The Politics of Eustress
A Synthesis of Government, Psychology and Experience
by Robert DePaolo
This article discusses the concept of an “ideal state” in terms of behavioral science, emphasizing the importance of a core motivational factor known as eustress. The point is made that while the Utopia ideal seems at odds with the functions of the human mind (which is a closure-seeking, noise reducing mechanism requiring ongoing conflict as a learning prompt)), there might be an optimal, culturally imparted state of mind that can produce the closest thing to a human-consonant social system.
A Brief History of Utopia…
For all its blissful connotations the idea of a Utopian state is hard to define. Some of the Utopian ideas and ideals of the past have revolved around on the whims of writers railing against the political systems of their time. Marx and Engels wrote in opposition to rampant capitalism. They sought to rescue workers from exploitation by property owners, noting (not inaccurately) that without labor there could be no production, profit or general wealth.
In trying to extend this idea -which Engels termed “scientific socialism” – to create a vast governmental system their theory exhibited a number of significant flaws. For example, they presented scientific socialism in a moral context based on a vague notion of pan-equality, the idea being that is wasn’t fair for workers to be paid substantially less than capitalists and that advantages afforded the wealthy such as inherited family resources and wealth could be naively construed as “unfair.” That would imply that even if status was earned by the first generation, coming from a well-to-do family would have to be deemed somehow immoral. That in turn would mean parents trying to do right by their children were actually doing wrong.
Still another flaw was reflected in their historical ignorance. The inequity argument had been addressed more rationally in Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”, written more than half a century before Das Capital. Smith deftly provided a moral and functional regulation by which to level the playing field. While his tome was voluminous, his resolution rested on a single word – competition. He felt if govenment disallowed monopolistic business practices (pervasive in the times and places in which Marx and Engels lived) consumers could choose where to shop (thus lowering prices) and where to work (thus raising wages and improving working conditions). Though not in a straight line trajectory, Smith’s vision turned out to be more prescient. In effect with the advent of competition capitalism evolved into neo-capitalism. That rendered scientific socialism (aka.communism) at best unnecessary and at worst rather pointless.
Neo-capitalism tends to work better than socialism for two reasons. First it allows for aggressive product improvement and distribution (making more goods available to more people). Second, because of its breadth, it rewards businesses for being consumer and worker-friendly. In somewhat paradoxical, yet very real terms it both restrains and frees up companies; like democracy itself functioning within a populist, consumer-controlled context.
Another aspect of Marxism is even more questionable because it is based on Hegel’s speculative notion of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. (North 2006). This Hegelian triad proposed that a kind of social algorithm orchestrates all of human history. More specifically that an existing social system would always encounter its antithesis (often via revolution), then would be replaced by a new synthesis, or social system. Ironically, Hegel saw this as a spiritual inevitability; as though God, or some transcendent entity was behind the transformations. Marx and Engels were hard core atheists, so it is difficult to discern what transcendent agent they had in mind. Perhaps they were also referencing Immanuel Kant’s notion of a ‘categorical imperative,’ which was highly abstract, involved a built-in inevitability but was not quite deistic. It does appear Marx and Engels held Kant in high regard as well.
Other versions of Utopia revolved around religious themes. Most involved some form of socialism. The Labadist movement in Maryland and in prior locations around Europe espoused a communal society with relative deemphasis on the core family. While their community attracted some very bright clerics and intellectuals its rejection of notoriety and individuality led to its dissandonment in 1730. (Saxby, 1987).
Other systems were similarly communal, thus deviating from the notion that individuality matters and that mom and dad were crucial to the moral, intellectual and educational development of sons and daughters whose behaviors and dispositions would, generation after generation determine whether any given society would sink or swim. Among the most notable was Robert Owen, an English textile merchant who came to America to found a socialist community in New Harmony, Indiana. His societal foundation was also religious (though he was a deist – believed in a world loosely created by a deity but left to run on its own rather through periodic divine intervention. Owen espoused many humanitarian ideas. Much of his writing had an egalitarian tinge, with allusions to “human nature being the most basic and necessary constituent in an evolving society”…and references to a “New Moral World” (Claeys 2011). On the other hand his theories, despite advocating for a society designed around human nature had the same flaws as all socialist systems. Among the most prominent being his refusal to accept that human beings have and require a sense of self – of individuation, not just to attain wealth and status but to use as a reference point in all experiential endeavors. Owen’s ideas fizzled out by 1846.
The historical failure of socialism seems to continually repeat itself. It can last for as long as emotionally galvanized believers can overcome their primate/hierarchical instincts with threat and persuasion but can never settle comfortably into the every day life of identity-driven mankind.
