d. The Acquisition of Knowledge

The Acquisition of Knowledge

The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) remarked on our inability to find a satisfactory criterion for knowledge. I will, therefore, define it as information held in peoples’ minds, which may be considered true or false, and which includes our beliefs and attitudes. “Knowledge”, “beliefs” and “attitudes” are essentially different words used to describe mental information in different contexts. This information, in combination with our reasoning processes and our needs, determines our behaviour.


The knowledge of an individual is acquired in two main ways: from observation of the world around us and by receipt from others. All children are born with inherited predispositions but no knowledge. If a child had to work out for itself how to survive in its environment, then it would frequently make mistakes and might come to an unhappy end. Parents and other members of a child’s community will therefore provide an initial education which gives the child a working understanding of its environment.

Our early schemata are established in this way. However, as explained in the previous blog, information provided by others may have been distorted by their “effort after meaning”, contain errors of reasoning, and may even be lies. We accept as true any information which does not contradict our existing schemata. Failing that, we would acquire no new knowledge. Much of the information that young children receive from others falls into that category. Once established, the early schemata of the child will be resistant to change. As Aristotle famously said, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man”. Change can occur, however, if sufficient contradictions accumulate. Thus, our schemata alter in fits and starts. There is a period of rapid change followed by a period of quiescence in which the schema is resistant to change. In cases involving a significant change of worldview, this can be accompanied by an emotional crisis similar to grief at the loss of a loved one. Such crises can last for several years while the young adult goes through the stages of denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. The importance of providing children with reliable knowledge cannot be understated, therefore.

Socialisation or Social Learning

Social rules are necessary if society is to co-operate successfully for the benefit of its members. If we follow them then we will function successfully in our society, contribute to its success and, thus, prosper personally. Again, it is difficult for the child to work out these social rules for itself and, thus, parents and other teachers will provide an initial working education based on the culture of the society, i.e., its norms, values, beliefs and symbols.

During the 1950s psychologists developed the theory that we now know as Social Learning Theory. In summary, this theory states that some beliefs and strategies are formed in the following way:

  1. Identification with role models. Role models are usually parents, teachers, peers or people like oneself, and people seen as having advantages such as popularity, wealth, or fame.
  2. This identification leads to imitation behaviour and/or learning through observation. In the latter, behaviours may not necessarily be imitated immediately but may simply be remembered as strategies which can be used in later life. Seeing that a strategy adopted by another person successfully satisfies their needs will provide what is known as vicarious reinforcement and will condition a strategy even when it is not being performed by the person learning it. For example, if a colleague at the office always works through their lunch break and ultimately receives a promotion, then you may unconsciously adopt the same strategy in your next job.
  3. Imitation behaviour is either positively or negatively reinforced by other members of society depending on their beliefs about what is acceptable or unacceptable. These beliefs about social behaviour are referred to as norms. It may, for example, be the norm in your office to work through the lunch break. Through conditioning, norms become internalised or accepted as one’s own, and can be held unconsciously. Thus, the strategies underlying behaviour become conditioned or extinguished through social reinforcement. Highly conditioned beliefs about social behaviour form the conscience, a set of beliefs governing behaviour which cause psychological distress when our behaviour is contrary to them. For example, a socialised person will feel guilty if he steals.

In my next post, I will return to schemata, paradigms, and memes and describe the features that they have in common.

c. Schemata, Memes and Paradigms (1)

Schemata, Memes, and Paradigms (1)

All knowledge and belief, whether true or false, can be regarded as information. Treating it in this way removes any preconceived ideas or value judgements and enables us to consider it more objectively. Any place where information is held, for example in the mind of an individual or in a book, can be regarded as a medium of information. Again, this removes any preconceptions or value judgements.

Knowledge can be held by an individual in a schema (pl. schemata), by a group in a paradigm, or by a society in a memeplex. These three theories are discussed below.

Knowledge of the individual – Schemata

According to the British psychologist, F. C. Bartlett (1886 – 1969) the knowledge of an individual is held in schemata. These are mental structures each of which organises items of information about some aspect of the world and the relationships between them.

Knowledge, including ideas, beliefs, and values, must be remembered but Bartlett showed that the way in which we do so is affected by information that we already hold. So that new information is more consistent with our existing schemata we may omit anything thought to be irrelevant, alter details, shift emphasis, include rationalisations, and make cultural alterations. Bartlett referred to this process as “effort after meaning”. Consistency of the information in our schemata is important to us. If we are unable to reconcile two contradictory items then we experience cognitive dissonance, a form of psychological stress. When this occurs, we do all that we can to resolve the contradiction and reduce our discomfort. For example, we may simply forget information which contradicts that already in our schemata.

The reason we modify information in this way is thought to be the mental effort involved in revising our schemata. According to the Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb, memory is a biological process involving growth or metabolic change in our neurons which, of course, requires both time and energy. Schemata are therefore resistant to change.

The American psychologist Jerome Bruner, (1915 – 2016), postulated that individuals hold information in three ways: enactively, as a recollection of muscle actions; iconically, in the form of visual, aural, tactile, taste or olfactory images; or symbolically, using symbols such as words to represent physical entities and the relationships between them. Information stored enactively can be communicated to others through training, imagery and spoken or written instruction, but this is a lengthly process. Information stored iconically can be communicated by the production of images, sounds, scents, etc., for example by painting, but this too is a lengthly process. Only information stored symbolically can be communicated relatively quickly and accurately. Hence our dependence on natural languages and formal languages, such as mathematics, for communication.

