Evolutionary Forces, Parenting and Social Pressures

Here are a few of the pages from Chapter four.

The rest will be in the book….


Evolutionary Forces and The Inevitable Conflicts

In the early 1970s, Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist, social biologist and one of the most original thinkers about evolutionary theory, explained why humans are so much more interesting than other animals. Interested in altruism and self-deception, Trivers developed the riveting idea that despite the partial overlap of genes, there were on going conflicts as to where the parents should invest their energy. How much for mom and how much for the kids?  Parent offspring conflict was a concept that struck at the heart of how we humans like to see ourselves.

Trivers named the five kinds of human relationships: male with female, parent with child, sibling with sibling, acquaintance with acquaintance, and a person with himself or herself. Then, after observing how animals behave in these kinds of relationships, he applied the findings to humans. The question is, how does any animal decide how much to do for self only, and how much to do for the other? If we give, how will it help or hurt the fate of the genes? It is easy to measure the amount of time, energy and food that is shared between parents, siblings and spouses. These facts are observable in the animal and in the human species. But animals do not tell stories to gain our sympathy. We can see when interests diverge—and when that happens, the result is conflict. Humans have many ways of using deception to hide their true motives and this is the stuff of stories. 

There has been much speculation about how/why altruism occurs and how it is that any cooperation exists between non-relatives. At first blush, that kind of cooperation makes no genetic sense. But look at the process over time, and the cooperation does make sense if these non-relatives have brains able to recognize individuals and remember what they have done. If a non-relative thinks he/she may see you again in a situation that matters, a little altruism now may well be worth a dab or two of kindness later.

Trivers was also among the first to see clearly that we humans have a “selfish” motive to project ourselves as more honorable than we really are. Therefore, he predicted that the mind would be designed by natural selection to believe its own lies. Apparently, the best liars can in some instances also be the healthiest ones among us if they believe their own more positive lies about their lives.

Parenting Styles and Leadership Ability
Mary Ainsworth (1913 1999) formulated a research project to look at the relationship between mothers and children in terms of a child’s ability to explore the environment and self-regulate. The gold standard for research in this area is called the “infant-strange situation.” It shows that early styles of attachments—secure, ambivalent, avoidant or disorganized/disoriented—remain relatively stable over an individual’s lifetime.

Children with “Avoidant-Attached” mothers (mothers who are emotionally distant and neglecting or even rejecting), are shunned by their peers as adults. Then there are the “Ambivalent-Attached” parents. Their emotional and mental states repeatedly interfere with their ability to be consistent and accurately perceive the needs of their children. Sometimes these parents are too distant, and sometimes they are too intrusive. Their babies become anxious and uncertain as children, and anxious and uncertain as adults. 

Children who form “Disorganized and/or Disoriented Attachments” are faced with parental messages such as “Come here and go away.” Their behavior then becomes one of avoidance—they sometimes literally walk in circles, unable to approach one or both parents. Because the parent is the source of fear and/or disorientation, these children cannot use the parent as a source of soothing or orientation. These children have the most problems managing their emotions and getting along with others as adults.  Alan Sroufe and his group followed Ainsworth’s research participants over time and showed that the pattern of early parent/child attachment can change if significant relationships are altered. But in general, secure parent/child attachments are correlated with leadership ability.Mary Main and her group developed The Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) to learn which aspects of people’s lives would affect how they interacted with their children. By asking the study participants only 20 questions about their childhoods, Main and her group of researchers were able to predict with 85 percent accuracy what the participants’ parenting styles would be when their children were one-year-olds. These predictions were made before the children were born. (Saying too much, saying too little, and becoming disoriented were the main criteria used to classify the answers. The parenting categories were “free-autonomous, dismissing, preoccupied, entangled, and unresolved/disorganized.”)

  NIH Research: Observing What People DoAs I noted earlier in this book, Dr. Bowen observed two generations of family members living together at the National Institutes of Mental Health for up to three years (1956 – 1959). There, he saw clearly how the inability of any family member to maintain a consistent leadership position was highly correlated with anxious interactions and dysfunctions. The researchers noted that as one member of the family group became more willing to assume responsibility for what he or she would or would not do, the family would change. The one who was willing to lead would inevitably encounter opposition. But if he or she did not react by attacking or caving in, the family would eventually settle down and the overall functioning of the family group would improve. In addition, Dr. Bowen saw that nuclear families that were cut off from past generations were more vulnerable to developing symptoms. These families and those that had splits within generations were described as overly sensitive to new ideas and relationships. Cut-off families also resisted attempts to integrate with the larger system, and often saw the outside world as “the problem.” 