Thomas Moore was probably the first to try so systematize a theory of Utopia. While he was influenced by the Christian/humanism movement his egalitarian concepts took things to a different level. His ideas, spawned in the context of rather inequitable 16th century English society (which issued the death penalty to thieves, placed all wealth in the hands of a monarch and contained many long-debunked tyrannical policies) have been obviated by the advent of purer forms of democracy and populist rule, (Sullivan 1983). In other words his complaints have been addressed and to an extent resolved through simple socio-political evolution.
The idea of Utopia is considered passe’ in modern times, simply because a perfect society could not exist without absolute uniformity of opinion, need and sentiment backed by cultural consensus. Getting a democrat from New York and a republican from Texas to agree on policy is hard enough. Asking 300 million people to do so would be inconceivable.
Still it seems thinkers cannot scrap the idea. Philosophers, candidates and theorists speak constantly about “ideals”, that is, policies and actions universally sanctioned by some alpha-entity to make sure that authority will not derive from mere, flawed humans. The framers, rather brilliantly, put this in God’s hands which made final authority both eternal and unattainable by tyrants.
The fact that true Utopia cannot exist even as humans are inclined to seek it out creates an ongoing problem. Since protests, complaints and revolutions abound in every society on earth that problem would seem difficult to solve. It raises the question of whether the quest for ideals and a perfect society should even be broached; or whether mankind would be better off letting society evolve of its own momentum as a function of stresses, strains and moment to moment problem solving.
The obvious counter-argument would be that without the drawing power of an ideal the quest to improve society would lack direction. It would be a bit like hippies in the sixties protesting against the “system” without offering alternative solutions (other than, ironically, donning Mao jackets). Interestingly, Jefferson’s belief in the need for constant vigilance – which seems to derive loosely from the idealistic teleology of the Greeks seems to have fostered a kind of Utopian-developmental mindset. Yet frustration resulting from conflict between the desirable and the possible seems to have persisted throughout history.
One way to address that problem might be to view society not in purely philosophical or political terms but like Owen (albeit in a different context) in terms of human nature; more specifically from knowledge accrued in the field of behavioral science.
Some might argue that such a task would be pointless. This author would disagree, for two reasons. First what we call “sociopolitics” is nothing more than a broad, conceptual view of human individual and group behavior patterns. These patterns have been studied with some rigor over the past century by behavioral scientists and clinicians. Second, to reiterate, abandoning the quest for a homo-consonant society could mean abandoning any hope of finding one. Clearly human society is not yet perfected. While only a handful of socio-political theories have emerged over time the study of human behavior is rich with ideas and proven facts regarding habits, attitudes, motivations and temperament. In that context perhaps theorizing is worth a shot.
The Political Psyche…
Many theories on human behavior and the personality exist, and there is no point in discussing them here. However one element common to all is the idea of the self. With a substantial brain, and exceptional linguistic ability humans can and will label things (including themselves). It is not a whim, or happenstance acquisition from experience but a mandate. Labeling invariably leads to drawing distinctions between and among things. To label the color “blue” is to automatically know that another color is not blue. This is to due to the unavoidable process of perceptual differentiation that characterizes our species. This rule is responsible for everything from unity to discrimination, from discovery to ignorance. In a political context that means n pan-eqalitarian society that disregards differences in terms of traits, assets, accomplishments, status, and skills etc runs contrary to human nature. We are, after all genetically close in makeup to primates whose social groups are typically hierarchical. They engage in social differentiation – so do we.
In that context an egalitarian society would be difficult to sustain. That brings to mind two essential tasks of human society. On one hand it is necessary to enlist the efforts and commitment of the many in common cause, based on a vague notion of equality. On the other we must enable and support individuality, including differentials in skill, status and wealth in what amounts to an ideological co-existence. Groups use products. Individuals create and invent them. Interestingly, while such modulation might seem a lofty pursuit Jefferson discussed this eloquently in a letter to John Adams on natural aristocracy (2018).
Where does that leave us? In addressing the question of a human-consonant society the first question to ask is whether there exists an ideal state of mind which if imparted culturally through experience and (incentive-driven) policy, would produce the greatest degree of pro-social contentment. In other words is there a scientific premise by which to fulfill the vague promise of pursuit of happiness. As a corollary, is there something about western democracy that is quintessentially rooted in human psychology?