Knowledge of a Society – Memes

In common parlance, the word “meme” describes a visual image circulating on the internet. However, the term was originally coined by Richard Dawkins, in his book “The Selfish Gene”, to describe a cultural idea, belief or symbol that can be transmitted from one individual to another through language, gesture, ritual, imitation, etc. Memes have a similar role to genes in biological evolution and are thought to be the basis of cultural evolution. They can mutate and their propagation is dependent on whether they improve the likelihood of a culture’s survival and reproduction.

Memes form clusters known as memeplexes which are the basis of a culture, political ideology, or religious dogma. Because of this, individual memes can “hitch a ride” on a broader and more successful memeplex. For example, homophobia might form part of a more generally acceptable system of religious beliefs and practices.

Memes are resistant to change in the same way as schemata. For the individuals that hold them, not only are biological changes in the brain required but negotiation and conflict with others may also be involved.

Knowledge of a Group – Paradigms

An example of a memeplex is a scientific paradigm. This is a generally accepted set of scientific beliefs and practices which prevail at a particular time. Major changes to a paradigm are known as a paradigm shift. In his book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, the American physicist and philosopher, Thomas Kuhn, describes a paradigm shift as following four stages:

  1. Normal Science. A dominant paradigm exists and is universally accepted. However, as time progresses, scientists encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by it.
  2. Extraordinary research. When sufficient anomalies emerge and cast doubt on the veracity of the paradigm a state of crisis results. Research of an exploratory nature is then carried out and new theories and experiments are produced to explain the anomalies.
  3. Adoption of a new paradigm. Competing new paradigms form and gain followers. However, they also gain detractors who are committed to the original. Eventually, a single new paradigm may gain acceptance if it predicts phenomena more successfully than the original.
  4. Aftermath of the scientific revolution. The new paradigm becomes institutionalised and dominant but the revolutionary process, which is not usually recorded, becomes forgotten.

In my next post, I will describe how we acquire new knowledge before later discussing the features that schemata, memes and paradigms have in common.

b. Consciousness


The English philosopher, John Locke, (1632 – 1704) described consciousness as “the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind”. He was, of course, a man of his age and, today, we would understand this definition to include all genders and some animals. More recently, Locke’s definition has been extended to include awareness of the external world but, unfortunately, this is a red herring. Even bacteria respond to stimuli in the external world and, so, are aware of it. However, we would not regard them as being conscious. Furthermore, the unconscious human mind is aware of the external world, which is why, for example, a noise will wake us from sleep. Finally, it is possible for a human being to be conscious in the complete absence of external stimuli. Locke’s original definition seems more apt, therefore.

As mentioned in the previous article, consciousness is probably an emergent property of our complex brains and caused by feedback loops. A highly simplified model of the human mind might be:

These “functions” and the concepts of the “conscious and unconscious mind” do not, of course, refer to specific regions of the brain, but rather to processes that it follows.

We perceive the consequences of our actual behaviour with our senses, and this provides external feedback. For example, when driving a car, we continuously observe our position in the road and correct it when necessary. With sufficient practice, this can be done almost unconsciously. However, we can also “know” proposed behaviour before we act. For example, we can “hear” words that we might speak before saying them, “hear” music that we might play without playing it and “see” actions that we might take before taking them. Sensory processing functions are, therefore, connected to and aware of behaviour processing functions. Awareness of our own minds and awareness of the external world can be similar because both are processed by the same sensory processing functions. This creates the potential for feedback, and it is this feedback which, in the author’s view, leads to the emergence of consciousness.

This is supported by Francis Crick and Christof Koch who, in their paper “A Framework for Consciousness”, note that there is substantial evidence that a top-down flow of neural activity from the frontal cortex, which governs behaviour, to the sensory areas, is more predictive of conscious awareness than the reverse, bottom-up flow. This top-down flow is labelled “internal feedback” in the diagram above.

Experiments carried out, in the 1970s by the American neuroscientist, Benjamin Libet (1916 – 2007), provide further support for this model. Libet found that unconscious electrical processes in the brain preceded the conscious decision to perform an act. Significantly, however, he also found that the conscious mind could veto those decisions.

Such internal feedback loops have several evolutionary advantages:

  1. They allow us to review the likely consequences of potential behaviour before engaging in it. For example, in the case of language, the internal oral/aural feedback loop enables us to review and refine the information we would communicate, and assess its potential impact on any recipients. The cognitive processing and decision-making function passes a form of words to the behaviour processing function. The sensory processing function hears these words internally. It then passes them back to the cognitive processing function, which reviews them from the standpoint of the recipient. In effect, this is a form of empathy, one of the skills that we have as social animals.
  2. The logical rules that we have learnt and that the cognitive processing function employs in arriving at its conclusions are reflected in the structure of spoken language, and vice versa. This enables us to pass these rules on subliminally.
  3. Short term memory can be regarded as residing in the conscious mind, i.e., in the feedback loop. Long-term memory, on the other hand, resides in the unconscious mind and is strongly linked to the cognitive processing function. Internal feedback enables us to internally “rehearse” a wide range of information and behaviour which, in turn, serves to reinforce long-term memory..
  4. In a feedback loop, the emergent property regulates the components. Thus, the loop which causes consciousness may regulate the mind and enable us to concentrate on specific problems. This includes regulation of the unconscious mind but, as we are unaware of this, it cannot be regarded as “conscious regulation of the unconscious”.
  5. When we relax our conscious efforts, the unconscious mind operates more freely and, for example, solutions to problems that we have been working on come more readily.
  6. Finally, it can offer a degree of control over intuitive behaviour, providing we think before we act.

