America is on fire, figuratively and literally. Naturally, we all want to make sense of what is happening right now.
What can psychology tell us about the nationwide reaction to the George Floyd murder, and what does it predict for our future? Is the country becoming so divided that some kind of collapse is now imminent, or might the chaos signal the beginning of a transition to a state of greater functionality, fairness, and awareness?
Terror Management Theory (TMT), the social psychology theory the world should be thinking about right now, predicts that it could go either way. The outcome is entirely dependent on us. We can engineer our optimal future if we just figure out how to channel all of this energy—this anger, passion, and hunger for change—into collective action that can bring about progress. Progress does not come from complacency, and that fact should keep us optimistic in these uncertain and scary times.
TMT asserts that behavior can be driven by our fear of death. Unlike most if not all other animals, we have an awareness of our own mortality. As a way of dealing with this perpetual existential fear, humans invented cultural worldviews, which instill our lives with meaning and purpose, and give us a sense of permanence.
Worldviews—like religions, national identities, and political ideologies—ease our fears and distract us from the cold hard fact that we will soon be gone and forgotten. Being a Christian, or an American, or a Democrat or Republican provides a path to “symbolic immortality”; that is, a national identity makes people feel like they are part of something bigger that will outlive the individual. Essentially, worldviews are death-anxiety buffers.
So what does all this have to do with the pandemic and the protests? Well, everything. Never in living memory has there been an existential threat like Covid-19. The greater the magnitude of the perceived threat, the stronger the effects on our behavior. Specifically, TMT predicts that when we are fearful, and mortality is salient in our minds, we will bolster our worldviews, and we will try to enforce them and even force them on others in an attempt to bring order to a chaotic world. This disposition can be good or bad. Let’s start with the good.
When a grave injustice takes place, such as a baseless murder without an arrest, under conditions of existential threat—like during a pandemic—people possessing certain cultural worldviews will respond with “prosocial behavior,” especially those whose worldviews emphasize fairness and compassion. This kind of behavior includes acts of kindness, but also enforcements of justice and norms, such as equal treatment under the law. The conditions created by the coronavirus, a lingering reminder of our mortality, can prime humans to respond more forcefully and more quickly to transgressions, with civil disobedience and collective action. Right now, because of the pandemic, a collective tendency to reinforce behavior that benefits the whole is emerging.
Unfortunately, under the same conditions of looming existential threat, different people, or even those same people, may respond to mortality salience by strengthening their worldviews to such a degree that they become ideologically-extreme, at which point they grow susceptible to irrational decision-making. Essentially, fear pushes us to automatically adopt a tribal mentality that favors aggression toward those who do not share our worldview, and sometimes even toward those who are on our side but simply not as extreme. Complacency is cancerous, but so is tribalism.
This is the direction we are heading in if we do not make a conscious effort to course-correct now. Since aggression provokes fear, and fear promotes more aggression, a dangerous feedback loop can quickly develop, eventually leading to a nation that is so philosophically divided that neither side wants to, for example, accept the results of the upcoming election. A man in Salt Lake City used a hunting bow on protestors. Some protestors who see that headline is going to think about how to protect themselves at the next protest or confrontation with the other side. With all this happening during a pandemic, one can theoretically imagine what amounts to an arms race emerging between ideological extremists on both sides.
To summarize, when an existential threat looms, people respond by strengthening their worldviews. This can either make a nation come together, or it can tear it apart. If the nation has a common worldview, threats like the coronavirus and social injustice can unite citizens. But if the country is divided into two camps who are diverging ideologically as collective fear builds, then we get a nation that becomes vulnerable to collapse.
The obvious solution, from a Terror Management Theory perspective, one that is informed by cybernetics and complex adaptive systems-thinking, is a new cultural, political, and economic worldview.
The problem is that our most popular worldviews—the major religions, political ideologies, and national identities—divide us into tribes, and emphasize our differences rather than our similarities and shared human interests. They turn neighbors into spiritual and ideological enemies. If we want to reverse the tendency toward tribalism and extremism, de-escalate tensions between the Right and the Left, and facilitate some sort of coming together, then we need a new and improved death-anxiety buffer.
This ideology should bring us existential comfort without asking us to ignore logic, and it should unite us all under a common existential goal—the continued survival, progress, and eventually, the outward expansion of humanity. The recent SpaceX launch is evidence that such a goal is possible, in fact necessary, given the expiration date of our sun. If we care about the futures of our children, and their children, preparing for our ultimate existential challenge is a moral obligation.
