Mass formation from first principles

This is an accessible, but not simplified, text in which derive the features of mass formation and the associated mass cognition from basic features of life.
We show it predicts the properties of authoritarianism and canceling very well.

Mass formation from first principles

Mass formation from first principles

In this analysis, we derive the features of mass formation and the associated mass cognition (authoritarianism) from the basic features of life. We do this from the theoretical perspective of core cognition: the hypothesized cognition shared by all of life.

Only a tiny part of this text concerns humans. Most of it pertains to all living agents. A key feature is of agents is agency: the ability to self-maintain existence1.

Core cognition describes the basic requirements for the selection of situationally appropriate behavior. Selecting situationally appropriate behavior is what all living agents do, all the time.

Agents differ in state, skills, and context, and they influence each other and the habitat via their behaviors. Behavior selection is a continual process and is unique for each agent.

In this presentation, we oppose two modes of being – coping and co-creation – as a caricature of the actual intricate, continual, and mostly constructive interplay between these modes.

However, mass formation emerges as a habitat dominance of coping through the suppression of co-creation in situations where agents feel inadequate and respond by curtailing difference. In this extreme, it makes sense to dispense nuance temporarily.

Coping and co-creation balance like yin and yang. Co-creation promotes diversity, complexity, novelty, and connectedness. Coping balances this by providing structure, predictability, utility, and focus.2 A productive interplay keeps the habitat vibrant and stable and allows its inhabitants to develop the skills to flourish.

This presentation focuses on what happens when habitat complexity exceeds the coping capacity of many inhabitants. The main text focuses on the introduction and description of phenomena. The footnotes provide literature references3 and illustrative comments4.

We start with some basics of core cognition.


Core Cognition

Life can be described as “being by doing”: (living) agents exists because they act in ways that allow them to avoid danger, low viability, and death. Individuals always aim to be and remain as safe and viable (far from death) as possible. They strive to be and stay well.

Cognition for survival and problem solving differs from cognition for flourishing and problem prevention. Cognition for survival and problem solving has particular start-states such as problem or threat and associate end-states: a threat that has been dealt with or a problem solved. Cognition for flourishing and problem prevention does not have particular start- or end-states and ideally continues indefinitely as a goalless progression of favorable states5.

We call cognition for survival and problem solving “coping” and cognition for flourishing and problem prevention “co-creation.” In the case of life success, co-creation is the default, and coping is only a temporary fallback intended to restore safety after co-creation failed.

We refer to co-creation adequacy if the agent succeeds in preventing most problems. It exhibits coping adequacy if it solves problems quickly and effectively.

Conversely, co-creation inadequacy entails that agents are instrumental in creating their problems states. And coping inadequacy if agents fail** to end problems effectively.

In particular, if the coping mode of behavior leads to more or new problems or continued danger, it remains activated: a coping trap, where coping has become the default. Individuals in this state may never learn to become adequate co-creators. Life success requires that co-creation becomes the default mode of cognition.

Living agents learn a lot from copying the behaviors of others. But to become fully autonomous self-directors, they need to overcome the limits following the lead of others: social mimicry. They must learn to trust their decision-making; they exhibit bounded autonomy as long as they do not. Development from bounded autonomy to full autonomy is central to successful identity development.

Cognition from first principles

To remain alive, agents must protect their viability by satisfying basic needs. But they must also contribute to the viability of their habitat because all life depends on habitat resources to meet short- and long-term needs.

A surviving agent copes with pressing problems to protect its viability and generally takes more from its environment than it contributes. This is characteristic of coping.

A thriving agent contributes to a habitat where pressing problems can mostly be avoided and habitat viability maximises. This is a key feature of co-creation.

Dominant co-creation drove and drives the development of the biosphere. Conversely, dominant coping degrades the environment.

Living agency, or agency for short, is the ability to self-maintain existence. Agency manifests itself as bringing the co-dependence of self on the habitat in the service of self and the habitat. This naturally leads to a network of mutual dependency comprising all in the habitat.

In a self-stabilizing habitat, agents mainly express unforced self-initiated natural behavior that minimizes conflict and problems and stabilizes the habitat without aiming for particular stable states. Forests and human friendships exemplify this dynamic.

Co-creation and coping successes are both the result of skilled behavior. Skilled co-creation entails furnishing the habitat with broadly constructive traces in a process called stigmergy.

Skilled coping entails the quick and effective resolution of problem states, and it also provides the stable structure to benefit optimally from stigmergy.

In isolation, coping tends to utilize and exploit the (stigmergic) resources more than it builds them.

Understanding and autonomy

Skill, autonomy & understanding

Behavior is skilled when the outcomes of an agent’s activities realize intended benefits. Unskilled behavior realizes unintended outcomes: the agent wastes energy or the behaviors cause harm to self or others.

Skilled agents can predict the pattern of outcomes of their agency and select a course of action with likely favorable results. This proves they adequately understand what they are doing.

Unskilled agents are ineffective and might produce unintended adverse outcomes: they insufficiently understand the link between self-initiated action and consequences. They prove inadequate understanding of their habitat.

Agents who, more often than not, effectively predict the pattern of consequences of their own behaviors learn they can rely on their own predictions and become self-directed. Self-directors have brought their agency under self-control. They can, given their habitat, safely self-decide and can become effective co-creators and autonomous actors.

Self-directors are fully autonomous agents who truly self-maintain their existence (while being embedded in and dependent on a habitat they contribute to). They prove they generally understand the consequences of (not only) their actions and hence tend to appraise the habitat as safe and full of opportunities. They are mostly co-creating, and they are the authority in their life. They exhibit an internal locus of control and are self-optimizing their life. In general, they are happy.

Agents who often fail to predict the consequences of their behaviors live in a world of random outcomes. When they self-decide, they are often confronted with unforeseen, typically adverse effects that they cannot couple to their actions.6

Since they often cannot rely on their decision-making to realize intended benefits, they fall back and rely on social mimicry, which externalizes their locus of control: their actions are in part decided by those they mimic.

In general, they appraise the habitat as unsafe and problematic. This activates undirected anxiety (associated with the whole habitat’s state, not aimed at something in it), and they are mostly coping.

So depending on the ability to deal with habitat demands, the habitat is either appraised as safe and opportunity-filled or as unsafe and problematic7.

Inadequacy versus adequacy

Inadequacy versus adequacy

We define adequacy as the proven competence to prevent most problems and quickly and effectively solve those that could not be prevented. Adequacy is always defined with respect to the habitat. Adequacy in one habitat does not entail adequacy in another.

Adequacy is not some immutable biological fact like species, race, or gender; it depends on a combination of habitat demands, skill repertoire, a developed sense of realism, appraised safety, and other features that guide behavior selection.

Adequacy expresses, as a pattern of behaviors, mostly successful real-world interactions and high or improved viability. Inadequacy expresses a behavioral ontology in response to limited or disappointing real-world success8. This text gradually develops some features of these two ontologies9.

The more skills are generalized, the more they become effective in a broad range of habitats and over longer time scales. Opportunity exploration and participatory engagement with the habitat, characteristics of co-creation, promote this10.

We refer to adequacy with respect to the habitat as the combination of

  • sufficient skills to deal with daily challenges
  • understanding the link between behavior and its pattern of likely outcomes,
  • self-direction and minimal social mimicry
  • an internal locus of control,
  • full autonomy,
  • a general appraisal of the habitat as safe and full of opportunities, and
  • a general feeling of “being in control of self embedded in the habitat”.

In short adequacy is the ability to prevent most problems, and to quickly end those who could not be prevented.

Similarly, we refer to inadequacy with respect to the habitat as the combination of

  • insufficient skills to deal with daily challenges,
  • limited understanding of the link between behavior and outcomes,**
  • partial self-direction due to a prominent role of social mimicry
  • a resulting external locus of control,
  • bounded autonomy: only able to self-direct in an environment kept within adequacy bounds bij others (a role for authority)
  • a general appraisal of the habitat as unsafe and problematic, and
  • a broadly felt undirected anxiety (as counterpart of a feeling of being in control of self)

In short, inadequacy is the inability to prevent or quickly end problems and be instrumental in creating and perpetuating them. We refer to this as a coping trap.

Attitudes to diversity

Agents are sources of behavior, and the behaviors of many independently acting agents denote an explosion of habitat complexity11. Choosing behavior in a complex habitat is a challenge for all agents, but most to the least skilled. The appraisal of habitat complexity activates contrasting motivations among adequate and inadequate agents.

Adequate agents perceive many affordances and are motivated to explore habitat opportunities, and they enhance and protect the viability of self and the broader habitat. For adequate agents, complexity is a resource.

In contrast, inadequacy leads to a focus on the restoration of adequacy. And given the root of inadequacy, a lack of understanding between behavior and habitat outcome, this motivates agents to make the habitat more predictable (again). This manifests as an urgency to reduce the unpredictability of the habitat. And since self-directed agents are the primary source of habitat complexity, inadequacy manifests as intolerance to ill-understood diversity.

The associated behavioral strategy focuses on controlling or removing sources of diversity and, in particular, on all co-creation strategies that exceed the inadequate’s scope of understanding.

Within the inadequate individual, intolerance to diversity promotes self-curtailing of behavioral diversity by complying with emerging norms. This norm does not need to be optimal or even sensible; it just needs to lead to a less complex habitat.

Typically, the inadequate appraise the most active and effective co-creators as sources of intolerable diversity to be controlled or removed.

The strong urge to curtail and control the behaviors of others is a characteristic of coping dominance12.

Resistance to behavior curtailment is known as reactance13. It is always in response to the curtailment and usually weaker because the adequate typically have plenty of alternatives.

Shared inadequacy

Shared inadequacy

Agents vary not only in ‘adequacy with respect to the habitat.’ They also form a (never stable and ever-developing) web of relations.

If agents sufficiently understand and appreciate the action-outcome link of the behaviors of others, inter-agent relations can be tension-free and conducive for co-operation. They can be tension-laden and conducive to conflict without sufficient understanding and appreciation.

In addition, agents differ in interaction styles denoted as styles 1 and 2. Given these and other complications, selecting situationally appropriate behavior is difficult.

Usually, most agents are in a co-creation mode, and as such, they secure their viability while promoting future habitat viability via stigmergy. In doing so, life gradually creates room for more life.

Because co-creating agents focus on the viability of self in the habitat, they prioritize individual adequacy. They focus less on reducing inter-agent tension because they assume that other agents can also select co-creative behaviors.14

In contrast, inadequate individuals crave to reduce habitat complexity to restore or allow individual adequacy. They feel an uneasiness towards the habitat as a whole. This undirected anxiety is so broadly aimed that it is not actionable. And generally, they have difficulties selecting behaviors due to perceived habitat complexity.

This leads to atomized individuals who self-isolate to prevent being victimized by their inadequacy.

However, when inadequate agents meet, they find the associated reduced behavioral complexity of fellow inadequates attractive. In addition, they share an intolerance to all diversity beyond the scope of understanding.

One possible collaborative strategy is to promote sameness by controlling or removing sources of diversity. It is irrelevant what form of sameness is promoted; it is only relevant to reduce diversity effectively.

This strategy directs the anxiety and makes it actionable as an urge to increase sameness. In addition, the collaboration creates a sense of community and purpose that relieves the social atomization and reduces the appraised randomness (and associated meaninglessness) of the world.

This results in a shared strategy of social mimicry. Since social mimicry starts local, it gives rise to agents that agree on a local form of sameness.


Social mimicry: inter-agent tension reduction

In situations of perceived increased habitat complexity, many agents experience more inadequacy and atomization and transit to the coping mode. This may entail a strategy shift from self-directed optimization of individual and habitat viability to strategies focused on reducing habitat diversity and promoting sameness.

A group-level expression of social mimicry entails a shift to inter-agent tension reduction15 as an organizing principle. Inter-agent tension is a measure of the unpredictability (perceived randomness) of the behavior of other agents: the more predictable their behavior, the lower the inter-agent tension.

Generally, inadequate agents experience much more tension from adequate individuals than vice versa because co-creating agents have higher self-direction, exhibit higher behavioral complexity, and understand action-outcome relations better.

When all group members select from a narrow range of shared behaviors, within-group tensions are minimized: everyone acts predictably in the eyes of others, and behavioral complexity is low16. This effectively reduces the probability of being confronted with one’s inadequacy. But it does not usually improve the habitat. It likely degrades it since thriving depends on the self-directed behaviors of skilled individuals.

At some point, groups of inadequate copers “surround” adequate self-directors. As a group, they are confronted with a source of ill-understood diversity.

This directs both their intolerance to diversity (a strategy) and free-floating anxiety (which determines urgency) to the source of complexity.


Social mimicry: sameness and in-group forming

The resulting tension between copers and a minority of co-creators resolves when the co-creator is coerced to limit its overt behavior to the complexity of group-level shared behaviors or when the co-creator is purged. In short, the options are adapt, leave, or die.

The “leave or die” option manifest a ‘disgust reaction’ in the sense of distancing from a toxic influence that represents no positive value and deserves no protection.

Sameness promotion leads to forming an in-group: a group of agents sharing adequacy limits. In-group members share specific behaviors and motivations and behave in ways particular to the in-group to minimize the frequency of ill-understood diversity.

Within an in-group, the agents who determine the content of sameness most17 have a unique position. They are less confronted with their inadequacy than other members because they decide on the content of their inadequacy evasion strategies.18 The ability to determine the content and scope of sameness makes them authoritative within the in-group.19

Due to the behavioral limits that in-group membership imposes, co-creation becomes very difficult, if not impossible. But high-functioning in-group members20 will be less often confronted with their inadequacy and thus experience markedly reduced anxiety.

Co-creators do not form in-groups. Instead, they form flexible communities of freely cooperating individuals that promote individual short- and long-term viability in the habitat context. They need to update life skills through participatory engagement with the habitat constantly.

Ironically, the behaviors that help increase life skills and lead to individual and habitat growth are also the source of complexity that the inadequate are intolerant to and try to suppress. This entails that in-groups actively counteract the influences that can improve their quality of life. It locks them in a coping trap with low viability.

This also points to a characteristic difference between copers and co-creators: faced with challenges, co-creators skill up, while copers reduce habitat complexity and skill down in the service of sameness.

Oneness: centralization of authority

The local promotion of sameness and in-group growth leads to the formation of multiple unequal groups that at some point meet. And that leads to tension between two or more unequal in-groups.