There is a question over where consciousness resides in the brain. I am of the view that it resides in a large part of it. In fact, I would go as far as to say that parts of the brain can operate either consciously or unconsciously depending on how the various parts are interacting with one another. The most notable evidence is the fact that our unconscious minds are not as good at producing ideas when, consciously, we are very heavily focussed on a problem. We must let go of conscious thought to allow unconsciously generated thoughts to flow and, very often, it seems that this is necessary to solve a problem.

Where feedback loops come in is the way in which parts of the brain interact with one another. Going back to the analogy of a microphone in front of a loudspeaker, it cannot be said that the howl it produces lies in any one part of the system. Yes, there is a loud sound in the air between the microphone and the speaker. However, there is an equally strong electrical current within the microphone, amplifier, and loudspeaker. In a way, the whole system can be said to be howling. This is an emergent property of the system and the way that its parts interact and is analogous to consciousness. However, if we turn down the volume control on the amplifier, the emergent property disappears and the whole system becomes quiescent – both the sound and the electrical currents. This is analogous to unconsciousness.

The audio analogy cannot be taken too far, however. Firstly, because whatever happens in the brain is probably far more complex. Secondly, unlike the audio system, which is either howling or not, we appear to experience degrees of consciousness and unconsciousness.

It is certainly the case that some parts of the brain only act unconsciously. For example, even when conscious, we are not aware of what takes place in the cognitive processing and decision-making function. It is a part of the unconscious mind. Rather, we are only aware of how the decisions that it passes to the behaviour processing function are interpreted. Knowing the information on which these decisions are based we can, to a limited extent, deduce the processes behind them. However, this is not the same as being consciously aware of them. Such deductions can be coloured by our needs and are, therefore, often a rationalization of our true decision-making process.

When we are awake, the feedback loops are on, and we are conscious. While we are asleep, they are off, and we are unconscious. However, unlike the audio analogy, which is either howling or not, we experience degrees of consciousness and unconsciousness. Consciousness is at its strongest when we are concentrating on a problem and at its weakest when we are in the depths of sleep. Neither state prevents the cognitive processing function, from receiving input from the sensory processing functions. Nor does it prevent it from passing instructions to the behaviour processing functions. We are unconsciously aware of the external world and can wake or give it our conscious attention when necessary. We can also sleepwalk and act on “autopilot”. This implies that our level of consciousness is regulated by communication between the behaviour processing functions and the sensory processing functions, which is consistent with Crick and Koch’s findings. Notably, parts of the prefrontal cortex are deactivated during sleep. However, this does not necessarily mean that they are where consciousness resides. Rather it may only mean that they are analogous to the volume control and regulate the feedback loops. In the absence of regulation by consciousness, the cognitive processing function behaves more freely. We will, for example, dream. When we wake, we catch the tail end of dreams because that is what has been fed by the cognitive processing function to our behaviour processing functions while we slept. However, as soon as consciousness returns it regulates the cognitive processing function, and so, such dreams may become extinguished.

If this hypothesis is correct, then it has the following implications:

  1. Animals that use tools or simple forms of communication may be conscious.
  2. The strength of human consciousness must surely vary from individual to individual.
  3. We may be able to strengthen our conscious skills by practicing activities which require a high level of concentration.
  4. Due to its advantages, greater consciousness may still be evolving in humans and other creatures.
  5. Using similar feedback processes in machines of sufficient complexity, it might theoretically be possible to replicate consciousness.
  6. We can take in information or knowledge subliminally, i.e., without being consciously aware of it. This can occur when our consciousness is at a low level, when it is distracted by more pressing concerns, or when the information does not appear to require a response. Such knowledge can also be reinforced subliminally through repetition. It can then affect our beliefs and, also, our behaviour when faced with a relevant situation.

Cognitive processing relies, of course, on knowledge. In my next post I will, therefore, discuss the nature of our knowledge.

a. Feedback Loops and Emergent Properties

Feedback Loops and Emergent Properties


Human needs motivate our actions and satisfiers are the goals that we seek to achieve. The knowledge that we hold affects our perception of these needs and of potential satisfiers. In this series of articles, I will discuss the nature of knowledge and how we acquire it.

Firstly, however, I would like to discuss consciousness. How sometimes we know what we know, and how sometimes we do not. Consciousness is a hotly debated subject and there is no consensus on how it came to exist. Some take the view that it is a divine gift, others that it is the very fabric of the universe, yet others that it is an emergent property of our complex brains. There is no proof for any of these, but the last best fits my personal knowledge and experience. So, this is what I will describe, beginning, in this article, with feedback loops and emergent properties. In the next article, I will describe how, in my view, these processes lead to consciousness.

Feedback Loops

A variable characteristic is a feature of objects or events to which a value can be applied. For example, all mountains have a height above sea level, but the height of Mount Everest is 8848 metres whilst that of Mont Blanc is 4808 metres. Feedback loops are circular chains of causally related objects or events, each with some variable characteristic.

