WEIRD Personality Traits as Stable Egoic Structure

Nearly every scientific field of study is facing a replication crisis and, although known about for decades now, it still has not been resolved. Most researchers are so limited in their knowledge and expertise that they lack any larger context of understanding. They simply don’t know what they don’t know and there is no incentive in siloed professions to spend time to understand anything outside of one’s field. In science, the replication crisis has numerous causes, sometimes because of bad study design or the difficulty of some areas of study. Nutrition studies, for example, has been dependent on epidemiological studies that are based on correlations without being able to prove causation; and, on top of that, are often dependent on notoriously unreliable self-reporting food surveys where people have to guesstimate what they ate in the past, sometimes over a period of years. More recent research has shown that much of what we thought we knew simply is not true or has yet to be verified.

Another problem is what or who is studied. There are problems with the lab animals used because certain species adapt better to labs, even though other species are more similar in certain ways to humans. Researchers’, for example, preference for lab mice is not unlike the guy looking for his keys under the streetlight because the light was better there. This problem applies to human subjects as well, in that they’ve mostly been white middle class undergraduate college students in the United States because most research has been done in U.S. colleges; and, in medical studies of the past, this mostly involved men which meant women in healthcare were treated as men without penises. The first part is known as the WEIRD bias (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic), and it has particularly rocked the world of the social sciences. Take personality studies where the leading theory has been the Big Five (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism), with an additional factor being added to form the HEXACO model (honesty-humility). Like so much else, it turns out that most of these personality traits don’t replicate outside of WEIRD and WEIRD-like populations. This challenge of non-WEIRD cultures and mentalities has been around a long time, as seen in the anthropological literature, but most experts in other fields have remained largely ignorant of what anthropologists have known for more than a century, that environment shapes mind, perception, and behavior.

The funny thing is that, even when studies have shown this problem with the Big Five, the WEIRD bias continues to hold sway over those trying to explain away the potential implications and to put the non-WEIRD results back into WEIRD boxes. This is done by asserting the bad results are simply caused by social desirability bias and acquiescence bias, since the answers given by non-WEIRD individuals seem to be contradictory. The researchers and interpreters of the research refuse to take the results at face value, refuse to give the benefit of the doubt that these non-WEIRD people might be accurately reporting their experience. There is almost a grasp of what is going on in pointing to these biases, since these biases are about context, but this comes so close only to miss the point. Non-WEIRD cultures and mentalities tend to be more context-dependent and so unsurprisingly give varying responses in being sensitive to how questions are being asked, whereas the WEIRD egoic abstraction of rules and principles operates more often the same across contexts. Only a highly WEIRD person would think that it is even possible to discover something entirely unrelated to context.

WEIRD personality traits are a kind of psychological rule-orientation where the individual adheres to a psychological heuristic of cognitive behavior, a strict and rigid maintenance of thought pattern that calcifies into an identity formation. The failure of cross-cultural understanding is that the very concept of a stable, unchanging personality might itself be part of the WEIRD bias and an exaggerated extension of the larger Axial Age shift when the ego theory of mind took hold, what some call Jaynesian consciousness in reference to Julian Jaynes theory about the disappearance of the bicameral mind that is a variation of the bundle theory of mind. This was then magnified by mass literacy, beginning with the Protestant Reformation, that alters brain structure, as argued by Joseph Henrich. It might not merely be that those very far distant from WEIRD culture not only lack WEIRD-style personality traits but might also lack egoic personality structures. Most WEIRD people can’t acknowledge non-WEIRD mentalities, much less grok what they mean and how to imaginatively empathize with them. The sad part is this also demonstrates a lack of self-awareness, as the bundled mind essentially exists in all of us, something that can be observed by anyone looking into their own psyche — this is why contemplative traditions like Buddhism adhere to the bundle theory of mind.

Another explanation of this psychological change of personality traits is that agriculture and later industrialization increased labor specialization that generally passed down the generations. These work niches were originally and largely still occupied by specific families, kin networks, castes, and communities over centuries or longer (e.g., feudal serfs and factory workers). It formed a stable environment and a stable culture that shaped the human psyche according to what was required. This is the opposite of hunter-gatherers who are forced to be generalists in doing a wide variety of work. Agriculture had led to some gender specialization, but even that specialization was often limited. It is definitely true, though, that hunter-gatherers are far less specialized where some like the egalitarian Piraha have little specialization at all, along with no permanent authority of any kind. It’s possible that represents how humanity lived for most of evolution when food was more abundant and life easier, as is the case where the Piraha live along a river surrounded by lush jungle. The study of the Piraha have helped challenge one area of WEIRD bias, that of seeing the world through a highly recursive literary culture. The Piraha apparently lack linguistic recursion; i.e., embedded phrases. By the way, they are an animistic culture with the typical bundled mind as overt 4E cognition (embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended). Such animistic cultures allow for personality fluidity, sometimes temporary possessions and at other times permanent identity changes.

Even gender specialization might be a somewhat recent invention, corresponding to the invention of the bow and arrow. For most of human existence, humans hunted with spears and the evidence now points to spear hunting having required the whole tribe, including women. Some of the earliest rock art also portrays men holding the hands of children, which indicates that men were either involved with childcare or not kept separate from it, maybe because the children had to be brought along on the hunt with the whole tribe. So, even the theory that there are two genetically-determined personality types based on men hunting and women gathering was a result of relatively recent changes. By the way, those changes were caused by the megafauna die-off. Smaller game replaced the megafauna and hunting smaller game motivated development of new hunting tools and techniques. The bow and arrow, once invented, allowed individuals to hunt alone and this more often was an activity of men. This forced women to take up a separate labor niche. The lower nutrition level of lean small game also made necessary a greater reliance on plant foods, which meant horticulture and later agriculture. The plow, like the bow and arrow, made another area of men’s work and further reinforced gender division.

