In over our heads – complex demands and another angle to the unhinging

Around the middle of last year, Possum Comitatus aka Scott Steel in The Kings Tribune revisited his post on “The Great Unhinging” by going into some of the things he’d picked up in qualitative and quantitative research and economic statistics which allowed him to predict how politics would be played during the current term of parliament.

The three threads underlying the unhinging which have been present in the Australian electorate since 2006 are:

1. A significant expectations gap between standards of living and consumption patterns a household expected to purchase and what their income actually provided for them to purchase in practice leading to feelings of resentment and entitlement in the community

2. A growing aversion to complexity

3. A sharp rise in perceived uncertainty

It’s a superb piece of writing. It’s one of three on Australian politics I recommend reading in order to get a bit of a grip on where things are at currently in the national conversation. The shoutiness might have died down a lot in relation to issues such as the carbon tax and the mining tax, but the actual dynamic is still firmly in place regardless of who’s in government, who’s in opposition, what’s in the media and so on.

What I want to do with this post is attempt to explain why that might be the case and make the unhinging a little more three-dimensional.

In previous posts, I’ve gone over a couple of models that show how moral worldviews develop, how they relate to values systems and how they’re communicated in the national conversation. In this post, I’m going to go a step or two deeper and focus on cognitive development at mostly a personal level and how it relates to the unhinging dynamic and Australian politics.

The most profound book I’ve ever read is “In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life” by Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan which shows how the cognitive requirements and developmental stages/levels/orders of mind required for someone to function as a mature adult in the current age often exceed where most people are at developmentally. He shows how this occurs at and in adolescence, work, family, relationships, the education system, psychotherapy and many more areas of everyday life.

It’s an extremely dry book that uses a level of complex language and contextual framing that would leave most people scratching their head in a state of extreme confusion, but it’s extremely rewarding when you begin to understand what his ideas mean and how they relate to the world in which we live.

Before I go any further, I’ll show a summary of Robert Kegan’s model of adult development which he outlined in his first book “The Evolving Self” as it provides context for the rest of the post. At each order of mind there is both a subjective structure and an objective structure. The subjective structure is what you as an individual concretely identify with and the objective structure is what you see as something that is not you or is third person or is simply outside of your subjective identity/experience. In short: we are subject, we have object.

OoC

What I love about the picture above is how it gives a visual representation that shows the complexity of the meaning structure and the apertures/windows/filters these orders of mind use in order to function. In other words, it shows the complexity of the order of mind and how it subjectively sees the world.

Einstein’s famous quote “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them” takes on an entirely new meaning when you’re able to comprehend a developmental model such as the one above.

When you’re at the third order of mind, you don’t just see the world through your relationships, you subjectively “are” your relationships. Your whole way of operating in the world is based on what you identify with. You can’t see beyond it. If you’re at the third order and I show you the model above, you’ll use third order language and the way you subjectively interpret it will be through the cognitive apparatus and mental hardware of the third order of mind.

To get to the fourth order of mind requires a developmental process that takes a whole range of components such as experience, education, contemplation, reflexive reflection and a mode of thinking that simply can’t be achieved overnight or over a week long seminar. This process of adult development occurs over a lifetime.

On top of all of that, when an order of mind becomes an object to you, you don’t lose it, it’s merely incorporated into the next order of mind. In other words, the more cognitively developed you become, the more complex the apparatus your using to subjectively interpret the world around you. The bad news is the more you develop, the more things can go wrong because you’re incorporating the previous orders of mind into the order of mind you’re currently at and all the pathologies that come with it.

You don’t solve the problems you’re currently experiencing, you simply develop new and more complex problems to solve which develops your order of mind.

I could go on for a very long time on this topic, but I’ll land the plane and attempt to tie it back to the unhinging dynamic.

As the complexity in society increases, the cognitive demands and extrinsic intrusion on people’s everyday lives also increases. In other words, the job you used to do is getting more complicated and demanding every day. In order to maintain a decent standard of living, you have to be constantly increasing and upgrading your level of ability, professionalism as well as your network and sources of information. The relationships you’re in, be they family, romantic or friendship, have more demands placed on them than ever before. What you’re required to know in order to remain current is increasing at an exponential rate.

What I think is happening is the cognitive demands and extrinsic intrusions on the public to operate in a society like Australia have risen, yet the most of the public’s cognitive apparatus and mental hardware remain at an order of mind that is insufficient to deal with the demands of modern life.

