do so, I predict that this will allow you (and pretty much anyone) to experience some improvements in your life, especially when it comes to how you relate to other people. Most of these apply to both your experience of your own thoughts and actions as well as those of others. So let’s dive right in–I will first give the list of ideas, followed by some minimal explanation for why I believe them to be “life serving” (even if not necessarily objectively true or proven in a scientific sense):

  • let go of certainty (especially thinking in terms of true/false, right/wrong, good/bad)
  • and together with certainty, also let go of authorities making certainty claims (“we know what’s best for everyone, and if you don’t do as we say you will suffer!”)
  • become aware of your autonomy and choice at every moment, even when you do things habitually, particularly with behaviors that you don’t like: you have choice!
  • slow down your decision making (and general thinking) process, so instead of simply reacting habitually (in conditioned ways) use your curiosity to explore choice
  • see that the source of all feelings (besides physical pain) is in your thinking (e.g., anger is caused by how you think about a situation or person)
  • instead accept feelings as signals for underlying values (in NVC: needs)
  • practice to focus your attention on these values and needs, instead of being caught up in the emotional experience; that is shift from feelings to needs
  • don’t mistake empathy for pity or advice or other things; empathy is your openness to another’s experience, requiring presence, letting go of thoughts
  • realize that all human beings act out of needs and values, not evil intentions
  • so also shift your focus about other people’s experience from their feelings to their needs, which is really hard, especially if your initial feelings suggest a threat
  • clearly communicate your feelings, values/needs, and when you ask people to act differently than what they are doing, connect this as requests to your values/needs, not demands with fear of punishment
  • do not get attached to “getting what you want” (strategies), instead keep dogging for your needs, seeking strategies that can get everyone’s needs met

The first principle is to let go of a thinking that makes certainty desirable. What does that mean? Well, in almost any situation in which you want to engage in communication with someone, you can take one of at least two (and possibly many more) stances about what you are saying (and doing) to the other person. The first stance, which seems to be the default in many cultures, is one of “I know what I know, and I am certain of it, and everything I am telling you is the truth!” (certainty and authority/domination). A different and in my opinion ultimately more helpful, life-serving stance would be one of “I know I have a set of beliefs, and so far these beliefs have served me well, but I am curious as to what you have to say…” (curiosity and cooperation). And this is particularly true about inferences or judgments you might make about someone else, like “he didn’t help me with something I asked him to do, he is really totally unreliable!”, and even more so when you feel strongly, because we can easily confuse the strength of our feeling (for instance being offended) with being certain about our inferences.

Imagine that you are in a conflict with someone, and this person tells you something like, “you’re wrong! What you are saying is false, and what I am saying is correct! You have to see the world as I do!” How likely are you going to accept this (in the absence of this person having the authority and power to punish you)? And if you now reverse the roles, if the person does change their mind, don’t you think it will make the relationship more difficult in other ways? Human beings have a strong preference for experiencing autonomy, that the choices they make are made because they agree with the premises. So, forcing anyone to agree with you will easily make that person feel resentment toward you. Hence, let go of authority that uses punishment and rewards as means of influence.

The next idea is to slow down thinking enough. Cognition can be separated into unconscious (more automatic, non-reflected) and conscious thought, and conscious choices have the wonderful property that they are far slower and more deliberate than automatic decisions. This combined with another principle, accept feelings as signals of value not of truth (or certainty), means that when we feel a certain way about our experience, we can then either react habitually (as biological evolution and even culture has made humans react in circumstances of such experiences), or you can slow down and start thinking in a state of curiosity. Try to figure out what particularly your painful feelings (anger, shame, guilt, depression, etc.) tell you about what you would want to see different in the world.