In a feedback loop, a change in a variable characteristic of an object or event, the cause, alters a variable characteristic of another, the effect. In turn, the latter affects a variable characteristic of a third and so on. For example, A may cause an increase in B which in turn causes an increase in C, which in turn causes an increase in A. The classic example is a microphone placed in front of a loudspeaker. The microphone picks up a small sound which is then amplified and emitted more loudly by the loudspeaker. This in turn is picked up by the microphone, amplified again and emitted yet more loudly. This process continues until the system is emitting a deafening howl at its maximum volume.

This is an example of a positive feedback loop, i.e., one in which the variable characteristic of a component increases until the maximum capacity of the system is reached. Negative feedback loops also exist. In the latter case, rather than an increase in one component causing an increase in another, it causes a decrease and, as the circular chain of causation is acted out, the latter steadily diminishes until it is extinguished or becomes zero.

Finally, the combination of a positive feedback loop and a negative feedback loop can result in a system which stabilises the variable characteristic of a component at a particular value. If it increases above that value, the negative feedback loop reduces it and if it falls below that value the positive feedback loop increases it.

In their simplest form, feedback loops are often used in machinery. The image below shows how the governor of a steam engine keeps it operating at a constant speed. Click the link for a more detailed explanation.


In the natural world, feedback loops can be extremely complex and difficult to identify. A combination of several causes may be necessary for an effect to occur. For example, both an increase in A and a decrease in B may be necessary to cause an increase in D. Furthermore, the absence of an inhibitor C may also be required. In this more complex form, feedback loops proliferate in individuals, society, and the natural environment, where they play a major role in determining the behaviour of these systems.

Emergent Properties

An emergent property is a property of a system which is not held by its individual parts. Such emergent properties are probably caused by feedback loops. For example, it is clear that the deafening howl that the microphone, amplifier and loudspeaker produce is an emergent property of the system. None of these components can produce this effect on their own. Life is a collection of systems of increasing complexity, e.g., cells, multi-cellular organisms, societies of organisms and eco-systems. As the level of complexity increases it can be expected that feedback loops will occur and that system properties will emerge.

In my next article I will discuss the way that feedback loops help to explain the conscious and unconscious aspects of our minds.

i. Obstacles to Wellbeing in the West

Obstacles to Wellbeing in the West

A healthy society is one which provides for the wellbeing of all its members. It is one which enables its members to strive to satisfy their needs and which does not put obstacles in their way. In practice, this means equitable access to resources and protection from the anti-social needs of others. However, society is rarely, if ever, perfect and some examples of the difficulties we currently face in the West are described below.

In early, small scale societies relationships were complex. Between each pair of individuals there were several types of relationship and the quality of each had to be balanced with the quality of others. This type of society is the one in which we have evolved to live. In modern society, relationships between individuals often serve a single, relatively simple purpose and people learn to act out a role.

Furthermore, even these relationships are being replaced by technology, and we are beginning to interact either with, or via machines to a significant extent. Indeed, the difficulties involved in learning successful social interaction and in building our social capital have not been helped by the comparatively recent intervention of technology and commerce in our social lives. Social media have communication benefits, but have also led to more distant, impersonal social connections, to online bullying, grooming and exploitation, to commercial opportunities, the spread of fake news, the spread of conspiracy theories, and pressure to conform to fast changing fashions.

The pressure of producing and consuming in an economy which relies on constant growth means that the time available for more complex interaction with family, children, and friends is much reduced. Thus, we are no longer interacting with one another in the way that we have evolved to do. Our social nature is not being satisfied, and we are suffering a poverty of relatedness needs.

Security in the satisfaction of our needs involves an accumulation of material capital, for example the deposit for a home. However, several factors currently conspire against this: the ever-growing wage gap; insecurity of employment; the high cost of purchasing a home; the availability of cheap credit; the pressure to accept it; social and advertising pressures to purchase consumer products; and so on. These are all consequences of consumer-capitalism which, because of its in-built reliance on economic growth, has become exploitative and is approaching the limits of sustainability. The Office of National Statistics Survey reports that “An increasing proportion of young people aged 16 to 24 years in the UK reported that they were finding it difficult or very difficult to get by financially.” In 2016/17 this was 6%. In 2017/18 it had increased to 9%. In particular, “the increase was significant among young men of this age.”

In his book “Cultural Evolution”, Ronald Inglehart says that, in a post-industrial culture, we place greater emphasis on the growth need of self-expression, and data from the World Values Survey bears this out. Culture affects what we believe our growth needs to be and how we go about satisfying them. However, our culture is often steered by royal, aristocratic, political, religious, or commercial elites in their own interest, rather than in that of the general population.

Some have argued that the free-market, consumer economy in the West was brought about by elites as a reaction to a decline in their relative wealth after the two world wars. Again, the statistics bear this out. The documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis also provides convincing evidence that the present emphasis on individuality has been steered, by commercial elites and consultant psychologists, into self-expression through consumption. The concept of lifestyle has been promoted, primarily via advertising, and we have been encouraged to see it as a way of expressing our individuality.

If a need is satisfied, then it no longer motivates us. So, to persuade us to buy products, advertising offers false promises. It is often suggested, incorrectly, that a product will satisfy our needs for  relatedness, belonging, and self-esteem. Furthermore, it does so in a subliminal manner, often not recognized by the conscious mind.

The involvement of commerce in the way we make our social connections adds an extra layer of complexity and difficulty to the satisfaction of our relatedness needs. For example, social media influencers are, essentially, engaging in lifestyle-based advertising and earn their living by promoting products. However, they are also role models in terms of behaviour, social status, and appearance. Most cosmetics, for example, are now sold to the 20 to 23 age group, which, ironically, is when the majority of us are physically at our most attractive. There is also a growing tendency for men to use cosmetics.