Families with more integrated, three-generational family systems, on the other hand, had a broader perspective on life and were better integrated with the outside world. The parents who were able to change had well-thought-out principles with which to manage the reactions to any stand they took. (This is in contrast to at least one mother on the ward, who became symptomatic when faced with having to take a stand.) In general those who hoped to gain the answer from the psychiatrist or the nursing staff  (the more dependent people) did not function as well and lacked operating principles.  

The family stories of well-functioning people reflect great respect for individual differences and a greater ability to sustain contact with all kinds of people. Individuals who have at least one supportive relationship and less pressure to conform to an unrealistic goal often emerge with positive stories about their growing years, even when these stories include stressful events. Individuals at lower levels of emotional maturity, by contrast, often tell stories of contending with highly intense and critical relationships. One of the early concepts in Family Systems Theory was that, to improve personal functioning, a person must learn about his or her own story and the stories of other family members. This can be difficult, because many families resist relationships with the broader family. At the extreme, a family might be open only to those who are in total agreement. But difficult or not, the effort to learn will help you develop an emotional backbone, which in turn will make you a better, more effective leader.  

There are many fun and even profound lessons to be learned as you take your version of the family story to your extended family to ask questions and listen to their input. Connecting or reconnecting with people in your multi-generational family will give you more information about your youth, your parents and grandparents. You might even hear a wonderful new story about your great-grandfather or grandmother, who was either a saint or a sinner. As you visit these people to get their versions of the family stories, you may want to bring along your fact-based thermometer. Overall, the point of this effort will be to gain a broader, systems-based look at the forces operating in your life and how they sensitized you to react as you do today. Freedom to operate well is found in overcoming these trigger-point reactions to others. Family is a usually safe place to practice your skills. Then you can go to work out there in the big world.   

Truth, Relative Truth and the Emergence of Leaders

It is easier to understand more about how we function if we accept that we are co-creating our life stories with our nearest and dearest. In that sense, most of our truths are relative (pun intended). What we believe has been influenced by those who are important to us and, of course, by our slapdash brains. Often even our differences are reactions to the “truth” others are trying to get us to swallow. In our personal stories, there will be few facts that have not been subject to and perhaps modified by others’ interpretations. If seeing the impact of all these subtle influences can lead us to greater humility about our personal stories, so much the better.   

No one person really knows more than his or her own personal “truth” in any ongoing interaction in any social system. I’ve so often listened to one event described from so many viewpoints and in such different ways by various family members that it was hard to believe the people were all relating the same event. But this process, this “cryptic co-creation,” is what both reveals and influences your future.

When asking others for their input regarding various events in your life, you can agree to disagree or agree to listen as best you can, but rarely will anyone know the whole story. And disagreement about what is known will be a given. The paradox here is that as you retell your stories to others, there will be blank pages pointing to powerful forces blocking you from self knowledge and self mastery. If you can accept the uncertainty, the relativity of truth, you will be able to operate with more sureness as you seek to fill in those blanks with your best understanding of the forces operating on you. 

The Impact of Thinking Positive

If you are still thinking that not knowing the absolute, objective “truth” is not good, let me give you a few ideas to play with. There is something great about having unrealistic but positive memories of the past and, fortunately, most of us have the ability to think this way. When we focus on the positive aspects of our lives, the positive begins to take over as the negative gradually fades away. (“Life is pleasant – and memory helps keep it that Way!” W.R. Walker, J.J. Skowronski, and C.P. Thompson. 2003 Review of General Psychology.) Evidence shows that individuals with positive memories (and good support systems) will do better in life. These people are more optimistic, have less fear, and can be more creative in adapting to the uncertain future.

We need the positive because under conditions of uncertainty, people become stressed and relationships become unreliable—or even primitive. In such circumstances, just one person behaving in a calm, thoughtful way can reduce the anxiety in the group as a whole. When we can see positive aspects of our own lives, we can more easily see the positive aspects in others. This, in turn, helps us to organize and stabilize the group.Finding Leaders in a Social SystemDon’t be an ape. If you challenge the conventional wisdom, you will find a way to do things much better than they are currently done.Bill James, Moneyball 

Knowing how to lead at a gut level may come automatically to some, while for others it is hard won only through discipline. It’s a skill that can be called being “relationship savvy.” During World War II, when the death toll and scale of human misery were extreme, relationship savvy was the key skill that the British Army sought in its new recruits. They needed individuals who could remain calm, be optimistic and solve problems. The Tavistock Clinic, where some of the brightest minds of the day were at work, offered an approach to finding such leaders that emphasized relationships rather than instinctual drives and psychic energy.

