The Essence of Peopling

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Nouns for human beings – “people” or “person” – conjure in the mind a snapshot of the surface appearance of humans. Using nouns like “people” subtly encourages thinking about people as frozen in time, doing nothing in particular. “People” is an anchor for thinking about human bodies separate from their environment, from the buildings and streets and farms and parks that they build and use to go about their business.

I prefer to think about “peopling” – the process of human beings going about their business, whatever that is. I take this usage from the 1971 movie Bedknobs & Broomsticks, in which the main characters visit a magical animal kingdom, where a sign warns them away:


Much of the modern built environment seems to bear this message as well, presenting a hostile face to ordinary human activity, and preventing all but an impoverished subset of peopling from occurring at all.

The verb “peopling” is usually used to refer to the process of populating a region, but reproduction and migration are only two aspects of the highly varied, but patterned, activities of human beings throughout time. Peopling includes construction, dance, commerce, old age, drunkenness, conversation, worship, play, war, fashion, sleep, stories, and a thousand other things (though maybe there are not so very many, after all).

What is at the center of it all? If we look deep into the core of peopling, at the essential nature of our special human cognition, descriptively, then we can get a perspective on what outward manifestations of peopling are good for us, normatively. The first part of this essay is an account of innermost peopling – the social, self-conscious nature of human cognition. The second part of this essay moves outward, connecting cognition to the rituals and social information flows that make up the most important parts of our environment.

Identity Maintenance and the Cooperative Nature of the Self

In Others in Mind: The Social Origins of Self-Consciousness (one of my favorite books of all time), Philippe Rochat presents a social model of human cognition, from a developmental psychology perspective, in contrast to the “solipsistic” Cartesian model of consciousness, which, he says, still dominates the modern study of psychology and neuroscience. The Cartesian model contrasts with the more social, external, knowledge-in-common model of consciousness that predominated prior to the 17th century:

With Descartes, consciousness becomes an individualistic, more private and solipsistic state of the mind that is opaque, not transparent, accessible to itself through self-reflection. The rationalist tradition launched by Descartes introduces a transition from cogitamus, ergo sum (we think, therefore I am) to Descartes’s famous cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).

Others in Mind, p. 51

Rochat, in contrast, models human cognition as fundamentally social in nature. Each person learns to be aware of himself – is constrained toward self-consciousness – by other people being aware of him. He learns to manage his image in the minds of others, and finds himself reflected, as in a mirror, through the interface of language and non-verbal communication.


This structure hints at infinite recursion, but cognitive resources are limited, and in practice only the first couple of levels of mutual simulation are salient. Thomas Nagel finds this structure at the heart of “non-perverse” sexual desire in his 1969 paper on sexual perversion:

Sexual desire involves a kind of perception, but not merely a single perception of its object, for in the paradigm case of mutual desire there is a complex system of superimposed mutual perceptions – not only perceptions of the sexual object, but perceptions of oneself. Moreover, sexual awareness of another involves considerable self-awareness to begin with – more than is involved in ordinary sensory perception.

The self is not unitary and separate from others; peopling occurs in the context of mutual-mental-modeling relationships, which continue to affect each person when he is alone.

Each person’s self is spread out among many people, simulated in all their brains at varying levels of granularity. And each person has a different “self” for each one of the people he knows, and a different self for every social context. A teenager has a very different way of behaving, speaking and thinking around his friends from the way he behaves, speaks, and thinks around his grandparents. The self at work is different from the self at home with close friends, or in bed with a spouse. And none of these are the “true self” – rather, the self exists in all these, and in the transitions between them. There can never be one single, public self; to collapse all these multiple selves together would be akin to social death. (That is one reason that Facebook and Google+ are wrong to require a single government-name identity for each user.)


Mentally maintaining one’s identity in relation to others, including one’s accurate social status and relationships in each case, is the core task of being human. This can be inferred from the most dramatic breakdowns or failure modes of peopling: delusions and thought disorders.

The monothematic delusions are a class of delusions characterized by being limited to a single theme. Usually caused by stroke, brain injury, or neurological illness, they all represent failures of the most central task of peopling: modeling one’s own, or others’, identities. Because of this, they are sometimes are grouped together as delusional misidentification syndrome.

You have probably heard of some of them. The Cotard delusion is the belief that one is dead, or does not exist. The Capgras delusion is the belief that a close family member or spouse has been replaced by an imposter. Somatoparaphrenia is the belief that a limb or side of the body is not one’s own. Mirrored-self misidentification is the belief that the person appearing in the mirror is not oneself. The syndrome of delusional companions is the belief that inanimate objects are sentient beings. Clonal pluralization is the belief that one exists in multiple, physical copies.

The theme of misperception of identity pervades not only these exotic monothematic delusions, but also the content of the most common delusions. Grandeur and persecution are misperceptions of status and relationships, exaggerating the importance of the self in a positive or negative way. “Ideas of reference” is a pattern of seeing reference to the self everywhere, in traffic lights and television advertisements.

All this is to say that a huge portion of our internal cognitive machinery, of which we are not normally aware, is concerned with the ordinary function of maintaining one’s own identity and that of others. We can see this function from the ways in which it breaks.

Baumeister and Masicampo posit that interfacing between identities – both within a single mind, and between minds – is the purpose of conscious thought (Conscious Thought Is for Facilitating Social and Cultural Interactions: How Mental Simulations Serve the Animal–Culture Interface). And just as Rochat proposes that we are “constrained toward consciousness” by others, Kevin Simler says that we “infect” each other with personhood.

This special human form of self-consciousness has a troublesome feature, as I explained in the first installment of this series. Information about the self from the first-person perspective tends to be inflated and self-aggrandizing; information about the self from the third-person perspective, projected into the minds of others, tends to be deflated and self-deprecatory. Deep down, each person feels himself to be special and important, but also realizes that from the perspective of others he is quite ordinary and unimportant. Rochat says:

There is a profound irreconcilability or dissonance between first-and third-person perspectives on the self once objectified and valued. This dissonance shapes behaviors in crucial ways, as individuals try to reconcile their own and others’ putative representations about them. These two representational systems are always at some odds or in conflict, always in need of readjustment. It is so because these systems are open, and they do not share the same informational resources: direct, permanent, and embodied for the first-person perspective on the self; indirect, more fleeting, and disembodied for the third-person perspective on the self.

A main property of this dissonance is that it tends to feed into itself and can reach overwhelming proportions in the life of individuals. More often than not, this dissonance is a major struggle, expressed in the nuisance of self-conscious behaviors that hinder creativity and the smooth “flow” of interpersonal exchanges.

Others in Mind, p. 41

Having others in mind is the essential nature of peopling, but it is often quite painful, manifesting in self-conscious rumination.

People are able to accomplish this feat of mutual simulation by use of two tools: language and ritual. Ritual allows for the communication of information that language can’t convey – hard-to-fake costly signals of commitment, dependability, harmoniousness, and cooperative intent.

Most pre-modern human environments would have provided a constant flow of social information in the form of ritual as well as language. If humans are somehow calibrated to expect a constant flow of social information, then the sparseness of ritual and social participation in modern environments might trigger a cascade of rumination. On the other hand, experiencing a great deal of positive (even if quite mundane) social information might be protective against some of the modern forms of social pain that torture the meaning-heavy modern self.