Whilst people imagine that they are satisfying their needs for individuality, self-esteem and belonging in the way they consume products and services, this is merely a pseudo-satisfier. It is unsurprising, therefore, that mental ill-health is becoming a significant concern, particularly among the younger generations. The survey by the UK’s Office of National Statistics also found that:

  • “Several measures of personal well-being of young women aged 20 to 24 years in the UK have declined in March 2020 from five years previously”.
  • There was “a fall in the percentage of young women in this age group reporting very high life satisfaction and happiness, and very low anxiety.”
  • “There is evidence of increasing anxiety and depression among young women aged 16 to 24 years”. In 2016/17, 26% reported some evidence of depression or anxiety . In 2017/18 this increased to 31%.
  • “There was a decline in young people’s satisfaction with their health …”. In 2016/17, 59% of those aged 16 to 24 years said they were mostly or completely satisfied with their health. In 2017/18, this fell to 52%.
  • “Young people aged 16 to 24 years” … “may also be feeling more disconnected from their communities”. In 2014/15, 57% agreed or strongly agreed that they felt a sense of belonging to their neighbourhood. In 2017/18, this fell to 48%.

To truly satisfy our need for individuality, it is necessary to build up a resistance to these advertising pressures. We can learn to resist some of them, but others are beyond our individual control. As Mark Carney, a past governor of the Bank of England,  put it in his 2020, BBC Reith Lectures, the economy is driving society’s values and not vice versa. He argues that we now need a post-consumer economy which delivers on society’s values. That is, what society holds to be good, rather than what has a monetary value. However, he also believes that this cannot be left to free markets, which tend to follow the same path until a bubble bursts. One way in which the latter can occur is through the over-exploitation and wastage of resources and it is quite likely that we have now begun to see the effects of this. He argues, therefore, that  government intervention is needed to steer markets in the appropriate direction.

Unfortunately, politics has taken a lesson from commerce and is beginning to operate in a similar way, employing psychologists and, with their advice and insights, also exploiting our needs.

h. Resources, Poverty and Wellbeing

Resources, Poverty and Wellbeing

We use resources to create satisfiers. Resources include, for example, time, physical effort, mental effort, emotional resources, and material resources or property. A key feature of resources is that they become depleted with use. Knowledge is not a resource in this sense, however, because it does not become depleted.

Property is the resource that an individual or group of people hold to satisfy their needs and which they will defend. Ownership attaches to property, it is associated with a particular individual or group, and only they have the right to use it. It is human nature to hold property and respect for ownership must be reciprocal if ownership is to exist.

An inability to satisfy one’s needs due to a lack of adequate resources or other obstacles can be described as poverty. Normally, due to its prevalence, this term applies to an inability to satisfy our existence needs. However, it can also be used to describe an inability to satisfy other needs. It can be a poverty of existence and procreation needs, for example an inability to feed or house oneself, a poverty of relatedness needs, for example an absence of kin and other people with whom to form relationships, or a poverty of growth needs, e.g., an inability to develop one’s talents and skills.

The term “wellbeing” is commonly used in the medical profession as an indicator of physical and psychological health. Here, however, it is given a broader meaning, i.e., the extent to which the needs of an individual or population are satisfied and, of course, the extent to which contra-needs are not.

Wellbeing is far more than “something that it is nice to have”. It affects the way in which we behave as individuals and the success or failure of a society. There are positive and negative feedback loops between individuals and society. If society, which can be regarded as a satisfier, provides wellbeing then individuals will support it, will be able to pursue their needs and will be better able to contribute to that society. This is a positive feedback loop. Conversely, if society becomes a contra-satisfier, for example when a minority exploit the majority, then the latter will become alienated, engage in conflict and the society will fail. This is a negative feedback loop.

Different cultures provide for the needs of their population in different ways, and their success in doing so varies. It is possible to evaluate a culture from the way it uses the available resources to satisfy the needs of its population and others with whom it interacts. In general, resources satisfy the wellbeing of the population most efficiently if they are used in an egalitarian manner. That is not to say that every resource should be apportioned equally. As individuals ascend the tree of needs their needs begin to differ from those of others, and so too do the resources required to satisfy them. Thus, equitable sharing is related to needs satisfied rather than the resources applied.

Numerous attempts have been made to measure the wellbeing of populations: the Gini Index, a measure of the income distribution of a country’s residents and thought to be a good indicator of the level of inequality; Bhutan’s measure of Gross National Happiness; the OECD’s Better Life Index; the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW); subjective wellbeing (SWB); and so on. In the author’s view, however, it may be possible to measure an individual’s wellbeing in terms of the value they place on the resources available to satisfy their needs. For example, if they place a high value on personal time or money then this implies that they have insufficient to satisfy their needs. All these approaches have their flaws and can be criticised. I do not propose to look at them in detail, therefore. I merely wish to establish the principle that wellbeing can be measured, and serious attempts are being made to do so.

g. Anti-social Needs and Behaviour

Anti-social Needs & Behaviour

Our normal needs have an evolutionary basis and are those which, in the past, best enabled us to survive and procreate. They are the result of order brought about by life’s struggle against entropy and can be likened to the sandcastle described in my first article “Schrodinger’s Other Paradox”. They have a basis in both genetic and cultural evolution.

