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Stuart Shanker D.Phil.

Self-Control

The Power of Paradigms

From self-control to self-regulation

 Creative Commons Zero - CC0.
Source: Creative Commons Zero - CC0.

It amazes me that in this day and age, anyone could still believe that social status is genetically determined. If molecular biologists have taught us anything over the past century, it is that the stars really don’t determine our destiny; and neither do mysterious little particles that Hugo de Vries called “pangenes.”

The one thing we can be sure of is that human beings aren’t peas in a pod. Leave it to Victorian scientists to come up with the idea that there is a direct pathway from genotype to phenotype, or that human traits can be tied to specific genes. How better to buttress the Social Darwinist view that stratification represents a natural evolutionary dynamic, where the gifted rise to the top of and the weak or unfit sink to the bottom.

But the real lesson here is that scientists have never inspired, they have merely tried to come up with a rationale for a way of thinking that can be traced all the way back to the paleolithic cave drawings. What deterministic thinking really amounts to is a way of mitigating the stress of not understanding why something is happening; or not being able to prevent an outcome that one desperately wants to avoid.

As far as modes of self-regulation go, this one is definitely maladaptive. Determinism stops us from asking why, or from trying to explain the “inexplicable.” Determinism seeks to “reconcile us to our fate,” but it does so by acting as a brake on creativity and motivation.

Unfortunately, the consequences of deterministic thinking are more serious than dogmatism or fatalism. Entire societies can fall under the sway of atavistic impulses when the problems they are struggling with seem not just intransigent, but a function of the vagaries of human genetics.

We keep fighting wars that determinism tells us are impossible to win: The wars on poverty, crime, drugs, obesity, illiteracy and innumeracy. Despite all the time and money that has gone into each progress has stalled, if not actually gone in reverse over the past few years.

And so, we find ourselves listening to the growing chorus of deterministic voices in the political arena, otherwise known as authoritarians. Why continue to fight these losing battles? Why insist on Universal Education, when the reason why so many students fail is due to their biology or their temperament. If it is not the case that every child is capable of keeping up, then we only weaken our society by insisting otherwise.

But despite the naysayers and the flat-earthers, Self-Reggers refuse to stop asking Why. Not because they are incurable excessively optimistic Panglossians, but because science is breaking free from its deterministic bearings and forging a radical new paradigm: one based on the concept of self-regulation rather than self-control. Self-regulation as this was originally conceived, in terms of whether we manage the various stresses in our lives in a manner that promotes or constricts recovery and growth.

This new paradigm opens up new ways of looking at very old problems.

  • Is the reason why it is so difficult to overcome institutional poverty because of persistently high stress-levels?
  • Are anti-social behaviors caused by kindled limbic alarms?
  • Do individuals turn to drugs in order to flee from self-awareness?
  • Is obesity the result, not of poor self-control, but maladaptive modes of dealing with anxiety and depression?

For the Self-Reg schools working to develop practices based on Self-Reg, one of the most important consequences of shifting from the self-control to the self-regulation paradigm is that it helps us to understand why we see a natural distribution in intelligence scores. And more importantly, what we can do to help students release their limbic brakes and so begin to realize their true intellectual potential.

These are complicated matters: issues that cannot be properly treated in a blog – and the reason why we put so much thought into our The MEHRIT Centre Foundations Courses. To get to the heart of these questions demands a background in Triune thinking and an understanding of the impact of excessive stress on mood, learning, and behavior.

My goal in this blog is only to hint at the reasons why, in such trying times, Self-Reggers remain firmly optimistic about the future. We are buoyed by the knowledge that it is possible to change even the most entrenched of social and psychological problems. Including a society that is deeply polarized and is starting to question its own birthright.

It is not inherited genes that lead to seemingly inalterable outcomes; it is inherited ways of thinking. But paradigms are not imposed on us; we accept and reinforce them – unknowingly – through our attitudes, our affect cues, and our actions. We are the ones who keep an obsolete paradigm alive: without realizing that we are doing so.

But no matter how outmoded it might be, a paradigm only loses its grip if an even more powerful way of thinking emerges.

That time is upon us.

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Stuart Shanker, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of philosophy and psychology at York University and author of Self-Reg and Calm, Alert and Learning.