A very simple example is greetings. “Greeting everyone you see” is a candidate for a ritual universal, a part of the ritual atmosphere that displays good fit with peopling (with some caveats). Rochat concludes Others in Mind by saying:

Walking around in South Pacific island traditional villages, during the day or in the pitch dark of moonless nights, it is almost impossible to cross paths with someone, young or old, woman or man, familiar or absolute stranger, without some greeting, without some acknowledgment of your existence, either called by your name or being asked what you are doing and where you are going, even if the response is very obvious. For individuals like me who grew up in rich postindustrial regions of the world, who struggle for their career and place in society, constantly under the spell of a panic fear of failure, of having failed, or of being an impostor, such simple, yet constant social acknowledgment amounts to the experience of tremendous relief. Finally one experiences the peace of being effortlessly recognized by others, the absolute sense of being socially substantial, as opposed to socially transparent.

This kind of small village experience lifts the curse of social transparency. …[T]his kind of intimacy and bonding with others that is the wealth of small traditional society is what we all strive for, regardless of where we live and where we grew up. It is the force that leads us toward self-consciousness, probably more forcefully if we grow up in an industrial region of the world. If there is such a thing as a universal criterion for “the good life,” a comfort we would all aspire to, then it must be the sense of social proximity. It must be the sense of being acknowledged and recognized, of being included and intimate with others, no matter what. It is being safe, the ultimate prize and the ultimate refuge.

Others in Mind, p. 233-234. [Emphasis added.]

How many other patterns are there in addition to this simple one of greeting, perhaps lost for now, but discoverable in their hidden obviousness? Sunshine might be one – and what might motivate us to spend time outside in the sunshine, perhaps even exercising, more then group ritual? Greeting, sunshine, dancing, singing, touch, face-to-face talking, fire, laughing, stories – we likely have special brain adaptations for all of these, indicating that they are good for us and core to our existence, but how well do our present cultural patterns make them available to us?

The social groups that used to provide these things have gradually faded from existence, because they are not economically viable, and because the economic, architectural, and media patterns that dominate our lives do not support them. The individual is not the appropriate unit of peopling, but it is the only unit that the tiling systems understand. If there are kinds of groups that can help us provide these valuable things for each other in our modern context, without strain or embarrassment, they probably don’t exist yet. Most “cults” and “intentional communities” fail. The human institutions that will rediscover the ritual pattern languages and implement them in the context of post-industrial peopling have yet to be discovered.

There is another aspect to this special peopling interface: time. Since the interface is performed using simulations when social information is not available, we are spread out in time, living both in the past and the future as well as the present.

Aspects of the built as well as the social environment can cause us to turn outward toward the environment and others, or to turn inward toward our own (often painful) simulations. A freeway is useful for getting from place to place, but it’s not a place to merely exist in the moment. So it is allowed to be ugly. More and more utilitarian, interstitial places are excused from beauty – parking lots, shopping areas, waiting rooms, hallways, and eventually even the rooms we live in. A utilitarian “housing unit” is a box for storing people; it doesn’t have to be beautiful, just cheap. And ugliness causes us to turn inward.

The same thing happens to time. More and more moments are interstitial, in between the allegedly “real” moments of living. We don’t interact with each other, becasue we are just getting from place to place, perhaps simulating past and future moments in our imagination. And gradually these not-really-living moments can come to occupy the majority of our lives. Perhaps many of us who identify as introverts are just especially sensitive to the ugliness and awkwardness of modern built and social environments. We might be very happy with a quiet, pleasant, constant flow of positive social information (especially if plenty of privacy were still available).

Christopher Alexander says:

If I consider my life honestly, I see that it is governed by a certain very small number of patterns of events which I take part in over and over again.

Being in bed, having a shower, having breakfast in the kitchen, sitting in my study writing, walking in the garden, cooking and eating our common lunch at my office with my friends, going to the movies, taking my family to eat at a restaurant, having a drink at a friend’s house, driving on the freeway, going to bed again. There are a few more.

There are surprisingly few of these patterns of events in any one person’s way of life, perhaps no more than a dozen. Look at your own life and you will find the same. It is shocking at first, to see that there are so few patterns of events open to me.

Not that I want more of them. But when I see how very few of them there are, I begin to understand what huge effect these few patterns have on my life, on my capacity to live. If these few patterns are good for me, I can life well. If they are bad for me, I can’t.

Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, pp. 67-68.

This is an instantiation of the spiritual advice, so universal as to be a cliché, to “live in the moment.” What helps us live in the moment, rather than in our simulations of past and present? It is not only our mindset, but also to a great extent those people and things around us, and how we interact with them.

Celebrities, Gods, and Bureaucracy

Which others, exactly, do we tend to have in mind? And what kind of thoughts do they engender? The most important people to have in mind are those near to us and relevant to our social belonging – our peers are relevant, but so are our social superiors, those with power over us. In human psychology, bad is stronger than good, so subtle signals of potential enmity or ostracism are processed more than signals of acceptance. Our possible enemies occupy a large part of our mindshare. High status people also claim a great deal of processing power, but those just below us on the status hierarchy who may be jockeying for position must also be simulated in detail.

In very complex societies, there are some people who are so high in status that it is obligatory to mentally model them, even though they do not reciprocate by mentally modeling their social inferiors. This one-way modeling process usually occurs with the intermediation of media (which is not to say modern media, as this dynamic is thousands of years old).

When evaluating a patient for dementia, a doctor often asks: who is the President of the United States? If a person does not know the answer to this question, it can usually be inferred that his mind is not functioning normally. This neurological practice is not itself the reason that it is obligatory to know who the President is; rather, because it is already socially obligatory to know who the President is, this question is an effective heuristic to gauge memory function.


The late mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota, in his role as professor of phenomenology, used to say that in the West, once atheism became common, the nature of belief in God fundamentally changed even for believers. Before, belief in God was something like belief in the President: so socially fundamental and obvious that failure to mentally model God would be a sign of mental illness. After atheism came to be understood as a possibility, belief in God changed into a positive phenomenon, no less profound or sincere, but epistemically different.

Belief in God is a function of mental modeling; but the relationship with God looks more similar to the relationship with the President than with the relationship between face-to-face humans:


In systems with a “personal God,” each person’s mental model of God contains a projected image of God’s model of the person – so inside each yellow circle, another circle representing the “self-in-relation-to-God” would fit inside.

By “religious institutions” here I do not merely mean churches, but also the rules and behaviors that shape religious life, including group worship, prayer, and other ritual. The mental modeling of kings, politicians, and celebrities takes the form of a much older kind of cognition. The kind of “religious institutions” that shape religious belief involve a great deal of rich, unmediated human-to-human interaction, whereas most of the construction of celebrity is performed in a one-way, mediated manner. I think that gods display better “fit” with peopling than celebrities, in part for this reason.

A Christian friend pointed me to the concept of an egregore – “an autonomous psychic entity made up of, and influencing, the thoughts of a group of people.” If we grant that this kind of entity – a god or demon (or perhaps even a celebrity or politician, for in this case the actual person matters little) – can exist in a psychological sense, then we must ask which kinds of these structures are fit for humans, which are most beautiful and lead to the most human flourishing. To me, these are more interesting questions than whether the egregoric entities have real-world referents. We will have gods or pseudo-gods no matter what; that is part of our inherent psychology. The only thing that varies is the nature of these entities.