Unfortunately, due to the same evolutionary processes, some individuals have anti-social needs which cause behaviour that is a contra-satisfier resulting in harm to others. Note that I do not regard simple differences of opinion or personality as being anti-social. Nor do I regard outrage or disapproval as a harm. There must be a genuine impact on the contra-needs of others. Anti-social needs are the inevitable effect of entropy both on society and on the human genome, and can take many forms, most of which are harmful. Their existence can be likened to the many ways in which the sandcastle can begin to decay into a random heap of sand.

In practice, both normal needs, anti-social needs, and the behaviour they cause are defined by laws, norms, and consensus. These differ from nation to nation, culture to culture, and time to time. Generally, however, crime is subject to laws and punishment by the state, for example, imprisonment for theft. Violation of moral and religious codes has been regarded as punishable by God. Historically, for example, hell has been the ultimate fate of sinners. In some highly religious societies, the state can also intervene and, for example, impose punishment for blasphemy. Violation of social norms is punishable by the community by, for example, shunning. However, acts that cause mental stress or psychological damage to the victim often receive no censure.

Our contra-needs, or those harms that we wish to avoid, also have an evolutionary basis and are largely universal. Any behaviour which impinges on them will, therefore, be regarded by the recipient as unacceptable. If social controls favour normal needs, then the tendency will be towards orderly and healthy societies. However, if religious dogmas, political ideologies, corruption, or any combination of the three gain undue influence, especially control of the state, then incompatibilities can occur. This results in a society which can only be sustained through force, coercion, and repression.

Although normal needs are relatively universal and based on what has best enabled human beings to survive and procreate, disorder can occur in infinite ways. The causes of anti-social needs are, therefore, boundless. Examples include heredity, biological disfunction, drugs, upbringing, poverty, social, political, and economic factors, and so on. Criminologists recognise, for example, that the causes of crime are unique to each individual and that a combination of several factors may be in play.

It is impossible, therefore, to categorise anti-social needs. Furthermore, because an actor with anti-social needs will usually disguise them to avoid social controls, and will not be forthcoming with researchers, it is also extremely difficult to assess the priority that he or she gives to them and to anticipate when anti-social behaviour will occur.

Anti-social needs do, however, lie on a scale of type, which can vary from extreme psychological disorder, to exaggerated normal needs. Once a need is adequately satisfied, we usually move on to the satisfaction of others. However, for a variety of reasons, such as social influences, force of habit, or personality traits, it is possible to become trapped in the satisfaction of a particular need, to the extent that it is indulged in to harmful excess. For example, the pursuit of excessive wealth, power, or celebrity.

Anti-social needs also lie on a scale of harmful intent. At one extreme lie psychopathy, paedophilia, narcissism, etc., where the need is only satisfied by deliberately causing harm to others. At the other extreme lie antisocial behaviour and Schadenfreude or pleasure at the misfortune of others. Anti-social behaviour, as we presently understand it, is inconsiderate behaviour. It incudes, for example, vandalism, graffiti, littering, and dumping rubbish.

Finally, anti-social needs lie on a scale of effect which depends on the priority given by the victim to the relevant contra-need. Death, for example, would be high in the list of a victim’s contra-needs.

Life is a struggle against entropy, and it is inevitable, therefore, that we will always be faced with anti-social needs. However, this does not mean that we should just accept them. They are entropic in nature, and we are compelled by evolution to fight against them.

Most criminologists recognise that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. It is also the case that people are attracted to institutions, organisations, and individuals who they feel will satisfy their needs. Knowing this, risk assessment, deterrence, prevention, and mitigation, based on the priority of the relevant contra-needs and the number of people affected, could be a practical approach. This would, for example, involve assessing the risk of an institution being steered in a harmful direction, and taking measures to reduce the risk that an individual with relevant anti-social needs can take its reins.

f. Sense, Order and Meaning

Sense, Order and Meaning

Among our growth needs are two which drive us to make sense of the world. They are the need to perceive order and the need for meaning. Meaning is of two types: everyday meaning, for example that imparted by speech or text, and existential meaning, or why we exist. It is my own understanding of the latter, developed over several decades, that I will discuss here.

Perceiving order in the world helps us to make sense of it. The universe follows physical laws, and, through curiosity, investigation, and reason, we can discern the order that these laws impart. This enables us to make successful decisions when faced with a threat or opportunity. On the other hand, if we cannot perceive order, then this increases our vulnerability. However, we often see order as being imbued by something other than physical laws. For example, rhino horn has been thought to provide sexual potency because of its shape and the strength of the rhinoceros.

Meaning is a different concept to order. To find meaning would be to understand the purpose of the world and our part in it. The search for meaning has a side effect in that it helps us to discover order and, so, to survive and procreate. However, whilst meaning is a need, and we can be strongly motivated to search for it, meaninglessness is an existential given or unavoidable contra-need. In other words, we can never truly find objective meaning because, in practice, the universe appears to have none. Meaning is, therefore, entirely subjective, and personal. Finding subjective meaning involves much effort, but ultimately it can be highly rewarding. On the other hand, effort to seek objective meaning, will rapidly run up against the limits of our knowledge and abilities. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it can lead to frustration, distress, and a readiness to accept “wishful beliefs”. Such beliefs are often “off the shelf” and include a super-natural or super-human element. Because they may be emotionally satisfying and superficially appear to fit the facts, they are often inadequately criticized. This can open us up to potential exploitation by their authors.

