Tag Archives: Robert Selman

Salvation Will Not Be Found in Politics — Updated 03/14/21

There is an apparent “war” of cultures in American politics. The so-called Red/Blue divide that seems unbridgeable. Red struggles to overcome Blue. Blue struggles to overcome Red. Each side believes fervently that it is the defender of “Truth.” Each side attempts to eke out a victory so that it might impose its view of truth on the nation as a whole. Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Garrett, in their recent book The Upswing, describe this struggle in a way that suggests a cycle. They describe one turn of the apparent cycle. The first leg of the current cycle began in the late 19th century when Blue began an ascendance and imposed its views on society. The cycle peaked around 1971 and began its second leg, which is where we are currently positioned. During the past 50 years, Red has been in ascendance and has been reversing Blue’s accomplishments and has been imposing its views on society. In discussing what needs to be done, the authors propose that the answer is to restore Blue’s programs to a dominant position. I think this is a mistake made by not taking into account the significant portion of the population that sides with Red. In my view, the only thing suppression will accomplish is to initiate a new cycle, which is not a solution at all. Both viewpoints need to be transcended.

On a longer-term basis, Iain McGilchrist, in his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, discusses a back and forth tug-a-war between the left and right brain functions. He thinks the tug-a-war has its origins in the ancient Greeks and has been operating throughout history. He spends a considerable amount of effort to document this process. McGilchrist, a neuro-psychiatrist, discusses the underlying reason for our split brain. He says that the right brain is responsible for relating and integrating our understanding of the world. Because of its relational nature, the right brain provides a dynamic and holistic view of the world and is the source of meaning in our lives. The left brain on the other hand is responsible for separating out of our perception of the world isolated pieces, which are rendered static and then divided further into pieces for examination.

According to McGilchrist, there should be cooperation between these functions. The left brain should inform the right brain about its understanding of examined pieces of the world and then the right brain should integrate this understanding into a dynamic and holistic view of the world. In short, the left brain evolved to be a tool of the right brain, which should have the overall responsibility for our understanding of the world. McGilchrist argues that currently the left brain has gained dominance over the right brain, which evolved to be the dominant partner.

Human beings can skew the intent of evolution through their ability to form concepts and abstractions that model the world. Concepts, abstractions and models are left brain functions grounded in language. The left brain has in effect “hijacked” the functions of the right brain through the use of concepts and abstractions. Unfortunately, the left brain approach leads to fragmentation rather than the needed holistic view. Ken Wilber, discussed below, would probably agree with the essence of McGilchrist’s analysis. I think this is because Wilber argues that most of our current problems are due to an extreme emphasis on quadrant three of his model (see Table in the section about Wilber), which he thinks is dominated by scientific materialism with its emphasis on the senses of perception and an objectifying and externalizing of everything to the exclusion of humanity’s inner life and resources.

The political cycle described by Putnam and Garrett and possibly the tug-a-war described by McGilchrist seems likely to be linked to how we form identities and worldviews. Before proceeding, it is necessary to provide some background. I will attempt to describe identity formation through the lens of psychological development. I will begin by mentioning the French developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, who sequenced cognitive development into a four-tiered structure. The first tier was sensorimotor, then preoperational, then concrete operational and finally the formal operational tier. While there have been criticisms of the model and suggestions for one or more additional stages the original model, in practice, has held up robustly.

For example, the Harvard psychologist, Lawarence Kohlberg, adapted Piaget’s scheme to his study of moral reasoning. He structured moral reasoning into a three-tiered sequence. The first tier was pre-conventional, then conventional and finally post-conventional. Each tier was divided into two stages for a total of six stages. The sixth stage is often omitted from the developmental sequence. This omission occurs because its achievement is so rare that there are not enough examples of it available to study and give it a firm empirical basis (see Addendum I at the end).

Kohlberg’s developmental model for moral reasoning has been widely studied and validated in cultures around the world, including both developed and emerging societies. The structure and stages have held up across cultures. The primary differences found between cultures has been the rate of development through the stages and the stage that emerges as the dominant typical stage in any given culture.

Further, studies have confirmed a relationship between moral reasoning and behavior, though it is a complex relationship. Studies have found deficits in moral reasoning in psychopaths as compared to neurotics. Research also shows a significant difference in moral reasoning between delinquents and non-delinquent adolescents. A common finding in these studies was an association of preconventional reasoning with antisocial behavior. Development of moral reasoning has also been found to be slower and more variable in troubled children relative to typical children.