Because in-groups base their cognition on the (arbitrary) content of their sameness21, they are generally unable to predict the outcomes of the actions of out-groups. The resulting sense of inadequacy directs the copers broadly felt anxiety and activates an urge to reduce the diversity between the two in-groups.

The tension manifests as an unstable balance between not fully compatible tendencies to:

  • protect in-group sameness
  • oppose and counteract the out-group’s sameness, and
  • extend the scope of the own sameness (increasing in-group membership).

The tension, and likely overt conflict, persists as long as the differences persist. At some point in time, possibly after conflict and at great costs of in- and out-groups, an enlarged in-group emerges22.

Once this is established, the directed anxiety becomes undirected again and is free to be redirected to a new source of ill-understood diversity.

The enlarged in-group has some sameness style that is now adopted by more agents, who in part needed to change their style. This enforced style change might be a source of future tension, especially if it does not offer benefits. The in-group can only remain stable when it sufficiently suppresses emerging or latent internal diversity. This entails that in-groups always need to invest in in-group diversity curtailment23.

Stable authority needs an infrastructure to implement intolerance to diversity24 (which may also suppresses the benefits of co-creation)25.

And as long as out-groups exists, even as as slightly different subpopulations of the in-group, its authoritative structures need to be ready and able suppress diversity and enlarge oneness26.

In-groups, as authoritative structures, have a natural tendency to grow. And since this holds even when resources can better be used in other ways. This drain on resources eventually precludes further growth and might be harmful27.

This enriches the role of authority: it is not only a source of a particular sameness, but it also represents the center of an infrastructure that contributes to the stability of the particular sameness that its inadequate members need to prevent being confronted with their inadequacy. This role of authority implements the bounded autonomy of in-group members.

The previous provides insight into the underlying features of authority. Authority is:

  1. A source of sameness that allows the inadequate to evade feelings of inadequacy
  2. An infra-structure to suppress diversity and extend the scope of sameness
  3. A way to address the needs that in-group members cannot provide for themselves and for which they dedicate their agency to proper in-group functioning28.

At the same time, communities of co-creators within a habitat comprising of more skilled, more diverse, and hence unique individuals hardly feel conflict when confronted with another group of skilled, diverse, and unique individuals. They use the added diversity as a resource to enhance the life skills necessary for a habitat-wide local optimization process.

Oneness and Authority centralization

Phase transition: mass formation

The previous assumed that the mass transition from co-creation to coping just happened. The transition process is a complex phenomenon similar to what physics refers to as a phase transition (e.g., liquid to solid).

Different individuals transit at other moments and probably multiple times to and fro before settling in coping. This depends on how the complexity of the habitat is appraised. The higher the appraised complexity (i.e., the lower the adequacy and the higher the undirected anxiety), the more likely coping becomes29.

Since coping comes with social mimicry, it leads to a positive feedback loop where more and more inadequate agents adopt a perceived majority style. For individuals, this might entail some flip-flopping before discovering the style of the emergent majority.

This mass formation process adopts, ever quicker, most inadequate agents into growing in-groups. At some transition point, these coalesce, seemingly in an instant, to an in-group that spans all corners of the habitat30. That is the phase transition due to the habitat-wide promotion of a single form of sameness and oneness.

The members of the habitat-spanning, but still sparse31, in-group experience tension wherever adequate self-deciders still co-create and hence stand out on the just-created background of sameness. This directs the in-group’s undirected anxiety to the most visible remaining self-deciders.

The remaining self-deciders stall regression towards further uniformity, simplification, and complete habitat dysfunctioning32. So resistance to emerging sameness, while individually dangerous, is essential to preserve part of the previous habitat well-functioning33.

Mass cognition

Mass cognition is a group-level manifestation of coping that starts with not having the skills to

  1. prevent unintended outcomes of behaviors and being confronted with unintended consequences, and
  2. being unable to predict the pattern of behaviors of out-groups34 (whose behaviors are interpreted as harmful).

The inadequate live in a world with random outcomes where they do not understand the relation between action and outcomes of self and others.

Being unable to prevent unintended harmful behaviors activates an urge to restore adequacy by reducing habitat unpredictability. This leads to promoting oneness and sameness through control and removal of sources of diversity. Out-groups are given the option to adapt, leave, or die.

Similarly, the inability to predict the behaviors of others activates an urge to curtail and control their behaviors. Again this leads to the options adapt, leave, or die.

The overall strategy of mass cognition can be summarized as the exclusion of all diversity activating agentic inadequacy.

This control strategy effectively aims to reduce an unconstrained open world to a controlled closed world that excludes all that freaks out the inadequate35. And that is why it gains broad support among the inadequate.

Even during a mass formation event, a minority of adequate agents persist in co-creation strategies, albeit very much curtailed.

For the habitat, this entails that co-creation features are minimally expressed. Only a few improve and protect the viability of the habitat, few are able and motivated to explore opportunities, and few see diversity as a resource.

During mass formation, the habitat is appraised as unsafe, deficient, and full of problems, and only a few experience it as safe enough to explore opportunities.

What we have been describing for a general living agent manifests in humans as “authoritarianism.” And specifically as conceptualized by Karen Stenner in her 2005 book “The Authoritarian dynamic.”

In fact our narrative provides a first-principles derivation of the defining features of authoritarianism

Stenner writes:

So, what authoritarianism actually does is inclines one toward attitudes and behaviors variously concerned with structuring society and social interactions in ways that enhance sameness and minimize diversity of people, beliefs, and behaviors.

This refers to “promoting sameness & oneness” and **“inter-agent tension reduction.” Stenner continues:

It tends to produce a characteristic array of stances, all of which have the effect of glorifying, encouraging, and rewarding uniformity and of disparaging, suppressing, and punishing difference.

This suggests “social mimicry” as the driver of uniformity. And it indicates that **“diversity is a threat.”

In addition:

Since enhancing uniformity and minimizing diversity implicate others and require some control over their behavior, ultimately these stances involve actual coercion of others (as in driving a black family from the neighborhood) and, more frequently, demands for the use of group authority (i.e., coercion by the state).

This bluntly states that sources of diversity must be controlled or removed via curtailing and controlling the behaviors of out-groups.

Stenner also states that:

“authoritarianism alone is heavily determined by cognitive incapacity to deal with complexity and difference”

Which is a way to define ‘inadequacy’.

This all leads to what can be referred to as the Authoritarian Motto: “We impose our (arbitrary)36 sameness on others."37

link text

The authoritarian dynamic

Stenner produced a simple formula to predict the strength of the intolerance to difference.

Intolerance to difference = authoritarianism x normative threat

A normative threat is a threat to the normative order. She defines this as **the system of oneness and sameness that makes “us” an “us.” A single out-group enacting some other sameness is annoying but not a threat. An actual normative threat markedly erodes the in-group. It inspires in-group members to first deviate from in-group behaviors by mimicking and eventually improve on it with self-direction.

Stenner specifically mentions authorities proving unworthy of trust (and hence less able to promote sameness) and loss of societal consensus. Untrusted authorities lead either to a shift towards other authorities or more self-direction. The loss of social consensus leads to a more complex world.

To determine whether individuals act as authoritarian or as self-director, Stenner used 5 simple two-option questions about how children should act .

Children should: Children should:
Obey parents Be responsible for their actions
Have good manners Have good sense and sound judgement
Be neat and clean Be interested in how and why things happen
Have respect for elders Think for themselves
Follow the rules Follow their own conscience

The options on the left exhibit social mimicry and correspond to an external locus of control. The options on the right correspond to self-direction and an internal locus of control. Stenner classified individuals who scored high on the left options as authoritarian.

To an authoritarian a normative threat is anything that self-empowers other agents to mimic less and self-decide more since this leads to a crumbling of the sameness and oneness designed to evade confrontation with one’s inadequacy.

In the absence of normative threats, authoritarians are not intolerant to diversity; a perceived normative threat changes this immediately into an in-group level reaction to purge sources of diversity.

A summary of much of the previous is that coping dominance is activated by a combination of inadequacy and the threat of increased habitat complexity. Typical threats are highly visible, self-deciding co-creators – adequate individuals – who inspire and empower others with more effective and realistic ideas, insights, and activities that benefit the habitat in the short and long term in ways that elude the inadequate.

Disgust reaction

The disgust reaction

The group-level disgust reaction is in characteristic response to a normative threat that is experienced as a threat to self.

Specifically a group-level disgust reaction a strong self-protective immediate reaction to purge the group from an effect felt to be toxic.

This is a rich description that points towards the main features of the associated decision-making.

  • That it is a strong reaction indicates urgency.
  • It is self-protective and hence disregards the target.
  • Immediacy precludes meta-cognition.
  • Purging entails that the target is isolated from the group.
  • The group-level response entails a reliance on (shared) in-group level sameness.
  • The threat is strictly not the target, but some unspecified negative influence on self.
  • That negative influence is reacted to with a sub-rational drive (although it can always be rationally justified).
  • Finally, toxicity entails harmful, malign, and potentially deadly.

This breakdown of the definition of group-level disgust points to the key features the in-group behavior selection:

  1. That the target is treated as harmful, malign, and dangerous influence to be disregard and distanced from entails that interaction with the target is minimized. The target is not part of the decision-making
  2. The response is a group response of inadequate individuals who share their in-group sameness that characterises their in-group defines and is an able to protect via its shared knowledge such as rules, procedures, norms, ideologies, …
  3. The urgency, lack of meta-cognition, reliance on explicit knowledge, and deep sub-rational drive ensures only superficial cognition (and definitely no co-creative contributions)
  4. The urgency, lack of corrective meta-cognition, in the deep sub-rational drive entails that the outcomes are basically fixed from the start.

The target is isolated, de-individualized, and perceived as a valueless threat The target is confronted with two options.

The first option is “We impose our sameness on you”. And the second **“We strip you of your agency”. Options corresponds to adapt, option 2 to or leave or die.

The first option is that the target recants and passes through a humiliating procedure in which it has to denounce its diversity, its individuality, and proof its in-group worthiness38. This option purges the diversity and restores oneness.

When the target is sufficiently self-directed and refuses to be brought down to the demanded sameness, restoration of oneness is impossible. The focus then moves to purging the target.

The way the target understands the habitat and and can engage in skilled behavior represents toxicity. Contact with the target’s point of view must be minimized at all costs. As a toxic influence, the target is valueless, hence no harm is done even if the target is hurt or killed. This restores in-groups sameness.

  1. More generally, agency is the ability to be a source of behavior. In this context, we talk about ‘living agency.’ ↩︎

  2. These two modes correspond closely to the outlook on the world of the left and right corical hemisphere as Iain McGilchrist describes in his 2011 book “The master and its emissary.” ↩︎

  3. Much of the background has been published in “Cognition from life” (Andringa et al., 2015), “The Evolution of Soundscape Appraisal Through Enactive Cognition” (van den Bosch et al., 2019), and “Coping and Co-creation: One Attempt and One Route to Well-Being. Part 1 & 2” (Andringa & Denham, 2021). Links to the files in the /basics section ↩︎

  4. Psychology tends to produce a rich and detailed description of the diversity of human behavior. Where psychology provides the ‘what’, core cognition aims to explain ‘why’ these cognitive phenomena exist and ‘why’ they have the properties they exhibit. ↩︎

  5. Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory describes this difference as underlying negative and positive emotions. For example, happiness is a goalless progression of favorable states. It expresses high co-creation and high coping skills. ↩︎

  6. The inability to couple one’s actions and real-world results make it impossible to take responsibility. It can, however, easily lead to a sense of being suppressed and blaming others or the system for the, in part, self-perpetuated misery. ↩︎

  7. We have described this process in detail for the appraisal of the sonic environment in Table 1 and Figure 4 of van den Bosch et al. (2019) ↩︎

  8. Because adequacy is defined in terms of real-world effectivity, it is entirely independent of whether you identify as a particular species, race, or gender or whether you decide that your skills, ideology, or outlook of the world are correct. Your (in)adequacy is solely determined by the average effectivity of your real-world interactions: whether or not your behaviors realize intended outcomes. ↩︎

  9. A more complete development of these behavioral ontologies is available in Andringa&Denham (2021), which is also presented in the /basics section and in summary in Two contrasting ontologies↩︎

  10. In Psychology Barbara Fredrickson addressed the Role of positive emotions in What good are positive emotions in what became The Broaden and Build theory. ↩︎

  11. Physicist would measure this in terms of entropy: a measure of the number of states the habitat can be in. However a habitat, even a very complex one, is not in any of all possible random states, as a gas of a given temperature would be. Rather a functioning habitat is in any of many highly unlikely (hence unstable) beneficial states that can only be reached and maintained through the skilled participation of its comprising agents. ↩︎

  12. This characteristic of coping is via a very powerful phenomenon that we refer to as closing the system and that leads to highly predictable, and for that reason highly useful artifacts such as computers. Probably a very similar “closing the system” processes let to the evolutionary development of multi-cellular tissues and complex individuals. ↩︎

  13. See for example Miron (2006) ↩︎

  14. Coping and co-creation correspond to complementary behavioral ontologies that cannot be intimately linked. The coping mode is especially unaware of the co-creation mode’s presence (and hence benefits). McGilchrist (2011) addresses this in great detail in his book “The Master and his Emissary,” where the coping is implemented by the left brain hemisphere and co-creation by the right hemisphere. ↩︎

  15. In physical terms this corresponds to a reduction of the number of the degrees of freedom, an entropy reduction in the habitat, and a reduction of temperature. Co-creation is “hotter” than coping. Copers prefer a reduction of temperature. ↩︎

  16. This is similar to the transition from free-flowing water to crystalline ice (ice can still flow, albeit much slower and in response to much higher pressures). Another temperature-dependent phase transition is associated with the Curie temperature of ferromagnetic metals. These metals can only be magnetized below their Curie temperature. Mass formation is a group-level phenomenon that similarly requires a reduction of the degrees of freedom (temperature). ↩︎

  17. In modern parlance these could be called ‘influencers’. ↩︎

  18. In social justice jargon this would be referred to as ‘privilege’. ↩︎

  19. This might be the reason who media control is key to oligarchic control. ↩︎

  20. Soviet citizens referred to these as apparatchiks. ↩︎

  21. Many so-called political analysts demonstrate this feature blatantly obviously by failing to represent the position of some out-group and basing their “analysis” solely on the in-groups understanding of the out-group. The result makes full sense to the in-group, but is a waste of words in terms of realism. ↩︎

  22. Wars, globalization, and mergers & acquisitions in business are examples of this. Unipolar global governance, monopolies, global religions and ideologies are the natural end-points of enlarging the in-group. ↩︎