According to the British Psychologist, Frederic Bartlett, to understand the world we create schemata or mental models. This is as true in the search for meaning as it is in more practical matters. Our schemata determine the way in which we understand meaning and perceive order. Because of the mental effort involved, once a schema is established, it is resistant to change. We are more likely to remember information that is consistent with our schemata and less likely to remember, or may even modify, information that contradicts them. This process is sometimes referred to as “effort after meaning”.

Schemata are established in childhood by our parents and other close adults. They can include erroneous or “wishful” beliefs. For example, meaning can be seen to be something other than personal and subjective arising, for example, from a supernatural source. Schemata grow throughout our lives, becoming ever more complex. Although resistant to change, they can be affected by our cultural environment and, depending on its nature, can be either reinforced or slowly altered as we age. If they are reinforced, this can cause us to become set in our ways. If they are revised, this can cause any beliefs gained in early childhood or later life, to become unacceptable, leading to disappointment, dissatisfaction, and social difficulties. Nevertheless, realism does stand up to the test of time.

I would suggest, therefore, that finding meaning involves:

  1. accepting that we are naturally evolved organisms with all the limitations it entails. As the Chinese author, Cixin Liu says in his novel The Dark Forest: “It’s a wonder to be alive. If you don’t understand that, how can you search for anything deeper?”;
  2. recognising that finding meaning is a personal and subjective endeavour; and
  3. being critical of the numerous erroneous, “wishful” beliefs on offer.

We are motivated by needs for existence, procreation, relatedness, and growth. The satisfaction of most is necessary for a happy and meaningful life. However, there can often be obstacles in the way. When people find it difficult to satisfy their existence and procreation needs their focus is on these, and on relatedness. This means that “wishful beliefs” are often used as a way of satisfying their growth needs with minimum effort. This can lead to exploitation and the elimination of poverty would, therefore, have great societal benefit.

There can be contradictions between different needs. Ronald Inglehart, in his book “Cultural Evolution” identified that, since the 1980s, there has been great emphasis, in the West, on self-expression, a growth need, at the expense of relatedness. However, we are social animals, co-operation better enables us to survive and so a balance must be sought. Social connection brings with it the pressure to conform to a culture. If there is a conflict between this and the need to be oneself then, in extreme cases, according to the psychologist Karl Rogers, mental ill-health can result. Thus, we must reconcile our growth needs with our relatedness needs.

So far, I have discussed what might be referred to as “normal” human needs. In my next post I will discuss “abnormal” needs because of the powerful influence they have on human affairs.

e. Individuals, Generations, Age-groups, and the Prioritisation of Needs

Individuals, Generations, Age-groups, and the Prioritisation of Needs

Pursuing the satisfaction of our natural human needs is what motivates us. However, much effort is involved in doing so. It is a lifelong process, and we meet many challenges on the way. If we can overcome those challenges, then this contributes to a general sense of happiness and wellbeing. Happiness is a relatively short-lived emotion that we experience from time to time. However, wellbeing is a state of mind which persists for so long as we are satisfied. On the other hand, if we encounter insurmountable obstacles, then we can experience frustration, a low sense of wellbeing, ill health or even death.

Maslow’s theory maintains that needs lower in the hierarchy must be largely satisfied before we can move on to higher needs. However, as explained in an earlier article, there is little evidence that we do actually prioritise our needs in this way. There is not a simple correlation between age and the hierarchy of needs. Rather, several other factors can cause significant differences between generations and age-groups. They can also cause significant differences between individuals from the same generation and age-group. Examples of these factors include:

  1. Biological Factors. For example, our individual capabilities and the physiological and health risks that we face in childhood, as a parent, or in old age.
  2. Social Role. At different stages in our lives, society provides us with different forms of support and demands different forms of contribution. Some are common to all societies. For example, in childhood our existence needs are provided for by our parents. However, support and demands also vary according to the nature of our society, our gender, and our socio-economic status. Social support and demands are significant factors in deciding how we prioritise our needs at different stages in our lives.
  3. Cultural Change. The culture of a society can alter rapidly from generation to generation, and the prevailing culture in our formative years will affect our priorities in later life. Thus, different generations can be typified by different priorities, irrespective of age. Today, cultural change is far more rapid than it has been in the past and is, therefore, having a much greater influence.
  4. Significant Events. World Wars, epidemics, and economic depressions, when they occur, can reshape the priorities of all generations. However, if they occur during our formative years, they can have a particularly long-lasting effect on our priorities. This can cause different generations to be typified by different priorities.
  5. Time to Learn. It can take considerable time and effort to learn how to satisfy a need, sustain that satisfaction and deal with the difficulties associated with doing so. The natural world and human society are both extraordinarily complex. Understanding them and learning successful behaviour requires much effort, therefore, and whilst making that effort we age.

Thus, whilst there is a general trend in the way that different age-groups prioritise their needs, there is also considerable variability as different generations come to occupy an age-group. There is also considerable variability between individuals within an age-group.

Some examples from Western society may serve to demonstrate how the above factors interact to cause a general trend in the priorities of different age groups. Whilst this trend may be true of humanity in general it is not necessarily so for the individual.