This has major implications for politics.

For a start a big issue like dangerous climate change only becomes an issue when you become more aware of the complexity of what is happening in the world. For example, if you’re at the second order of mind, the issue simply doesn’t appear on your radar because you’re subjectively identifying with your needs, impulses and desires. Another big issue that Kegan covers extensively is education. The demands of the workforce on a student coming out of high school often exceed the mental apparatus they’ve developed through the process, content and context of what they’ve been taught. This is a major problem and one the current government is attempting to solve.

If you’re at the third order of consciousness (most of society is at this stage), there is so much demand on your time that it’s pretty much impossible to understand major issues in depth.

Most of the demands society places on people in this day and age are at the fourth order of mind. In other words society demands self authorship and autonomy. So if you’re at the third order, there’s a tendency to feel like things are going too fast, the level of demand is too great and if pathology occurs, you might simply shut down and regress.

A classic example of the demanded level complexity exceeding the capacity of a structure on a larger scale is in Europe right now. Europe has a very sophisticated democratic and political structure in the form of the European Union but the demands it has placed on their economic and sociocultural structures have simply been too great and it’s turned into a major mess. A lot of this is simply an attempt to solve world centric problems at an ethnocentric level of development. It’s very easy to understand why that doesn’t work when you understand that these problems are on different levels and scales of complexity let alone the order of thinking of the leaders who are attempting to solve these kinds of issues.

In Australia, when you hear political leaders on all sides try to empathise with people by showing that they understand how normal people live and the pressures placed on them everyday, all it does is to make people feel like objects. A subjective, interpersonal relationship is one where you actually live in someone’s order of mind and relate to them. For example, when you see The Greens involving themselves in stunts to show they could live on the unemployment benefit for a week, all it does is to make people at that order of mind feel as if there’s no way out.

The demands on political leadership have increased as the order of complexity in society has increased as well. For example, a political leader these days pretty much has to be all things to all people because the level of expectations have increased so dramatically. People at the third order of mind want to feel protected and comforted by their political leaders. Whenever something goes wrong, the judgement is immediate because the level of uncertainty surrounding one’s identity and psychological insecurity is so ridiculously high due to this dynamic.

Going back to the three main points that exemplify the unhinging dynamic: the high expectations gap in relation to our standard of living and what we can afford, our aversion to complexity and the rise in our perceived uncertainty in my view seem to be coming from the complex demands and extrinsic intrusions of society on people to become adaptive and interdependent authors of their own lives (Order 4) rather than getting subjectively absorbed in interpersonal relationships (Order 3) and their needs, wants and desires (Order 2). On top of that, the order of world problems in this day and age far exceeds our mental capacity to comprehend them which leads to people shutting down from what’s happening and refocusing on what they can control in order to maintain some sort of stable structure.

The reason Paul Keating wanted Australia to become a republic was because he understood what an order of mind and an individuals psychological makeup meant to people on an emotional level. The Republic was not simply proposed in order to culturally and economically integrate Australia into the Asian Pacific region by itself. It was to get the country to psychologically grow up and deal with the complex challenges of this age. It’s a great shame that political leaders on both sides have walked away from it. My view is the maturity of public debate will only return when important, big picture, national issues like this are put back on the table.

We live in a complex world. It might be comforting to imagine that everything could be returned to a time when things were simpler and easier but that tends to be a nostalgic perception of the past rather than the way things really were.

It’s not easy to deal with complexity, but in the end, it’s necessary in order to operate as a mature person in this society. Politicians who understand how to make that clear in a way that inspires people, slows down the time dynamic and make sure no one is left behind as well as getting the country to qualitatively transform psychologically and emotionally will be the politician’s who succeed in the future.

“We have met the enemy and he is us” – Pogo

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One thought on “In over our heads – complex demands and another angle to the unhinging

  1. Ataxaria January 22, 2013 at 2:15 am Reply

    Deep thinking – a blog that goes beyond the usual superficial observations.

    On Robert Kegan’s work: from what stage has he constructed his model of adult development? a sixth order, perhaps, from which he can determine all of the others? I am with the French philosopher, Lyotard, who said something like, “I express an incredulity towards all meta-narratives.” However no doubt in the pragmatic world of politics Kegan offers a useful operational scaffold.

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