One of the worst fates that can befall us in the internet age is to inadvertently become one of these celebrity entities – to be publicly shamed, to have a piece of our writing or behavior modeled as a public self by masses of people. If we are publicly shamed, we are obligated to suffer by modeling the masses of people with enmity toward us, even though they do not think of us as full human beings. They do not see us face to face, they are not aware of the ritual performances of our entire lives, but our public self is accessible to them through this very destructive kind of fame. It is a constant danger.

Victims of public shaming, fortunately, make up only a small subset of celebrities. Most of the people with a public self have chosen to have this kind of self, in order to pursue their interests in control, money, or status. And these kings, politicians, and celebrities face a challenge. They are being mentally modeled by a number of people orders of magnitude too large to be modeled symmetrically. But in the aggregate, the crowd’s behavior toward the high-status person matters a great deal. How can he monitor them for the kind of information he needs? Political science scholar Xavier Marquez’ model of “cults of personality” suggests that ritual, in its “game theory” aspect as costly signaling, can solve the information problem:

Here is where cults of personality come in handy. The dictator wants a credible signal of your support; merely staying silent and not saying anything negative won’t cut it. In order to be credible, the signal has to be costly: you have to be willing to say that the dictator is not merely ok, but a superhuman being, and you have to be willing to take some concrete actions showing your undying love for the leader. (You may have had this experience: you are served some food, and you must provide a credible signal that you like it so that the host will not be offended; merely saying that you like it will not cut it. So you will need to go for seconds and layer on the praise). Here the concrete action required of you is typically a willingness to denounce others when they fail to say the same thing, but it may also involve bizarre pilgrimages, ostentatious displays of the dictator’s image, etc.

[Emphasis in original.]

This is the darkest example of ritual that we have seen: ritual performed toward a top-down “tiling system” government of the kind that killed tens of millions of people by famine, and thousands more by murder. This kind of interface does not seem to be a good way for people to express their agency. It demonstrates in the extreme, however, the power of ritual, and one way that ritual connects to mental modeling. In a less destructive form, it is directly analogous to the social and ritual information provided to each individual in the form of greetings, explained above.

What makes the ritual signaling toward Mao and Stalin so harmful, compared to ordinary face-to-face ritual signaling? Marquez says:

When everybody lies about how wonderful the dictator is, there is no common knowledge: you do not know how much of this “support” is genuine and how much is not, which makes it hard to organize against the dictator and exposes one to risks, sometimes enormous risks, if one so much as tries to share one’s true views, since others can signal their commitment to the dictator by denouncing you. This is true of all mechanisms that induce preference falsification, however: they prevent coordination.

[Emphasis mine.]

Signaling toward an entity in a one-way manner, and entity who is not reciprocating by modeling its subjects, with control exerted form the top down, results in degenerate patterns, even when the ritual forms superficially resemble traditional forms. Gods, even when worshipped in the context of powerful hierarchical organizations, do not seem to cause the same problems. The excesses of Mao and Stalin are rarely observed in pre-20th-century religious contexts.

The difference is that gods and spirits, saints and bodhisattvas, are worshipped in a ground-up context, with each local group entity adapting the rituals to its particular needs. The pattern languages are maintained and not destroyed. Top-down control destroys the peopling interface in which pattern languages are used, and by which people together express their agency. Gods can be excellent tools for group coordination; dictators that try to coercively manage all aspects of human life are not.

Consider a much less extreme example: interacting with a bureaucracy, whether corporate or government. What does the mental modeling interface look like between a person and a government agency or a telephone company? Usually the bureaucracy has human avatars to interact with each person it communicates with. But the normal person-to-person mental modeling is not governing the interaction. The bureaucrat, police officer, teacher, judge, or cable television company representative functions as a skinsuit that the corporation or government agency wears, not as a co-modeling and fully interacting person. His behaviors are governed by top-down rules and scripts, with human discretion eliminated as much as possible.


The human being acting as a skinsuit does not and cannot model each customer or citizen individually in the course of their interaction. Even if he did, it would not make a difference to the outcome of the interaction; that is up to the scripts. Instead of having each other in mind, each participant has something else in mind – a script, or an image of the bureaucratic organization.

This kind of cognitive interface does not display good “fit” with the ordinary human social cognition we have been talking about. The avatars of bureaucracies do not have the practical ability to respond to the genuine needs and desires of the people who interact with them; they are only empowered to implement procedures. While this kind of structure is probably necessary in some aspects of human life, it would seem that humans would want to limit their exposure to non-mutual-modeling, bureaucratic-type interfaces. But instead, this type of interface is growing, infecting more and more domains of human life. In education, national curriculum standards mandate that tests be the scripts that are in teachers’ heads, so that children must interact with a script rather than a mutually-modeling person, day after day for years. In medicine, the same trend toward mandatory scriptedness is evident. Almost all regulation leads to more interactions being scripted in this sense – less fit for peopling.

Even aesthetic domains have become top-down and mediated. Music is downloaded and listened to, often privately, not sung and produced together. Dance is for professional celebrities on television shows, not performed by everyone. Sports are for professional athletes and perhaps children, at least those children who are unusually good at them. Even when food and clothing do not come from factories, and are produced by hand, they are produced by recipes and patterns, not ground-up expressions of creativity from the fluent use of a shared pattern language.

Earlier I said that we accomplish the feat of peopling by using ritual and language. In The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander argues that what he calls “pattern languages” are the basis for creating and maintaining the physical, architectural forms in which we people. The loss of the shared languages, through the expansion of top-down tiling systems, is the reason that our built environments are less and less suitable for peopling.

[I]n Japan, even fifty years ago, every child learned how to lay out a house, just as children learn football or tennis today. People laid out their houses for themselves, and then asked the local carpenter to build it for them.

When the language is shared, the individual patterns in the language are profound. The patterns are always simple. Nothing which is not simple and direct can survive the slow transmission from person to person. There is nothing in these languages so complex that someone cannot understand it. …Just because every detail has to make sense to every man and woman, the patterns are heartfelt and profound.

The Timeless Way of Building, p. 230

The more the process of production is distanced by mediation from the use of the product, the worse it will fit. A concrete example:

If I build a fireplace for myself, it is natural for me to make a place to put the wood, a corner to sit in, a mantel wide enough to put things on, an opening which lets the fire draw.

But, if I design fireplaces for other people – not for myself – then I never have to build a fire in the fireplaces I design. Gradually my ideas become more and more influenced by style, and shape, and crazy notions – my feeling for the simple business of making fire leaves the fireplace altogether.

So, it is inevitable that as the work of building passes into the hands of specialists, the patterns which they use become more and more banal, more willful, and less anchored in reality.

The Timeless Way of Building, p. 236

This is as true for ritual (which as we have seen is a very broad category) as it is for houses and fireplaces.