Research has also supported structured, developmental discussions of moral issues as a method for stimulating development of moral reasoning. This has been shown to be supported in programs with public school students, emotionally disturbed adolescents, college students, delinquents and prisoners. In a study to see if public school teachers could implement a moral education program, teachers successfully conducted the program and produced significant changes, which upon a two-year follow-up were either maintained or continued to progress. One caveat is that research found that moral reasoning in a natural context with real life content was lower than moral reasoning in an educational setting with hypothetical content.

The primary criticism levied against Kohlberg’s model was from a former student of Kohlberg’s, Carol Gilligan. Her criticism was not about the model structure but of the assessment content used to place individuals in the scheme. Her criticism was that the assessment material was male-centric. Her argument, which was shown to have merit, was that moral reasoning in men tends to be best assessed through issues related to rights and justice, while moral reasoning in women tends to be best assessed through issues related to care and responsibility. She would rename some of the stages in Kohlberg’s model when applied to women using names related to care and responsibility.

Here it is worth mentioning another example. A student of Kohlberg’s, Robert Selman, developed a model of social reasoning. At the end of this essay, Addendum I provides an outline of Kohlberg and Selman’s models based on material in a textbook that I wrote in 1989.

The psychologist/philosopher, Ken Wilber, suggests that about 40% of the U.S. population is at stage four and has an ethnocentric personal identity. This stage marks the transition from preoperational to concrete operational thinking. Ethnocentrists identify with others from similar backgrounds and with similar attributes. People at this stage can take a second person perspective. This stage is often described as being populated by “true believers” and conformist. They are literal thinkers that view the world through narratives (a.k.a. myths). Moral behavior is governed by internalized rules, which are rigidly held and enforced.

Wilber indicates that about 50% of the U.S. population is at stage five, which is based in thinking at the formal operations level and is associated with a worldcentric personal identity. Persons at this stage can take a third person perspective. One identifies with an integrated and unified view rooted in a concern for the wellbeing of the whole. Whereas stage four might be called an “us” stage, stage five could be called an “all of us” stage. It is an orientation that views the world as rational. Moral behavior is governed by strongly held principles or ideals. This stage did not start to take root in the west until about 300 years ago.

The third relevant stage to this discussion is stage six. This stage did not begin taking root until the middle of the twentieth century. It was first evident in the revolutionary youth movement and counterculture of the 1960s. The ability to take a fourth person perspective at this stage led to criticism of and deconstruction of third person perspectives that arose out of stage five. This stage led to an emphasis on egalitarianism, cultural relativism and multiculturalism. Wilber suggests that this group represents about 25% of the U.S. population. While the percentages for the stages discussed add up to more than 100%, it must be taken into account that due to transitions some people are double counted. The above configuration sets up a perfect situation for a clash between traditional, rational and multicultural values.

Wilber’s model is more complex than the simple and brief description above. Wilber’s full analysis is detailed and quite complex. If you’re interested in the detailed analysis, I suggest that you read it for yourself. Probably the most comprehensive presentation is his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. If you are put off by the word spiritual, I don’t think Wilber would mind if you simply substitute the term “consciousness,” where the term has a much broader meaning than merely being the opposite of unconscious. I have included a brief description of all eight stages in Wilber’s model below as Addendum Two.

Back to the “war” of political cultures. The bad news is that the research indicates that in American society, the majority of adults function at either stage four or stage five. This means that most Americans will have either a conformist attitude toward life or an individualist attitude. These two groups are supported by value systems that clash — traditional versus rational. The conformists depend upon mythologies or stories about the nature of the world, how it operates, what is necessary and so on. These narratives provide their blueprint for understanding the world, which can be a fairly simplistic such as “my country right or wrong.” The individualist depend on logic and rational analysis, which can be fairly complex such as scientific materialism, which assumes that everything arises from matter and that everything can be understood by objectifying it, isolating it, reducing it to its constituent parts and examining the relationship of the parts to one another. The important point here is that these beliefs or assumptions, if you prefer, are a product of an attained pattern of thinking. One does not change such patterns of thinking by persuasion or by coercion. One must develop or evolve beyond them.