And when you think in that direction, focus on values instead of on who needs to be punished. Here it helps to use the awareness that whatever the people who are acting in ways you don’t like do, they do so because of their values. And then communicate that to the people who can make a difference in a way that emphasizes the values you focus on, not what you initially may have thought the people are doing wrong. And whenever you make requests, asking people to act differently because of your values, remain conscious that your chosen strategy (what you ask for) is only one of many ways to get your needs met. If the other person says no, that’s not the end of the world, just go back one step and look for a different strategy–especially including talking to the person to find out why they said no.

The achievement of the West and what’s hopefully ahead

Recently I’ve been thinking about Aristotle’s insight that “too much of a virtue turns into a vice. I believe this principle, when it comes to human norms and experiencing outside groups following different norms, has in the past often led to inter-group conflict.

Imagine, for instance, that your tribe has a traditional value (or moral norms) of honoring the family of one’s spouse during the time when two people decide to share their life together (a version of today’s marriage) by bringing daily gifts to the spouse’s family for one full moon (month). Over time, your tribe’s territory expands, and at some point you will likely find another tribe in the territory you’re expanding into. Their traditions differ (surprise!), and given your traditions have served you well (values!), you are convinced you do things right (moral superiority), and so you then feel righteously empowered to proselytize them, up to and including using armed conflict.

That is where God and religion come in: for people to continuously act in ways that–from biological, cultural-, and economic-exchange perspectives–can be considered harmful (being willing to threaten and kill other humans simply over one’s values) requires a “good reason”, and what works better than thinking that this is all based on rules laid out by the Creator of the Universe who has given you (and you alone) the right way of living!?

One big achievement of the West is to recognize that all traditions that evolution sustains over generations contain, at their heart, a (positive) value. Honoring a spouse’s family with gifts can increase community bonds between the families for years to come, for instance. And even a tradition we reject as barbaric and self-destructive–honor killings–may attempt to support a value of not treating romantic/sexual relationships as casual but rather as a source of deep meaning–at the cost of other values, chiefly among them the life of the women, something we find is much more important!

In other words, our Western culture has, over time, recognized that the best way to deal with the fact that values themselves clash–setting up one value as the top priority over all others (i.e. a vice) means those values at the bottom may not be actualized enough to live “the good life”–is not to fight this out between groups (warring between tribes over different values), but rather to incorporate this battle into the individual.

Enlightenment asks human beings to not let virtues (values) turn into vices (warfare) and turn into mono-motivational agents in which a single “cause” (no matter how good) turns into a form of value-despotism. Instead, through millennia-old wisdom (see Aristotle) and reflections in newer religious tradition–what Jordan B. Peterson calls the Christian ideal that being imbued with a fragment-of-God-containing soul means we are “of God”, and thus the focus of attention must lie in individual salvation–we have at last come to a point where values can be balanced within the self.

So instead of an external (omniscient and omnipotent) God whose rules and guidance we are asked to follow, we can experience God (balance of all values and virtues) inside of us, that all we need to do is pay enough attention to all the values we can experience–which, BTW, in Nonviolent Communication is called the manifestation of needs (values) through feelings, in which unmet needs lead to unpleasant and met needs lead to pleasant feelings.

Unfortunately, history is currently making a little detour: our cultural learning has brought back virtue-to-vices identity politics (tribal thinking along with setting certain values paramount). How did that happen?

It is a very old flaw in our evolutionary setup. The function that, within individuals, alerts us that our thinking and acting in the world is not in line with all of our values (negative emotional states, that is feeling bad when we think or act in ways not in harmony with all of our values and needs) requires attentional shifts. Whatever we are doing is interrupted when we feel (emotional) pain, so that we can actually stop what we’re doing, and we re-adjust our behavior to reflect the missing value.

However, this mechanism (attentional shifts towards emotional content) also works when emotions are elicited by externally provided virtue signaling, in which an out-group’s behavior is marked as morally (or normatively) wrong. Previously, it was more difficult to generate this attention to out-groups’ behavior in a sustained fashion–the highest frequency until about 70 years ago was maybe twice a day, when papers had a morning and evening edition. Now we are constantly bombarded with “news” about how other groups or their figureheads “misbehave”, and people have begun sorting more and more rigorously back into tribal units of various kinds.