When the languages break down, and our built environments and social contexts no longer make sense, the response is usually to try to exert ever more control from the top down: to control larger chunks of the environment, to control more parts of the environment, and to control behavior directly through regulation. All of these fail, because in all human systems, not just economies, top-down control cannot replace the rich complexity generated by peopling with a shared language. Exerting more top-down control is exactly the wrong response.

With living pattern languages, towns and buildings are not made once and then forgotten about, static things existing in the same forms forever. Rather, they are rebuilt and maintained constantly, changing as the needs of people change. It is the same for ritual. Rituals are not static things handed down without alteration from one generation to the next; they are constantly altered, but continue to make sense because of the shared pattern languages that people use to construct and perform them. Rediscovering ritual contexts that fit modern peopling will be a process of rediscovering our lost pattern languages.

Peopling and Meaning

In his book Meanings of Life, Roy Baumeister offers what he calls an “existential shopping list” of four types of meaning that humans tend to need, and will seek if not provided. The first is purpose – a kind of future-oriented meaning that provides a reason to do things, reflecting our nature as spread out in time. Goals are one kind of purpose; their weakness is that they are often realizable, so that we constantly need new goals to replace those that have been accomplished. Another kind of purpose exists in the far future, a mythical, often illusory “fulfillment state” such as heaven, fame, high status, or career success. The second is justification, the deepest basis or value, the final “because” for the endless hierarchy of “why”s. The search for this kind of justification is what is meant by Camus’ statement that the only really serious philosophical problem is that of suicide: why exist at all? Third, we need a sense of efficacy, of having some degree of control over our life and world. Fourth, we need self-worth, to feel valuable and important to others.

Ritual is particularly well-suited to supply all of these meanings. Ritual makes mythical fulfillment states more plausible, even providing regular tastes of transcendental beauty and calm contentment that these future states are based on. Ritual supports the belief in ultimate value, as belief arises from our own behavior and the beliefs of those around us (as demonstrated day after day through their behavior). Perhaps most importantly, ritual provides a sense of efficacy and self-worth. This is especially true for those who are unable to contribute economically, such as the very old. A little old lady may not be able to do much “useful” work, but she can pray, and offer ritual performances that create a deeper, psychological value both for her and for the group she is part of. (My grandmother is very insistent about people throwing salt over their shoulder if they should happen to spill it, which I think injects a bit of fun and mystery into a recurrent, boring failure in life.) Ritual also means there is always something we can do to affect our circumstances and the universe at large, even if the results of the ritual are not immediately apparent.

In all of these domains, traditional sources of these four kinds of meaning have weakened over the past few centuries and decades. In Baumeister’s view, traditional sources of meaning (group-based morality, religion, etc.) have been replaced with emphasis on the self. Our goals tend to be individual goals; our fulfillment state is not heaven, but fame and career success, even as we see that this is unlikely and does not actually produce sustained contentment for those who achieve it. Efficacy and self-worth are expressed in work and personal performance, athletic or academic achievement, rather than in selfless group identity and the sacred.

Kurt Vonnegut famously stated his view of the meaning of life: “we’re here to fart around.” Based on his examples – greeting people and dogs, looking at pretty girls, having brief conversations – it seems fair to expand this into “we’re here to fart around together.” The peopling interface (not to mention the effects of solitary confinement) suggests a fifth, or even underlying fundamental, need for meaning: the need to interact with others, to simulate them and be simulated by them in positive ways, no matter how mundane.

In conclusion, drink tea, together with your friends; pay attention to the tea, and to your friends, and pay attention to your friends paying attention to the tea. Therein lies the meaning of life.

Previously in this series:
Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture
What is Ritual?
Gardens Need Walls: On Boundaries, Ritual, and Beauty

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. Michael Hardy says

    QUOTE Rochat, in contrast, models human cognition as fundamentally social in nature. Each person learns to be aware of himself – is constrained toward self-consciousness – by other people being aware of him. END QUOTE

    If each person learns to be aware of himself – is constrained toward self-consciousness – by other people being aware of him, how would that imply that human cognition as social in nature? At most it could only imply that cognition ABOUT THE SELF is social in nature. But most cognition is not about the self, but about things in the world outside of the self.

    • What is most cognition about, and what is your source for this claim? I only have introspection, conversations, and some books to go on.

      • Michael Hardy says

        Do you mean the claim that most cognition is directed outward at the world rather than inward at the self? My source is that it seems to be what I, and I assume everyone, observes every day. I ask myself what is the quickest route to drive from point A to point B, five miles away, and I look over some maps and conclude that probably this one route is the most efficient. That’s cognition. Someone asks why Green’s theorem has a seeming asymmetry on one side of the equality and not on the other, and I respond that there actually is an asymmetry on the other side, in that the boundary of the region is traversed in one direction and not in the other direction. That’s cognition. I ponder the question of why Vermont’s petition for admission to the Union in 1783 was denied, and think that probably it’s because at that time New York was still insisting that Vermont was by rights a part of New York. That’s cognition. It’s not about myself; it’s about the world outside myself. Granted that there is also cognition that’s about oneself, but that’s not what _most_ cognition is.

        • Michael Hardy says

          BTW, Google provides this:

          noun: cognition

          the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.

          synonyms: perception, discernment, apprehension, learning, understanding, comprehension, insight; reasoning, thinking, thought

          a result of this; a perception, sensation, notion, or intuition.

          plural noun: cognitions

          synonyms: perception, discernment, apprehension, learning, understanding, comprehension, insight; reasoning, thinking, thought


          late Middle English: from Latin cognitio(n-), from cognoscere ‘get to know.’

        • Take your example of direction-finding. Maps are a pretty new interface for figuring that out – and since people make maps using language, they’re a pretty social interface. But before maps, direction-finding was very social, since you would have to ask people. It goes deeper than that – even absolute reckoning is mediated by language (see the work of Lera Boroditsky – and She gives the example of an Australian language that uses absolute reckoning – children can perform amazing feats of direction-finding. But they are socialized from a very young age to do this – the typical greeting is “where are you headed?” and you have to answer with your exact directional heading, from around 80 options. Boroditsky says “you literally can’t get past hello without knowing your orientation.” So here social cognition (being expected to know something) is shaping a kind of cognition that you’re identifying as non-social.

          • Michael Hardy says

            Indeed, people use language to talk about or think about things, and language is in fact a social convention, but that doesn’t mean the things they’re thinking about are social. I walk down to the river bank and observe, by comparing the surface of the water with a rock on the bank, that the river is several inches deeper today than three days ago. That’s about _things_, not about people. And even if one uses socially created means of thinking (e.g. measuring the depth in inches rather than in centimeters) the thing one is observing — the level of water in the river — is about things and not about people. But supposing we assumed that that sort of thing is all social — that somehow the presence of a body of water is a social convention — the statement that each person learns to be aware of himself by other people being aware of him is still only about how awareness of one’s _self_ originates, not about cognition in general.

          • Look at the content of television, paintings and songs – mostly depicting people, and very social. Or dreams – reports from laboratory awakenings overwhelmingly involve talking to people (100% of “long” reports in the study linked). I would be surprised if waking thought did not have a similarly social-loaded content. Even solitary introspection usually takes the form of composing thoughts in language, often to share with others (in the form of tweets, perhaps). And solitary introspection is social in the sense that different brain modules are literally talking to each other, usually using language.

