What are the root causes of the many divides we see in American today, and how can we can heal as a nation and as a single species? This is perhaps the most important question facing us today. In the essay below, I will attempt to present my thoughts on the matter from the perspective of a humanistic psychologist.
In attempting to understand how humans can realize their highest potential, I have found it pertinent to take a needs-based perspective. We all have fundamental basic needs, that when severely thwarted, cause us to all act in the same predictable fashion. One of my biggest influences is the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, who often pondered why people could be so cruel. In one unpublished note, he concluded that it’s due to the “insecurity cycle”:
… from this flows everything…. The person who behaves badly behaves so because of hurt, actual and expected, and lashes out in self-defense, as a cornered animal might. The fact is that people are good, if only their fundamental wishes are satisfied, their wishes for affection and security. Give people affection and security, and they will give affection and be secure in their feelings and behavior.
Take the need for safety. Humans are “prediction machines.” Our brains are wired so that we can make sense of our environment and attempt to predict the future. Having a safe enough base to explore is essential to growth and health as a human. In the absence of that base, people become overly dependent on the protection, love, affection and esteem of others, which can compromise growth, development and meaning in life. Early in our childhood our brains work like a “weather forecast” system; if we face continuous unpredictability and harshness in our environment our brains begin to expect such a future.
While we can shift our expectations of the future over time, it takes active work to do so. Fear-learning and fear-unlearning operate in different systems of the brain. The original research on “learned helplessness”—which showed that animals (including humans) can learn to feel helpless even when freedom is available—has been updated in recent years. It seems that it is not the helplessness that is learned; that is the default response to adversity. Instead, it is hope that must be learned.
Sometimes it is a shift in mindset and perspective that matters; but often it is a change in environmental contingencies that matter. In one remarkable natural experiment, researchers set out to assess changes in aggression over an eight-year period among a presentative sample of children living in poverty (one quarter of them being Native American). Halfway through the study, a gambling casino opened on the Indian reservation, and every man, woman and child living on the reservation began receiving a percentage of the royalties.
The effects of moving out of poverty were clearly visible. Those who received the royalties experienced a reduction in psychiatric symptoms so marked that “by the fourth year the symptom levels were the same in children who moved out of poverty as in children who were never poor.” For those who were never poor, there was little change in psychiatric symptoms. Critically, the effect of moving out of poverty was strongest for behavioral symptoms such as aggression and hostility. These findings highlight how much our environmental perception of safety and security (even just economic security) can influence our behavior, and critically, how malleable behaviors such aggression and hostility can be once those perceptions are changed.
I would also like to touch upon another basic need that I think lies at the root of so many of the divisions we see today in our country. That is, the need to matter. As Rebecca Goldstein put it, “The will to survive evolves, in a higher creature like us, into the will to matter.”
This is not a surface-level need. The need to matter is deeply existential. We all live with the idea (either consciously or subconsciously) that our lives are finite; that there is an expiration date to our being. At a very deep level, humans want to feel as though their actions have an impact on the world and that there is something that they can uniquely contribute to the world.
There’s one level upon which we can feel we don’t matter. Many people suffering from depression feel as though they aren’t the author of their lives in any meaningful way. Not only do they feel incompetent in accomplishing the most mundane daily tasks of life, but they often feel incapable of enacting their longer-term goals. This can be the result of past failures that have put them into a state of learned helplessness or can be the result of real barriers to goal attainment in the present.
While both causes must be addressed, it’s the structural aspect that is often neglected by society at best or is willfully destroyed at worst. Many people in American today feel they don’t matter to their society. In order to self-actualize, one must metaphorically open one’s sails and be vulnerable to the inevitable winds and waves of the world. One must transcend fear and enter a state of curiosity and exploration, getting outside one’s comfort zone, and reaching toward the higher reaches of human nature.
But this is easier said than done, especially when we feel as though we don’t matter by the larger society in which we are embedded. This is a need that is part of humanity; regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, politics or any of the other things that give us a unique identity. There can be many subtle and not-so-subtle cues that we don’t matter, and this can cause us to close our sails and stop exploring the vast unknown of the sea.
So, what can be done?
This is really the crux of the issue. How we can use this information about universal basic needs to construct a world in which everyone feels safe, secure, connected, and inspired to self-actualize and contribute to the good society? I can only offer the briefest of outline here.
Of course, the most basic economic foundation must be put in place for all Americans to feel free from the most basic of physical threats (e.g., homelessness, crime, lack of healthcare). However, the most important foundation isn’t always economic. As a society, we must not neglect the pervasive need for connection.
Loneliness is a serious threat to public health. A recent survey suggests that 35 percent of adults age 45 and older say they are lonely, or approximately 47.8 million adults. In his book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, social psychologist John Cacioppo reports that “social isolation has an impact on health comparable to the effect of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity or smoking.” I suggest that the government put more economic resources into building community centers and places people can go to receive social support, and of course making these places accessible to everyone in the neighborhood. We must not underestimate the importance of connection, especially for older people who are feeling increasingly isolated in this world.
I think messaging matters. Messaging can deeply influence whether people feel as though they matter. I have great respect for a government that acknowledges the suffering of underserved populations and the disparities that exist; that explicitly states that underserved populations belong in this country and that they have something important to contribute to the good society. This should include racial and ethnic minorities in America but must not neglect to encompass all Americans who are languishing in poverty, severe social isolation or poor mental health.
In my view, one of the surest ways to actively stoke division in the country is to give the message that only some Americans who are suffering matter. If we are going to heal this nation and truly live up to the promise of a United States of America, I firmly believe that the messaging should be a deeply humanistic message, not one divided solely based on race. We must work on systemic issues of racial injustice, but we must also be clear that this is not the only issue of inequality that our country faces. We must not forget that mental illness is often more invisible but no less important to address, and that mental illness can afflict—and most likely will afflict—every single American at some point in their lives.
Until we take a more humanistic perspective on healing the divides in American—one that takes into account the underlying basic needs that we all share—I believe the divides will continue to widen and people will increasingly be distrustful and cynical of each other.
The America I envision is one in which everyone feels trust in their immediate environment as well as trust in their government. This will require a strong messaging where everyone feels that their suffering matters and that suffering isn’t a competition; that their suffering isn’t being ranked as more or less important than anyone else.
Beyond messaging, real structural issues must be addressed that put the necessary resources into helping people feel not only more safe and secure in their environment but also more connected to people from all different walks of life. The best antidote to fear is exposure. America is becoming a nation of silos and echo chambers. People fear the “other” because the other is becoming more and more unknown, allowing the conspiracies to become more and more exaggerated. The root cause of many forms of discrimination is hate grounded in fear of the unknown.
The more we can get people listening to each other, caring about each other, and not pitting each other’s pain against each other, the more we can begin to not only restore America’s soul but transcend America’s soul, becoming more human than we have ever been before.
Parts of this article were adapted from TRANSCEND by Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House. LLC Copyright (c) 2020 by Scott Barry Kaufman.
This is an opinion and analysis article.