The point is not all hunting is the same and so these different practices would create different personality structures. The same was probably true of gathering, particularly in terms of how early humans were also meat scavengers. To get into the effect of the agricultural revolution, this is reminiscent of research done on wheat and rice farming in China. What was found is that the two populations fell into the stereotypical patterns of Western and Eastern thinking, with wheat-based populations having less context-dependent thinking and rice-based populations emphasizing context, even though both populations were Chinese. The explanation is that wheat farming is typically done by one person alone working a plow or now a tractor, whereas rice farming requires highly organized collective labor. Interestingly, China stands out in that psychopathy is found equally among both genders, unlike in the West and some other places where it is disproportionately found among males. It would be interesting to study if this is primarily an effect of the larger populations involved in rice-growing and the culture that has developed around it. On a related note, research does show higher rates of psychopathy in urban areas than in rural areas. Is this simply because psychopaths prefer to remain anonymous in cities or is there something about city life that promotes psychopathic neurocognition?

Anyway, wheat farming is as different from rice farming, as bow-and-arrow hunting is from spear hunting. What stands out is that both rice farming and spear hunting are collective activities involving both genders, but wheat farming and bow-and-arrow hunting can be solitary activities that have tended to be done by men. In Western Europe, there never was rice farming. And, unlike certain populations, spear hunting in the West probably hasn’t been common in recent history. Yet there are still spear hunting tribes in various places. Some of those also do persistence hunting, probably the original form of hunting. Anyway, hunter-gatherers in general need more adaptable minds because they are dealing with diverse tasks and often over large diverse territories. This requires a more fluid and shifting mentality, one where the very concept of stable personality traits maybe simply does not apply to the same extent. Even in the West, research shows that personality traits can change over a lifetime and under different conditions, such as how a liberal can basically turn into a conservative simply by giving them a few beers. But it is true that modern WEIRD conditions are much more stable with narrow niches of work and living, often with racial and class segregation, not to mention the repetitive nature of modern life with little changes in activities from day to day, season to season.

This brings us to the worries some had in early modernity. Adam Smith thought public education was necessary because repetitive factory work made people stupid, which might be simply another way of saying that those individuals lose or else never develop cognitive flexibility, cognitive complexity, and cognitive diversity. Karl Marx explained this in terms of the transition from traditional labor where an individual constructed a product from beginning to end, often having involved multiple complex steps with various tools and techniques, each requiring different physical and cognitive skills. This gave the individual great sense of accomplishment and pride, not to mention autonomy as to be a tradesmen was to have immense skill. The dumbing down of the work force with industrial labor may have contributed to the WEIRD mentality. Even the average office worker experienced this narrowing down of activity. This allowed moderns to specialize, but in doing so sacrificed all other aspects of development. This relates to the creation of stupid smart people, those who are only capable of doing one thing well but otherwise are clueless. It’s not hard to see how this has forced people into niche personalities and hence making possible theories about how to categorize such personalities.

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Cognitive Scientist Shows How Culture Shapes Personality Traits
By Elizabeth Arakelian

Complex societies produce people with more varied personalities. […] But this covariation is neither random nor easily explained by genes. The social and ecological environments in which we develop, the scientists said, have a lot to do with how we develop. Our personalities are created by the patterns of behavior we exhibit that are relatively stable over time. But what creates those patterns, and why do they persist?

That’s the question Smaldino is exploring with collaborators from UC Santa Barbara, California State University Fullerton and the University of Richmond. Their research, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, suggests societies differ in the personality profiles of their members because of the different sociological niches in those societies. The diverse niches in a society — the occupational, social and other ways people navigate through daily life — constrain how an individual’s personality can develop.

Psychologists have traditionally relied upon the statistically derived “Big Five” personality traits to structure their research: openness, consciousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

Smaldino and his colleagues question the universality of this model in their work, instead exploring why certain traits — such as trust and sympathy or impulsivity and anxiety — bundle together as they do in particular places.

The researchers looked at personality data from more than 55 societies to show that more complex societies — those with a greater diversity of socioecological niches — tended to have less covariation among behavioral traits, leading to the appearance of more broad personality factors. They developed a computer model to create simulated environments that varied in their number of niches, which demonstrated the plausibility of their theory.

“The importance of socioecological niches basically comes down to this: How many ways are there to be a person in a given culture?” Smaldino said. “What are the number of successful strategies one can use to thrive? If you’re in a complex society, like the wealthy parts of America, there are just myriad ways to be.

“No matter how idiosyncratic you are, you can find a community that accepts you. On the other end of the spectrum, say in a small-scale foraging society, your behaviors are going to be a lot more constrained. This affects the ways in which behaviors cluster together, and the patterns that manifest as personality characteristics.”

Tests For the ‘Big Five’ Personality Traits Don’t Hold Up In Much of the World
by Megan Schmidt

So, why doesn’t the Big Five test hold up around the world? Lead author Rachid Laajaj, an economics researcher at the University of Los Andes in Columbia, said many of the reasons are rooted in literacy and education barriers. Many personality tests used in WEIRD countries are intended to be self-administered, designed for people who can read and write. But because of lower literacy rates in developing countries, tests may need to be given verbally. This introduces the possibility of translation or phrasing differences that could skew results.