          • Michael Hardy says

            Even if one were to assume you’re right and all cognition, even concerning inanimate objects, depends on things social, nonetheless the argument in the article established at most only that cognition concerning the self depends on those.

        • “My source is that it seems to be what I, and I assume everyone, observes every day.”

          “I ask myself”

          “I look over some maps”

          “I respond”

          “I ponder the question … and think”

          “It’s not about myself”

  2. “What is at the center of it all? If we look deep into the core of peopling, at the essential nature of our special human cognition, descriptively, then we can get a perspective on what outward manifestations of peopling are good for us, normatively.”

    “Having others in mind is the essential nature of peopling, but it is often quite painful, manifesting in self-conscious rumination.”

    “The social groups that used to provide these things have gradually faded from existence, because they are not economically viable, and because the economic, architectural, and media patterns that dominate our lives do not support them.”

    Juxtaposing these three bits from the post, I think I can safely infer that you’re offering a strong and totalizing normative (for “us”) read on the phenomena you describe, and making a certain set of careful judgments about what is “valuable” for “us”. And it ain’t tiling and those pesky ugly highways.

    Let’s work the counterfactual a bit. I’ll acknowledge all the phenomenology you describe, and only challenge your reading of the significance of various elements.

    The “painful” aspect of peopling and inhabiting an identity comprising “having others in mind” that you set aside with a casual acknowledgement is, to many people, the central reality of peopling. It’s not greetings and rituals and language, it’s everyday oppressive forces that keep you in your place (modern “microaggression” theory is a farcical reconstruction of a very real phenomenon). When a lord passes a serf on the street, the latter must participate in the greeting by stepping aside and bowing and doffing his cap. Ignoring a jerk of a lord and turning your back to him is not an option. You get flogged for that. Every other peopling phenomenon you might care to name has a similar dark side. In the seemingly callous metro culture of ignoring people you don’t want to engage is a huge leap forward: freedom from being “other constructed” by assholes.

    Language yes. Rituals yes. FORCE? More so than either language or rituals. Peopling/social identities are about force.

    This suggests an alternative explanation for why such patterns have faded. It is NOT because the economic, media and architectural patterns of our lives do not support them, but because a significant proportion of people — perhaps even the majority — simply do not want them and find them to be more oppressive than sustaining. They resist force. At the slightest weakening of oppressive bonds, they flee to places of greater freedom. From tribal encampments to villages, from villages to towns, from towns to impersonal metros. Supply and demand not of “shallow” plasticky crap, but freedom from fear, pain, shame, guilt imposed by others at their pleasure.

    Humans do not demand what you think is valuable about peopling-identities (which I do agree has value), as much as you think because they come at a cost that is far higher than you suggest. Your communitarian argument is curiously progressive/liberal in a way: that modernity seduces us with a cheapy, plasticky “unnatural” and isolating fakeness that is ultimately unsatisfying. That if only we were wiser, we’d all recognize that the beautiful old oak or silver is better than plastic or something. Except that that’s the tale of the lord, not the tale of the serf. Before he had plastic, the serf had nothing, just floggings. Before he had the impersonal solitude of the city, he had the very personal community (complete with “touch”) of the whip-wielder. I’m caricaturing a bit, but belongingness IS the ties that bind in both senses of the word — secure you to things you want to be close to and chain you to things you want to get away from.

    Let’s apply Miller’s Law (“To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.”) to the counterfactual that you are sort of demonizing: the solipsistic, individualistic, “Cartesian” experience of identity, and the structure of space that you’re dismissing as interstitial zones of non-being designed for instrumental transit purposes.

    Why might some of us (and I could myself among them — see my Cloud Mouse vs. Metro Mouse post) see this as the truer experience of identity and the social kind as a comforting and temporary fiction that ultimately betrays you?

    I’ll offer this: the universe is a HUGE place. “Other people” are only a tiny, tiny fraction of it. Within social reality, the fundamental tension may be to reconcile your own sense of your specialness with the ordinariness constructed for you by others (I agree with that argument). But within the much larger, subsuming material reality within which social realities are embedded, even the other-constructed ordinariness is ludicrous specialness. To mouth a cliche, we are invisible pinprick-sized islands of consciousness on a pale blue dot in a little tiny piece of dust called the Laniekea galactic supercluster. Even the one aspect of the universe — consciousness — where we might plausibly believe we special, chances are we are not.

    To recognize this reality is to get out of “peopling mind” and get into a mind state that connects you to, and constructs your identity in relation to, the universe at large, rather than “other people.” This is not solipsism, but a larger universe of truths than social identities can ever get you access to. To the social-tribal-peopling mind (introvert or not), to look at the stars (say) is to project the human drama of recursive self-construction onto them, the whole soap opera of gods and other minds. To even recognize the possibility of astronomy and see past astrology and cosmic mythologies, you have to tell the peopling-mind to shut the hell up. You have to see the stars not as constellations of mythical projected beings, but as things to actually investigate with non-ritualistic actions such as, oh I don’t know, inventing a telescope or spectroscope to look at them more closely.

    Of course, when you do that, the peopling-mind types are likely to try you and burn you at the stake for daring to suggest that a part of the universe does not centrally revolve around the soap opera of social identity construction.

    This state is the one you dismiss as the unreal, not-really-living state of individualism. Best experienced, driving alone on an empty highway, in a position to pay due attention to everything from dust storms to sunsets to stars to electric pylons without prejudging their significance with a totalizing humanist sense of values. From this perspective, it is the interludes when you must inhabit the peopling mind that are unbearable states of non-being, where you have to put on masks and help each other construct selves that are FAR weaker than they were meant to be. Until you can run away again and become more substantial by taking the universe on face-to-face by pulling off the side of a highway for a few minutes.

    • I hope it’s clear I’m not suggesting an atavistic reversion to some past set of patterns – that’s impossible – rather, looking at past patterns for information about how to make life work given new circumstances. It’s not clear to me that people choose to ignore others because they’d rather not have social information. For me, as a female runner, I’d much rather people ignore me than be subjected to the usual shouts and dubious invitations (which, when refused, are often followed with accusations of being a “mean redhead”). But I’d MUCH rather exchange nice positive greetings with people. We have the ability to all treat each other as aristocrats; we don’t do it because it’s weird and not part of our patterns.

      It’s definitely possible to enjoy driving, but the evidence seems to be that commuting is hard on people in a way that the benefits do not outweigh (see e.g. The Commuter Paradox ).

      Plastic may be better than nothing, but “plastic or nothing” is not our only option now. And there are many cases in which plastic may actually be worse than nothing – clutter is a major problem people experience, and they are offered more plastic crap to help them organize all the clutter. (I suspect most “cleaning” is merely a ritual to separate the self from “trash,” with no hygienic purpose.)

      Anyway, I’m hoping to suggest more options, not limit people to feudal-era options. Some of modernity is good for us and “fits” with us (hot water on tap is awesome, and I do not miss the lack of it in my subsistence farming childhood) – but some parts are most certainly not good. And there are many “goods” that we can’t provide for ourselves, but which we rely on others to provide. So I have to talk about “us” when talking about these things – hermit that I am, I simply can’t provide these things for myself. But I miss them.