  23. In humans, this is expressed as rules, norms, laws, standards, procedures, propaganda, ideologies, advertising, career paths, and the associated infrastructure such as law enforcement, media, and schools systems to ensure that most individuals end up contributing to “oneness and sameness.” ↩︎

  24. This manifests as our immune system that targets invaders and cancer cells (in-groups going rogue) in our bodies. In the case of auto-immune diseases, the immune system even targets its healthy cells. ↩︎

  25. In our societies this is implemented as the security state: intelligence agencies, security forces, and internal propaganda outlets. ↩︎

  26. This is why authorities in extreme circumstances turn their diversity suppression to the own in-group (as with the Jacobins and Stalin’s Great Purge). ↩︎

  27. Imperial overstretch is the tendency of all empires to grow beyond its sustainability limits so that at some point in time the military and other infrastructure for further growth becomes detrimental to the existence of the empire. ↩︎

  28. “… it seems that the bureaucratic form of organization stultifies the functioning of highly autonomous and motivated employees, while it actually provides the less autonomous employees guidance and effectiveness in roles in which they would otherwise not be able to function.” (Andringa, 2013, p225) ↩︎

  29. It is a bit more complicated than this. We (Van den Bosch et al., 2018) wrote a paper addressing the appraisal of the sonic environment, which outlines appraisal in more detail (Figure 4 and Table 1). ↩︎

  30. This is a phase transition that the author modeled during his master thesis. It addressed the concentration of impurities necessary to form a crystal-wide cluster: an in-group of sorts. This threshold happed to be about 3%. ↩︎

  31. Initially the shape of the habitat-wide in-group is more a sponge or Swiss cheese than a coherent block. The co-creators are still active in the holes and the holes might be the bulk of the volume. ↩︎

  32. In the movie Brasil a capable technician, who makes unsanctioned repairs in a dysfunctional bureaucracy, is viewed as a dangerous “terrorist”. ↩︎

  33. In human societies, this can translate into a, sometimes dangerous, moral duty to prevent slipping down much further into dysfunctionality than needed. ↩︎

  34. This is a definition of out-groups: an out-group is any agent (or group of agents) whose behavior is not understood by in-groups. ↩︎

  35. In Woke-speak this would be referred to as a “safe space”. ↩︎

  36. The reason to stress the arbitrary nature of the “sameness” is that it is rooted in complexity reduction and not in the realization of broad benefits. The structures of co-creation (usually only dynamically stable through continual care of self-directed co-creators) are rare beneficial states in a possibility space that is vastly bigger than the simplified and impoverished state-space of sameness and oneness that offer only the benefit of low complexity. ↩︎

  37. The Borg collective in the Star Trek franchise is slightly less extreme because they see value in the distinctiveness of out-groups. They state: “We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.” ↩︎

  38. A fascinating example of such a humiliating procedure (ceremony almost) was recorded in during the Evergreen events in 2018 that led to the purging of Brett and Heather Weinstein. Embarking on the canoe towards equity stands for the reduction of diversity. Some individuals had to ask for permission for boarding the canoe by pledging their loyalty to the equity goals and denouncing their uniqueness. ↩︎

Intro to core cognition

Very short intro to core cognition.

What is core cognition?

Core Cognition is the cognition shared by all of life. Core Cognition describes the basic decision making structures that allowed living agents to grow a biosphere from small and fragile to extensive, robust, incredibly diverse, and highly efficient. Core cognition describes the processes of behavior selection for survival and thriving, which is something that is relevant for all of living individuals: from bacteria to humans. But cognition for flourishing – coping – is essentially different from the cognition for survival – co-creation. This website addressed the power and consequences of this basic distinction and we argue that also human cognition (psychology) manifests core cognition in all its key properties.

Update: The first part of mass formation serves as a more concise introduction to core cognition. This text is yet another application of core cognition.

The 4 texts in this section are based on a recent paper (Andringa & Denham, 2021) in which we describe the basics of core cognition starting from the demands to being and remaining alive and maximizing viability of self and habitat. In it we derive core cognition and its two main modes, coping and co-creation, from first principles. We apply this by explaining the structure of personality and by explaining why two completely different approaches to social well-being can emerge.

With this text come two summary tables:

  1. list of key concepts
  2. Two contrasting ontologies one associated with coping, a second with co-creation

These texts are based on the original published version, but will deviate over time. The original version can be found here:

A combined pdf can be found here

A number of other texts are also relevant.

  • Andringa, T. C., Bosch, K. A. M. van den & Wijermans, N. Cognition from life: the two modes of cognition that underlie moral behavior. Frontiers in Psychology 6, 1–18 (2015).

  • Andringa, T. C., Bosch, K. A. M. van den & Vlaskamp, C. Learning autonomy in two or three steps: linking open-ended development, authority, and agency to motivation. Frontiers in Psychology 4, 18 (2013).

  • Andringa, T. C. & Angyal, N. The nature of wisdom: people’s connection to nature reflects a deep understanding of life. Psychology. Journal of the Higher School of Economics 16, 108–126 (2019).

  • Bosch, K. A. M. van den, Welch, D. & Andringa, T. C. The Evolution of Soundscape Appraisal Through Enactive Cognition. Frontiers in Psychology 9, 1–11 (2018).

  • Andringa, T. C. The Psychological Drivers of Bureaucracy: Protecting the Societal Goals of an Organization. in Policy practice and digital science : integrating complex systems, social simulation and public administration in policy research 221–260 (Policy Practice and Digital Science, 2015). doi:10.1007/978-3-319-12784-2_11.

Overview of Core Cognition

1 - Core cognition derived from life's defining properties

This 4 section series is based on a recent paper (Andringa & Denham, 2021) in which we outline the basics of core cognition starting from the demands to being and remaining alive and maximizing viability of self and habitat. In it we derive core cognition and its two main modes, coping and co-creation, from first principles.

Being by doing

A living entity is different from a dead entity because it self-maintains this difference. To live entails self-maintaining and self-constructing a “far from equilibrium state”. The work of Prigogine (1973) showed that, for thermodynamic reasons, such an inherently unstable system can only be maintained via a continual throughput of matter and energy (e.g., food and oxygen). Death coincides with the moment self-maintenance stops. From this moment on, the formerly living entity moves towards equilibrium and becomes an integral and eventually indistinguishable part of the environment.

A living entity “is” — exists — because it “does”: it satisfies its needs by maintaining the throughput of matter and energy by “adaptively regulating its coupling with its environment so that it sustains itself” (Andringa et al., 2015; Barandiaran, Di Paolo, & Rohde, 2009 p. 8). An autonomous organization that does this is called a “living agent” or an agent for short (Barandiaran et al., 2009). Note that we refer to an agent when the text pertains to life in general and is part of core cognition. Where we specifically refer to humans we use the term “person”. The term “individual” can refer to both, depending on context.

Life is precarious (Di Paolo, 2009), in the sense that it must be maintained actively in a world that is often not conducive to self-maintenance and where both action and inaction can have high viability consequences (including death). We refer to behavior as agent-initiated context-appropriate activities with expected future utility that counteract this precariousness and minimize the probability of death. Behavior is always aimed at remaining as viable as possible, since harm — viability reduction — can more easily end a low-viability than a high-viability existence.

A pattern of behaviors that effectively optimizes viability leads to flourishing, while a pattern of ineffective or misguided behaviors leads first to languishing and eventually to death. Life is “being by doing” the right things (Froese & Ziemke 2009, p. 473). Viability is a holistic measure of the success or failure of “doing the right things”, since it is defined as the probabilistic distance from death: the higher the agent’s viability, the lower the probability of the discontinuation of life. A walrus that falls off a cliff may be perfectly healthy, but it has zero viability, since it will die the moment it hits the ground. While healthy, it is in mortal and inescapable danger, and hence unviable. In general, threat signifies a perceived reduction of contextappropriate behavioral options that allow the agent to survive. Maximizing viability (flourishing) and minimizing danger (survival) constitute basic motivations of life. In fact, we call any system cognitive when its behavior is governed by the norms of the system’s own continued existence and flourishing (Di Paolo & Thompson, 2014). This is also a reformulation of “being by doing”.

Cognition for Survival and Thriving

Agency entails cognition: behavior selection for survival (avoiding death) and thriving (Barandiaran et al., 2009) (optimizing viability of self and habitat). We have argued that cognition for survival is quite different from cognition for thriving (Andringa et al., 2015). Cognition for survival is aimed at solving problems, where a problem is any perceived threat to agent viability, interpreted as a pressing need that activates reactive behavior. We called this form of cognition coping. In humans, (fluid) intelligence is a measure of problem-solving and task-completion capacity and manifests coping. The objective of coping is ending/solving the problems that activated the coping mode, so ideally coping is a temporary state. We refer to the problem-solving ability, including successful test and task completion ability (Gottfredson, 1997; van der Maas, Kan, & Borsboom, 2014), as intelligence.

However, when the agent’s problem solving is inadequate and problems are not solved and are potentially worsened or increased, the perceived viability threat remains activated and the agent is trapped in the coping mode of behavior. A coping trap keeps the agent in continued threatened viability, and hence in behaviors aimed at short-term self-protection in suboptimal states that are far from flourishing. Maslow (1968) calls this deficiency (D) cognition, since it is ultimately activated by unfulfilled needs. It is a sign that the intelligence of the agent failed to end (solve) problem states.

While the coping mode of behavior is for survival, the co-creation mode is for flourishing. Successful coping leads to solved problems and satisfied needs, and hence to its deactivation. Therefore, co-creation is the default mode of cognition and coping is — ideally — only a temporary fallback to deal with a problematic situation. Continued activation is the success measure of the co-creation mode and avoiding problems (or dealing with them before they become pressing) is, therefore, the main objective of co-creation. It is essentially proactive behavior (thus not just “proactive coping”, since successful coping leads to its deactivation). Maslow (1968) refers to co-creation as being (B) cognition, and we described it as pervasive optimization and “generalized wisdom”, for reasons which will become apparent. The objective of co-creation is pro-actively producing indirect viability benefits through self-guided habitat contributions that improve the conditions for future agentic existence.

This is known as stigmergy: building on the constructive traces of past behaviors left in the environment (Doyle & Marsh, 2013; Gloag et al., 2013; Heylighen, 2016b; 2016a) and that, in the aggregate, gradually increase habitat viability. This expresses authority as a shaping force in the habitat (Marsh & Onof, 2008), via influencing others through habitat contributions. Habitat is defined as the environment from which agents can derive all they need to survive (and thrive) and to which they contribute to ensure long-term viability of the self and others.

Habitat viability is a measure of the potential of the habitat to satisfy the conditions for agentic existence (i.e., satisfied agentic needs). For example, a habitat can be deficient in the sense that its inhabitants continually have unfulfilled needs (and hence are in the coping mode). The habitat can also be rich, so that pressing needs can easily be satisfied and co-creative contributions can perpetuate and enhance habitat viability.

The biosphere grew from fragile and localized to robust and extensive, so we know beyond doubt that life on Earth is, in the aggregate, a constructive force. It is the co-creation mode’s contributions to habitat viability that explain this. In fact, the biosphere can be seen as the outcome of stigmergy: the sum total of all agentic traces left in the environment since the origin of life (Andringa et al., 2015). Co-creation and generalized wisdom as the main cognitive ability drive the biosphere’s growth and gradually increase its carrying capacity: the sum total of all life activity in the biosphere. This makes co-creation the most authoritative influence on Earth. Coping is also an important authoritative influence, but it is limited to setting up and maintaining the conditions for pressing need satisfaction.

Need satisfaction infographic - Core cognition

Figure 1. Life’s demand

Maintaining and increasing viability of self and habitat (based on Andringa & Angyal, 2019). Pervasive optimization of agent and habitat viability leads to increased carrying capacity and more life.

Figure 1 presents the co-dependence of acting agents on their habitat. The habitat comprises the aggregate of agentic activities, but is not an actor itself. Hence, a viable habitat is composed of the sumtotal of previous co-creative agentic traces that form a resource to satisfy the conditions on which current agentic existence depends. This entails that, signified by the question marks, agents should be aware not only of their own viability, but also of habitat viability. In fact, we have argued (Andringa, van den Bosch, & Weijermans, 2015) that early, primitive life forms were yet unable to separate self from the co-dependence of self and habitat. This leads to an “original perspective” on the combined viability of agent and habitat, which allowed their primitive cognition to optimize the whole, while addressing selfish needs and creating ever better conditions for agentic life. This can be termed pervasive optimization and it expresses an emergent purpose of life on Earth to produce more life. Albert Schweitzer (1998) formulated a slightly weaker version of this “I am life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live.”

Well-being and adequacy

Pervasive optimization is the driver of well-being. We propose that successful well-being, with a focus on ‘being’ and hence interpreted as a verb, can best be understood as a co-creation process leading to high viability agents, increased habitat viability, and long-term protection and extension of the conditions on which existence depends.

The two modes of behavior have quite different impacts on the habitat and, by extension, the biosphere. The coping mode is aimed at protecting and improving agent viability with whatever means the agent has access to. Since the objective is avoiding death, the motivation is high, which entails that habitat resources can be sacrificed for self-preservation purposes. Inadequacy can be defined as the tendency to self-create, prolong, or worsen problems that keep an agent in the coping mode. When a habitat is dominated by inadequate agents, as is characteristic of a social level coping trap, habitat viability cannot be maintained, let alone increased. From the perspective of coping, life is at best a zero-sum game.

Alternatively, adequacy can be defined as the ability to avoid problems or end them quickly so that coping is effective and rare. Now co-creation is prevalent so that habitat viability is protected, carrying capacity increases, and long-term need satisfaction is secured. Co-creation is, like the term suggests, a more than zero sum game. This is, as argued above, the true basis of well-being. Due to its lack of “co-creation”, coping protects lower levels of well-being and, at best, resolves (or otherwise takes care of) viability threats (in the sense of removing symptoms of low well-being), while co-creation allows both agent and habitat flourishing.

The inadequacy-adequacy dimension might underlie the proposed single dimension of psychopathology termed p (Lahey et al., 2012; Caspi and Moffit, 2018). This has been conceptualized as “a continuum between adaptive and maladaptive functioning”, “successful versus unsuccessful functioning”, a disposition for negative emotionality or impulsive responsivity to emotion, and unrealistic thoughts that manifest in extreme cases as delusions and hallucinations (Smith et al., 2020). All descriptions fit with our interpretation of inadequacy as the tendency to self-create, prolong, or worsen problems and adequacy as the ability to avoid problems or end them quickly.