Researchers also think that face-to-face questioning allows social desirability bias to creep into the process. This means that respondents may try to interpret social cues for a “right answer” or give answers they think would be viewed more favorably by others.

“Yea-saying,” or the tendency to agree with a statement even if it’s untrue, is also more common in developing countries, where there’s less access to education, the researchers say.

“People may have a harder time understanding abstract questions. Acquiescence bias may be accentuated when people do not fully understand, in which case it feels safer to just agree,” Laajaj said.

Additionally, the idea of personality tests — or personality itself — may not be a natural concept everywhere. Understandably, people who aren’t familiar with the idea of personality testing might be a bit wary of revealing personal details about themselves.

“Imagine that you live in a poor area and someone comes to you to ask you a bunch of questions, such as how hardworking you are, whether you get stressed easily or whether you are a polite person. If it is not common for you to fill out surveys, or if it’s not clear what will be done with it, you may, for example, care more about giving a good impression than being completely truthful,” Laajaj said.

Personality is not only about who but also where you are
by Dorsa Amir

To understand why industrialisation might be an influential force in the development of behaviour, it’s important to understand its legacy in the human story. The advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago launched perhaps the most profound transformation in the history of human life. No longer dependent on hunting or gathering for survival, people formed more complex societies with new cultural innovations. Some of the most important of these innovations involved new ways of accumulating, storing and trading resources. One effect of these changes, from a decision-making standpoint, was a reduction in uncertainty. Instead of relying on hard-to-predict resources such as prey, markets allowed us to create larger and more stable pools of resources.

As a result of these broader changes, markets might have also changed our perceptions of affordability. In WEIRD societies with more resources (remember that the R in WEIRD stands for rich) kids might feel that they can better afford strategies such as patience and risk-seeking. If they get unlucky and pull out a green marble and didn’t win any candy, that’s okay; it didn’t cost them that much. But for Shuar kids in the rainforest with less resources, the loss of that candy is a much bigger deal. They’d rather avoid the risk.

Over time, these successful strategies can stabilise and become recurrent strategies for interacting with our world. So, for instance, in an environment where the costs of waiting are high, people might be consistently impatient.

Other studies support the notion that personality is shaped more by the environment than previously thought. In work among Indigenous Tsimané adults in Bolivia, anthropologists from the University of California, Santa Barbara found weak support for the so-called ‘Big Five’ model of personality variation, which consists of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Similar patterns came from rural Senegalese farmers and the Aché in Paraguay. The Big Five model of personality, it turns out, is WEIRD.

In another recent paper, the anthropologist Paul Smaldino at the University of California, Merced and his collaborators followed up on these findings further, relating them to changes that were catalysed by industrialisation. They argue that, as societies become more complex, they lead to the development of more niches – or social and occupational roles that people can take. Different personality traits are more successful in some roles than others, and the more roles there are, the more diverse personality types can become.

As these new studies all suggest, our environments can have a profound impact on our personality traits. By expanding the circle of societies we work with, and approaching essentialist notions of personality with skepticism, we can better understand what makes us who we are.

A general theory of personality based on social selection and life-history theory
by Andreas Hofer

When it comes to personality psychology the Big 5 (or Five-Factor Model/FFM) are still considered the gold standard and many other personality tests, like the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) are considered pseudoscience. The FFM is even more useful and has more predictive power when a sixth dimension is added: honesty humility (HEXACO model).

However, adding new personality dimensions is of little use when it comes to understanding human nature, as not even five factors are human universals. Two of the factors that are often associated with mental disorders (neuroticism and openness to experience), never even show up in non-Western societies, which are called “WEIRD” (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) by Joseph Henrich in The WEIRDest People in the World (2020). Henrich points out the Big 5 are indeed WEIRD 5, as they are by no means human universals. Some societies yield only three or four factors. Subsistence-level economies often only have two factors. The Tsimane’  practise subsistence farming and Henrich writes about them:

So, did the Tsimane’ reveal the WEIRD-5? No, not even close. The Tsimane’ data reveal only two dimensions of personality. No matter how you slice and dice the data, there’s just nothing like the WEIRD-5. Moreover, based on the clusters of characteristics associated with each of the Tsimane’’s two personality dimensions, neither matches up nicely with any of the WEIRD-5 dimensions […] these dimensions capture the two primary routes to social success among the Tsimane’, which can be described roughly as “interpersonal prosociality” and “industriousness.” The idea is that if you are Tsimane’, you can either focus on working harder on the aforementioned productive activities and skills like hunting and weaving, or you can devote your time and mental efforts to building a richer network of social relationships.

Rice, Psychology, and Innovation
by Joseph Henrich

Decades of experimental research show that, compared to most populations in the world, people from societies that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) (4) are psychologically unusual, being both highly individualistic and analytically minded. High levels of individualism mean that people see themselves as independent from others and as characterized by a set of largely positive attributes. They willingly invest in new relationships even outside their kin, tribal, or religious groups. By contrast, in most other societies, people are enmeshed in dense, enduring networks of kith and kin on which they depend for cooperation, security, and personal identity. In such collectivistic societies, property is often corporately owned by kinship units such as clans; inherited relationships are enduring and people invest heavily in them, often at the expense of outsiders, strangers, or abstract principles (4).

