Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Guilt, sarcasm and other psychological tools

If you ask people to brainstorm a list of emotions, guilt is almost certain be on the list along with blame, shame, love, happiness, fear and anger.

It's a learned emotion. We feel guilty when our actions may diminish the lives of others. We also feel collective guilt for what our forebears may have inflicted unfairly on others, or when some in our community act unreasonably and we do nothing to stop them.

Some people use guilt as a tool. To make people feel guilty in order to change the way they act, to dissuade them from a course of action or encourage a different course of action.

When mother says, "Dont take the last piece of toast. Jane has not eaten yet," her words are designed to stop you in your tracks, to feel "guilty" for diminishing Jane's enjoyment of life.

Your mother is using guilt as a tool to extend her power over you.

In Interactivity theory#, we think of tools as extensions of human brains. As Damasio shows brain cells are unlike any other cells. They are not only themselves but they also represent other cells. And represent the objects/tools we hold in our hands or speak with our larynx or express with our face.

Tools give us the power to do stuff. Language, gestures, symbols and signs are the basics. We use them routinely in our daily interactions with others.

Primary tools are physical. They include the sword, the motor car and the computer. Secondary tools are psychological. They include methods, processes, questions and instructions. Tertiary tools are cultural. They are complex constellations of tools that deliver power at a distance or over a wide area such as the road network, systems of government, global corporations or armies.

Some people use psychological tools in the same way they use swords and guns. For example, sarcasm is a tool that uses humor in the form of cutting remarks or words that mock, wound or subject the person to contempt/ridicule. It comes from the Greek σαρκάζω (sarkazo) meaning to "tear flesh".

Most tools are used jointly with others and often involve a disproportionate use of power. For example, when a person uses a sword on another. The sword-bearer kills or mains and the victim is injured in the process. The words killer/victim describe roles which represent a power imbalance.

Most often, in a civilized society laws, rules and regulations determine how we collectively use shared tools so that power is generally distributed equitably amongst the users for their collective benefit. For example the road rules are designed to help us automatically decide who can turn or cross and the order, speed and direction in which we can safely travel.

Interactivity theory explains how humans and tools evolve in a symbiotic relationship, like the algae and polyps of a coral reef. Most of the time we make minor improvements to the tools and gain incremental enhancements to our powers.

But every so often, as if by magic, our tools undergo a rapid transformation to a new kind of order, with hundreds or thousands of times the power of the old tools. Think horse and buggy to motor car, or sail to steam ships, or carbon paper to photocopier.

When the new tools arrive, our old ways of doing things don't work any more, so our old jobs become extinct, and new kinds of jobs begin to appear.

Here's the Interactivity model we use to analyse these changes in human activity systems:

* Humans use tools in joint activity to extend their power and capability:
* in order to play a set of roles, for example, teacher/student facilitator/participant, that is determined by
* the rules of how tools are used, which in turn determines
* the relationships that develop between the participants as each pursues their individual, and occasionally collective interests, which results in
* a change in activity that may either be incremental (both negative and positive) or transformational depending on whether
* the activity is consciously directed towards individual/collective aspirations OR spontaneously emerges as a result of unconscious collective activity e.g. from group -> team or from horse and buggy tool system -> motor car tool system,
* which determines whether the culture is diminished, persists or is transformed.

Which brings me to the point of this story. Over the course of the last 10,000 years since we were hunter gatherers we have been reluctant to give up many of the old ways of doing things, including using psychological tools to manipulate others by causing emotional pain, which harm rather than build relationships.

Usually, participants in human activity systems exert power differently and play disparate roles. When one has more power than the other we see win-lose outcomes such as occurs when a person makes another feel guilty to cause them to change their intended activity.

Guilt as a tool is a one-sided attempt at exercising control over another. One person plays the role of the aggressor/oppressor and the other the role of the victim. The rules of use of the tools are similar to the use of a sword...a unilateral action, in which case the relationship is diminished and the activity system regresses to a lower functioning state. A Win-lose situation.

If the victim chooses to retaliate, and plays the aggressor, the activity system enters a chaotic state where anything may happen, until it is resolved in some way. A potentially lose-lose situation, where the group may regress to an earlier stage of development such as feudalism, or if the dispute broadens, like a strike or war with collateral damage, we may even revert to anarchy. A Lose-Lose-Lose situation.

But when individuals choose to further both their own interests and the group's interests there is the possibility of alignment, a win-win outcome, or if the outcomes benefit the wider community, a win-win-win result. In which case you would not use guilt as a tool, because it does not help foster these kinds of outcomes.

Instead you might use a tool such as "love" or "fun/play", and ask others to join with you to collectively do/create/pursue something new, to "bake a bigger cake" together, and so benefit from the "joy" you feel together, when you get to play with the new possibilities.

So here's a workshop to explore how the way we use tools can enhance who we are and our relationships with others:

1. Aspiration Horizon: What do you aspire to become/be doing that is fun, brilliant, joyful?
2. Tools: What tools are you using to deal with the issue/problem/opportunity. Think about physical (products, machines, tools), psychological (methods, processes, techniques) and cultural (large scale systems e.g. army, multi-player gaming world)?
3. Rules: How are you using the tools? Think about the rules of use both in terms of verbal communication (unilateral monologue, random dicussion, empathic dialogue, integrative dialectic) and gestural communication (e.g. smack in the face with a fist, warm embrace).
4. Roles: What role have you chosen/has been selected for you by the rules of use of the tools?
5. Relationships: What are the consequences of the choice of tool, rules and consequential role and the effect on others with whom you have (or would like to have) a relationship?
6. Analysis: To what extent is your use of the tools aligned with others (colleagues, suppliers, shareholders, competitors, family members, friends, research subjects)?
7. New aspiration: What could you now aspire to become/be doing that might better meet your needs/other needs so that your collective use of the tools is aligned and resonates rather than interferes with each other. i.e a team rather than a group.

#Findlay, J. (2008). Learning as a game: Exploring cultural differences between teachers and learners using a team learning system. Doctoral dissertation, University of Wollongong, Australia -- Wollongong.

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