      • Ah come on, now you’re switching to commuting as an easier target than interstitial spaces in general? That’s unpleasant for a MUCH simpler reason: frustrating traffic jams and no choice about how to spend your time. When traffic is flowing smoothly on a nice day, it’s very pleasant. When you don’t have an early meeting to get to 2 hours away in the city forcing you to wake up early, getting to a train and reading a book on your way there for a *chosen* day of non-remote work is fun.

        Just for the sake of argument, if going back to the past were NOT impossible, would you? It’s not the impossibility I am interested in, it’s the desirability. I think people romanticize the past into being a far more desirable condition than it actually was to those who had to live in it.

        As for your future-hypothetical of “We have the ability to all treat each other as aristocrats; we don’t do it because it’s weird and not part of our patterns” — how about an alternative reading: we don’t do it because we don’t want to, and in future, it will be much easier to treat those we want to as aristocrats and ignore those we don’t want to engage. The first choice is not how to engage the other, but whether to engage at all.

        Wanting to be engaged by somebody who wants to ignore you is an asymmetric social relationship that comes in two flavors: the powerful demanding the attention of the weak by force, and the weak demanding the attention of the powerful by means of an appeal to some sense of shared humanity. I think both are equally problematic unless the asymmetry is removed by a mutual economic arrangement. The only defensible sort of non-economic claim on another’s attention is a mutual one.

        We are in the process of building out a society that embodies this and naturally, finding out that there are things we don’t like about it, such as a certain amount of isolation and more challenging (i.e. non-social) identity construction imperatives. But the fact that there are things we don’t like about where we are and where we’re going does not mean the patterns we’ve left behind were more desirable or that updated futurtopian patterns that attempt to recover them somehow (shorn of their problems “everybody is an artistocrat”) are going to be more attractive than the future that’s actually unfolding.

        This probably sounds fatalist, but basically I am arguing that the future that is actually unfolding is more desirable than the past and the alternative futures that *could* be unfolding. That’s why we’re choosing it. The future is a self-fulfilling prophecy of individual choices.

        It is close to, but not quite, Leibnizian optimism (“all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”). Except that it’s not optimism. More like “Everything is for the worst in this worst of all possible worlds, except for everything in all other possible worlds.” It’s what somebody labeled “nihilistic optimism” on Twitter yesterday for me.

        To communitarians it seems like some sort of tragedy of commons is going on (“if only we wisely deliberated together, we’d choose differently”), but that to me is just communal solipsism, that idea that only what is collectively known by a group is known at all. Much as strong communitarians might bemoan the “ugly” future, it is the future we actually want over other alternatives, despite our protestations.

        This does not mean I am against collectively motivated patterns of change (which I think is what you’re after with “we” notions of value, beauty and identity informing everything from architecture to social ritual). Entire societies at some scale deciding (for instance) not to allow their space to be tiled into suburbia and using subtle social pressures to enforce a norm of everybody-greets-everybody (otherwise known as the Midwest). Great. Let a million such experiments flourish. In fact it is the plurality of such experiments that allows the future to unfold in a nihilist-optimist way: people opt-out of the experiments they are born into and opt-into the ones they actually hope succeeds. All I ask is: avoid force, make it opt-in. Otherwise it is about power, not about ways of being (ways of powering?).

        • Aptenodytes forsteri says

          As you know, Sarah falls on the humanist side of the humanist-scientist divide, so she doesn’t base her thinking on human insignificance and the concept/meme/narrative of progress. Instead, she centers her thinking around humans and their relationships, as well as a meme/narrative of reactionary romanticism that views the past as superior to the present.

          offtopic: Anyways, if you want to,explain to me your reasons behind the 60% chance for industrial civilization’s transition to renewables and IF YOU WANT TO, explain to me why you do not follow the cyclical meme of history propounded in The Decline of the West as I’m trying to understand the memes you adhere to in order to develop a deeper connection with you.

          • Whatever affiliations she might acknowledge, to NRx and stuff, I suspect she’s just trying to reconcile the two. Like me and most people who are actually thinking about these themes rather trying to pick a side to belong to. Otherwise there’d be nothing to discuss. The science/humanism divide is for people who want to stop thinking because thinking too hard hurts. Dialectics over positions.

            As for your questions, I save my off-topic thoughts for friends on Facebook for the most part. The blog/comments are most useful for more fully-baked companies.

        • Thinking about these things over the past couple of days, some thoughts:

          I sense that there’s a disconnect in our thinking about the nature of freedom. One kind of freedom is avoiding obligation – and if you’ve been stuck with a giant boring lame obligation against your will, this is the one that will stand out as more salient. I think this is the dominant concept of freedom today. Another kind of freedom is the ability to undertake obligations. If you aren’t obligated in any way but have no way to undertake obligations, then a kind of freedom (ability to act) is missing. This kind of freedom-to-obligate is counterintuitive because obligations feel like the opposite of freedom; we say we are “bound.” Being married helped me understand this as a positive freedom; it’s similar to Christopher Alexander’s definition of freedom, taken from a Max Wertheimer short story (The Nature of Order Vol. 1, p. 374), as “the ability to act appropriately.” To be able to act only in the very short-term, when we are long-term-looking creatures, especially in our social nature, is to be heavily constrained against our nature. (And I’m not saying this dimension doesn’t vary among people, but the pattern is so strong that we should look critically on the hypothesis that we are special snowflakes in this regard.)

          Dmitry Orlov (who comments below) suggests two (among a dozen or so) features he thinks are critical to “communities that abide” (and don’t take these too literally): there being no force applied to join or stay in the community (it’s basically voluntary), and holding property in common, except for personal effects. I’m not endorsing either of these but they’re interesting and at least overlap with patterns that I think are real. I mention them to point out the tension between them: are you free to leave if all your property is tied up with the community? Property in common (a feature I at least think is appropriate to marriage, if not larger groups) is a credible signal because its value would be forfeited if one left the community. Ritual practice also performs this function – costly (at least in time) performances whose only value is to the group. (In human psychology, if not in “rational” calculations, sunk costs matter.)

          We see many forms of “property in common” less dubious than the commune model; golf courses and social clubs rely on the members to pay for the space, and in return they have access to communal space. (These seem to be in decline in terms of membership, although I see “maker’s spaces” popping up here and there – same thing.) So you don’t have to go full communist at all to get the pattern. (Though do note the difference in the time relationship between paying a fee month by month and paying outright, long-term for a chunk of the common property.) Christopher Alexander suggests that residents of neighborhoods own their common spaces, even including roads; I don’t know what the right line to draw is, and it probably varies depending on the people involved and their circumstances.

          Ritual builds a bridge between the short and long term. It connects the in-the-moment perceiving kind of cognition (a huge relief for many of us, once in a while) while evidencing a long-term commitment to the community. If we have “freedom from” ritual without “freedom to” ritual, we lack an important degree of freedom.

          • Have to catch a flight soon, so will try to drive to closure here :)

            See — I don’t think there’s a disconnect here, merely a very different pattern of emphasis (subjective valuation) and assumptions of empirical incidence of the phenomena we’re talking about (an objective thing).