Psychologically, growing up in an individualistic social world biases one toward the use of analytical reasoning, whereas exposure to more collectivistic environments favors holistic approaches. Thinking analytically means breaking things down into their constituent parts and assigning properties to those parts. Similarities are judged according to rule-based categories, and current trends are expected to continue. Holistic thinking, by contrast, focuses on relationships between objects or people anchored in their concrete contexts. Similarity is judged overall, not on the basis of logical rules. Trends are expected to be cyclical.

Various lines of evidence suggest that greater individualism and more analytical thinking are linked to innovation, novelty, and creativity (5). But why would northern Europe have had greater individualism and more analytical thinking in the first place? China, for example, was technologically advanced, institutionally complex, and relatively educated by the end of the first millennium. Why would Europe have been more individualist and analytically oriented than China? […]

Sure enough, participants from provinces more dependent on paddy rice cultivation were less analytically minded. The effects were big: The average number of analytical matches increased by about 56% in going from all-rice to no-rice cultivation. The results hold both nationwide and for the counties in the central provinces along the rice-wheat (north-south) border, where other differences are minimized.

Participants from rice-growing provinces were also less individualistic, drawing themselves roughly the same size as their friends, whereas those from wheat provinces drew themselves 1.5 mm larger. [This moves them only part of the way toward WEIRD people: Americans draw themselves 6 mm bigger than they draw others, and Europeans draw themselves 3.5 mm bigger (6).] People from rice provinces were also more likely to reward their friends and less likely to punish them, showing the in-group favoritism characteristic of collectivistic populations.

So, patterns of crop cultivation appear linked to psychological differences, but can these patterns really explain differences in innovation? Talhelm et al. provide some evidence for this by showing that less dependence on rice is associated with more successful patents for new inventions. This doesn’t nail it, but is consistent with the broader idea and will no doubt drive much future inquiry. For example, these insights may help explain why the embers of an 11th century industrial revolution in China were smothered as northern invasions and climate change drove people into the southern rice paddy regions, where clans had an ecological edge, and by the emergence of state-level political and legal institutions that reinforced the power of clans (7).

The Great WEIRDing of the Jaynesian Ego-Mind as a Civilizational Project

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
~ Luke 23:34

“I’m supposed to act like they aren’t here. Assuming there’s a ‘they’ at all. It may just be my imagination. Whatever it is that’s watching, it’s not human, unlike little dark eyed Donna. It doesn’t ever blink. What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me, into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly, because I can’t any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone’s sake the scanners do better. Because if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I do, then I’m cursed and cursed again. I’ll only wind up dead this way, knowing very little, and getting that little fragment wrong too.”
~ A Scanner Darkly (movie)

Let us explore the strangeness of human nature and what it means in our society. For practical purposes, this will require us to use the examples of other people. The simple reason is that certain behavioral and identity patterns are easier to see in others than in ourselves. So, just because our present focus is turned outward, it does not imply that we are standing above in judgment, that we are casting the first stone. We will safely assume that, like all humans, we lack the requisite self-awareness to always see clearly what we do and how what we do is more inconsistent than we would prefer. The following is not about the moral failure of individuals but a reckoning with our shared species-being. The most blatant example we are aware of, in our personal experience, is that of someone we have known for about a quarter of a century. We have on multiple occasions, along with others present to confirm it, observed her say something to one person and then, upon walking into the next room, immediately say something completely contradictory to someone else. She seemed oblivious to the fact that she was still in ear-shot of those she just spoke to, suggesting it was not a consciously intentional act of deceit and manipulation. In all the years we’ve known her, she has repeated this behavior many times and she has never shown any indication of understanding what she did or any memory of what transpired. It’s as if she had been two different people, in apparently not carrying a portable and unchanging internal ego structure from one place to the next.

Along with other behaviors, this has led us to suspect she has borderline personality disorder or something along those lines, whatever one might call it; not that she has ever been diagnosed and it must be stated that, in her own perception, she thinks she is completely sane. But psychiatric diagnoses and debates about them are irrelevant for our purposes here. Indeed, maybe she is sane and labeling something does not protect us from what it represents, does not quarantine the perceived mental disease. The issue at hand implicates us all. What we’re discussing here has everything to do with how memory operates, with the narratives we create in retelling memories, forgetting them, and forming new ones. The same lady above, it might be noted, is talented at shaping narratives, not only in her own mind but in the moment of relating to others and so projecting those narratives onto the world, such as staging melodramatic conflicts (typical according to descriptions of borderline personality disorder; when an inner boundaries can’t be maintained, one turns to creating external boundaries in the world by projecting onto others and then controlling them). And she is masterful in creating and controlling her social media persona. The point for bringing all of this up is that, even if her case is extreme and obvious, that kind of thing is surprisingly not abnormal. All of us do similar things, if most of us are better at covering our tracks. We’ve come across numerous other examples over the years from a diversity of people.

Often memory lapses happen in more subtle ways, not always involving overt inconsistency. Amnesia can operate sometimes in maintaining consistency. One guy we know has a strange habit of how he eats. It’s so extremely methodical and constrained. He’ll pick up his fork, place a piece in his mouth, lay down the fork, and carefully chew for an extraordinary amount of time, as if he were counting the number of times chewed. It’s very much unnatural, that is to say we could tell it was trained into him at some point. We pointed this out to him and he didn’t realize he was doing anything unusual, but his wife told us she knew why he did it. Many years earlier, he had told her that his mother had made him thoroughly chew his food as a child and, indeed, she was a strict woman as he has shared with us. The thing is, even when told of this memory he once shared with his wife, he still could not remember it — it was gone and, along with it, any understanding about the origins of his behavior. The memory of his mother’s voice telling him what to do is absent, whereas the authoritative command of her voice still echoes in his mind. An external authorization is internalized as part of the individual ego-mind and simply becomes part of an unquestionable self-identity.