Welzel and Inglehart (2010) argue, from the perspective of cultural evolution, “that feelings of agency are linked to human well-being through a sequence of adaptive mechanisms that promote human development, once existential conditions become permissive”, which is a formulation of the dynamics of Figure 1. They argue that “greater agency involves higher adaptability because for individuals as well as societies, agency means the power to act purposely to their advantage”. This uses the concept of agency as a measure of the ability to self-maintain viability, which is related to adequacy.

Behavioral repertoire and worldview

Living agents, per definition, need to express behavior to perpetuate their existence. And with every intentional action, the agent implicitly relies on the set of all that it takes as reliable (i.e., true in the sense of reflecting reality as it is) enough to base behavior on. We refer to this set as the agent’s worldview. A worldview should be a stable basis, as well as developing over time because it is informed by the individual’s learning history. An agent’s worldview informs its appraisal of the immediate environment. This may be an appraisal of its viability state: whether the habitat is safe or not, or whether it judges the current situation as manageable, too complex, or opportunity filled.

These are basic appraisals shared by all of life that seem to be reflected in the psychological concept of core affect (Russell, 2003). Core affect is a mood-level construct that combines the axis unpleasureable-pleasurable with an arousal axis spanning deactivated to maximally activated. It is intimately and bidirectionally linked to appraisal (Kuppens, Champagne, & Tuerlinckx, 2012; van den Bosch, Welch, & Andringa, 2018) and refers directly to whether one is free to act or forced to respond: whether one can co-create proactively or has to cope reactively. Hence appraisal is a worldview-based motivational response to the perceived viability consequences of the present state of the world. It is motivational, but not yet action. As such appraisal resembles Frijda’s (1986) emotion definition as ‘action readiness’. Which fits with the notion that all cognition is essentially anticipatory:

“Cognitive systems anticipate future events when selecting actions, they subsequently learn from what actually happens when they do act, and thereby they modify subsequent expectations and, in the process, they change how the world is perceived and what actions are possible. Cognitive systems do all of this autonomously.” (Vernon 2010, pp. 89).

The anticipation of the development of the world (comprising of self and environment) refers back to what we earlier introduced as the “original perspective” on the combined viability of agent and habitat, which allowed the first life forms to optimize the whole, while addressing selfish needs and creating ever better conditions for more agentic life. Core affect is a term adopted from psychology (Russell, 2003) that we here generalize to all of life. Core affect is a relation to the world as a whole and not a relation to something specific in that world. Like moods, core affect does not have (or need) the intentionality (directedness) of emotions and it is, unlike emotions, continually present to self-report (van den Bosch, Welch, & Andringa, 2018).

The human worldview is, of course, filled with explicit and shared beliefs, opinions, facts, or ideas interpreted with and filtered by experiential knowledge. This worldview informs whether the situation is deemed dangerous or not (whether avoidance or approach is appropriate). This holds also for a general agent: when the agent judges the situation as safe it can express unconstrained natural behaviors since it has to satisfy few constraints. If the situation is safe and opportunity-filled, it can be interested and learn. But if the situation imposes many constraints, it tries to end these by establishing control. And in a deficient environment the agent is devoid of opportunities (which in humans may correspond to boredom or, in case of lost opportunities, sadness). Core affect then is expressed as motivations to avoid or end (coping) or motivations to perpetuate or to aim for (co-creation). We have depicted this in Figure 2.

Appraisal of reality refers to the behavioral consequences of the current state of the world and it is a form of basic meaning-giving that activates a subset of context appropriate behavioral options (van den Bosch, Welch, & Andringa, 2018). This leads to motivation as being ready to respond to the context appropriately. We define the set of all possible – appraisal and worldview dependent – behaviors as the behavioral repertoire. The richer the behavioral repertoire, the more diverse context appropriate behaviors the agent can exhibit. The more effective its behavioral repertoire, the more effective it becomes in realizing intended outcomes and the more adequate the agent is. Conversely, the less effective the context-activated behaviors, the more inadequate the agent is. Learning either reduces the ineffectiveness of behaviors or it expands the behavioral repertoire.

Expanding the repertoire results from an individual discovery path through a representative sample of different environments and interactive learning opportunities. Broadening is effortful and potentially risky but ultimately rewarding. Fredrickson’s (2005) broaden and build theory fits here by proposing that positive emotions – indicating the absence of problems and hence co-creation – help to extend the scope of behavioral options. This type of learning leads to individual skills that are, through the individual discovery path, difficult to share. This manifests in humans as implicit or tacit knowledge (Patterson et al., 2010) and well-developed agency.

Reducing the ineffectiveness of behaviors is essential in problematic (coping) situations. This may entail adopting, through social mimicry, the behaviors of (seemingly) more successful, healthy, or otherwise attractive agents. The adoption of presumed effective behaviors manifests shared knowledge. Mimicry is a quick fix and works wherever and as long as the adopted behaviors are effective. As a dominant learning strategy, mimicry leads to a coordinated situation of sameness and oneness. The coordinated agents make their adequacy conditional to the narrow set of situations where the mimicked behaviors work. These agents may be intolerant to others who frustrate sameness and oneness. They may express this intolerance by selecting behaviors that enforce social mimicry on non-mimickers. The more they feel threatened, the more they feel an urge to restore the conditions for adequacy and the more intolerant to diversity they are. In humans this is expressed as the authoritarian dynamic (Stenner, 2005).

Figure 2. Behavioral repertoire

Behavioral Repertoire

The concepts in the circle refer to appraisal and the verbs in italic to basic motivations. The descriptions in bold and the outer axes refer to the structure of behavioral (in)effectiveness.

Core cognition key terms

This discourse leads to a selection of core cognition key concepts with definitions.

2 - Coping and Co-creation as two manifestations of core cognition

This section addresses the quite different and complementary features of coping and co-creation. We need both, because successful coping maximizes time for co-creation. The complementarity of the two modes, as two separate ontologies that disagree on many aspects, might be the root of life’s resilience.

Section 2 - Coping and co-creation

This section addresses the quite different and complementary features of coping and co-creation. We need both, because successful coping maximizes time for co-creation. The complementarity of the two modes, as two separate ontologies that disagree on many aspects, might be the root of life’s resilience. Where resilience is defined as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks” (Walker et al., 2004). We originate resilience in the agent’s ability to anticipate and predict.

Anticipation and Predictability

Coping and co-creation are abilities – in psychology, skills and tacit knowledge (Patterson et al., 2010) – expressed as behavior in response and appropriate to how the agent appraises its habitat context. Of course, agent-initiated actions change the habitat state to which other agents may respond, which, in turn, changes the habitat state. Since the habitat may change even without direct agentic influences, agents exist in an evolving world in which they must position themselves to protect and enhance self and habitat viability. To exist in such an environment, the agent needs anticipatory models (Vernon, 2010) of the state of self and the habitat. It must update these actively, and choose its behavior to realize benefits to self and the habitat. In this open environment, even the best agent generated model leads only to partial predictability. Coping and co-creation strategies increase partial predictability, but use different strategies and complementary logics.


Coping makes the world more predictable by reducing its complexity and creating systems (of agents or objects) with more predictable behavior that bring threats-to-self under control – which requires energy, resources, and continual maintenance – and promote security. The coping mode’s goal is to end perceived viability threats, and coping success entails the discontinued need for its activation. Hence, it is goal-oriented (like problem-solving and task execution) and endowed with a sense of urgency to avoid (further) viability deterioration that justifies the exploitation of previously created viability. Any deviation from manageable order – unfamiliar events or deviant agent behavior – is seen as an unwanted intrusion to be counteracted. Hence, coping leads to an effortfully controlled environment that minimizes unpredictability and diversity. If the threat level – i.e., the expected negative viability impact – increases, so does the drive to suppress diversity.

Since coping is goal-oriented and intends to reduce complexity, it favors shared rules (in general shared knowledge) and behavioral mimicry. The more agents follow the same rules with great precision, the more predictable agents and the habitat become. Coping promotes the spread and precise execution of a single set of behavioral rules. And it endorses an urge to correct or suppress any unwanted diversity. This is a form of social mimicry (Chartrand and van Baaren, 2009) that might not only lead to the spread of effective behavior, but also to lead to a “degree of entanglement” (Combs & Kribner 2008, pp. 264), emergent collective behavior (via mimicry or rules), and a group level perspective.

In human societies, bureaucracy, the military, large corporations, and strict manifestations of religions and ideologies are examples of the coping logic. Technology, from very primitive to complex like computers, depict the best of coping by producing precise outputs as long as the physical environment (the tool and its necessary resources) and the user operate within very tight constraints; this entails trained behaviors.

Coordinated agentic behavior, as social mimicry, is endorsed by agents who expect benefits from more sameness and oneness. Agents with similar needs share similar coordination benefits, but that is unlikely for agents with different needs or those with other (even potentially better) strategies. In fact, imposed external coordination might be detrimental. Differences in expected benefits lead to a separation in in-groups and out-groups. An in-group is a group of agents who express a degree of oneness and sameness through social mimicry and hence share adequacy limits, perceptions of what is beneficial, how to realize these benefits, and what endangers realizing these benefits. Out-groups do not share these limits, either because they have other limits or because they are less limited. By violating sameness and oneness, out-groups frustrate coordinated coping in the eyes of in-groups. Note that out-groups might not even know they are assigned to the out-group and might not raise their defenses.

In-groups (as manifestation of coping) see the risk of frustrated coordinated behavior as an existential threat which justifies exploiting or suppressing out-groups and the habitat alike. Habitat and out-group exploitation may activate out-group resistance that makes goal achievement more difficult. So, the better the in-group is able to control out-groups and habitat, the more likely they are to realize intended results. Due to its problem-solving nature, coping manifests “the ability to realize intended outcomes”. Which is Bertrand Russell’s (1938) definition of power. Hence coping behaviors are a manifestation of power generalized to generic agents.

The coping mode’s manifestation of authority is typically power based in the sense that it sets-up habitat conditions for reduced diversity, increased predictability of agent behavior to facilitate intended outcomes, and to bring viability threats-to-self under control (security) . This is known as coercive authority (as opposed to legitimate authority, Hofman et al., 2017). Coercive power, generally (but not necessarily) leads to benefits for the in-group at the detriment to out-groups and the wider habitat: the zero-sum game that in humanity is associated with manifestations of authoritarianism (Stenner, 2005) and the tragedy of the commons (Hardin, 1968).


Co-creation does not reduce complexity, instead it makes the world more predictable by promoting unconstrained natural behavior and easy need satisfaction through promoting and communicating efforts that facilitate and maintain habitat viability. This creates a safe environment where safety is defined as “a situation or state with positive indicators of the absence of viability threats” (van den Bosch et al., 2018). This communicated absence of threats is a logical necessity since an absence can otherwise not be established. The positive indicators of safety – signs of unforced agentic behavior – allow agents in the habitat to co-create without having to be alert for (unexpected) danger. This allows the uninterrupted functioning of a self-organizing network of interacting agents that satisfy needs most naturally, while minimizing negative impacts and promoting coexistence and even collaboration. Human friendships depend on this logic and they have, like all co-creation processes, no stable outcome or goal other than providing a safe context for growth and flourishing.

This is the complement of coordinating other agent’s behavior (which characterizes coping). Unconstrained natural behavior does not need guidance, since the agents do whatever comes naturally and return to this when constraints are lifted. This harmony between what is possible and what comes naturally stabilizes the habitat, leads to more communicated safety, and increases predictability through the reduction of interagent tension that otherwise might activate coping as fallback. Co-creating agents should become aware of the needs of others and what comes naturally to themselves, others with similar needs, others with different needs, and the wider habitat’s dynamics. They have to optimize all in the context of everything else and over all timescales (we referred to this as ‘pervasive optimization’, Andringa et al., 2015), which is a direct reference to Sternberg’s definition of wisdom:

The application of tacit knowledge towards the application of a common good through a balance among intra-, inter-, and extra- personal interests to achieve a balance among adaptation to existing environments, shaping of existing environments, and a selection of new environments, over the long term as well as the short term.
-– Sternberg (1998)

This definition is somewhat human-centered and can easily be generalized to all life, all agentic interests, all habitats, and all time-scales. And since tacit knowledge refers to skills, Sternberg’s definition can be generalized to “the balancing skills to contribute to the biosphere.” This is what we refer to as generalized wisdom.

Where the application of power generally (but not necessarily) produces benefits to an in-group at the detriment of out-groups, proper co-creation leads to broadly constructive benefits and is a more than zero-sum game. As we argued, this drove and arguably still drives biospheric growth. Note that many agents might still suffer; co-creation manifests broad net benefits, not the absence of harm or suffering. Typically co-creating agents form a community, a group of individuals that each freely and self-guidedly contribute whatever benefits their adequacy can bring.

Co-creating agents need to act on what comes naturally to agents and habitats. They must learn how to promote more natural behavior and prevent behavior leading to broadly detrimental consequences. The Daoist key term ‘Wu Wei,’ reflects this since it “means something like ‘act naturally,’ ‘effortless action,’ or ‘nonwillful action’” (Littlejohn, 2003). Characteristically, it completely misses the urgency of coping strategies and the effort associated with exercising power. Wu Wei is also a way to be authoritative:

… individuals emerge authoritative and powerful as part and parcel of an interconnected web of forces. Therefore, a crucial back-and-forth tug between the self and the various influences and authorities surrounding it is woven in the very fabric of what it means to be a fully attained and empowered individual.
-–(Brindley, 2010, pp. xxvii–xxviii).

Wu Wei is a quite different conception of authority since it does not pertain to realizing specific intended results, but instead is aimed at pervasive optimization (Andringa et al., 2015) and becoming “a fully attained and empowered individual” as “part and parcel of an interconnected web of forces”; what Maslow (1954) refers to as self-actualization. It is this growth process that drives identity development, as much as it promotes general well-being.

Co-creation expresses and relies on highly skilled behaviors of many responsible autonomous individuals who adapt to and use the possibilities of changing situations. As such it is not easy to maintain and somewhat fragile; the highest co-creative quality is difficult to maintain and generally transitory. This is quite different for coping that relies on more basic strategies like mimicry and rule-following and that can be both stable and stultifying.

Two ontologies

The complementary properties and behavioral logic of coping and co-creation lead often to opposing strategies. Both aim to increase habitat predictability. Coping does that via imposing behavioral constraints and habitat control to counteract adequacy limits. Co-creation instead promotes the creation of a never-stable network of behaviors that come naturally and unconstrained and that distribute the responsibility for habitat viability over all contributing agents. Implicitly this assumes that participants are willing and able to alleviate their adequacy limits and grow in their ability to co-create.