Where might we find such a worldview?
The great cosmologist and educator Carl Sagan said, “A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later such a religion will emerge.” Similarly, Albert Einstein said, “The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology.”
Religion is a loaded term, but a spiritual ideology that is guided by science and aided by technology, that has a universal morality, and a shared existential goal, will be the worldview of the future. It has to be if we want our civilization to survive. How fast we get there is entirely up to us. We get to choose between extinction and transcendence, but we have every reason to work towards the latter and away from the former.
The real existential threats are income inequality, the pandemic, climate change, unconstrained A.I., and money’s influence in media and politics—these are things that threaten the entire human race. We need a worldview that aligns our interests because if it has immediate practical benefits, like financial benefits, people in need will adopt it. We may call this worldview that I am describing “the Cosmic Perspective.” Under the Cosmic Perspective, there is no “us versus them,” there’s only “we.” We’re all part of an interdependent whole, and we need leaders who understand this view—who make decisions and policy based on data, who put empiricism above rigid ideology and dogma, and who try to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
While this might sound overly idealistic to some, I do believe it is a supremely reasonable and attainable worldview, one that any enlightened society will eventually move in the direction of. A 2017 study that surveyed over 600 people found that psychedelic experiences that dissolve one’s ego and ideological framework reliably shifted people’s political beliefs and attitudes toward ones that could be described as more compassionate and progressive. Specifically, individuals became more opposed to authoritarianism, and more concerned with the well-being of others and of nature. So things like scientific progress and higher states of consciousness bring us closer to the Cosmic Perspective by emphasizing the interconnected nature of our society.
I’m not saying everyone over the age of 18 should eat magic mushrooms tonight, although that would be a fascinating experiment. I am saying we need to have a cognitive reset, and we can do that simply by thinking of ourselves as global citizens of the planetary superorganism some psychedelic scientists in the seventies called “Gaia.” When James Lovelock popularized the concept, he was thinking about the biosphere, which includes human civilization, as a self-maintaining, self-regulating cybernetic system.
With data, wealth, and power concentrated at unprecedented levels in this country, America has festering appendages due to poor circulation of resources; the common person is cut off from the lifeblood that powers the superorganism. If small businesses keep getting hit, and if the president continues to deny the American people the same kind of stimulus package that has been given to Wall Street and large corporations in the recent past, the overall economic system will eventually become unsustainable, division and physical aggression will increase, and total chaos will erupt.
But that future is not inevitable. We can build on this wonderful momentum we have right now, this groovy defiance, by surprising everyone and reaching out to the other side, and by finding new voices to be our thought leaders. Why are we listening to the same five news pundits instead of a diverse array of academics, ethicists, community leaders, and philosophers? Interdisciplinary think tanks like the Santa Fe Institute are already bringing together these kinds of people. Among them are scientists who model the nation as a complex adaptive system, to study its dynamics and to analyze how ideas spread. This kind of computational modeling can allow us to pinpoint systemic biases and correct these systems so that they function optimally.
We cannot precisely predict the behavior of any single individual, but we can develop a sort of “social statistical mechanics” to understand how humans behave in aggregate, shedding light on how and why bogus conspiracy theories get propagated, and how legitimate conspiracies get covered up. We can use distributed ledger (blockchain) technology to encourage government and corporate transparency. We can start teaching our citizens, especially children, how to think through problems and scenarios logically, so that they aren’t vulnerable to psychological manipulation by politicians and marketers. Most of these are no-brainers, but without an overarching ideology, we have no road map to efficiently guide us toward the social phase transition we desire.
Yes, the nation has some serious problems, but if we did not have problems, we would never be forced to find solutions. Problems push progress forward. Let’s embrace our ultimate existential challenge. It doesn’t matter what your political or religious affiliation is—right now we must forget our differences and think of ourselves only as humans, engaged in a common moral struggle.
A cosmic agenda establishes clear milestones for humanity and a rational ethical code. This code is based on the premise that we have a responsibility to do what is good for the living network, which includes not only humans, but all conscious creatures, as well as the environment, since life critically depends on entire ecosystems for survival. Let’s align our global interests under a spiritual worldview that the secular and the religious can both get behind. If we can turn the Cosmic Perspective into a meme that is shared widely, I believe we can be optimistic that a new level of order will emerge from the current sea of chaos.