            There are three classes of phenomena in play here. Roughly, I’d break it down as follows:

            1. “Positive freedom” communitarian — you value this a lot, I don’t value it so much (but don’t negatively value it). I agree it is likely highly valuable to many others. You seem to imply it is empirically a big deal (like say 80% of communitarian life) whereas I think it is empirically not (like say 20%). Perhaps you are only being aspirational rather than descriptive. Most marriages for instance, do not conform to your idealized model of obligation-as-freedom.

            2. “Negative freedom” communitarian — we both think this is not a good thing, as your refs to Stalin etc. indicate. I think it is a LOT more common to various degrees than we acknowledge. Like 80% of all communitarian life. We only rationalize hidden authoritarianism as “positive” to the extent that there are no meaningful alternatives. Yet. A case of, “if you don’t get what you like, you have to like what you get.”

            3. Individualism qua individualism — the idea that there is a meaningful and substantial notion of identity and self-construction that is NOT social in essence and that it is worth pursuing even in the extreme degree (for example, there are minds and people for whom the most generative path might be too go off in a space capsule alone, headed for Alpha Centauri). I get the sense you are either trivializing this, or dismissing it as a sort of empty thing. I on the other hand, see it as _the_ dominant thread in human evolution for the last 1000 years. Individualism is our newest, youngest, and most interesting adventure yet. It’s an infant capacity in evolutionary terms compared to our social nature, but strengthening MUCH faster. Empirically, this is a minority: I’d say the population that takes individualism seriously as the core of identity construction is 1/10th the size of the population that takes communitarianism (of either positive or negative freedom variety, in whatever proportion) seriously as the core.

            Of course, there are no caricatures here. I don’t think anyone seriously believes individualism can be seriously dissolved into the group mind OR that it is possible to have an identity that is entirely non-social (I think there were some experiments with raising children in isolation and they turned into vegetables…). Our solo voyager to Alpha Centauri for instance, will likely want a big library of books and movies to take with him/her, and possibly some Siri-like AI companions, even as he/she explores the essence of individual identity.

            From these 3 basic positions, all sorts of other views and positions emerge — on technology, on the nature of design of social spaces, on the nature of ritual, etc. For example, as Kay pointed out in the comments of one of your earlier posts, we differ even in how we construct the notion of ritual (for me, the prototype is the individual engaged in some sort of meditative, grounding act like making coffee for himself/herself, or going on a walk, for you, it’s a contracted costly signal with a certain symbolic meaning).

            I think I understand better where we both stand now :) I’ll have to just remind myself that where you use totalizing, unqualified language (“good”, “beautiful”), you do mean it with a “without authoritarian coercion” clause. So long as that’s in there, I think we actually don’t have a disconnect. Just differing notions of value and different beliefs about empirical stuff (which in principle could be falsified, but hard to see how in practice).

          • Sarah and Venkat, thanks for this thread. I found it interesting to see this dialectial discussion where I disagreed with both sets of (implicit) fundamentals so much that I wasn’t able to formulate any positive thoughts! (My own thoughts wrt my own fundamentals being too nebulous at this point to admit any statement.) However, I would like to bring up a point coming out of Venkat’s last comment.

            I agree with Venkat that there will be a rise of individualism/breaking out of communalist value systems, and I also agree that that’s a good thing. A problem that I see – and maybe this is a restatement of some of Sarah’s concerns – is that Elon Musk types (solo voyage to Alpha Centauri, etc) aside, there is no radical individualism without the structures that accommodate it. If we turn “naive” individualism into a sort of “tiling structure” at the individual level, that may very well tend to reinforce existing (implicitly communal) structures and values in the large. Because the force of “real life” breathing down on you as an individual doesn’t really leave many real parameters of freedom and experimentation in the construction of life (as opposed to scientific, entrepreneurial, or artistic work); the most radical individual still faces severe constraints that are the collective result of a lot of people’s mental models.

            A certain line of pragmatic thinking taking this principle to the logical extreme (see Penelope Trunk’s blog, say) would advise that that the easiest way and most efficient way to be a functional adult with a sufficient portion of your needs met is to get along with everyone else by following time tested scripts that allow you integrate into society’s existing social-economic structures. Take your pick of marriage, or perhaps Nietzchian-overman barhopping if you’re in a social group that can get away with it (or increasingly reified socially acceptable version of homosexuality if that applies) combined with either entrepreneurship or dayjob. Note that this isn’t “communalist” advice, it’s advice for individualists who aim to satisfy “individual desires” within existing frameworks! Because those are the only lifestyle models other people can imagine cooperating with you in. There’s no room for radical individual sexual-emotional statements or forms of human activity that can’t be coopted by capitalist economic models (like Musk-ian individualism) or a million other things .

            In general, of course, people don’t have the time or the inclination to puzzle out deep definitions of family, community, life structures in general for themselves and need to get their solutions prefab – which is where artists, social experimenters, and thinkers can come in to show new horizons. I don’t see the question for individualists as “how can we get the communalists to leave us alone” – the answer is pretty simple, money – so much as “how can individualists create new structures to meet our social-economic-life needs given that our values have moved past the binding values of past communalisms”. (Note that I’m talking about a different ethical axis than questions of what society at large should be moving towards.)

            So I do think it’s worthwhile – necessary even – to engage in thought and experimentation with social forms exactly BECAUSE we are seeing a rise in individualism and departure from collective shared values. There’s no reason to think that the necessary ideas will be found in naive communalism OR naive individualism. Sure, there are some well documented failure modes of, say, “hippie communes” – but really there have been only 40-50 years of experimentation. One thing I’m starting to think is that there’s no reason to expect tiling structure-type solutions to these issues! Solutions are more likely to arise out of local economic and psychological opportunities/considerations like “…didn’t Duane’s aunt just inherit that farmland?” or “Sally’s ex-husband means well but we really shouldn’t trust him with the title on account of his poker debt”.

            One great source of ideas I’ve found has been in radical sci fi – see Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren or Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series. Not just providing the “ideas” in the sense of “Platonic structures of social organization” but also the subjective language that will go with the experiences.

            I can’t say I agree with Sarah’s conclusions – I can’t find anything I personally recognize in Sarah’s definiton of “ritual”, say, which of course is a much different thing than saying it’s “wrong”. But I do absolutely agree with the need for the efforts.

            (This has been sort of oblique to the main thread of the discussion, but I hope, at the least, that it’s not unwelcome…)

    • Jim Stone says

      How much of doing science is comprised of “peopling” with scientists and their sciencey norms?

    • I love all your stuff Venkat, and generally nod along with your “life does not revolve around a soap opera of social identity” stuff but feel like your stretching it to fit here.

      It’s like the William Saroyon quote on inverting the narrative of the grander importance in a massive war campaign.

      Death (life) as intimate events…with a single soldier’s death seen as the “destruction of the entire universe occurring in the mind and senses of one man.”

      Yes galactic super-clusters and all that, but is identity, free from the pinging, though cozier, like the tree falling in the forest?

  3. “Our goals tend to be individual goals; our fulfillment state is not heaven, but fame and career success, even as we see that this is unlikely and does not actually produce sustained contentment for those who achieve it. Efficacy and self-worth are expressed in work and personal performance, athletic or academic achievement, rather than in selfless group identity and the sacred.”