Coping and co-creation are both essential. But successful coping is short lasting and effective, it ends the cause for its activation and restores co-creation as behavioral default. Unsuccessful coping is ineffective, and hence prolonged. And since the causes for its activation remain valid, it precludes co-creation. This entails that individuals who predominantly cope or co-create develop quite different worldviews, strategies, values, and identities. Hence, they might not be able to understand one another or to collaborate effectively.

Table 2 shows the two separate ontologies of coping and co-creation. It organizes and relates the concepts within each ontology through matching them to complimentary concepts and/or roles in the other ontology. That we are able to do that on a consistent basis, suggests not only the structural differences between coping and co-creation, but also that we are uncovering some basic tenets of life and cognition.

We consider the selection, matching, and precise formulation of these concepts an ongoing process. Hence, its formulations will develop over time; the formulation in the table is our current best.

In part 2 of this paper we apply and extend the proposed framework to identity development and we apply it on a metatheoretical level to two approaches to general well-being. Ontological security as manifestation of coping and psychological safety as manifestation of co-creation. This leads to the extension of both tables and an improved definition of co-creation and the two ontologies that comprise it.

Brain hemispheres

The properties of the coping and the co-creation reflect a close relationship to the properties of the left and the right brain hemispheres as described by McGilchrist in his book “The Master and his Emissary”. Here we derive those properties from the “edge of chaos”. Coping promotes structure, co-creation promotes opportunity.

This is a slightly extended version of Example 1 of the usefulness of the concept of core cognition that we gave of in the application section called “Human Cognition from Life” in our 2015 paper called Cognition from Life (page 11). It develops a connection with Iain McGilchrist’s seminal work on the divide brain.

Two Attitudes Toward the World and Two Brain Hemispheres

In Learning Autonomy (Andringa et al., 2013) we observed that successful life span development is characterized by an ever-improving understanding of reality in combination with an urge (and proven ability) to improve and shape the Umwelt. This fits the description of the co-creation mode that we coupled to the “prevention of problems, consolidation after repletion, and – as much as possible – the creation and maintenance of a safe and sustaining environment with long-term need satisfaction potential.” In Learning Autonomy we interpreted cognitive development (in humans and human-like artificial agents) as learning to master the complexity of the world.

Life is always near the ‘edge of chaos’ (Mora and Bialek, 2011) and if the complexity of the current situation is judged too high we benefit from coping strategies that reduce its complexity and make the situation more tractable and predictable. In Learning Autonomy we referred to the form of cognition that allows us to curtail a complex world as “cognition for order,” “cognition for certainty,” or “control cognition.” We associated this form of cognition with fear and anxiety, detachment, abstract manipulation, and the personality trait ‘closed to experience.’ This description matches with the concepts that we used to describe the coping mode: ‘trying to control the situation,’ ‘reactive problem solving,’ ‘conservation of the essential,’ ‘short-term utility for self-preservation,’ and ‘acceptance of adverse side effects.’

Liberation Infographics

M.C. Escher’s ‘Liberation’ © 2013 The M.C. Escher Company—the Netherlands. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Yet at other moments we can deal with some additional complexity and allow ourselves to explore the possibilities of the world. Successful, typically playful and purposeless, exploration leads to the discovery of new, generic or invariant structures that make the world a bit more tractable and accessible to agentic influences. This expansion of the understanding of the world fits with the holistic nature of the co-creation mode.

In Learning Autonomy we observed that the two modes we identified matched the description of differences in the way the left and right cerebral hemispheres understand the world and contribute to our existence according to the seminal work “The Master and His Emissary” by McGilchrist (2010). Table 1 of Learning Autonomy provides an comprehensive summary of the reported differences between (and complementarity of) the atti- tudes toward the world associated with the left and the right hemispheres that exemplifies how the coping and the co-creation modes are implemented in modern humanity (and in particular the brains of human individuals).

McGilchrist (2010) argues that our Western societies have become characterized by an ever growing dominance of the left-hemispheric – coping – world-view that favors a narrow focus over the broader picture, specialists over generalists, fragmentation over unification, knowledge and intelligence over experience and wisdom, technical objects over living entities, control over growth and flourishing, and dependence over autonomy. Apparently, despite the huge cultural progress that has been made in the last millennia, humanity shifted more and more toward the coping mode. According to the summary in Figure 1 this is a neither a sign of autopoietic success, nor of viability: on the contrary. Apparently, our understanding of society has not matched society’s complexity growth.

This erosion of the co-creation mode of cognition, and, directly coupled, the resilience reduction of our natural environment, may in fact explain why humanity faces a number of existential problems and in particular has difficulties in realizing a sustainable long-term future: the coping mode, with a focus on pressing problems, intolerance to diversity, and its insensitivity to adverse side-effects as key characteristics, is simply unsuitable to setup the conditions for easy and reliable future need satisfaction.

In McGilchrist’s formulation the right hemisphere is the master and the left hemisphere the servant to be assigned with specific tasks.

Escher Liberation Infographics

We are usually unaware of the switch between coping and co-creation, or alternatively of the switch between the strategies and outlook of our left and right hemisphere.

In the core cognition framework the switch is one between cognition for control, order, certainty, and utility essential when the stakes are high, and cognition for exploration, disorder, possibility, and engagement.


A deeper look at self-actualization: what is it and what is it not?

This paper argues for a very visible role of mentally healthy individuals in education. Only these can show children and adolescents what levels of self-development, autonomy, happiness, and growth they can in principle achieve.

A deeper look at self-actualization: what is it?

Authors: Tjeerd C. Andringa

This paper is about the highest form of mental health attainable: self-actualization. It is not a repetition of what Maslow has said about the topic. Quite on the contrary; it is a more or less independent derivation of the concept of complete mental health and full mental development that validates all Maslow’s insights while providing a scientific foundation.

Maslow was spot on with his description of self-actualization, but he derived this via an intuitive process of little scientific rigor. Most scientific breakthroughs start this way. This paper is an serious, but fairly accessible, underpinning of his intuitions.

Self-actualizing: what is it?

Cognition from first principles

I’m not a psychologist. I’m a systems thinker. In particular, I study systems that take responsibility for their own continued existence: living agents. Agents who are very good at that self-actualize. And they prove that through tell-tale characteristics of flourishing. For me self-actualization is not at all a human specific property. In fact, modern humans might not even be very good at it, since many are rather languishing or suffering than flourishing (Keyes, 2005).

In previous papers I have described the demands of survival and flourishing in abstract and general terms that I refer to as core cognition. Core cognition is the cognition that, we postulate, is shared by all of life. With core cognition we derived the requirements of optimal agentic behavior from first principles (Andringa et al., 2015) and with that we can derive the foundations of much of (human) cognition. This gives me a broadly informed and often unique perspective on self-actualization.

In a two-part paper (Andringa & Denham, 2021; Denham & Andringa, 2021, here the combined pdf) we derived the structure of identity from first principles (namely the defining properties of life) and we have also demonstrated that some good intentioned efforts to improve society and its members are doomed to end in a state of pathological normality that is far from self-actualization.

Before that, we (Andringa et al, 2015, pdf) derived 1) the basis for the differences between the brain hemispheres, 2) why the brain has and needs two complementary systems, 3) how power and intelligence serve to prevent an ill-understood world from spinning out of control while understanding and wisdom allow the co-creation of a world in which most problem are prevented. 4) how unicellular cooperation rules explain value differences between US liberals and conservatives, and 5) why positive emotions are the basis for personal and mental growth.

In an older paper on open-ended development called “learning autonomy” (Andringa et al., 2013, pdf) we had laid much of the groundwork by identifying two modes of thought: what we now refer to as coping and co-creation. Using Escher’s tessellation “Liberation”, we showed that coping was actually described by Abraham Maslow as deficiency cognition (D-cognition).

In that paper we described it as cognition for control, certainty, and order since its aim is to realize or restore more manageable conditions to live in (which it may or may not be realistic). We also identified a complementary mode of cognition: cognition for exploration, disorder, possibility, which we now refer to as co-creation. Again Maslow had already described this as being cognition (D-cognition) and he had identified that as the characteristic cognition of self-actualizers.


D-cognition/coping is always associated with a perceived lack of safety and an associated fear of not being able to cope with the situation: it is activated by problems. At the basis, coping aims to realize a less complex world and hence it relies on the various manifestations of social mimicry that all promote oneness and sameness.

Social mimicry can be simple copying of seemingly successful, authoritative or charismatic individuals, but it can also be more indirect via adherence to norms, customs, traditions, rules, checklists, role-models, procedures, ideologies, and laws.

Individuals who express coping do so from a deep and strong (yet mostly unconscious) anxiety to retain or regain control over their lives by imposing a sharable (averaged, static, abstract, predictable) order on the behaviors of self and others. The coping mode’s social motto is: “We are right and you have to adapt your behavior to match ours.” We call this the authoritarian motto.

It is strongly related to Stenner’s (2005) Authoritarian Dynamic: “Intolerance to diversity = authoritarianism x threat level”. Where authoritarianism is a measure of reliance on coping. So the authoritarian dynamic says that the more individuals (and groups) rely on coping and the higher the threat level, the more intolerant to diversity they become.


The complementarity of cognition for control, order, certainty and cognition for exploration, disorder, possibility. From Andringa et al (2013) . (M.C. Escher’s ‘Liberation’ © 2013 The M.C. Escher Company—the Netherlands. All rights reserved. Used by permission.


B-cognition/co-creation complements coping through using the possibilities of the world to add value to the habitat. Where coping aims to solve or otherwise address or suppress problems in standardized or concerted efforts, co-creation success entails the self-directed prevention of problems by reducing barriers to optimal functioning or by finding new ways to realize even better quality of life. We identified the associated continual optimization process as “pervasive optimization": optimizing everything in the context of everything else.

Unlike coping that has specific success states – satisfied or mitigated deficiencies, and more sameness and oneness – co-creation has no definite success states. There are countless ways to realize high quality of life and there is no simple metric to favor one above the other. Where coping relies on social mimicry and the associated reduction of behavioral diversity, co-creation depends on countless self-initiated and unscripted contributions to the world that both increase diversity and quality of life.

We argued that this description of co-creation pertains to all of life and in fact drove the growth of the biosphere in the last 3.8 billion years (Andringa et al, 2015). This is self-actualization on a biosphere level. In fact the biosphere can be interpreted as “Life self-actualizing”.

Coping and co-creation: success and failure.

While Maslow clearly indicated that being-cognition required deficiency-needs to be sufficiently satisfied, he did not say much about the interplay between being-cognition and deficiency cognition. The interplay was in part elucidated by Iain McGilchrist in his book “The master and his emissary” (2010) that describes the two complementary outlooks-to-the-the-world of our two brain hemispheres.

His extremely rich and detailed description of these two outlooks (see table 2 of Andringa et al. 2013) is yet another manifestation of the complementarity of d-cognition/coping and b-cognition/co-creation and he connects this to culture and philosophy.

McGilchrist describes the right hemisphere as the master who tasks the left hemisphere, the emissary, with specific assignments. Problems arise when the emissary, with its characteristic narrow-minded focus, high urgency, and minimal self-reflective abilities takes the master’s role. McGilchrist blames many of society’s problems, backed-up with many historical examples, on the left hemisphere (LH) taking control over matters it is much less competent at than a well-functioning right hemisphere (RH).

We proposed that co-creation (RM) is the natural default mode that is activated in the absence of perceived pressing problems (Andringa et a., 2015; Andringa and Denham, 2021). The coping mode is activated when a situation is deemed problematic (or more generally, benefits from problem solving or focus on detail).

Successful co-creation means prevented pressing problems and flourishing. Its failure leads to unprevented pressing problems. Likewise, successful coping leads to solved problems, while unsuccessful problem solving to perpetuated or new problems. Life success requires therefore both high co-creation skills to prevent problems and high coping skills to address and solve the problems that could not be prevented.

In general low co-creation skills lead to many unprevented problems and low coping skills lead to unsolved or new problems. We refer to an (in part) self-perpetuated situation of continued problems – that keep activating the coping mode – as a coping trap. This is one state of (deeply) suboptimal mental health.

Two modes overview

Key dynamics of core cognition. Concepts in white help to realize and protect high viability and are associated with self-avtualization. Concepts in black pertain to coping

So what is complete mental health?

The World Health Organization’s' formulated ‘health’ in 1948 as ‘ A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity ’. Huber (2011) introduced a new concept of health as ‘ The ability to adapt and to self-manage, in the face of social, physical and emotional challenges ’. Huber’s definition focuses on autonomy: if you are able to face social, physical and emotional challenges, then you are healthy, even in the presence of clear symptoms like obesity, anxiety, or an amputation. On the other hand the WHO’s definition demands complete physical, mental, social wellbeing, well above the level of absence of symptoms.

Maslow’s definition of self-actualization as complete mental health is a combination of the key features of both: it is “complete mental and social wellbeing through the ability to adapt and self-manage in the face of social and emotional challenges”. Complete mental health is self-generated and self-maintained and expresses the skills to prevent most problems and effectively solve or otherwise address those that cannot be prevented.

A completely mentally healthy individual expresses being-cognition and co-creation adequacy most of the time and especially to guide long-term or strategic behaviors. Deficiency-cognition and coping is expressed only as short and effective temporary fallback. Self-actualizers therefore successfully maximize the fraction of their life-time co-creating.

This also dovetails with DiPaolo’s (2014) definition of cognitivity. He writes “A system is cognitive when its behavior is governed by the norm of the system’s own continued existence and flourishing”. The more a cognitive system flourishes, the higher its viability, the further it is from death, the less it is restrained by problems, the more it co-creates and expresses being-cognition, and the more it self-actualizes.

Agentic Success

Because self-actualization describes complete mental health, it is a health extreme: only a minority (a few percent, depending on the strictness of the definition) of the population manifests and expresses a dominance of co-creation in combination with very effective coping. Formulated like this self-actualization is the skill to prevent most problems and effectively solve or otherwise address those that cannot be prevented.

Developing highly realistic worldviews

Skilled actors realize intended and beneficial outcomes, the unskilled do not or even cause harm. Skillful behavior proves proves a high congruence between intention and outcome and hence realistic expectations. Self-actualizers are very skilled in living and hence prove in the vast majority of their actions they generated realistic expectations: they have created a realistic worldview.