If one thinks that they can be changed otherwise, I would ask you to consider the ethnic conflicts that erupted in eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The USSR had largely suppressed ethnic conflicts for many decades through its coercive domination of eastern Europe. However, as soon as the external inhibition was removed, the conflicts soon bubbled to the surface because the patterns of thinking of the involved populations had not evolved but had only been suppressed. They may have even regressed under authoritarian domination. On the other hand, let’s look at scientific materialism as an example of the failure of persuasion. For over a century evidence has been accumulating that scientific materialism cannot account for all the phenomena being documented. I have two large volumes in my personal library cataloging evidence that can’t be explained by scientific materialism, persuasive evidence developed through the methods advocated by science and meeting and exceeding the criteria established for judging such data. The response has largely been to ignore the data, discount the data, attack the researchers producing the data and so on. It is no wonder that it has been said that science progresses one funeral at a time. It almost seems that death is the only way to overcome the resistance to different ways of thinking.

Which brings us back to the American culture war. What we have here is a conflict grounded in various conflicting identities. The difficulty of ending this conflict is evident in the observation of the French philosopher Francis Jacques, who noted that participants in such identity-based conflicts usually see only two options. Either they can assimilate the worldview of the opponent or they can impose their world-view on the opponent. We see very little if any migration of members of the Red tribe to the Blue tribe or the converse. So, the exercise of the first option doesn’t seem very likely. What we do see are attempts to implement option two. Both tribes strive to attain the political power necessary to impose their worldview upon the other tribe. Even if one of them succeeds it will be a temporary victory. There will not have been a fundamental change in the pattern of thinking in the “suppressed,” nor will they cease seeking a way to regain the upper hand.

So, is there a way out of this dilemma? There may be but it isn’t a quick and easy fix. The way out is to evolve out of current patterns of conventional thinking. I mentioned research that suggested that evolution of thinking can be stimulated by educational programs. Broad-based education efforts with children is one strategy. Targeted educational programs for adolescents and adults is another strategy. The late and renowned physicist and philosopher David Bohm attempted to address this problem in his book On Dialogue. This book discusses a format for large group dialogue intended to alter patterns of thinking. His is not an educational or a persuasive approach but rather an exposure and assimilation approach. The main thing that he thinks must be overcome is thinking that one’s opinions or assumptions are necessary and therefore justify anything in their defense. He finds that sitting in a large diverse group and listening to but not challenging the freely expressed assumptions of group members will in time bring the members of the group to a level of understanding of one another and a softening of the certainty of their assumptions. Once one becomes less dogmatic about and less identified with one’s assumptions then the path toward evolution in one’s pattern of thinking becomes a possibility. It is mentioned that this careful examination of one’s assumptions can be done individually but lacks the breadth and diversity of a group process. As Bohm says, “[a] problem is insoluble as long as you keep producing it all the time by your thought.”

Ken Wilber has also suggested that on an individual level an effective strategy for changing one’s pattern of thinking is meditation. He says this because meditation is an introspective observation of the arising and dissolving of one’s thoughts. Such observation leads to a clearer understanding of the nature of thought and its influence over you. One of the principle experiential insights that meditation can produce is the recognition that at root you are not your thoughts. Another is that your core identity is non-conceptual. The operative word is experiential. This recognition is not an idea, concept or belief but an experience. You might think that skydiving would be exhilarating but until you actually have the experience it is just an idea. The meditation strategy is associated with quadrant one in Wilber’s map of human knowledge and experience shown below in a simplified format.

                        Internal                                                                 External

1. Interior-Individual-Intentional (I)

       3. Exterior-Individual-Behavioral (It)

2. Interior-Collective-Culture (We)

       4. Exterior-Collective-Social (Its)

Wilber suggests that part of the problem we face is an overemphasis on exteriorized products of thinking, especially objective knowledge. He doesn’t think objective knowledge is bad, just that it has been emphasized to the point of crowding out other equally important aspects of being human. His meditation strategy belongs in quadrant one, representing individual interiority. As the ancient Greek aphorism says, “Know thyself.”

Any attempt to implement programs like those mentioned above are certain to be met by resistance, especially large-scale educational programs imposed on the unwilling. Voluntary programs are more likely to be accepted. If such programs produce positive results, then more people are likely to be open to participation. Probably the easiest group program to implement would be a group dialogue program such as proposed by Bohm. These should be community-based to ensure that sufficient diversity of views are represented. Of course, the suggestion by Wilber to undertake a systematic observation of one’s own thought processes through a meditation program has only one person’s opposition to overcome – yours. Should you be interested in a solo exploration, I recommend his book Integral Mindfulness.