In the US we have tribes that are “pro-life”, “pro-gun”, “pro-environment”, “pro-social-justice”, “anti-immigration”, etc. Each of these tribes defends their (primary) value against the most opposite-experienced tribe. And this is reflected in many aspects of life, culminating in party ideologies that bundle the spectrum of virtues-turned-to-vices into two broad ideological sides: conservatives (people who believe that the way things are is best, and that a strict order is needed to live the “good life”) and liberals (people who believe that the way things are needs to change as long as people suffer, and that this change requires that the other side give up their current way of life).

And the irony of it all is that, in order to achieve their goals, both conservatives and liberals have turned back to the very mechanism that Western culture tried to leave behind: inter-group conflict based on tribal warfare over different top-priority-values.

My hope is two-fold… First, that Western cultures can evolve one step further, by recognizing the pernicious role that externally elicited emotion (over individually experienced value-based emotion) plays in inter-group conflict via attention–this would ruin the business model of news and social media, but I hope our love for Facebook, Twitter, and cable news stock price will not prevent this rebuke of ideological propaganda’s effect on attention. And second, that the tension we’re currently experiencing, within our nation but also between nations, old human tribal instincts (and religious zealotry) flaring up, is the necessary wake-up call, and that people will wake up sooner rather than later, before we spiral down into a self-destructive mode from which it will be much harder to recover once a sufficiently high number of people will have died from the inter-tribal violence of “who’s right?”

When and how the virtue of academic truth seeking can turn into a vice

This past Friday, I went to the HxA Open Mind Conference 2018. At several moments during that day I distinctly experienced some disappointment and confusion, as I was thinking: “something is missing here“.

It may require some of the frequently invoked academic humility to follow the argument I am about to lay out, as it probably can not be considered an academic one–in the sense that I do not present any empiric study. Instead I rely on my own, anecdotal evidence. And the first question I have is: does personal experience even count? If not, does that not already pose a limitation on the free exchange of ideas, especially when it comes to stimulating new research topics?

For me, this conference–no less of an organization aiming for more viewpoint diversity–was somewhat disappointing mainly for its lack of a kind of diversity that I believe is essential for achieving the overarching goal. Why do I think that way? One thought in support of my line of arguing comes from Aristotle, who observed (probably not proved, mind!) that a virtue is the middle ground on a dimension that, if acted upon “in excess” in either direction (or, as I would put it, at the expense of other virtues or rather values), can become a vice. So what other virtues (or values) can become easily relegated to a second-best place, leading to problems?

The most pronounced experience of disappointment happened during a debate in which it became clear that all participants seemed to agree that “Trump is a bad President.” And even if persuasive evidence for this proposition could be presented, in either an academic or some other way, what are the consequences of believing this proposition, both for the people on stage as well as for people who, in the academy and out, have supported and quite possibly still support Trump?

To make this point, I would have liked to ask the following question at the end of this particular panel discussion: Imagine that I have voted for Trump in the last election. When I now listen to your mocking of Trump on stage, and no-one has the slightest bit of a problem with this, what place do you think I have in your organization or the academy? And if I do not have a place there, how do you believe you can persuade me of any truths that you may discover?

In other words, I believe that while academic truth seeking is an important goal, wherever it (seemingly) collides with or ignores respect (another important value), whatever truth may be discovered will probably not make it very far outside the circle of people the person touting their truth already “respects”.

So the main aspect I saw as lacking at the conference was respect. For what exactly? One of the major themes of critique of Trump for me came across as a variation of: “arguments need to be presented in an academic format, they need to follow reason and logic, and if a person does not use this academic format, their utterances are not arguments but mere opinions, and can be dismissed from the debate.” Put differently, what is happening is the formation of an “academic truth elite” by way of dismissing propositions not stated in “academic language”, creating a group of people who no longer care about the consequences of their attitudes towards those who cannot partake in their activities “on their level”. And to some extent, maybe a better slogan for Trump would have been “Drain the Intellectual Elites!”