To emphasize the power this holds over the mind, realize this goes far beyond only one particular behavior as his entire identity is extremely controlled (controlled by his egoic willpower or by the authorizing voice of his mother repeating in his unconscious?). He had forgotten something from his childhood that has continued to unconsciously determine his behavioral identity. It was a total memory lapse; and maybe the erasure wasn’t accidental but an important mechanism of identity formation, in creating the sense of an unquestionable psychological realism, the way he takes himself to be as inborn character. It absolutely fascinates us. That kind of forgetting we’ve noticed so many times before. Let us share another incident involving a different married couple, one we’ve also known for a very long time. The husband told us of when his wife went looking for a dog at an animal shelter and he accompanied her. According to him, she told the shelter worker who helped them about how she had gotten her first dog, but the husband explained to us that she had made it up or rather she had told him an alternative version previously, whichever one was correct or whether either was. When he confronted her about this creative storytelling, she simply admitted that it was not true and she had made it up. As he told it, her manner treated the admission like it was irrelevant or insignificant, and so she offered no explanation for why she did it. She just shrugged it off, as if it were normal and acceptable behavior.

Yet it’s entirely possible that the whole situation was beyond her full self-awareness even in the moment of being confronted, similar to the case with the first woman mentioned above. Directly confronting someone does not always induce self-awareness and social-awareness, as identity formations are powerful in protecting against conflicting and threatening information. Amusingly, when we later brought up the animal shelter incident to the husband, he had zero recall of the event and having shared it with us. These transgressions of memory and identity come and go, sometimes for everyone involved. Let’s return to the first couple. There was another situation like this. The husband told us that his wife had been pro-choice when she was younger, but now she is rabidly anti-choice and calls those who are pro-choice baby-killers. This guy told us about this on multiple occasions and so obviously it had been something on his mind for years. Like all of us, he could see the inconsistency in another, in this case a woman he had been married to for more than a half century. He is an honest person and so we have no reason to doubt his claim, specifically as he himself is also now anti-choice (did he always hold this position or did he likewise unconsciously change his memory of political identity?)

The husband told us that his wife no longer remembered her previous position or presumably the self-identity that held it and the reasons for holding it; likely having originated in her childhood upbringing in a working class family that was Democratic and Protestant (note that, until the culture wars heated up in the 1980s, most American Protestants were pro-choice; in opposition to anti-choice Catholics at a time when anti-Catholic bigotry was still strong; by the way, her Democratic father hated Catholics). Not long after, when discussing this with him on another occasion, he stated that he had no memory of ever having told us this. The thing is this couple has become fairly far right, fear-mongering, conspiratorially paranoid, and harshly critical in their older age. They weren’t always this way, as we knew them when they were younger. Though they always have been conservative as an identity, they both once were relatively moderate and socially liberal; prior to the rise of right-wing and alt-right media (Fox News, Epoch Times, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Schlessinger, Jordan Peterson, etc). The husband used to be far less intellectual and, in his younger days, instead of reading books about religion and politics he read Time Magazine and Playboy. In their early marriage, they attended liberal churches, had pot-smoking friends, and were committed to a worldview of tolerance and positive thinking.

Over the decades, they had re-scripted their identity, according to a powerful right-wing propaganda machine (i.e., the Shadow Network started by Paul Weyrich, initially funded by the Coors family, and ushered in by President Ronald Reagan), to such a degree that it erased all evidence to the contrary — their former selves having been scrubbed from personal memory. So, it’s not only that they’ve dramatically changed their politics over their lifetimes but that they no longer remember who they used to be and so now will deny they were ever anything other than far right ultra-conservatives. The change has been so dramatic that they probably wouldn’t like their younger selves, if they could meet; and their younger selves might be appalled by what they’d become. It does get one thinking. To what degree do all of us change in such a manner with similar obliviousness? How would we know if we did? We are unlikely to see it in ourselves. And often those around us won’t notice either or else won’t mention it to us. There is typically a mutual agreement to not poke at each other’s illusions, particularly when illusions are shared, entwined, or overlapping. It’s a conspiracy of silence guarded by a paralyzing fear of self-awareness. Unravelling our own narratives or those of others can be dangerous, and people will often lash out at you for they will perceive you as attacking their identity.