It appears to me that the only way to resolve the dilemma that we face is to evolve our way out of it. This may be a difficult solution and perhaps we lack the foresight and long-term perspective needed to succeed. All other tactics, even when they appear to be successful, will in the end prove to be temporary and we will find ourselves cycling through the same struggle again and again. How long this can be sustained without imploding our civilization is difficult to say but that is the probable price of failure.

If this post has stimulated your interest, I recommend you to read the books mentioned and draw your own conclusions. I also suggest that you take a look at the two addenda below, especially Addendum II.

 

Addendum I

Levels I,II, III.              Stages 1, 2, 3…               Models (a) Kohlberg, (b) Selman

I.              Pre-conventional

1.          a. Punishment-obedience orientation. What’s right is what avoids punitive consequences.

            b. Individuals as physical entities. One socially interacts with others who have similar superficial and      observable characteristics, such as sex, skin color, etc.

 2.          a. Instrumental-Relativist, exchange orientation. What’s right is what secures a reciprocal exchange; i.e., I’ll scratch your back, if you’ll scratch mine.

              b. Individuals as intentional agents. One socially interacts with others to temporarily secure their support or assistance.

 II.          Conventional

3.          a. Good-boy, good-girl orientation. What’s right is what is consistent with social expectations, especially with family expectations.

             b. Individuals are introspective. One employs mutual perspective taking as a strategy to further one’s self-interests in specific situations.

 4.          a. Authority-rules, law and order orientation. What’s right is what conforms to the rules set by authorities, especially social institutions such as religious authorities or legal authorities associated with the community in which one lives.               

               b. Individuals have relative stable personalities. Social interaction arises out of mutual interests and sharing with others. Relationships have duration over time based on the expectation that the other will continue to conform to one’s expectations.

 III.          Post-conventional

5.          a. Social-contract orientation. What is right is what satisfies standards examined and agreed upon by society.

             b. Individuals are complex self-systems. Social interactions are recognized as involving complex and often conflicting needs met through a variety of relationships.

6.          a. Universal Ethical Principles, personal conscience orientation. What is right is what is consistent with comprehensive, self-evolved and logically consistent ethical principles.                     

             b. No parallel.

Addendum II

Stages of Growing Up from Ken Wilber’s AQAL Model

Introduction

The following stages are based upon a large body of research by a variety of developmental researchers, such as Jean Piaget among many others. Note that developmental stages imply a progression where one must begin at the initial stage and then through developmental experience move up to the next stage in the sequence. When a move up occurs the lower stage is absorbed by the new stage rather than the previous stage being left behind. Thus, someone at a higher stage can understand where someone at a lower stage is “coming from,” so to speak. However, a person at a lower stage has little or no basis for understanding where someone at a higher stage is coming from. Further, one cannot skip stages in a developmental sequence though movement through a stage can be sped up. There is no guarantee that one will move through the entire developmental sequence. Typically, one arrives at what will be one’s final stage by late adolescence, however, there are emerging methods for stimulating development into adulthood. Keep in mind that except in transition periods, there is usually a dominant developmental stage evident in the majority of persons in a population. This does not mean that other stages aren’t present during a given period just that they are less common or in some cases even rare. Finally, note that the descriptions below are brief stage summaries and are fixed descriptions of what is a dynamic process during the developmental period.

1.              Archaic (Infared) : The most fundamental stage and the least significant. One exist in a state of fusion with the environment. At this stage, when an instinctual drive arises one becomes that drive; e.g., one isn’t hungry one is hunger. Normally only seen in infants prior to individuation. It is never seen in a typical adult. It is possible for typical adults to carry fixations from this period, which means that the person is still identified with some part of this stage.

2.              Magic Tribal (Magenta) : Very few adults will be found at this stage. It is the beginnings of a separate self. There is a fundamental distinction between self and other at an emotional level, but there continues to be some confusion around self and the exterior environment. This confusion gives rise to animistic thoughts in which human qualities are attributed to things in the exterior environment; e.g., Lightening strikes because it wants to kill me. Magical thinking also occurs in this stage; e.g., if I hold a wish intensely enough I will manifest what I wish for. If I pray hard enough I will be cured.