Eustress in the Lab…
The obvious place to begin looking for an ideal mental state is of course the human brain with its vast and complex neural connections. Just how it orchestrates holistically all the functions of mind has yet to be determined but one of its most essential functions is ongoing noise reduction. Once aroused the brain tends toward mass action (Lashley 1930) rather than immediately summoning only the stimulus-relevant circuits. That is a benefit in terms of associative accessibility. It can also be a detriment because it can draw in all kinds of peripheral distractions, moods and demons. To sift through that complexity to find memories and ressponses it must operate as a closure-seeking machine. In other words like a homeostat that reacts to uncertainty by seeking restoration of stability.
There are two facets to brain activity. One is in the realm of experience which causes us to “feel good” post-closure. The other is a systemic process that while reflected in experience is concerned with resetting the inter-neural guage, much as a thermostat restores a pre-set home temperature. That dual dynamic is responsible for everything from the discovery of Relativity Theory to paranoid delusions.
In that context any socio-political system that provides opportunities for as many individuals as possible to engage in closure seeking (meaning a reasonable chance to convert uncertainty to closure across circumstances (i.e. poly-control) could arguably contain one crucial element of a human-consonant society.
However it doesn’t end there. Closure requires a prior state of uncertainty, because in terms of information dynamics there is no point in finding an answer unless a question is first posed. In the field of behavioral psychology this controllable transition from uncertainty to closure is often referred to as a state of “eustress” – which is a combination of the words ‘euphoria’ and ‘stress.’ It refers to the fact that no individual or group can be in a psycho-socially optimal state without experiencing stress as a prelude to closure (i.e. successful completion of tasks and/or confirmation of anticipations. Just as closure is preceded necessarily by uncertainty so is closure preceded necessarily by work and duress according to the eustress model.
The research in this area has yielded interesting results. If the stress/impetus is too harsh and prohibitive, closure unattainable, individuals will tend to incur a state of learned helplessness which often leads to lethargy and depression as well as fostering anti-social attitudes. It is as if the conflicted individual has declared the social contract null and void, reverted back into a state of nature and no longer feels bound by social norms. An internalization of that anti-social attitude outcome can lead to inner turmoil and psychopathology (Ackerman 2018).
The interesting flip side of that process is that when there is reward/closure without exertion – in other words there is “eu” but no preliminary “stress” i.e. reward without work, a similar outcome occurs. Receiving reward without exertion deemed proportionate to the reward can also lead to depression and an anti-social mindset. That is because with no behavior to equate with the outcome no associative or emotional bond is established between effort and reward,. In that case, behavior, mood and motivation become inconsequential Thus a soft socio-political climate (where everything comes easy can actually lead to a dys-national mindset. In effect giving people what they want does not work. Enabling them to earn what they want does work.
In that sense a psychologically ideal (homo-consonant) society would be one with a close ratio between effort and reward, i.e. stress and closure spread among the populace. Some research suggests values, policies and/or customs making life neither too easy nor too hard, could produce a broad contentment leading to a creative, pro-social, environment (Nelson,Cooper 2005). That could produce enormous benefits that resonate throughout the culture.
While that idea might have validity, four problems come to mind. First, the tendency is for societies to modernize constantly in order to make things easier and more convenient. Over time that could skew the stress/closure ratio. By virtue of our neural software and its effect on experience, closure must be “earned” to take effect. In that sense the quest for convenience can be counterproductive over the long run no matter how much it boosts an economy or expands leisure time.
A second problem is that in order to foster a eustress-driven culture would require some kind of regulatory process. To an extent this happens now – for example programs moving people from welfare to work. But on a larger scale this would require a super-meritocratic philosophy translated into the language of law or at least prompted within the education system, emphasizing the important relationship between effort and reward.
Because democratic systems tend not to impose life style changes on the public this would be difficult – though anti-smoking ad campaigns have been successful. Once upon a time it wasn’t so difficult because family was the core. Can this influence be re-established? If so, such a goal could be reached and eventually translate, child by child, family by family into a broadly accepted custom.
The third problem (and undoubtedly the most difficult) revolves around the question of individual talents. Despite its negative connotations, there is such a thing as the normal curve, that is, a dispersion of skills and traits. This has little to do with intelligence per se – simply because most people hover around the average to high average range (if not, society could not possibly rely on the reasonable person standard to render verdicts, vote or abide by laws. Rather it has to do with the highs and lows of skills and interests.
For example some people are mechanically inclined, but not terribly interested or gifted in abstract, philosophical areas. The opposite is true as well. Some people are highly social, others introverted, some abstract and artistic, others practical and concrete. For the eustress dynamic to work society would have to emphasize vocational and educational skill diversity to match the normal curve. Rather than advocating that all students should go to college (a preposterous idea since it would ultimately render college graduates less valuable via the supply/demand dynamic), it would involve an advocative (if not legislative) policy by government and education systems to facilitate a skill-diverse system.