  1. When we are born, we aspire to satisfy our existence needs, i.e., food, warmth, shelter, etc. Satisfiers are, of course, provided by our parents and we must merely cry or smile when a need arises. Our social skills are innate, and we have yet to develop the cognitive skills to pursue higher needs.
  2. In our teens and early twenties, security in the provision of our basic needs continues to be provided by our parents, and so, our aspirations focus on social relatedness. Historically, we would seek a partner and reproduce in our teens and early twenties, so biological factors may also have a part to play.
  3. Later, as we raise children, our existence needs must be secured for us to do so successfully. An example is the desire to own a home of our own because, in most cases, our need for shelter will previously have been satisfied in a less secure way by living with our parents or by renting.
  4. It has been suggested that our large brains evolved to enable successful social interaction. However, these brains also bestow on us the ability to safeguard the satisfaction of our existence and relatedness needs. This is where our aspirations are next likely to be focused, therefore. However, the way in which we satisfy this need is also affected by our cultural upbringing. In some cases, it may be by accumulating wealth and property. In other cases, it may be by building strong social connectedness and support networks.
  5. Our large brains also give us a need for meaning in our lives, curiosity, creativity, and an ability to master complex skills.  It is to these that we turn when other needs are largely satisfied. Due to the time involved in learning how to satisfy all our needs, these tend to come to the fore as we become older. It is notable, however, that some creative people will forego the satisfaction of lesser needs.
  6. A culture can assign different roles to different genders. Furthermore, hormones are known to affect the state of mind of both sexes. It is conceivable, therefore, that there are gender differences in the way that we prioritise and satisfy our needs. Unfortunately, little objective research has been done on this subject.
  7. Finally, evidence from surveys shows that the need for safety or freedom from existential threat is a more significant aspiration amongst older people.

In very general terms then, but with much variance, the Western trend in priorities can be summarized as: the satisfaction of existential needs as a small child; relatedness needs in our teens and early twenties; safety and procreation needs in later adulthood; and security, safety and growth needs thereafter.

d. Satisfiers and Contra-satisfiers

Satisfiers and Contra-satisfiers

In the 1990’s, to address some of the limitations of Maslow’s theory, the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef and his colleagues developed an alternative way of categorising human needs. Details can be found in their 1995 book “Human Scale Development”.

Max-Neef’s principal contribution, however, was the identification of “satisfiers”. These are external things which assuage our needs. Examples include physical things, such as rice and houses, or actions by others, such as medical treatment. Max-Neef explained that external things, such as food and shelter, should not be seen as needs, but rather as external satisfiers of an internal need for subsistence. On the micro-scale, satisfiers can be the goods and services that form the basis of economics. On the macro-scale, they can be the institutions that form the basis of politics. Satisfiers can, therefore, also be provided by organisations, by the way in which society is organised, or by its culture. For example, education is a satisfier of the need for understanding, and healthcare a satisfier of the need for protection.

As an economist, Max-Neef’s focus was mainly on physical and cultural satisfiers. However, there are also psychological satisfiers, such as the various belief systems on offer.

Max-Neef held that fundamental human needs are a constant, but that societies alter the satisfiers of those needs. Thus, satisfiers may differ from nation to nation, culture to culture, and time to time. He also held that there is not necessarily a single satisfier for any one need. Rather, several different things may satisfy it. Nor is a satisfier necessarily associated with a single need. Rather, it may assuage several needs. He cited the example of a mother breastfeeding her baby and argued that this can satisfy the baby’s need for subsistence, protection, affection, and identity all at the same time.

Although anything can be a satisfier, not everything is a satisfier. Max-Neef used the following classification:

  1. “Synergic Satisfiers”* satisfy a given need, whilst simultaneously contributing to the satisfaction of other needs. They are generally those chosen by the individuals concerned as best satisfying their complex of needs, rather than those chosen by any external agency, particularly an authoritarian one, whose motives often differ. (*Note that this term is given as a quote because, if taken literally, it would mean several satisfiers working together to satisfy a need rather than the definition given.)
  2. Singular Satisfiers satisfy only one need and are neutral in respect of other needs. They are often a consequence of well-meaning, but remotely planned interventions by voluntary, private sector, or government organisations. Examples include food and housing programmes.
  3. Inhibiting Satisfiers over-satisfy a particular need. They can become addictive, and so, prevent a person from satisfying other, higher needs. Max-Neef and his colleagues believe that inhibiting satisfiers originate in deep rooted customs, habits, and rituals. An example is the addictive pursuit of wealth among those who already have sufficient to meet their needs. This can lead to a failure to move on to other needs such as raising a family. Another example is drug addiction which becomes an artificial existence need and prevents an individual from adequately addressing higher needs.
  4. Pseudo Satisfiers claim to be satisfying a need, but really provide little or no satisfaction. They are often associated with advertising. Products may, for example, be marketed as glamour or lifestyle accessories, with the implication that they will improve the purchaser’s self-esteem.
  5. Violators are things which, although they are claimed to satisfy a need, actually make it more difficult to do so. Max-Neef used the example of a drink advertised as being thirst quenching but which, due to its ingredients, causes dehydration. By their nature, violators are also often associated with the consumer economy and marketing.

Satisfiers can, of course, satisfy some needs or the needs of some whilst reducing the satisfaction of other needs or the needs of others. Overall, the reaction of any individual to a satisfier depends on the extent to which it satisfies their needs, the needs of those close to them, and the extent to which it acts as a contra-satisfier. The reaction may also be determined by collective needs which apply to us as a species and also to those which apply to the natural environment.

Contra-satisfiers were not identified by Max-Neef but are those things which cause the contra-needs we wish to avoid. For example, crime and war can lead to insecurity, injury, and death.

In my next post, I will describe some of the ways in which the priorities we give to our needs can change with generation and age group.