3.              Magic Mythic (Red) : A person at this stage engages in preoperational thinking and has an egocentric identity. A separate self is more fully developed in this stage and this leads to a concern with security and self-protection. At this stage a power drive emerges. An exaggerated power drive often produces an inner critic that may create feelings of inferiority. For someone at this stage what they want is what is right and this justifies simply taking it. They tend to be not only egocentric but narcissistic. They are only capable of taking a first person perspective (me/mine). They are incapable of being empathetic; i.e., seeing and feeling a situation from someone else’s perspective. Joseph Stalin is often offered as an example of this stage.

4.              Mythic Traditional (Amber) : This level can also be described as the conformist stage. Cognitive processing shifts from a preoperational mode to a concrete operational mode. Thinking is now capable of performing cognitive operations on things in the external world. A person at this level has developed some capacity taking a second person perspective. This marks the shift from an egocentric to ethnocentric identity. This means that such an individual can now find belongingness in groups; e.g., family, clan, tribe, nation, religion, political party, etc. Wilber indicates that about 40% of the American adult population is at this stage, which includes people not fully transitioned into it and those beginning to transition out of it. People at this stage are highly rule governed and believe in stringent enforcement of rules. They are concrete thinkers and hold unquestioned belief in cultural narratives, which are viewed literally and held as absolutely true. They are easily led to place all power and authority in a single person who is viewed as omnipotent. People in this group may become true believers in a fundamentalist religion, political movement or scientism (scientific dogma).

5.              Rational Modern (Orange) : Cognitive processing shifts from a concrete operations mode to a formal operations mode. Thinking is now capable of performing cognitive operations on thought. A person at this level as developed some capacity for taking a third person perspective. They can now step back from themselves and come to a relatively objective opinion about themselves. This leads to the development of self-esteem needs and true individuality. For such an individual there can now emerge a drive for excellence, achievement and progress. Wilber indicates that about 50% of the American adult population is at this stage, which includes people not fully transitioned into it and those beginning to transition out of it. There is a shift from an ethnocentric to a worldcentric identity, which means the person is capable of taking an objective, scientific and universal perspective. This stage marks a move to an ability for greater inclusiveness; i.e., from “us” “to all of us.” Stage 5 didn’t begin to emerge in any significant degree in the west until about 300 years ago. It is viewed by Wilber to be a highly significant development. Stage 4 (Conformists) and Stage 5 (Individualists) together make up a majority of the current U.S. population and should be expected to be in direct and regular conflict.

6.              Pluralistic Postmodern (Green) : With this stage there arises an ability for fourth person perspective taking, which can reflect on, analyze,, critique and deconstruct third person perspectives. People at this stage only began to show up in any numbers around the middle of the twentieth century. The emergence of the youth revolution and counterculture movement at this time marked the arrival of the first postmodern stage. The fourth person perspective of this stage led to an emphasis on relativism and multiple approaches that rejected any universals or unified views. All viewpoints are seen as local and culturally constructed. Postmodernism especially rejects any “-isms” of any type. The pluralistic view is egalitarian and sees everyone as absolutely equal and no culture is superior to any other culture. Thus the emergences of multiculturalism in the late twentieth century. Members of this stage lead with the heart and rely on feelings rather than the head and logical analysis. Another characteristic of this stage is the rejection of all hierarchies as evil. What it fails to do is differentiate between “dominator” hierarchies and “growth” hierarchies. The self-contradiction in postmodernism, of course, is that it holds and promotes its view as being superior to all others. Wilber indicates that about 25% of the U.S. population can be classified at Stage Six. While Stage 4 at 40% and Stage 5 at 50% and Stage 6 at 25% exceeds 100% bear in mind that there are people in transition and likely counted twice. Some writers on developmental stages use notation along these lines 1, 1/2, 2, 2/3, 3, etc. This sets up the perfect storm of a clash between traditional, rational and multicultural values.