[(7/9/22) Note: We recently talked to this man again about his wife and their early lives. He admitted that he wasn’t always anti-choice, in claiming he was undecided for the first 40-50 years of his life. He claims to only have become anti-choice in the 1990s — one might add, after years of rabid right-wing indoctrination from culture war propaganda (i.e., angry right-wing talk radio and the Fox News effect). That was the same period he and his wife left same the liberal Unity Church they had raised their children in, and they did so specifically over the issue of same sex marriage, despite the fact that the Unity Church had long been a proponent of LGBTQ rights in doing marriage services for same sex couples. The Unity Church didn’t change. This older couple did. But to their minds, they remained where they were and all the world shifted around them. It is true that the majority of Americans did move far left and continues to move further left, and yet it’s also true that many older Americans in turning reactionary (fearful, paranoid, etc) went far right. To give an example, this man became a Republican because of Barry Goldwater’s libertarianism, but later on Goldwater stated regret that he had opposed an important civil rights bill, even if he had genuine libertarian reasons at the time. Also, Goldwater later came to fear and despise the religious right that this older conservative couple has become identified with. Conveniently, the man in question still holds Goldwater up as a hero while not following his moral and political example. All of this has exaggerated the sense of this couple being out of sync. It also created a further disconnect from their own past selves. The American majority is now more in line with their past selves than now are their older selves. To be in conflict not only with most other people but also with oneself would, indeed, feel like an untenable and intolerable position to find oneself in. That they lash out with a disconcerting sense of uneasiness now is unsurprising.]

This perfectly normal strangeness reminds one of anthropological descriptions of the animistic mind and porous self. In many hunter-gatherer tribes and other traditional societies, self-identity tends to be more open and shifting. People will become possessed by spirits, demons, and ancestors; or they will have a shamanic encounter that alters their being upon receiving a new name. These changes can be temporary or permanent, but within those cultures it is accepted as normal. People relate to whatever identity is present without any expectation that individual bodies should be inhabited continuously by only a single identity for an entire lifetime. Maybe this animistic psychology has never really left us, not even with the destruction of most tribal cultures so long after the collapse of bicameral societies. That other way of being that we try to bury keeps resurfacing. There are many voices within the bundled mind and any one of them has the potential to hail us with the compelling force of archaic-like authorization (Julian Jaynes’ bicameralism meets Louis Althusser’s interpellation). We try to securely segment these voice-selves, but every now and then they are resurrected from the unconscious. Or maybe they are always there influencing us, whether or not we recognize and acknowledge them. We just get good at papering over the anomalies, contradictions, and discontinuities. Julian Jaynes points out that we spend little of our time in conscious activity (e.g., mindless driving in a trance state).

What we are talking about is the human nature that evolved under hundreds of millennia of oral culture. This is distinct from literary culture, a relatively recent social adaptation layered upon the primitive psyche. This deeper ground of our species-being contradicts our highly prized egoic identity. To point out an individual’s inconsistencies, in our culture, is about the same as accusing someone of hypocrisy or lying or worse, possibly mental illness. The thing is maybe even psychiatric conditions like borderline personality disorder are simply the animistic-bicameral mind as distorted within a society that denies it a legitimate outlet and social framework. That said, we shouldn’t dismiss the achievements of the egoic mind, that is to say Jaynesian consciousness (interiorized, spatialized, and narratized). It isn’t a mere facade hiding our true nature. The human psyche is flexible, if within limits. There are genuine advantages to socially constructing the rigid boundaries of the literate ego-mind. This relates to the cultural mindset of WEIRD (Westernized, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic or pseudo-Democratic). Joseph Henrich, in his book The WEIRDest People in the World, argues that it is literacy that is the main causal factor. He points to research that shows greater amounts of reading, presumably in early life, alter the structure of the brain and the related neurocognition. More specifically, it might be linguistic recursion, the complex structure of embedded phrases, that creates the complexity of abstract thought — this is lacking in some simpler societies and indeed it increases with literacy.

Importantly, what the research on the WEIRD bias tells us is that most people in the world don’t share this extreme variation on the egoic mind and a few remaining populations don’t have an egoic mind at all as they remain fully adapted to the bundled mind, although surely this is changing quickly as most of humanity is becoming some combination of Westernized, modernized, urbanized, and educated; specifically in how literacy spreads and literacy rates go up. We are only now reaching the point of mass global literacy, but it’s still in its early stages. Literacy, for the average person, remains rudimentary. Even in Western countries, the civilizational project of Jaynesian consciousness, in its WEIRDest form, is still partial and not well established. But, in recent centuries, we’ve begun to see the potential it holds and one cannot doubt that it is impressive. The WEIRD egoic mind is obviously distinct in what it makes possible, even in its present imperfections. Studies on WEIRD individuals do show they act differently than the non-WEIRD. Relatively speaking, they are more broadly consistent and abstractly principled (uniform standards and conformist norms), with a perceived inner voice of a supposed independent conscience (as originally reinforced through the moralizing Big Gods that were believed to see into the soul); and that relates to why principled consistency is so idealized in WEIRD society. Even when WEIRD subjects think no one is watching, they are less likely to cheat to help their families than non-WEIRD subjects. And, when asked, they state they’d be less likely to lie in court to protect a loved one. This is what the egoic structure does, as an internalized framework that is carried around with one and remains static no matter the situation. The WEIRD mind is less context-dependent, which admittedly has both strengths and weaknesses.

It’s not clear that this mentality is entirely beneficial, much less sustainable. It might be the case that it never will become fully established and so could always remain wonky, as the above examples demonstrate. The bundled mind is maybe the permanent default mode that we will always fall back into, the moment our egoic defenses are let down. Maintaining the egoic boundaries may simply be too much effort, too much drain on the human biological system, too contrary to human nature. Yet it’s too early to come to that judgment. If and only if we get to a strongly literate society will egoic WEIRDness be able to show what it’s capable of or else its ultimate failure. Consider that, in the US, the youngest generation will be the first ever majority college-educated and hence the first time we will see most of the population fully immersed in literary culture. It’s taken us about three millennia to get to this point, a slow collective construction of this experimental design; and we’re still working out the bugs. It makes one wonder about what might further develop in the future. Some predict a transformation toward a transparent self (integral WEIRD or post-WEIRD?). Certainly, there will be a Proteus effect of mediated experience in shaping identity in new ways. Building off of mass literacy and magnifying its impact, there is the Great Weirding of new media that might become a Great WEIRDing, as there is a simultaneous increase of text, voice, and image. Will the egoic mind be solidified or fall back into the bundled mind?