One of the big changes was that they used an observer, not a trainer, to identify those individuals with the skills and behavior to become leaders. A consultant would be sent to watch a group of men as they gathered. There was no plan; there were no directions, no uniforms, no nothing—just a consultant with a clipboard. The consultants’ job was “not to permit themselves to insist even subliminally that the group adopt their way of proceeding.” The consultant simply took notes on how the leadership emerged and who the group would listen to. Once a thoughtful leader emerged, the group quickly became calmer and more capable of figuring out what needed to be done. Groups do better when leaders arise who are relationship savvy. This was a paradigm just busting to move within psychiatry. 

We need leaders who can tell us stories about how they become relationship savvy: form principles, see the big picture, remain calm, and yet still totally be in the moment, managing the smallest of small interactions. An effective leader is able to notice and interrupt negative behavior patterns before they get a full head of steam. This does not come easy to visionary people. Encouraging useful interactions is a little known skill that can make or break a leader. Pressuring vs. Motivating Others

One of the great, novel things about ants is that there is little if any pressure to overthrow the established ruler and there does not seem to be a lot of acting out among the children. How different we humans are. (Freud made a big deal of our tendency to over throw Dad and his stand-ins.) But with ants the genetic commonality is so strong that one ruler is as good as another. In fact, another additional finding is the rulers really do not rule. They just breed a few more workers. Like humans who have their morning business meetings to assign tasks for the day, ants gather (in no one’s name, that we know of) and bump their antenna into one another to figure out, among other things, who is taking out the garbage for the day, who is on guard duty, who has to take that long dusty road out to explore for food, and who gets to stay home and do the heavy lifting. Then there is the whole thing about digging and who needs more tunnels. Sometimes, an ant’s functional role is determined based on its structure. In some colonies, the ants have different shaped heads that determine their skills and talents; but if the body is not differentiated, (there is that word again) the colony itself selects the ant’s functional role. Not a bad system. And it has worked for gazillions of years.

It may be that families and organizations operate somewhat like this in terms of assigning roles. No one says you have to be the smart one, the responsible one, the dumb one or the funny one, but there are pressures and people do accept roles. Psychologists are not yet sure how to assign weight to the variables involved in determining roles. We can name the variables: genes, temperament and sibling position (of the individual, the parents and the grandparents). A big one is emotional intelligence. If you are looking for leaders you want to know how well an individual has stood his or her ground in relationships by using principles. Then there is negative intensity and the amount of free-floating anxiety and worry in the family system. We know it has to be a combination of many factors that results in a functional role being assigned to an individual; we just don’t know how important one variable is compared to another.  

Obviously, it’s not like the mom and dad stay up at night trying to figure all this out and then in the morning decide who will be “it” for the day. It’s a far more subtle blend of unconscious and automatic processes. As I said, there is some influence from the genes, some from people bumping into one another, and some willingness or lack of willingness to appreciate and participate in the family’s emotional system. All of these factors influence who fits with whom and who plays what role. And let us not leave out the fact that there is a great deal of randomness in any emergent behavior that a system produces. Nor do we want to ignore the needs of society or the state of the social system at the time.  The over riding point is that the system pressures the individual and the individual can pressure the system; therefore, the increasing need to become more “relationship savvy.”  

Three Nuggets of Wisdom Found in Stories

Let’s pause for a minute and review what we have learned so far about stories and learning about ourselves.

(1) The human brain is receptive to stories as a way to see hidden processes. Relationship blinders (stress, too much information, information that does not compute, etc.) can prevent us from questioning or noticing what goes on between people.

(2) Real life examples show us the subtle ways that useful networks are built and then managed by a person who is at the same time separate and secure, and systems-wise.

(3) Experience helps us understand relationships, and stories add to our knowledge base of what is unfolding in any relationship setting. Armed with both, we will be able to take note of what is happening and, using only a very few clues, decide what to do about the pattern that is unfolding. 