Physical reality, for all its intricacies and complications, is completely self-consistent: physical reality is always in states that follow strictly causally from previous states. This makes physical predictable. This predictability is the key prerequisite of skilled behavior and knowledge in general. Living agents base their very existence on the causal nature of reality.

The more pervasively one can predict the outcomes of one’s interactions with the world, the more often these work out as intended. This is what we refer to as a realistic world-view: a resource to generate realistic expectations of interaction with the full breadth of reality. A highly realistic world-view both characterizes and enables self-actualization. And self-actualizers have created that in a uniquely individual process.

In Learning Autonomy (Andringa et al., 2013) we described three phases of which the third depends on the successful mastering of phase 2. In phase 1 the agent learns to master the body. Phase 2 aims to make the mind into a reliable tool. Preconditioned on success in phase 2, phase 3 aims to effectively co-create a highly viable interaction between habitat and self. Phase 2 involves the acquisition the huge body of shared knowledge about the physical, the living, and the cultural world that we derive typically from all forms of social mimicking.

Only if this body of knowledge is sufficiently functional and broadly applicable, one can start to rely on it to engage in truly self-directed endeavors. So only when self-direction provides a net benefit, individuals have access to phase 3: the phase of self-actualization and full human autonomy. We provided a lot of converging evidence for this.

The problem with phase 2 knowledge is that it involves the adoption of shared and consensually adopted knowledge from teachers and peers, a process that Maslow calls enculturation. Knowledge acquired this way is mostly correct and functional and its application is effective in the Pareto sense: you can derive say 80% of the benefit by acquiring this knowledge, but to reach optimal or even correct results you need additional experience to refine the knowledge and to apply it safely in realistic contexts.

This refinement is not only a process that takes considerably longer, it is also a strictly private mental process: one in which you have to learn to trust your mental refinement abilities. And while you learn to trust your own decision and sense making, you develop your own unique and better than average worldview. If you do not, you have to fall back to a mostly consensual shared worldview with lower effectiveness.

This “switch” from shared, explicit and consensual knowledge to ever more individual, implicit, and self-constructed knowledge determines phase 2 success and gives access to phase 3 and (potential) self-actualization. In McGilchrist’s terminology this corresponds to a shift from left hemispheric dominance to a gradually more prominent role of the right hemisphere and, self-actualization to its dominance.

It also corresponds to a change from memorization via social mimicry, characteristic of coping, to the self-construction of knowledge (on a basis of shared knowledge) and self-direction. It is a switch from cognition for control, order, certainty, and utility to cognition for exploration, disorder, possibility, and engagement. And it is also a switch from reliance on external authority to self-direction (the internalization of the authority role).

Deep Switch illustration

The deep switch” caption=“The deep switch signifies the gradually growing reliance on self-constructed knowledge and strategies that at the same time signifies a change from cognition for control, order, certainty, and utility via social mimicry to cognition for exploration, disorder, possibility, and self-guided engagement via the self-construction of knowledge and strategies.

This “deep switch” is a precondition for self-actualization and full mental health. Without making the switch you are limited to the domain of shared consensual knowledge. Depending on the quality of the contributions to the shared knowledge domain its quality can range from totally dysfunctional and toxic to fairly reliable and empowering.

In fact the historian Quigley (1961) claims that the statement “Truth unfolds through a communal process” lies at the foundation of Western culture. Western society has indeed created much valuable knowledge. It also created a lot of knowledge, data, and opinions of questionable utility and unrealistic and unproductive nonsense. These pollute the shared societal narrative and degrade its utility and reliability. Of course, the more dysfunctional the shared narrative, the more difficult it will be to protect against the adoption of disempowering data, ideas, and opinions. I refer to the process of getting rid of this as weeding out toxic enculturation.

Weeding out toxic enculturation

Phase 2 depends by and large on copying the behaviors, ideas, strategies, opinions, and talking-points of others: social mimicry. If successful, this is a stepping stone towards the more advanced behaviors in phase 3. For this aspiring self-actualizers need to learn the mental habits to weed ‘toxic enculturation’ because this causes or prolongs problems when relied on and effectively reduces the life-fraction co-creating. And with that it reduces one’s autonomy hence locks one in phase 2.

Self-actualizers prove they succeeded in weeding out the knowledge items and inconsistencies in their worldview with a dominant co-creation mode. Non-self-actualizers suffer from toxic knowledge items and a generally inconsistent world-view that prevent them to consistently reach the higher levels of self-maintained viability and locks them in the coping mode.

This is a process in which (system 2 and system 1) [bullets are draft]

  • RH presents the world and activates relevant context.
  • LH looks for logical errors and inconsistencies and proposes, if need be, improvements
  • RH evaluates the improvements in the larger context of one’s worldview
  • RH + LH when local logical structure and global worldview context is no longer in conflict an improved and more consistent context-embedded memory trace of the knowledge item is stored for future use.
  • This becomes habitual

This is a mind that has learned to improve his own thoughts by critical examining them. This is a well-studied and documented process,

The educated mind and the informational identity style

Perry (1998), who studied epistemological development in adolescents (in his case Harvard students) has described the associated mindful engagement when he described the features of the educated mind. He wrote:

The educated mind has learned to think about even his own thoughts, it examines the way it orders his data and the assumptions it is making, it compares these with other thoughts that other people might have and adopts whatever this scrutiny of data, ideas, and opinions decides on as most reliable and productive.

In doing so the educated mind learned to think in accordance with reality from which position he can take responsibility for his own stand and negotiate – with respect – with others.

The key point here is that an educated mind self-examines data, ideas, and opinions and replaces these with ever more reliable and productive variants. This habit to make one’s data, ideas, and opinions ever more reliable and productive is not only the process that weeds out toxic enculturation in internal inconsistencies between knowledge items, it is also the driver of self-actualization.

Note that nothing in this definition requires formal education. Formal education might even impede the deep switch when learning focusses solely on the diverse forms of social mimicry (like complying with standardized learning outcomes) and the associated memorization at the cost of the self-construction of knowledge.

The achieved identity

Weeding out unproductive and toxic knowledge items is also a characteristic of the achieved identity style. In identity research, the data, ideas, and opinions that one takes for true – one’s worldview – is referred to as self-relevant information. It is self-relevant because what we take as reliable and productive becomes part of our identity or self-theory. Identity can be defined as “a theory of me as actor in the world” or “self-theory” (Berzonsky, 1992): how you define yourself determines how you engage the world. Berzonsky (1992), writes:

The effectiveness of this identity structure or self-theory depends on its pragmatic utility: Does it enable individuals to cope successfully with the stressors and personal problems that are encountered in everyday life? As contextual demands change and new situations are encountered, continued personal effectiveness will depend on the way in which the identity structure or self-theory is revised or conserved.

Self-actualizers know that their set of self-relevant information – their worldview – can and should be improved by identifying and repairing errors, inconsistencies, and missing data and hence they welcome (high quality) information that is “dissonant” (conflicting) with their current world-view because it challenges them to reduce the conflict between their current worldview and potential improvements derived from different perspectives on reality. This find this process also quite pleasurable.

Identity research calls this the informational identity style. This attitude towards information is, as one would expect of something essential to self-actualization, predictive of many aspects of their being. Berzonsky (2011) summarizes the informational identity style as follows:

Individuals with an informational style deliberately search out, process, and evaluate self-relevant information before resolving identity conflicts and forming commitments. They are self-reflective, skeptical about their self-views, interested in learning new things about themselves, and willing to evaluate and modify their identity structure in light of dissonant feedback. Research indicates that an informational style is associated with self-insight, open-mindedness, problem-focused coping strategies, vigilant decision making, cognitive complexity, emotional autonomy, empathy, adaptive self-regulation, high commitment levels, and an achieved identity status. Individuals with high informational scores tend to define themselves in terms of personal attributes such as personal values, goals, and standards.

This description points to an aspect that has not yet been focused on: self-actualizers self-manage personal growth to meet the challenges of changing circumstances (“problem-focused coping”, “modify their identity structure”, and “adaptive self-regulation”). To do so they need to be “self-reflective, skeptical about their self-views, interested in learning new things about themselves, and willing to evaluate and modify their identity structure in light of dissonant feedback”.

Both the description of the educated mind and the informational style rely on a combination of strong co-creation and coping skills with co-creation and the associated enlargement of behavioral repertoire in the lead and coping as an effective fallback.

Identity achieved: prerequisite to self-actualization

Self-actualizers are a subpopulation of identity achievement. Individuals with and achieved identity have experienced a period of self-exploration in which they learned to weed out toxic enculturation, where they developed and learned to trust a personal world-view that allows them to (mostly) think and act in accordance with reality.

They have skills and strategies that work reliably and hence do not have to be changed. It seems as if they have committed to particular life courses. But these commitments are not so much a deliberate choice, as a set of reliable and broadly beneficial personal strategies that they continually build on and hence value highly and protect.

The more they self-construct their personal sphere of influence, the more they prevent problems (co-creation) and the more effectively and quickly they address the ones that cannot be avoided, the more they self-actualize. An achieved identity style is indeed a prerequisite to self-actualization.

Self-actualizing: what it is

This then concludes the first part"Self-actualization: what is it?”. Self-actualization is not only near optimal mental health, it is as much a form of optimal living. And this form of optimal living is preconditioned on developing a realistic worldview.

Self-actualization has a number of tell-tale indicators.

  • Dominant co-creation (being-cognition) and effective coping (deficiency cognition)
  • Informational identity style: self-actualizers are self-critical and use dissonant information and any source of skills to improve all aspects of their worldview and skill set.
  • Trust in self-constructed knowledge and self-directing one’s behaviors. Self-actualizers have made the deep switch from behavior based on social mimicry to self-direction.
  • High sense of realism: self-actualizer have liberated themselves by and large from toxic enculturation and made their worldview consistent. This allows them tom detect the fake and inconsistent and engage in endeavors that are likely to produce intended outcomes.
  • Effectively building on previous activities: self-actualizers contribute to the world via the constructive traces that they leave in the world on which they and others can build.
  • They self-manage personal growth to match the demands of changing circumstances.

In the next part, full mental health will become more meaningful by contrasting it with different forms of existence that fall short of it.

Self-actualizing: what it is not

What self-actualizing is will become even clearer by contrasting it to behavioral patterns that are deemed quite normal – and are often the norm – and not normally indicative of sub-optimal mental health. I do this using the structure of identity as has been elucidated in the last 50 years.

The structure of identity

Traditionally, the structure of identity development is depicted in four quadrants. The achieved identity style, including the self-actualizers, is one quadrant. The other quadrants are referred to as the moratorium, the foreclosed, and the diffusive identity style. Self-actualizers engage in characteristic mental and identity development processes. Non-self-actualizer are either:

  1. still in the process (moratoria),
  2. have avoided the weeding out of toxic enculturation (foreclosures), or
  3. actively resist the mental and identity development processes (diffusions).

The four quadrants arise from the interaction of two axes. One axis denotes self-exploration or not. And the second axis firm commitments or not. Self-actualizers are are committed self-explorers.

Depending on the situation (societal, social, physical, physiological) everyone can adopt strategies characteristic of each quadrant. Yet in the context of normal life, we tend to be dominated by behaviors characteristic of one of the quadrants: our identity style (Berzonsky, 1992). In addition, there is a natural life-course development towards self-exploration and commitments. This development can however stall indefinitely if for example the deep switch is avoided or never completed.

In part 2 of our recent paper (Denham & Andringa, 2021) we outlined the deep relation between coping and co-creation adequacy and the structure of identity (Denham & Andringa, 2021). We summarized this in a somewhat complicated figure centered around four strategies to deal with life’s strategies: preventing, solving, controlling, and avoiding problems. The different identity styles rely on different combinations of these, which to a large extend explains the clear differences between the identity styles.


Identity moratorium: stalled problem solving abilities

Individuals with the moratorium identity resemble achievers in many respects. Yet they differ characteristically in the absence of stable commitments. Moratoria clearly engage in self-exploration and weed out some toxic enculturation. So they clearly prefer co-creation over coping. But compared to achievers they have lower coping skills, which entails that many problems and situations are not efficiently dealt with and hence linger.

Where problems activate achievers to deal with them quickly and effectively, moratoria tend to avoid them. This makes sense given their low coping skills, but it deprives them of opportunities to develop these and assert themselves with constructive solutions. Without effective coping, they have no way to execute their strategies optimally and they cannot to protect these in times of adversity.

This makes it impossible to execute stable strategies (commit) and instead adapt to circumstances, rather that grow to match the new challenges as achievers do. As preferred co-creators they explore a lot and engage actively with the diversity of the world. Yet this barely leads to the stable life-strategies – commitments – characteristic of achievers.

In addition, low coping skills keep a background of problems active and hence the coping mode is more often active than in achievers. This holds especially in times of anxiety, trouble, and uncertainty, where they can easily fall back to one of the other identity styles.

At the same time their low coping skills make them prefer comfort and restoration even more than others because it allows them to avoid or restore from their background problems. At the same time their co-creation skills make them fairly good in preventing problems. The combination of broad co-creation skills and a lack of high effectiveness inspires them to co-create a world in which they are less likely to be confronted with their own coping inadequacies.

Moratoria are in the process of making the deep switch. They switch between co-creation and coping most clearly of all identity styles. They prefer co-creation and self-exploration, but as weak copers they are unable to quickly end the problems they are faced with. This entails that they have not yet developed the reliance on self-constructed knowledge and strategies. In easy times they do, in difficult times they fall back to coping and social mimicry; in which case they behave like foreclosures or diffusions. In this case they become intolerant to diversity and prevent the personal growth that might allow them to cope better with circumstances. This is the authoritarian dynamic (Stenner, 2005) at work.

Nevertheless, they tend to understand the basics of self-actualization and find it highly desirable. At the same time they find the path towards it quite elusive.

Foreclosed identity: adoption of shared norms

[This part is repetitive]

The identity style that conflicts most with self-actualization is the foreclosed identity. And that is not because they are furthest away from self-actualization (which is the diffusive identity), but because of an exclusive reliance on coping, which actively forecloses self-actualization by suppressing all ‘dissonant information’ through a near exclusive reliance on social mimicry: rule following, procedures, traditions, checklists, ideologies, authority supported narratives, and consensually derived shared knowledge,

On a group level foreclosures are effective copers, but as individuals and groups they are ineffective co-creators. Ineffective co-creation (problem prevention) in combination with unaddressed toxic enculturation entails that foreclosed individuals and their in-group live in a world of structurally unprevented problems. Their high coordinated – hence group-level – coping skills keep these problems usually at manageable levels, but this requires a constant effort to suppress undesired (read potentially unmanageable) diversity.