The challenge for the egoic identity project is that it takes a long time for the external infrastructure of society to be built to support internal structures of identity (e.g., private property and the propertied self), since individualism does not stand alone. That is what modernity has been all about; and most of us have come to take it for granted, in not realizing the effort and costs that went into it and that are continually invested for its maintenance, for good or ill. This is what the Enlightenment Age, in particular, was concerned about. Science and capitalism, democracy and technocracy involve constructing systems that reinforce egoic consistency, principled morality, and perceived objectivity. Liberal proceduralism, within democracy, has been one such system. It’s the attempt to create a legal and political system where all are treated equally, that is to say consistently and systematically. That is far unlike traditional societies where people are intentionally not treated as equal because context of social roles, positions, and identities determine how each person is treated; and that would be especially true of traditional societies where identity is far more fluid and relational, such that how even a single person is treated would vary according to situation. Much of what we think of as corruption in less ‘developed’ countries is simply people acting traditionally; such as what the WEIRD mind calls nepotism and bribery where one treats others primarily according to specific context of concrete relationships and roles, not abstract principles and legalistic code.

Obviously, liberal proceduralism doesn’t always work according to intention or rather the intention is often lacking or superficial. Even conservatives will nod toward liberal proceduralism because, to one degree or another, we are all liberals in a liberal society during this liberal age; but that doesn’t indicate an actual shared commitment to such liberal systems that promote, support, and defend a liberal mindset. Still, sometimes we have to pretend something is real before we might be able to finally manifest it as a shared reality; as a child play-acts what they might become as an adult; or as a revolution of the mind precedes revolution of society and politics, sometimes preceding by a long period of time (e.g., the transition from the English Peasants’ Revolt and the English Civil War to the American Revolution and the American Civil War). This is what we are struggling with, such as with the battle between science and what opposes and undermines it, mixed up with crises of expertise and replication, and involving problems of confirmation bias, backlash effect, etc. The scientific method helps strengthen and shape the egoic structure of mind, helps an individual do what they could not do in isolation. We need systems that create transparency, hold us accountable, incentivize consistency, and allow us to more clearly see ourselves objectively or at least as others can see us, that force us into self-awareness, be that egoic or otherwise.

All of this relates to why it’s so difficult to maintain liberalism, both in society and in the mind; as liberalism is one of the main expressions of the literary WEIRDing of Jaynesian consciousness. Liberalism is an energy-intensive state, similar to what Jaynes argues; a hothouse flower that requires perfect conditions and well-developed structures, such that the hothouse flower requires the hothouse to survive and thrive. Do anything to compromise liberal mentality, from alcohol consumption to cognitive overload, and it instantly regresses back into simpler mindsets such as the prejudicial thinking of the conservative persuasion. This is precisely why inegalitarian right-wingers and reactionaries (including those posing as liberals and leftists, moderates and centrists; e.g., DNC elite) are forever attacking and undermining the very egalitarian foundations of liberal democracy, what makes liberal-mindedness possible at all; and so casting doubt about the radical and revolutionary possibility of the liberal dream. To be fair, there are real reasons for doubt; but the dark alternative of authoritarianism, as advocated on the reactionary right, is not a desirable option to be chosen instead; and there is no easy path open, besides maybe total collapse, for returning to the animistic and bicameral past.

This is a highly problematic dilemma for we have become committed to this societal aspiration and civilizational project, based on centuries and millennia of pathway dependence, layers upon layers upon layers of interlocking cognitive introstructure (metaphorically introjected structure), organizational intrastructure, societal infrastructure, and cultural superstructure. If we come to think this has been the wrong path all along, we’ll be scrambling to find a new way forward or sideways. In the conflict between what we are and what we pretend and hope to be, we will have to come to terms with the world we have collectively created across the generations. But maybe we are not actually schizoid and psychotic in our fumbling in the dark toward coherency, maybe we are not splintered within an internal self and not divided from external reality. If the bundled mind is and will always remain our psychic reality, our selves and identities have never not been pluralistic. Still, we might find a way of integrated balance between the bundled mind and the egoic identity, according to the integralist motto of transcend and include. It might not be a forced choice between two polar positions, a conflict between worldviews where one has to dominate and the other lose, as we’ve treated it so far. Until that changes, we will go on acting insane and denying our insanity, not recognizing in our fear that insanity itself is an illusion. We can never actually go against our own human nature, much less go against reality itself.

“When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that you are the sons of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty, and you are poverty.”
~ Gospel of Thomas, Saying 3

“Barfield points to an “inwardization,” or a simultaneous intensification and consolidation of subjectivity, that has transpired over the evolution of humanity and whose results characterize the structure of our souls today. In fact, just because of this represents what is normal to us, we hardly notice it, having no foil to set it off.”
~ Max Leyf, Mythos, Logos, and the Lamb of God: René Girard on the Scapegoat Mechanism

“Crazy job they gave me. But if I wasn’t doing it, someone else would be. And they might get it wrong. They might set Arctor up, plant drugs on him and collect a reward. Better it be me, despite the disadvantages. Just protecting everyone from Barris is justification in itself. What the hell am I talking about? I must be nuts. I know Bob Arctor. He’s a good person. He’s up to nothing. At least nothing too bad. In fact, he works for the Orange County Sheriff’s office covertly, which is probably why Barris is after him. But that wouldn’t explain why the Orange County Sheriff’s office is after him.