Solomon Asch – Blind Spots, Ants and Love A lie always has a certain amount of weight for those who wish to believe it.  E. W. Rice 

Now, back to the threads of my thesis:

In 1951, social psychologist Solomon Asch devised an experiment to examine if pressure from other people could affect one’s decision-making and or/perceptions. He discovered, to his surprise and chagrin, that about one-third of people can be influenced by the group to give the wrong answer. I, on the other hand, wonder if perhaps it should be profoundly reassuring to know that only one-third of the subjects were willing to change their answers to match the group’s answers. After all, as we have seen, group pressure can be powerful.

Here is how the test went: A student signs up for a psychology experiment, and others arrive whom he assumes are also students, but who in reality are actors. The actors’ behavior has been carefully programmed. Two cards are placed in front of the subjects; the one on the left has one vertical line, while the one on the right has three lines of varying length. (See BOOK.)

The experimenter then asks each participant, one at a time, to choose which of the three lines on the right-hand card match the length of the line on the left-hand card. This process is repeated several times with different cards.

On some occasions, the other “subjects” unanimously chose the wrong line. When this happened, it was clear to the real student that the others were wrong, even though they had all given the same answer. What would you do? Would you go along with the majority opinion, or would you stick to your guns and trust your own eyes?

To Asch’s surprise, 37 of the 50 subjects went along with the majority at least once, and 14 of them did so on more than six of the 12 trials. When faced with a unanimous wrong answer by the other group members, the average subject conformed on four of the 12 trials.

Asch was disturbed by these results: “The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black. This is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct.” (From The Legacy of Solomon Asch: Essays in Cognition and Social Psychology by Irvin Rock.)

Is this a finding we should worry about if we care about democracy? Probably. And it makes it all the more urgent that we learn how and why individuals emerge from their families with a strong emotional backbone, resistant to such pressure. People who are less likely to be swayed by the group, and who cannot be pressured to deny their own perceptions or values, are to be highly regarded. But the truth is, they may not be very popular with the group itself.

You expect that some promising thing will come, as long as you follow
a certain way. But there is no certain way that exists permanently.
There is no way set up for us. Moment after moment we have to find our
own way. Some idea of perfection, or some perfect way which is set up
by someone else, is not the true way for us.
Each of us must make his own true way, and when we do, that way will
express the universal way. This is the mystery. –Shunryo Suzuki 

Why isn’t it easy to be with people we admire and love? It should be easy, right? Well, if your experience is that it’s not, join the human race. We are social creatures, forced to learn again and again how to control our big, over-programmed, emotionally reactive brains. Our guts may be telling us to get into a nice agreeable lovelock and then something does not seem quiet right and we say no.  Yes, we can and do react to the smallest signal and can run for cover. Sometimes this turns out to be the wise thing to do. (Some have the nerve to say we are so reactive, because we need to be fast-changing critters in an uncertain environment!)

Others argue that our deeper emotions run the show, that it takes too long for our rational heads to have anything useful to say.  Are we modern creatures stuck with ancient programs, over-responding with a fight-or-flight strategy at the honk of a horn or the look on a loved one’s face? The truth is, we can choose how to respond every day by becoming more aware and slowing down.  The choices are not simple. For those who do not want to spend the time and energy needed to become more mindful the choice is made, stay on automatic pilot.  For others the choice is to prepare ahead of time and stay tuned into being in the present so as to learn as the environment changes. And change it will, from moment to moment, year to year, from one generation to the next.  

This brings us to a good spot to consider patterns of behavior “inherited” from our past. Each of us is sensitive to past mistakes; therefore, the tendency is to avoid and/or compensate for errors. It’s a kind of a miracle, given all this sensitivity, that any degree of freedom is possible, even with a disciplined effort. How can we make free will work if emotional sensitivity is at play? 

For one thing, being sensitive helps us to imitate. If you are interested in being a leader, you might watch and learn from other leaders you admire. If you want to be a great athlete, you will no doubt pay close attention to the outstanding players in your sport. But how many of us understand that choosing to imitate or reject behavior patterns from the past plays a big part in how we behave with those near and dear to us today? 

For example, as children we were forced, without thinking, to pay attention to our parents’ marriages, how they behaved and how they reacted to each other. So it’s hard to know just how much of our time spent snuggled up with a loved one today is part of the reality of the moment, and how much is driven (or tainted) by our sensitivity to our past, to our parents’ behavior.

In all important relationships, we are sensitive to approval and to rejection. At work, there is status anxiety—how much respect do we have from the group? At home, we want love and approval from family members and are sensitive to just how much of both are directed toward us. As leaders, it is important to be able to distinguish which sensitivities are past-based and which are true to the moment. 

see the rest of this chapter in THE BOOK…