One main barrier? The prideful assumption that lack of a college degree diminishes one’s worth. Such a change in the American weltanschaung would require a shift in attitudes, not only in terms of the worth of laborers (perhaps beginning with an overview of human evolution, which was enhanced and sustained primarily by the efforts of toolmakers – not poets (Stout 2011) but by challenging the worshipful attitude toward “intellectuals.”
How to re-value the worker, inventor and mechanic? One way is via simple capitalism. It is well known that many types of laborers, mechanics and hands-on workers make more money and are often more functionally necessary than students with a B.A. in liberal arts. Attention paid to that by high school guidance counselors and other advisers would help foster vocational diversity. Of even greater assistance would be greater diversity in school programs, including high schools and post secondary programs.
The net effect of such skill diversity could be greater control of rewards and in terms of the eustress dynamic, a closer correlation between efforts and closure/reward for a larger segment of the general population. That is because a round peg-round hole vocational topography not only ameliorates fervent competition for jobs (which does happen when students all go into one field or another based on trend or fad) but also makes it more likely that workers will be successful.
A still greater challenge results from a pervasive idea entrenched in the American ethic – the idea of pan-equality. The USA is unique because of its promise of upward mobility. Ours is a nation nurtured by the framers but born in the womb of an idea fostered by John Locke – the notion of tabula rasa…or “blank slate.” (Walker 1996) It proposes that all talents and skills are a function of experience. In that context, thinkers following the framers interpreted their writings to mean that anyone can accomplish whatever they set their mind to once the playing field was leveled -that anyone could be an Einstein or a Picasso. That is a mis-perception (Turkheimer 2000). We are not all equal- which does not mean some are superior. others deficient. It means that success in any endeavor has to do with so many variables such as temperament, intelligence, motivation, and attitudes as well as simple experience. One person’s strength is another’s weakness. That’s life, and if we built a culture based on a model espousing “good fit among the many” rather than valuing more highly those with higher abstract, verbal ability the resulting social stability could ameliorate the anti-social behavior and some of the psychopathology that too often occurs in social systems lacking proportion in terms of the eustress dynamic.
Does that mean we cease to talk about equality, and if so, what do we replace it with? First of all, despite Locke’s tabula rasa concept, the term equality initially meant equal before the law. In other words, all people were to be granted the rights and privileges inherent in the judicial process. With that in mind, one can imagine adding to the words…”We live in a free society where all men are created equal” with “before the law” further adding…we hold that ‘all people are different, with varying interests, abilities and motivations and we aspire, not to render everyone the same but to foster the growth of a society by creating opportunities for as many of human traits and abilities as possible.
While much of the history of human politics can be described as an attempt to override our primal urges and traits such a congruence-based socio-political model would, like human evolution itself, end up favoring trait variety over trait uniformity in the quest for survival and adaptation. Rather than two straight lines rubbing against each other in a high-friction interaction, the eustress society would be analogous to an inverted and external angle fitting together to create a whole, congruent and complimentary structure.
Ackerman, C. 2018;Learned Helplessness; Seligman’s Theory of Depression (+ Cure) Positive Psychology.com
G. Claeys (ed) (1993) The Selected Works of Robert Owen London, Pickering and Chatto. Routledge.
Lashley, K. 1930 Basic Neural Mechanisms in Behavior. Psychological Review
On Natural Aristocracy: (2018) – Article in The Imaginative Conservative: derived from Thomas Jefferson’s letter to John Adams Oct 28
Nelson, D , Cooper, G. (2005) Stress and Health: A Positive Direction. Stress and Health 21 (2) 73-75
North, D. (2006) Hegel, Marx and the Origins of Marxism World Socialist Website. Mehring Books
Saxby, T.J. (1987) “Chapter 6” Quest for the New Jerusalem. Jean de Labadie and the Labadists 1610-1744, Dordrecht-Boston-Lancaster
Stout, D. (2011), Stone Toolmaking and the Evolution of Human Culture and Cognition. Philosophical Transactions B Royal Society Publishing.
Sullivan, EDS (ed) (1983) The Utopian Vision: Seven Essays on The Quincentennial of Sir Thomas More. San Diego State University Press, San Diego Calif.
Turkheimer,, E. (2000) Three Laws of Behavior Genetics and What They Mean. Current Directions in Psychological Science 9 (5) 160-164
Walker. K. (1996). (ed) Essay Concerning Human Understanding 1813 p xix and 33-36 Book II Chapter 1, 1-9 Hackett Publishing Com. Indianapolis, IN 1996