“Something big is definitely going down in this house. This rundown, rubble-filled house with its weed patch yard and cat box that never gets emptied. What a waste of a truly good house. So much could be done with it. A family and children could live here. It was designed for that. Such a waste. They ought to confiscate it and put it to better use. I’m supposed to act like they aren’t here. Assuming there’s a “they” at all. It may just be my imagination. Whatever it is that’s watching, it’s not human, unlike little dark eyed Donna. It doesn’t ever blink.

“What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me, into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly, because I can’t any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone’s sake the scanners do better. Because if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I do, then I’m cursed and cursed again. I’ll only wind up dead this way, knowing very little, and getting that little fragment wrong too.”

Alienation and Soul Blindness

There is the view that consciousness* is a superficial overlay, that the animistic-bicameral mind is our fundamental nature and continues to operate within consciousness. In not recognizing this, we’ve become alienated from ourselves and from the world we are inseparable from. We don’t recognize that the egoic voice is but one of many voices and so we’ve lost appreciation for what it means to hear voices, including the internalized egoic voice that we’ve become identified with in submission to its demurgic authorization. This could be referred to as soul blindness, maybe related to soul loss — basically, a lack of psychological integration and coherency. Is this an inevitability within consciousness? Maybe not. What if a deeper appreciation of voice-hearing was developed within consciousness? What would emerge from consciousness coming to terms with its animistic-bicameral foundation? Would it still be consciousness or something else entirely?

* This is in reference to Julian Jaynes use of ‘consciousness’ that refers to the ego mind with its introspective and internal space built upon metaphor and narratization. Such consciousness as a social construction of a particular kind of culture is not mere perceptual awareness or biological reactivity.

* * *

Is It as Impossible to Build Jerusalem as It is to Escape Babylon? (Part Two)
by Peter Harrison

Marx identified the concept of alienation as being a separation, or estrangement, from one’s labour. And for Marx the consistent ability to labour, to work purposefully and consciously, as opposed to instinctively, towards a pre-imagined goal, was the trait that distinguished humans from other animals. This means also that humans are able to be persuaded to work creatively, with vigour and passion, for the goals of others, or for some higher goal than the maintenance of daily survival. As long as they are able see some tiny benefit for themselves, which might be service to a higher cause, or even just simple survival, since working for the goal of others may be the only means of obtaining food. So, Marx’s definition of alienation was more specific than an ‘existential’ definition because it specified labour as the defining human characteristic. But he was also aware that the general conditions of capitalism made this alienation more acute and that this escalated estrangement of humans from immediately meaningful daily activity led to a sense of being a stranger in one’s own world, and not only for the working class. This estrangement (I want to write étranger-ment, to reference Camus, but this is not a word) afflicted all classes, even those classes that seemed to benefit from class society, since capitalism had, even by his own time, gained an autonomy of its own. Life is as meaningless [or better: as anti-human] for a cleaner as it is for the head of a large corporation. This is why Marx stated that all people under capitalism were proletarian.

When I discovered the idea of soul blindness in Eduardo Kohn’s book, How Forests Think, I was struck by it as another useful way of understanding the idea of alienation. The concept of soul blindness, as used by the Runa people described by Kohn, seems to me to be related to the widespread Indigenous view of the recently deceased as aimless and dangerous beings who must be treated with great care and respect after their passing to prevent them wreaking havoc on the living. In Kohn’s interpretation, to be soul blind is to have reached the ‘terminus of selfhood,’ and this terminus can be reached while still alive, when one loses one’s sense of self through illness or despair, or even when one just drifts off into an unfocussed daze, or, more profoundly, sinks into an indifference similar to — to reference Camus again — that described by the character Meursault, in L’Etranger.

There are some accounts of Indigenous people first encountering white people in which the white people are initially seen as ghosts, one is recorded by Lévi-Strauss for Vanuatu. Another is embedded in the popular Aboriginal history of the area I live in. On first contact the white people are immediately considered to be some kind of ghost because of their white skin. This may have something to do with practice of preserving the bodies of the dead. This involves scraping off the top layer of skin which, apparently, makes the body white. This practice is described by the anthropologist, Atholl Chase, in his reminisces of Cape York. But for me there is more to the defining of the white intruders as ghosts because of their white skin. These foreigners also act as if they are soul blind. They are like machines, working for a cause that is external to them. For the Indigenous people these strangers do not seem to have soul: they are unpredictable; dangerous; they don’t know who they are.

But it is the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro who, I think, connects most clearly to the work of James Hillman on the notion of the soul. James Hillman uses the term soul but he does not mean a Christian soul and he is not ultimately meaning the mind. For him the soul is a form of mediation between events and the subject and, in this sense, it might be similar to Bourdieu’s conception of ‘disposition.’ For Viveiros de Castro, ‘A perspective is not a representation because representations are a property of the mind or spirit, whereas the point of view is located in the body.’ Thus, Amerindian philosophy, which Viveiros de Castro is here describing, perhaps prefigures Hillman’s notion that ‘soul’ is ‘a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint towards things rather than a thing itself.’