The disappointment over this kind of thinking mainly stems from my belief that those conservatives who hold very critical views of the academy (and the scientific research and truth that comes out of arguably the more dogmatic fields, like some social sciences such as gender studies) typically are not in the business of making their arguments in an academic way, and yet I strongly feel that it would be a mistake to exclude their voices from the discourse.

What if, for instance, in an argument about the value of having two opposite-sex parents, a conservative offers the position: “children should grow up with a father and a mother!” In other words, attempting a translation into slightly more academic language: “I believe that men and women have different sets of qualities and traits, and children are better off being exposed to both sets during childrearing, modeled by the two people that most intimately interact with the child.” And if this person is not able to present specific empiric evidence in support of this proposition, does that mean it should be summarily dismissed? What if no-one in the academy is actually interested in studying this in search of evidence for this proposition, because—quite frankly—it would require rehashing long and dearly held beliefs that parents of either sex can perform all essential roles of child rearing equally well?

Importantly, I am not making the argument that gay parents are bad parents, let alone that they should not be allowed to be parents, although it is easy to twist what I said that way… What I am rather saying is that not being listened to when making an assertion for which one cannot produce academic evidence creates resentment.

In short, I was missing a sort of respect for viewpoints that are frequently not presented in an academic form. And the consequence I see, down the line, is that the people whose views are most sorely missed in the academy, something HxA set out to address, will still not be represented, because those views may not have any evidence to offer that satisfies the requirement of academic quality. And excluding viewpoints because they are not presented academically (yet), due to a lack of respect, from my perspective would be a mistake.

What I believe needs to happen is to apply the same rigorous methods of inquiry to positions that one does not agree with, even if they are being expressed in a way that does follow the academic format, particularly for the value of inclusion and diversity!

Mental Health Professionals and the President Trump Diagnosis

Over the past year, I have experienced several occasions at which mental health professionals voiced their opinion–up to a diagnosis–of President Donald Trump. It always struck me as extremely odd that those opinions more often than not contained elements of personal disdain, anger, or, sometimes it seemed, outright hatred.

Don’t mental health professionals, more than anyone, want to consider the often difficult conditions in which someone suffering from a set of symptoms–that are according to their manual diagnosable under a common label and category–finds themself in? And regardless of whether or not their assessment of President Trump could ever be considered objectively true… assuming that it is from their position, wouldn’t that instill in those professionals a sense of care and sensitivity, especially the sensitivity around the diagnosis as something that causes the diagnosed a lot of pain?

At the very least, I would have wanted for mental health professionals to approach Trump with an attitude of “how would life be like in those shoes? how could I understand him and his motivations? what is driving him?” This typically requires a lot of empathy and the capacity to look beyond the consequences of someone’s behavior.

As someone who has cheated on former boyfriends of mine, I can understand how they, as the people who got hurt directly, would have difficulties asking themselves, “what contributed to this behavior?” But people do typically not engage in what is considered morally wrong behavior for the purpose of hurting people, or because they actively ignore the negative consequences. The motivation lies in something positive they want to get from it, and understanding that seems so much more helpful when trying to approach these people about the behavior that is painful for others, instead of labeling them as “cheaters” or “selfish”.

Do I believe President Trump is mentally ill? Well, only as ill as a large part of society is. And I want to briefly describe the growing disconnect I experience when people talk about him. As a discloser, I am not a mental health professional–I don’t even have an academic degree, for that matter–and have merely worked in an IT and data analysis support role in the field of psychological science and research for the past 15 or so years.