7.              Integral (Turquoise) : This stage has only begun to be noticed by developmental researchers in the past few decades. It is still quiet rare and probably evident in less than 5% of the population. It is a second tier stage and the major mark of this stage is a drive for wholeness. One result of this is that the Integral stage is the only stage that sees the value of all the lower stages and their necessity for the developmental process. Bearers of this stage function at next to the last step in Maslow’s needs hierarchy — self-actualization. At this stage, thinking and feeling for the first time are brought together in a tight integration. This stage’s value for wholeness and inclusiveness leads people at the integral level to look at issues and problems in large, broad contexts, such as seeing environmental problems as a biosphere problem not purely a local issue. This broad perspective leads to little sympathy for partisan politics either nationally or globally. As an established stage it is the stage with the greatest depth of all the stages to date.

8.              Super Integral Stages (White) : This represents possibly as many a four additional stages that would be tier three stages. These projections are based on the assumption that the universe is inherently loving and creative otherwise evolution would never have gotten underway and produced anything new at all. These stages are thought to be driven by an increasing focus on wholeness, inclusiveness, increasing consciousness, increasing love and care and concern, which is inherently built into the universe as we know it. It is thought that persons operating at this level currently exist but are very rare and represent significantly less than 1% of the population.

The Role of Belief in the Evolution of Consciousness

           The evolution of consciousness that I’ve referred to in the title of other pieces (here and here) about a process. It is an ongoing process that in the view of some can spread over many lifetimes. It can never, in any absolute sense, come to a conclusion because the possibilities for spiritual growth may be virtually infinite. By spiritual growth I mean development of one’s consciousness in ways that lead to an experience of connectedness with a larger reality that yields a more comprehensive understanding of the essence of one’s being and the reality in which we live.

It can be argued that the whole of human motivation and action is predicated upon what one believes. By way of an analogy, think of the brain as the processing chips in a computer and the mind as the software all of which depends upon the operating system. I would suggest that our mind functions according to a belief system, which is similar to an operating system in a computer. If you change the operating system on a computer from Windows to Linux, the computer will perform differently. It will still be a computer and it will still have the limitations inherent in its hardware but it will use some capabilities differently and will have access to some capabilities that were previously unused and may lose access to still other capabilities. If computers aren’t your thing, here is another but weaker analogy. Think about the output from your DVD player (hardware) when your change the DVD disc (software) from one of a traditional, small screen, black and white movie with monaural sound to a disc containing a modern, widescreen, color movie with stereo sound. The DVD player hasn’t changed but the output has been significantly affected by a change in the software. We all have a belief system. Just as you can change the operating system on your computer, you can change or modify your belief system. Such change is not always easy, nor without difficulties but it can also be quite self-enhancing. In fact, there is little reason to prefer one system of personal beliefs over another, except for how well the system works for you. It can be argued that any system of belief that doesn’t lead to coercion or violence toward others, for egotistical reasons, and is self-affirming is a personally valid belief system.

What is a belief system? A belief system is a set of filters through which we process experience and thereby come to an understanding of events. The late psychologist George Kelly called these filters personal constructs. Kelly believed that we have what he calls a core construct with subsidiary constructs that are superordinate and subordinate to one another. A given set of beliefs would then create a pyramid of constructs or filters, not unlike a flow chart for a chain of command. When there is a conflict between beliefs, a superordinate belief will take precedence over a subordinate belief, at least in a functional system. Another psychologist, Robert Hogan, suggests in his socioanalytic theory that most people have one of two constructs that underlie their beliefs about morality, which he characterizes as personal conscience and social responsibility. In the former, the superordinate belief is that people are inherently good and that injustice arises from oppressive social institutions. In the latter, the superordinate belief is that people are inherently bad and that social institutions protect people from injustice.

Once we process an event through our beliefs and think we understand the nature of it, we are better able to formulate a response to it. It does not necessarily follow that the response will be a functional response or even a rational response. For a belief system to take root it need only produce a functional response more often than not. Belief systems that produce a preponderance of non-functional responses and fail to adjust become the basis for various psychological or mental disorders. Sometimes a belief system is dysfunctional because we hold contradictory superordinate beliefs that alone might be functional but when in opposition are dysfunctional. The psychologist and psychotherapist Albert Ellis (see Foundations sub-section in Part I) suggested that the primary task of childhood socialization is to establish a belief system. A noted psychiatrist, Michael Gazzaniga (see Automatic Programs sub-section in Part I), has even argued that human beings are belief-creating machines. Ellis would agree but add that we are also predisposed to creating irrational beliefs, an assertion supported by scientific evidence.