Because they live in a world of structurally unprevented problems, foreclosed individuals rely on coping because they continually feel a deep and strong (yet mostly unconscious) anxiety that motivated them to retain or regain control over their lives by imposing a sharable (averaged, static, abstract, predictable) order on the behaviors of self and others. Hence they apply the coping mode’s social motto: “We are right and you have to adapt your behavior to match ours.”

This fits with the key strategies of foreclosures to deal with life’s challenges: a combination of solving and suppressing problems. Promoting oneness and sameness can solve some problems, but intolerance to diversity ensures that solutions and improvements are not even considered and hence foreclosures maintain conditions far below optimal. Coping is for survival, not for flourishing.

Stenner (2005) calls potentially undesired diversity a ‘normative threat’: a threat to the normative order and the cohesion and proper functioning of the in-group. Foreclosed individuals insist on “oneness and sameness” in all strategies, opinions, data, habits, traditions, narratives, and beliefs on which the proper functioning of their in-group relies on. This insistence is not a polite wish, but an existential need since they simply no longer have the cognitive apparatus to deal with more effective and productive strategies that conflict with the in-group narrative.

And because of this, they tend to restore – individually, but typically in groups – in-group oneness and sameness first lovingly and if necessary ruthlessly. Any in-group, small or big, whether a cult, ideology, religion, political or sexual orientation, knowledge discipline, nation, cultural or informational subculture, profession, or knowledge bubble, that functions according the logic of coping, promotes sameness and oneness by first identifying and later suppressing dissonant out-group influences. Even the main culture of a region can behave like this.

For foreclosures, commitments are the direct result of excluding out-group options and hence they have no choice other than to act in accordance with the worldview of their in-group. For foreclosures commitments are just expressions of the full and unchanged adoption of the in-group narrative and not of any true self-direction.

So they can commit to a certain in-group carrier path, in which one could them ambitious. And they try to be the best in-group member they can be. But this almost inevitably entails sacrificing individual needs. Burn-outs seem to be a typical manifestation of this when the brainstem, tasked with keeping the body functional, no longer accepts this neglect and shuts down all motivation to continue the neglect.

Individuals with a foreclosed identity have never engaged in serious and successful self-exploration, because they unquestionably adopted the norms, practices, and narratives of the in-group that they are committed members of. They are fully enculturated in-group members who prevent themselves from weeding out the toxic cultural influences of their in-group. Because because if they so that would make them flawed in-group members.

Hence they not only self-censor urges and ideas that conflict with the shared narrative, they also insist that others do so. This entails that with respect to the core narrative of the in-group they tend to be fairly interchangeable, predictable, and de-individualized. This is social mimicry successfully leading to more sameness and oneness. Whatever diversity exists does not conflict with the shared in-group narrative.

The term foreclosed {to rule out or prevent] is actually well chosen. They have not only prevented self-exploration through the mindless adoption of some in-group narrative, but they actively rule out and suppress many perfectly feasible improvements to self, group functioning, and the world if these do not fit in their ideology, narrative, or creed. They implement the authoritarians motto: “We are right and you have to adapt your behavior to match ours”. And Stenner’s (2005) Authoritarian Dynamic in the sense that their intolerance to diversity scales with the normative threat-level they perceive.

Associated with the foreclosed identity comes a specific attitude to information that is referred to as the normative identity style. Berzonsky (2011) describes this normative orientation as follows.

Individuals with a normative orientation internalize and adhere to goals, values, and prescriptions appropriated from significant others and referent groups [in-groups] in a relatively automatic or mindless manner, that is, they make premature commitments without critical evaluation and deliberation. They have a low tolerance for ambiguity and a high need to maintain structure and cognitive closure. Individuals who adopt this protectionist approach function as dogmatic self-theorists whose primary goal is to conserve and maintain self-views and to guard against information that may threaten their “hard core” values and beliefs. This relatively automatic approach to self-construction is associated with a foreclosed identity status and should lead to a rigidly organized self-theory composed of change-resistant self-constructs. A normative orientation is associated with firm goals, commitments, and a definite sense of purpose, but a low tolerance for uncertainty and a strong desire for structure.

Which all fits perfectly with the cognition for certainly, order, and control that we defined earlier. The a priori exclusion of dissonant out-group ideas in combination with a existential dependence on oneness and sameness entails that the shared narrative that unifies the in-group has few options to weed out unproductive, unreliable, or even toxic aspects.

In practice this entails that although the foreclosed individuals express full faith in the veracity of the shared narrative, ideology, or creed, there is no reason to assume that the veracity is any better or less dysfunctional that other in-group narratives. The focus on in-group sameness and oneness prevents that.

Bonhoeffer‘s Theory of Stupidity

At some points in time the shared narrative can become totally dysfunctional in which individuals in a foreclosed mind-state implement “The madness of crowds”

[At some point a table with a ]

Identity diffusion: stalled problem solving and prevented self-exploration

The fourth and last identity is referred to a as identity diffusion. This is the group of individuals with neither effective coping nor co-creation skills. Like foreclosures they avoided self-exploration (they very well know they might not like what they will find when they do). And like moratoria they avoid problems and hence miss opportunities to learn problem solution skills. As a consequence, diffusions live in a world of unprevented and unsolved problems that they perpetuate habitually. And without these skills and a clear self-theory they respond more than they plan and they have to explain their actions using an ad hoc theory that changes with the circumstances. They therefore show no commitments.

[Self-reflection, they do not like when they reflect, avoid it hence learn little from from their tribulations: search for guidance, guru’s, spiritual leaders, idols, role-models, to mimic. ]

Unlike foreclosed individuals who are effective in-group members, they try to fit in via all types of social mimicry, but often fail to do so with sufficient benefits to self. For example they might crave likes on social media, but dread the prospect of not receiving them. Since they do barely understand the world they live in, they cannot predict the consequences of their own actions and are often confronted with unexpected and unexplainable side-effects (that nevertheless receive some ad hoc explanation). Deep inside they know that they play a big part in perpetuation of their own problems and hence they have great difficulty in engaging in all that is not habitual. This manifests as procrastination, which eventually entails that circumstances rather than their own initiative decide on their life-course.

Yet despite this all,

Because the live in a world of unprevented and unsolved problems (a coping trap) they rey

A diffuse-avoidant orientation involves a reluctance to confront and deal with identity conflicts and issues. If one procrastinates too long, actions and choices will be determined by situational demands and consequences. Such context-sensitive adjustments, however, are more likely to involve transient acts of behavioral or verbal compliance rather than stable, long-term structural revisions in the self-theory. This processing orientation, originally identified as a diffuse orientation is postulated to be typical of individuals categorized as having a diffused identity status. When it became apparent that at least some strategic avoidance was involved, it was referred to as the diffuse/avoidant (confused and/or strategic) orientation. The term diffuse-avoidant (with a dash instead of a slash) currently is preferred because it denotes that the orientation involves more than a confused or fragmented self; it reflects strategic attempts to evade, or at least obscure, potentially negative self diagnostic information. Individuals with a diffuse-avoidant orientation adopt an ad hoc, situation-specific approach to self-theorizing, which should lead to a fragmented set of self-constructs with limited overall unity. They assume a present-oriented, self-serving perspective that highlights immediate rewards and social concerns, such as popularity and impressions tailored for others, when making choices and interpreting events. Diffuse-avoidance is positively associated with efforts to excuse or rationalize negative performances, self-handicapping behaviors, impression management, limited commitment, and an external locus of control.

The dysfunctional dynamic

“I’m dysfunctional and I am convinced that if the whole world changes to accommodate my dysfunctionality that I do not suffer from my dysfunction”


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Overview of Core Cognition

3 - Identity as coping and co-creation (in)adequacy

Here we develop the structure of identity in terms of coping and co-creation adequacy. This leads to an enriched understanding of the interplay between coping and co-creation, and it demonstrates that the conceptual language of core cognition is a productive lens for approaching a well-studied psychological phenomenon.

Previously (Andringa, van den Bosch, & Wijermans, 2015) we have connected the existence of an individual’s unique identity to the self-maintenance of the living state. Here we develop the structure of identity in terms of coping and co-creation adequacy. This leads to an enriched understanding of the interplay between coping and co-creation, and it demonstrates that the conceptual language of core cognition is a productive lens for approaching a well-studied psychological phenomenon. What we describe here connects intimately to the different perspectives on the world that the two brain hemispheres, as described by McGilchrist (2012), produce: i.e., that the left-hemisphere is strongly connected to coping and the right hemisphere to co-creation (Andringa et al., 2015). Editorial constraints prevent us from developing this concept here in detail.

Identity development

Berzonsky (1989), quoting Epstein, describes identity as a self-generated theory of me as an actor in the world, or self-theory: an explanatory structure constructed to explain and plan one’s interactions with the world. It is the basis for understanding one’s position and role in the world and, hence, an expression of one’s worldview and agency. An adequate self-theory allows one to cope with life’s challenges and respond to opportunities. In return, these enrich one’s self-theory and worldview. A self-theory is therefore directly related to how one appraises the world, which links with the way the left and right hemispheres of the brain understand reality (McGilchrist, 2012). Berzonsky (1989) describes this self-theory thus:

a theory that the individual has unwittingly constructed about him- or herself as an experiencing, functional individual … it contains major postulate systems for the nature of the world, for the nature of the self, and their interaction. Like most theories, that self-theory is a conceptual tool for accomplishing a purpose. Major purposes are to optimize the pleasure/pain balance of the individual over the course of a lifetime … and to organize the data of experience in a manner that can be coped with effectively.

Learning to optimize the pain/pleasure balance fits very well with optimizing well-being of the self through self-development of a worldview and an adequate behavioral repertoire for coping and co-creation. According to Berzonsky, the effectiveness of a self-theory can be measured in terms of whether it helps “to solve the personal problems it was constructed to handle [and …] serve as a framework within which experience and […] relevant information can be meaningfully organized and understood” (1989). We refer to this (partial) effectiveness as (partial) adequacy (see section 1 “Well-being and adequacy”) use that to derive the main structure of identity.

Identity as co-creation and coping (in)adequacy

Figure 2 in Section 1 described the development of an agent’s behavioral repertoire. In this section we adapt it towards how humans deal with life’s challenges and problems (and indirectly to identity research). In [Section 2](basics/2-coping-and-co-creation/) we described two main strategies to make the world more predictable and hence more manageable. Coping aims to make the world more predictable by reducing its complexity and creating systems (of agents or things) with more predictable behavior, thus bringing threats-to-self under control and promoting security. Co-creation makes the world more predictable by promoting unconstrained natural behavior and easy need satisfaction, through promoting and communicating efforts that facilitate and maintain habitat viability and overall safety. We defined a highly adequate agent as one that can prevent most problems, and quickly and effectively solve what cannot be prevented. Problems (and challenges) that cannot be prevented or solved can be controlled (suppressed) or avoided. These four strategies – preventing, solving, controlling, and avoiding – can be included in Figure 2 in Section 1 to yield Figure 3 below.

Figure 3. Dealing with Life’s challenges Four attitudes toward problems and challenges (on the main axes), coupled with broad strategies (on the circle), effects on the world, and behavioral (in)effectiveness. The dashed arrows represent life’s key demands: maintaining and increasing viability of self and habitat (Part 1, Figure 1). Alternatively attending to both demands implements core cognition.

The main horizontal axis denotes preventing problems (associated with wisdom) as the highest manifestation of self-direction since it leads to high viability of self and habitat Figure 1 in Section 1). Its fallback strategy is controlling or reducing (unprevented) problems through social mimicry (Chartrand & van Baaren, 2009) as a manifestation of low self-direction. This is a situation where persistent problems require great effort to handle but are not necessarily successfully controlled and signify low viability. The vertical axis reflects solving problems (associated with intelligence) as a way to assert oneself or, alternatively, avoid them as a way of adapting without changing the situation.

The four quadrants of Figure 3 correspond directly to those in Table 3 (see below), where the combination of attitudes towards problems and challenges define each of the four table entries that we are going to connect to matching identity statuses (indicated in brackets). In each quadrant we first give a short description in terms of adequacy, and secondly, we describe the associated worldview.

Controlling Preventing
Solving Controlling & Solving (Identity foreclosure)
Agents modify the world (with great effort) to prevent being confronted with their own inadequacies by promoting a suitable form of sameness and oneness through social mimicry (see Part 1, Coping) which creates an in-group with shared rules (and narratives).
Their shared worldview enhances in-group effectiveness, but cannot claim realism since it excludes out-group perspectives because it primarily values sameness and oneness.
Preventing & Solving (Achieved identity)
Agents are both adequate problem preventers and problem solvers because they continually self-acquire the skills to benefit most from the possibilities of the world.
This allows them to exhibit more or less unconstrained natural behavior. Their co-creation and coping effectiveness, and hence life-success, prove they have developed and continually maintain a realistic worldview.
Avoiding Controlling & Avoiding (Identity diffusion)
Agents have neither co-creation nor coping skills and can only maintain an illusion of agentic adequacy through avoiding challenges or engaging in damage control by behavioral mimicry of (seemingly) successful others.
They live in a world of intra- and extra-agentic forces that they neither comprehend nor control, and their worldview is incoherent and inconsistent.
Preventing & Avoiding (Identity moratorium)
Agents aim to co-create or select a world where they are not inadequate because it promotes easy need satisfaction and unconstrained natural behavior.
They live in a world that they mostly understand and can handle, but tend to be bothered by long-term problems, which periodically surface, because they lack the skills to address them effectively. In addition, they are blind to the power of complexity reduction and control strategies.
Table 3. Identity as an expression of strategies to deal with life’s challenges. The four cells correspond to the quadrants of Figure 3.

In Table 3, the set of behaviors still pertains mainly to general agents, since we limited ourselves to the generalized concepts and formulations derived in Part 1. In the next sections we will introduce, first, the defining two dimensions of the human identity concept, and secondly, we will describe each of the four described identity statuses in relation to what we outlined in Table 3.

The modern identity concept James Marcia (1967) described late-adolescent development in terms of a transition from “the given” (the dependent) to the (independent) “givers,” and an identity (development) crisis. He described (1966) four identity statuses as combinations of high and low scores on two dimensions: stable commitments and (to use a modern formulation) deliberate self-exploration.