First, my experiences of President Trump, all of which are second-hand, in the sense that I never met him in person, would lead me to the following general observations and inferences:

While he was still a real-estate developer in New York, Donald Trump seemed to want to be part of a Manhattan group of peers very, very much. And he was rejected many, many times, but tried again, and again, and again. From that I infer that one of his strongest motivators in life has been a desire for belonging. A desire for approval from his peers, and an increasing willingness to incur ridicule and laughter from those he would consider “not getting it”, that is those not interested in winning this approval, those playing a different game, if you will.

In light of that, I believe that his thoroughly enjoying the crowds at rallies, the people seemingly approving of him, through applause and cheering, makes for one of the most exhilarating experiences in his life. Maybe it’s his coping mechanism… In those moments, he doesn’t see his supporters as low-lifes, which is an often thinly veiled characterization of them–let’s just think back to the “basket of deplorables” comment, and how little outrage this garnered in the media, and sometimes outright support, even now.

And, as a necessary aside, please compare this to the outrage about the “shithole countries” language. I mean, what a hypocrisy, to say that talking about foreign nations using derogatory terms is “bad behavior”, but then the media using similarly disrespectful language when talking about Trump’s voters, fellow Americans no less.

But President Trump’s language leads me to another conclusion: when he is in front of crowds, he wants, and maybe by now craves and needs, their approval. He calls himself a genius, a claim I do not necessarily support, but I think he is certainly smart enough to know exactly what the crowd wants to hear. Just as a skilled stand-up comedian will refine their routine with every telling, Trump’s use of foul language, humor, hyperbole, as well as his making fun of readily available targets (for his audience) all speak to his ability to engage a crowd in ways that those on the receiving end will resonate with, will approve of, and will respond to with the desired applause and cheering.

Does that mean Trump is not dangerous? Well, that depends on how you define dangerous as a personal rather than a situational characteristic. “The situation” absolutely comes with grave risks, particularly an escalation of violence in a way that would make use of nuclear weapons an almost inevitable aspect.

From those who are emotionally close to Trump, who consider themselves his friends and family, I have really only ever heard how much they like him. And as much as I believe people can always delude themselves, I do not believe in conspiracy theories. So the simplest and most parsimonious explanation I have for their account of President Trump is that in one-on-one settings where he feels at ease and supported, he is probably gregarious and non-threatening. These occasions have probably become very, very rare for him. Maybe one explanation for his very frequent escape visits to a beloved activity in solitary peace: golf.

This all leaves me with the thought that his life, both before and after the election, probably has been tough for him. For someone to crave approval so much as to draw the ire and condemnation of half the nation on him, and still not give up (for the approval of the other half) is a remarkable show of determination, whatever else it is. Most people I know would find it difficult to cope with a handful of detractors, but President Trump got used to it during his real-estate years. And from his perspective he came out on top, so he kept going. This may be a reason for his loyal supporters to admire him the most, his unwavering “sticking to his guns”.

Over the past few months, I have sometimes wished that, as a friend, I could just tell him something like, “Hey, Donald, you know, it’s OK. I know it probably hurts a lot to see that so many people don’t get you. They really are just totally scared that, because you are President now, you could do something out of the spur of the moment that would make their lives a disaster, and so they wish you would stop yourself more often when you come up with the next quip. The people who don’t like you are just afraid that what they perceive as a lack of self control will, well, cost them their lives. So, uhh, I know this sounds like I also don’t trust you, and I know it’s really important for you to be trusted… But could you maybe just ask me or some other good friend before you tweet about North Korea, to take a look at it first? It’s just, you know, it could really end up bad…”

I believe and would hope that such an approach has a higher chance of reaching through his defenses than a constant stream of criticism, labels, diagnoses, accusations, declarations of unfitness, inferences of racism, etc.

Whatever objective reality may or may not exist, and whatever diagnosable condition President Trump may or may not have, I would hope that mental health professionals, more than everyone else, would understand that approaching any human being with an attitude of pressure and a clear lack of empathy really can hardly be considered the gold standard of treatment, medically or interpersonally.