Beliefs are important and powerful. On the positive side, consider the placebo effect in medical experiments. Individuals who are diagnosed with an illness and are unknowingly included in the control group often have as much improvement in their condition from the placebo treatment as do the patients in the experimental group who get the experimental treatment. On the negative side, consider the possibility that your beliefs could just as easily cause you to acquire an illness. Or, consider the role of beliefs in hate crimes or the powerful beliefs that lead some individuals to engage in suicidal attacks on their perceived enemies. In the area of education, research on methods of teaching reading have found that the effectiveness of a method is strongly influenced by whether or not the teacher using it believes it to be effective. Finally, research has shown that teachers’ beliefs about their students’ abilities affect the way they interact with those students, which in turn affects the beliefs of the students about themselves. This research study found that student performance was independent of measured ability. In short, a teacher’s beliefs can lead a student to under- or overachieve relative to measured ability. Beliefs then are potent enough to affect all aspects of our lives.

Ellis offers a model for understanding the role of belief. In its simplest form it is called the ABC model. The A is for an antecedent event. The B is for our belief about the event. The C is for the consequences of our belief about the event. There are two possible consequences. One is an emotional consequence or response, which often motivates a behavioral response. In short, our emotions and behavior follow our beliefs. When we construe an event through our belief system, we may choose to ignore the event on the basis that no further attention or other response is called for. We may interpret the event as bad and have a negative emotional response to it. If the negative emotional response is strong enough, it will motivate a negative behavioral response. We may interpret the event as good and have either a positive emotional response or both a positive emotional and behavioral response to it. Emotions, especially primal emotions like fear arising from the limbic system, are, evolutionarily speaking, older than thought, especially rational thought originating in the neocortex. Thus, in some sense primal emotions and rational thought have an hierarchical relationship. On the one hand, we should attempt to move toward decreased negative functioning by freeing ourselves from irrational negative emotions through the use of rational thought. On the other hand, we should attempt to increase positive functioning by strengthening rational positive emotions through the expansion of empathy. Becoming reflective about our beliefs, emotions and behavior rather than being reactive is an essential task in the evolution of consciousness.

Rational thought is the best tool available for evaluating our beliefs about events and the emotional responses that those beliefs elicit. Ellis contends that our tendency to think irrationally results in distortions, flaws, and inaccuracies in our belief system. Parents, peers, community institutions, such as schools, churches, political parties, and the media can introduce distortions into our belief system, if we accept their influence uncritically. Not only are distortions possible in commonly held beliefs, but personal aspects of our belief system are prone to distortions that result from our own faulty thinking. Ellis suggests that we must evaluate our beliefs, particularly when they are leading us into dysfunctional behavior, which is usually but not always motivated by negative emotion. Ellis’ full model is ABCDE. The D in his model stands for disputation, which requires that one challenge the validity of a belief and dispute the rationales offered in its defense. If the belief is found wanting, the goal is to find a more self-affirming way of construing (believing and thinking about) events so that they don’t elicit negative emotions and dysfunctional behavior in the future. The E stands for evaluation of the subsequent results produced by the disputation process. Correctly identifying and changing irrational beliefs is not easy and may sometimes require assistance and an investment of time.

If you have any question, as most of us probably should, about the rationality of our belief system, you should undertake an exploration and evaluation of your beliefs. When engaged in such a practice, you should not attempt to suppress emotional responses because you must experience emotions in order to trace them back to the beliefs that produced them. You may want to suppress a direct behavioral response or engage in as neutral a response as possible until you are more certain about what a rational and self-affirming response would be. Exercising careful control over behavior during this practice also ensures that there is a minimal probability of your behavior exacerbating a situation. Even if the belief under examination appears to be valid and the emotion elicited by the belief is appropriate, the behavioral response motivated by the emotion could be dysfunctional either because it is situation inappropriate (you don’t really know what to do) or at an inappropriate intensity level (you over- or under react). One should always attempt to attain an optimal fit between a situation and one’s response to it.