    It is curious that you/Baumeister are calling these individual. To me, they seem highly collective: the competitive aspect of collectivism. Fame/career etc. are all about having your self constructed by others, except in an asymmetric way that gives you more power about them. I think you can’t have one without the other (selfless group identity necessarily implies the existence of selfish group identity). In group life is about getting along/getting ahead. Non-group life (getting away) is about defining yourself in ways that do not rely on much reference to the group at all.

  4. The rationalist tradition launched by Descartes introduces a transition from cogitamus, ergo sum (we think, therefore I am) to Descartes’s famous cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).

    I quote the quote just to say that Descartes problem was an epistemological one, not a psychological. I also believe that “cogitamus, ergo sum” is an anachronism. The rationalist tradition launched a critique of theology as well as empirical evidence and following M.Foucault, it also replaced a thinking in analogies and correspondences by the scientific method.

    For a while it has been somewhat popular to scapegoat Descartes for the uneasiness in the modern world. However Descartes own contemporaries were not natives, living their natural religion, chatting with their power animals and hunting the holy bison. Descartes lived as a French Jesuit spy in the Netherlands during its “golden age”. He was involved in religious faction fights about free will vs predestination and accused by his enemies to have bolted on a theodicy on an otherwise atheist philosophy. Fortunately for us, the Dutch culture industry was incredibly productive at that time and the citizens loved realist genre paintings, portraits and still lives. So we can imagine a bit how the world looked like before it was disenchanted by Descartes and his followers and the “We” got replaced by the “I”.

  5. Most “cults” and “intentional communities” fail.

    The only really dumb sentence in an otherwise great essay. How is the success ratio important?

    • Most restaurants fail, but there are LOTS of great, functioning restaurants, and almost everybody can get the kind of food they want.

      There are very few functioning cults or intentional communities, and almost no one can get the kind of community they want.

      • I’ve been eating out at this place in Tierra Oscura, Bocas Del Toro, Panamá, that offers a $3 chicken dinner, $1 beers and free child care. I highly recommend it. Ernie’s.

  6. OT. I liked Sarah’s blog article about Koons’ ballon dog although I’m not much interested in beauty in art. Her article is fair because Koons definitely is. He is not ironic about his kitsch. Koons is as much a linguistic phenomenon than an artistic. He can sell his art well as some of his critics say but only because he convincingly uses an emotive art critic language in their own way and to his favor. Ironically this is an entirely social phenomenon and it goes both directions, because art critics / historians like to keep up artistic self-interpretation and becoming part of the tribe for that reason. Instead Sarah’s approach using C.Alexanders list of criteria is objective and rationalistic. She takes artwork out of its context, abstracts it, as Hegel would say and compares it methodically. This can only go as far as the method applies and usually a (boring) method reflection would now enter the game but I leave it as it is and just enjoy the formidable work of a disembodied mind.

    Koons’ dog is not only the most expensive dog ever but apparently it inspired also the most expensive gif ever.

    So much fun and so much money.

  7. Mitt Romney's Dog says

    Re: “The excesses of Mao and Stalin are rarely observed in pre-20th-century religious contexts” and your other silly rants about Mao/Stalin.

    The Christian/capitalism conquests of North America and about a thousand other examples would like you to go back to school and relearn history.

    • Erik Mesoy says

      I would like you to provide evidence of widespread earlier excesses like those of Mao and Stalin, rather than gesture vaguely at several centuries of history and lump it under “conquests”.

    • Obama's Cat says

      I think it’s pretty clear from the context that Mrs. Perry was referring to rulers murdering their subjects en masse during peacetime, rather than conquering/displacing foreign peoples.

      For example, when Columbus killed a million Haitians, I don’t think there was a whole lot of the mental modeling going on between those two groups, due to the profound cultural differences. It was just yet another example of historical conquest and malicious incompetence.

      Wars and conquests are not unusual. What’s unusual, is when rulers use top-down authority to ruthlessly purge their own countrymen who happen to be lower on the hierarchy. The Christians did this on occasion. Like Tomás de Torquemada killed 2,000 during the Spanish Inquisition for not being proper Catholic. King Henry VIII killed 75,000 people for being protestant, until he started killing people for being Catholic.

      These numbers are tragic, but a mere trifling sum when compared to the number of civilians Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot collectively and intentionally murdered during peacetime. It had to be at least 50 million.

      When the Christians killed each other, they mainly did it through war. For example, 8 million Europeans died in the 30 Years War, which sought to convert Europe from Catholicism to Protestantism. But it wasn’t top-down purging like you’d see under communist regimes. It was mostly lords fighting lords, along with their men, who wanted to defend their homes, families, and cherished beliefs.

      There were also 8 million deaths in the Russian Civil War, which sought to convert Russia from Christianity to Marxism. Conversion is a bloody business. Christians are bloody when they go to war to convert people. Communists are bloody when they go to war to convert people. The only difference is that the Marxists *don’t stop* murdering people when the war is over. Why is that?

      • The only difference is that the Marxists *don’t stop* murdering people when the war is over. Why is that?

        Performance management.

        They were revolutionaries by occupation – at least in the first generation. If a society reached its normal level of corruption, careerism, arbitrary rule etc. this was already perceived as a form of treachery.

  8. People who are enraged by this – are you able to articulate what makes you so enraged? Do you have physical symptoms (fast heart rate etc.), and at what point during reading this did they start?

  9. Is there a name for not having the equivalent of “Bob’s model of Alice’s model of Bob”? Obviously, not having a model of Alice makes Bob mind-blind (lack of Theory of Mind), but what about the second (and, subsequently) higher orders?

    • Indeed – “theory of mind” tends to lump together the self-image-management function with the mind-modeling function. I’m not aware of a term for this!

    • This is the defining trait of cluelessness in a way. Not understanding how you are perceived. Precondition to perception management/optics.

      I don’t know that thinking formally in terms of degrees of indirection/recursion is very helpful or even conceptually well-posed (a la “set of sets” type problems). I tend to limit myself to parsing the level of indirection evident in specific individual statements/propositions in common language, like:

      “He has put me in a box, I have to work myself out of it.”

      “I want to come across as kind but firm in this piece.”

      “He is underestimating her, which is what I think she wants” is an example of a surprisingly complex, but commonplace idea.

      There are 4 levels of modeling here… with her intention being defined as a 4th level with respect to 3 levels: her self-image, his (anticipated) model of that image, her verification of his model of that image (“underestimation”) and her holding an intention regarding that underestimation, which implies a model of him that is not capable of taking it one more level (i.e., her holding that intention shows her mental model to be “He is not capable of noticing or acting on cues that invalidate his underestimation of me under ordinary circumstances; he will likely dismiss any minor discrepancies as noise.”

      I am very interested in examples of very *common* language usages like this that allow fairly ordinary/mediocre intellects to use “language macros” to operate at much higher levels of indirection than they are natively capable of processing. So a person might be only capable of 1 degree thinking (“I think he’s an idiot”) but still be able to hit 4th degree thinking by using linguistic conventions as spot-leverage mechanisms.

  10. You may be also interested in Simon Baron-Cohen’s research on Mindblindedness (e.g. ) as it ties in well with the idea of a “Genetically Clueless” caste.