Progress and the Human Psyche
How to manage the conflicting forces of entropy, homeostasis, and progress
Posted Dec 14, 2016
As I bear witness to the psychological upheaval related to the 2016 United States presidential election, I have been thinking about the many conflicting forces in the human psyche, forces that pull us in different directions—forwards, backwards, and sometimes even apart. To me, these conflicting forces can be roughly categorized as the pull toward entropy, homeostasis, and progress. While all three forces are always at play in the human heart and mind, they battle one another for control. There is the ongoing question, always up for grabs: which force will be in the driver’s seat of an individual’s heart and mind—and of a society’s as well.
You may remember the term “entropy” from physics class, a principle of thermodynamics that deals with energy. It refers to the tendency of things to move from order to disorder. Unless it is hindered from doing so, energy tends to spread out and dissipate. Ice melts, hot pans cool off, and bicycle tires go flat. This movement toward disorder is one of the fundamental forces in the physical universe.
I think the idea of entropy could be applied to the psychological universe as well. We might call it mindlessness or the “no-thinking” force within all human beings. In the absence of the mental energy required to keep things ordered and moving, a kind of mental laziness can overtake us. We “lose our minds.” We have seen this a lot lately. When we stop caring about the facts and the truth, when we let someone else think for us, when we give over to a mob mentality, psychological entropy is at play.
The second force—homeostasis—requires some effort. Like a thermostat that regulates heat, the human body and mind have certain regulators that keep things constant and in working order. Homeostasis is crucial because it gives us a sense of permanence and stability. But it is limiting because it opposes change, even when change is needed and would be useful. It is one reason why it is so difficult to lose weight, break a habit, or change one’s mind; we humans have set points designed to maintain homeostasis or equilibrium.
Psychologically, we can think about this homeostasis force as a kind of no-change mentality. In addition to keeping our lives running with a sense of order and predictability, it serves a protective function by minimizing the risks and fears associated with change. I believe that, at a deep unconscious and primitive level, change is felt to be inherently dangerous and a threat to our survival. Unconsciously, we believe that the safest course is to withdraw from what is new and different, to double down on what we know, to lock the doors and stay close to our own. The contemporary ethos of tribalism, nationalism, bigotry, projection, splitting and even something as apparently benign as a longing for “the good old days,” reflects this potent dynamic. The psychological force to maintain homeostasis is so strong because it is fueled by fear, and fear is a very powerful motivator.
The third force—the urge toward progress—takes the most effort and involves the most risk. It is the evolutionary “survival of the fittest” drive that pushes us beyond the limits of safety and comfort to adapt to new challenges. It is an innate biological and psychological force that propels a child from crawling to walking, from dependence to independence, from deference to authority to having a mind of his or her own. It is a moral force that breaks down the boundaries of homeostasis while proceeding mindfully. The improvements we have made and still need to make regarding civil rights, diversity, and inclusion; health, child and elder care; the environment; trade; and global cooperation and peace are under the aegis of the innate force that compels us forward to do the right thing, even in the face of internal and external opposing forces.
While everyone has this innate urge toward progress, it is stronger in some people than in others, and you know it when you see it. We marvel—and perhaps even fear—those who rise up in the face of challenges, whose curiosity and desire for improvement drive them to seek knowledge, develop innovative methods, and negotiate new ways of relating. This internal progress force pushes us to confront the status quo and to move toward fear rather than away from it. In Theodore Roosevelt’s inspiring words, the inner force toward progress is what gets us into the arena, motivates us to spend ourselves on a worthy cause, and mobilizes us to dare greatly along the hard, uneven, two-steps-forward one-step-back course of change and development.
These three forces are always operating within us and it is our task as human beings and as a society to help them work with each other. Borrowing Freud’s metaphor, this internal collaboration is like a person working to ride a horse. Like an untamed horse, there is an inner force that carries us away toward entropy, from impulse to action without sensible thinking to restrain, guide, and regulate us. Like a bridle, there is also a force that pulls us toward homeostasis. However, in its effort to protect us, the homeostasis force also puts a halt to forward movement. We need to develop this third force—the rider whom I call progress—who can bring these two forces together so that measured, sustained, forward movement is possible. In my view, it is the most important work of human beings and the only path to becoming a truly civilized society.
Copyright 2016 by Jennifer Kunst, PhD