Positive emotions such as love and compassion can also be based on irrational beliefs and lead to dysfunctional behavior, though negative emotions probably result more frequently from irrational beliefs. The critical test is whether or not the emotion leads to behavior that is self-depreciating. Avoiding reactive responses under negative circumstances can be self-enhancing and potentially beneficial both to you and to an antagonist in a situation. Initially, it is more difficult to draw on love or compassion to motivate one’s response in such a situation than to merely be emotionally detached from it. As one progresses in the evolution of consciousness, it should become easier to draw on positive feelings in a negative situation and to act from those feelings. In short, what I am proposing is that there is an emotional/behavioral continuum along which one might select a response in a given situation that runs from negative to detached to positive. For most of us, the bridge between negative and detached is probably rationality. The bridge between detached and positive is probably empathy. You may recall that in a previous presentation I talked about expanding empathy as being the way to crowd out egotism and selfishness, which are rooted in irrational beliefs.

How does one become more empathetic? The primary tool for working on empathy is perspective taking, which depends upon the development of social perception. Perspective taking is the process of trying to identify with another person and see things as you imagine they see them. There is an interesting developmental sequence that one goes through in refining perspective taking. Robert Selman, a psychologist, has found that we first learn to identify with other people on the basis of external physical similarities such as age, sex and race. Second, we learn to identify with other people on the basis of psychological similarities such as mutual interests, beliefs and attitudes. Third, we learn to identify with other people through self-reflection, that is, by recognizing social roles played by others and imagining oneself filling that role. This is the limit of social perception attained by a significant proportion of the population. Fourth, we learn to identify with others through third-person role-taking or being able to take the perspective of an abstract point-of-view. This is a significant refinement of social perspective taking that is achieved by a minority of adults. The final way in which we learn to identify with others is through a generalized perspective based on multiple, abstract social perspectives, such as, political vs. legal vs. religious vs. moral vs. personal vs. professional. In short, acquiring an understanding of another person as a complex, multidimensional social being. This is the most advanced and rarest form of social perception and permits the most sophisticated identification with others and thereby empathetic understanding of them.

The process of developing better social perception and expanding our capacity for empathy requires cultivating relationships, especially with people who we perceive as different from ourselves. Another psychologist, Sidney Jourard, has emphasized the role of what he calls the transparent-self in establishing empathetic relationships with others. What Jourard means by transparent-self is that in order to identify with another it is necessary to have some understanding of that person. The best way to gain understanding of another person is for them to be willing to share their inner self with you. One of the necessary ingredients in making this happen, according to Jourard, is a willingness to reveal yourself to that person. Revealing oneself is often threatening and a block to developing greater social perception. If you cannot reveal what you believe and feel about your own life and circumstances, it is hardly reasonable to expect someone else to do so.

Thus, the first step is to consider how functional your emotional responses are, especially in relation to the behaviors that they motivate. For example, imagine someone walking through a mall who sees their spouse having lunch with a member of the opposite sex. Further, suppose that person’s emotional reactions include anger, jealousy and betrayal. Based on this emotional reaction, the person storms into the restaurant and confronts the spouse and lunch companion with accusations of infidelity. What does this emotional reaction and behavior motivated by it suggest about the person’s beliefs? Clearly, it suggests that the spouse is not believed to be trustworthy and that the spouse is believed to be capable of infidelity. Suppose that in fact it turns out that the lunch companion is actually a legitimate business client and the lunch is purely business related. It seems reasonable to conclude that our imaginary person very likely holds some irrational beliefs and it is not hard to imagine that these beliefs will lead to disaster. On the other hand, suppose there is good reason to think that the beliefs are justified. One can still ask if the emotional and behavioral consequences in this situation are rational and self-affirming. I would argue that they are not. Further, one might ask what other beliefs does this person hold that is keeping them in a relationship in which the other party is known to be untrustworthy? How rational are those beliefs?

When you identify beliefs that are problematic, examine your belief system and deal with any irrational beliefs that lead you to dysfunctional feelings and actions. Second, even if the beliefs you hold are valid one should consider if their consequences are in balance with the situations in which they occur. Third, rational analysis and thoughtful application of what one learns from self-analysis can lead to both more self-affirming beliefs and consequences that better fit circumstances. Following this work one can most effectively begin developing social perspective taking abilities and expanding one’s empathic connection to others. The next step is to allow your improved empathetic understanding to further refine your beliefs and extend your range of positive emotional and behavioral responses, even in situations that appear to call for negative responses. Not only will this be a better response for your own spiritual development, but it will have the greatest potential for moving an antagonist in a more positive direction.

Becoming spiritually whole through the evolution of consciousness is a process. It is the process of sculpting ourselves, especially our beliefs, emotions and behavior. It is a personal journey that few if any of us will ever see completed.