Stable commitments indicate that personal strategies are effective and, hence, that one can build – self-directedly – on traces left in the habitat (which is related to concepts like stigmergy and authority). Since effective strategies are further improved through experience, they do not have to be replaced. This leads to stable, albeit developing, life-strategies and a stable, and effective personality. In Figure 2 of Part 1, this corresponded to an “upward'' move towards a more effective behavioral repertoire.

Deliberate self-exploration and the development of a self-constructed theory of me as an actor in the world is a requirement for the development of a unique self, rather than an identity based on values and beliefs adopted uncritically and unchanged from others (mimicking). The process of deliberate exploration of me-as-an-actor-in-the-world manifests as the broadening of the behavioral repertoire. In Figure 2 of Part 1 we noted that broadening the behavioral repertoire is more arduous and slower than making it narrowly more effective through mimicking behaviors of those more effective, healthy, or otherwise attractive individuals. But since the broadening contributes to co-creation capacity, it offers higher long-term benefits, and is a preferred choice for individuals who have learned to value co-creation. Valuing these benefits requires the development of co-creation’s basic strategy of discovering, and later using, the unconstrained natural behavior of self, others, and the wider habitat.

The shaping of a unique self occurs on the basis of shared or consensually adopted values, beliefs, and strategies to bootstrap self-development. Actualizing a unique self requires a shift in one’s perceived locus of causality (PLOC) from external (like social mimicry) to internal: “The more internalized a value or regulation, the more it is experienced as autonomous or as subjectively located closer to the self” (Ryan & Connell, 1989, p. 750; Andringa, van den Bosch, & Vlaskamp, 2013). It also manifests self-direction.

PLOC internalization is not so much a rejection of previous values, beliefs, and strategies, but a refinement of these by allowing individual experiences to be enriched and generalized. Hence, they can be applied more flexibly (less rigidly), more context-appropriately (i.e., more realistically), and more proactively with long-term benefits; this is a change from explicit rule following to the use of experience-based tacit knowledge and self-direction. The combined changes of PLOC from external to internal, from explicit to tacit knowledge use, and from group to individual authority, entail emerging self-direction and liberation from self-limiting constraints, adopted via social mimicry, that warrant characterization as a self-exploration crisis.

Identity research uses past or current self-exploration crises as tell-tale indicators of identity development. In this paper, we connect negotiating or avoiding this crisis to the development (or not) of co-creation adequacy. More precisely, a self-exploration crisis does not indicate co-creation adequacy, but only a co-creation preference; the individual notices its benefit over coping, but is not necessarily adequate yet. Similarly, we connect stable commitments to coping or co-creation adequacy, and the absence of stable commitments to inadequacy. Commitments remain unstable until adequacy is reached. Table 4 shows this for the four identity statuses we outlined above. (Berzonsky, 1989; Erickson 1966).

Table 4

The four identity statuses

No deliberate self-exploration Coping preference PLOC external / Low self-direction *Deliberate self-exploration
*Co-creation preference PLOC internal / High(er) self-direction
Stable commitments

Adequate coping
Identity foreclosed
Self-exploration prevented through adoption of societal norms.
**Focused on dealing with viability threats to self **
The world is unstable and dangerous and needs constant surveillance, control, and forceful efforts to prevent disintegration and becoming totally dysfunctional.
Focus on enforcing complexity reduction of habitat and agent behavioral uniformity through promoting oneness and sameness. An effective, but limited behavioral repertoire.
They only take responsibility for group-level endorsed actions and procrastinate when forced to self-decide.
Characteristic insistence on others changing or adapting to protect themselves from exposing their inadequacies: forcing others to mimic them by encouraging or enforcing the adoption of their rules (and narratives).
Achieved identity
Self-exploration crisis negotiated, resulting in well-explored stable identity.
**Effectively improving own and habitat viability **
World is full of opportunities and solvable problems and promotes self-development.
Focus on opportunities of self and habitat. Self-actualization as an expression of a broad and effective behavioral repertoire.
They take full responsibility for their actions and tend to address challenges as they come (which benefits development of self and habitat).
Corresponds to what Maslow (1954) refers to as self-actualization. It is a state of maximal psychological health and self-development. And it fully implements core cognition.
No stable commitments

Inadequate coping
Identity diffusion
Self-exploration avoided, in combination with a fluid or unstable self-identity.
**Contributor to deficient viability of self and habitat **
The world is unpredictable and brutal, since actions and outcomes seem unrelated; responsibility for actions is not taken.
They focus on strategies that mitigate (public exposure of) inadequacy. Little self-development. Behavioral repertoire is narrow and minimally effective.
They take no responsibility for their actions because they can hardly predict the outcomes of their behaviors.
Their development depends strongly on whether the environment is conducive for it or not. A rich and safe learning environment allows them to progress to the other quadrants, while an unsafe and deprived environment traps them.
Identity moratorium
Self-exploration crisis (still) in progress, not (yet) leading to a crystalized identity structure.
Aimed at protecting the conditions for own existence
The world is sometimes a problematic place but invites continued self-exploration and engagement.
They focus on broadening their behavioral repertoire, mastering co-creation strategies and developing a unique identity.
They take responsibility for self-initiated co-creative actions, but procrastinate or evade when faced with serious challenges.
Avoidance of challenges deprives them of the learning opportunities to develop high coping skills.

Note. Words in italics are the defining properties of the four types of identity statuses (based on Berzonsky, 1989). These identity-status-related core cognition features are in the normal font.

Identity from Core Cognition

In the next four subsections we will derive the properties of the four identity statuses described in Table 4: achieved, moratorium, foreclosed, and diffusion. Our derivation is based on the framework described in Part 1, and in particular the four-pronged structure to deal with life’s challenges outlined in Figure 3 and Table 3. As has been confirmed (Berzonsky, 1993), we assume no gender differences.

Identity Achieved

An achieved identity signifies co-creation and coping adequacy: a rich and effective behavioral repertoire ensures that most problems are avoided, and problems that do occur are dealt with quickly and effectively so that co-creation can resume problem prevention. This involves the individual safely and effectively building on past efforts (stigmergy) that produce few unintended and adverse side effects. To the achieved identity the world is full of opportunities and solvable problems. And they can and do take responsibility for self-initiated actions.

Developmentally, the achieved identity emerges from a successfully negotiated self-exploration crisis that results in a well-explored stable identity and full self-direction. With the achieved identity comes the informational identity style that Beaumont and Pratt (2011, p. 174) summarize for achievers as follows:

… they address identity-relevant issues by being skeptical of their self-views, questioning their assumptions and beliefs, and exploring and evaluating information that is relevant to their self-constructions [hence making and keeping their worldview in accordance with the state of the world]. The use of an informational style is positively associated with strategic planning [which includes problem prevention], vigilant decision making, and the use of proactive and problem-focused coping [indicating effective coping and co-creation]. The informational style is also associated with such personal and cognitive attributes as autonomy, openness to experience, introspectiveness, self-reflection, empathy, a high need for cognition, and a high level of cognitive complexity.

These listed properties all facilitate high autonomy, strong self-development, and the effective real-world contributions characteristic of co-creation, as well as high well-being (Berzonsky & Cieciuch, 2016) and wisdom, as we have defined them in Section 2. All in all, this expresses both coping and co-creation adequacy.

Identity Moratorium

Identity moratorium develops due to a preference for co-creation and coping inadequacy: a (fairly) broad behavioral repertoire ensures that many problems are avoided, but problems which do occur are often not dealt with quickly and effectively; the individual cannot (yet) rely on stable and reliable strategies (commit) and instead struggles to develop these. To the person with a moratorium identity, the world is a place for continued self-exploration and major problems. He or she experiences an ongoing self-exploration crisis and has a self-development focus that, despite efforts, does not yet lead to a stable identity structure, although it expresses a “limited commitment” (Berzonsky & Cieciuch, 2016) through its co-creation preference.

Although co-creation adequacy might not have been achieved, co-creation is still considered superior to coping and, hence, is the preferred strategy. This means that the person with a moratorium identity expresses the strengths of co-creation through a focus on contributing to a high-quality habitat, for which the person can take responsibility. However, the strengths of coping — control of problematic situations and effectively ending problems — are minimally expressed and might, when problem solving is structurally avoided, lead to toxic situations. This leads to less time for co-creating than the achieved identity status, and comfort, defined as an absence of apparent pressing problems, is highly valued.

People with a moratorium identity express many of the features of the informational identity style, but to a lesser degree due to their lower coping skills, which also leads to lower well-being than the achieved identity style (Berzonsky & Cieciuch, 2016).

Identity Foreclosure

Identity foreclosure is the identity status that is central for the next section, so we elaborate it in this subsection. Identity foreclosure combines co-creation inadequacy with adequate coping. Co-creation inadequacy leads to structurally unprevented problems, but coping adequacy ensures that these are managed with effort — i.e., controlled — so that they do not (usually) spin out of control. The concept of security, defined as threats brought and kept under control, describes this. The associated worldview is one of an unstable and dangerous world that needs constant surveillance, control, and the need for forceful efforts to prevent disintegration and becoming totally dysfunctional. This motivates the individual with a foreclosed identity more often than not (although limited meta-cognition ensures that they are unaware of this).

Identity foreclosure corresponds to prevented (foreclosed) self-exploration through the uncritical adoption of consensual norms (Berzonsky, 1989; Marcia, 1966) and social mimicry. The dominance of the coping mode leads to favoring in-group level rules and, in general, shared (explicit) knowledge over individual (implicit) knowledge. Foreclosed individuals aim to adopt and express shared rules and narratives with great diligence, and they actively promote the adoption of their shared worldview. Neither the body of shared rules nor the single shared worldview is explored since it is adopted on the basis of superficial effectiveness and social mimicry rather than deliberation on its effectiveness and context appropriateness. The associated worldview is therefore often at odds with actual states of reality, thus perpetuating the body of unprevented problems that have to be controlled.

The resulting strict adherence to the norm and an insistence of oneness and sameness — generating an ingroup — effectively curtails agent and habitat diversity. This is considered moral and responsible behavior because it is intended to manage the threats that keep the coping mode activated. Ironically, “foreclosed” individuals see little value in co-creation’s preventative strategies and in questioning its associated assumptions and beliefs. Instead, they view them as out-groups: individuals who violate sameness and oneness, and hence, frustrate coordinated coping. This means that the “foreclosed” individual is blind to (superior) strategies that might structurally prevent the problems they try so hard to keep from spinning out of control. Hence, more often than not, the threats and problems persist, which locks this identity status into a self-perpetuated coping trap.

Groups of foreclosed individuals manifest a social level coping trap that, through their insistence on coordinating the behaviors of others, threatens to dominate the habitat. Groups of foreclosed individuals have the only identity status that insists on others changing and conforming. Their (unspoken) motto is: “We are right and you have to adapt your behavior to match ours.” They feel righteous because they have no access to perspectives and worldviews other than their own, and they lack the tools to judge the merits of out-group insights. Hence, they see only potential harm in out-group strategies.

Worse, they are particularly insensitive to arguments more nuanced or personal than rule-following and other forms of social mimicry. In fact, they prefer cognitive closure (Webster & Kruglanski, 1994) in answering questions on a given topic, over continued uncertainty, confusion, and ambiguity. An even more profound formulation of their motto is: “Out-group diversity, such as nuanced thoughts and self-directed behaviors, activates a sense of inadequacy in me, through raising doubt on my shared belief system. Diversity, therefore, must be suppressed.”

Individuals with a foreclosed identity express a particular form of information processing known as the normative identity style. We referred to this in an autonomy development context as cognition for control, order, and certainty (Andringa et al., 2015). The normative identity style is a form of information processing that latches onto the familiar, the standardized, the expected, and whatever has direct utility (McGilchrist, 2012). As such, it prefers representations that have been stripped of ambiguities and have been made fixed, uniform, invariant, and static. And in its problem-solving, it denies inconsistencies and instead latches on to a single, normabiding, in-group-promoting solution, and an associated narrative that has been coupled with totalitarianism and authoritarianism (Beaumont, 2008; Berzonsky, 1989). The normative identity style of the foreclosed identity has been summarized as follows:

Normative individuals more automatically internalize and conform to the standards and expectations of significant others. Discrepancies between information about how they are and their normative standards evoke feelings of guilt and concern about avoiding failure [to be a good in-group member]. Their primary aim is to defend and maintain existing self-views [to protect a shared worldview that promotes coordinated action]. (Berzonsky, 2008, pp 646)

Normative individuals report high levels of identity commitment as well as dispositional characteristics such as agreeableness, conscientiousness [both facilitating rule following], and extraversion [promoting the adoption of the shared rules]. However, they also report low levels of openness and introspectiveness [which forecloses further identity development], Normative individuals have been found to employ avoidant coping strategies, to procrastinate in the face of [individual] decisions, to have a high need for structure and a low tolerance for ambiguity, and to be conservative, authoritarian, and racist in their sociocultural views (Beaumont, 2009, p. 97)

Karen Stenner (2005) summarizes the foreclosed identity’s characteristic urge to reduce complexity as “Intolerance to diversity = Authoritarianism x normative fear level,” where authoritarianism is a measure of identity foreclosure. She describes normative threats as threats to oneness (shared authority) and sameness (shared values and rules). In particular, she lists questioned or questionable authorities and values, disrespect for leaders or leaders unworthy of respect, and lack of conformity with or consensus in group norms and beliefs (Stenner, 2009, p. 143): all correspond to a disintegration of oneness and sameness. This summarizes the existential threat felt by those with a foreclosed identity when their only strategy to secure well-being — behavioral diversity reduction through (imposed) limits on agency — is frustrated. But when they do not feel threatened, people with a foreclosed identity manifest intermediate levels of well-being (Berzonsky & Cieciuch, 2016), since they are generally able to maintain problems and threats at manageable levels. All in all, this identity status expresses high coping adequacy and co-creation inadequacy.

Identity Diffusion

The fourth identity status is referred to as identity diffusion and is characterized by inadequate co-creation and inadequate coping. People with this status live in a world of unprevented and unsolvable problems, with dynamics that they do not comprehend, with rules they do not know how to apply skillfully, and where effort and hoped-for outcomes are only weakly related. Given their low adequacy, their well-being depends predominantly on environmental factors. For people with identity diffusion the world is unpredictable and often brutal despite the best of intentions. Hence, they procrastinate in the face of self-decision and will not take responsibility for their actions.

Identity diffusion is characterized by prevented or avoided self-exploration in combination with a fluid or unstable self-identity. While aiming to improve their well-being, people with identity diffusion are often confronted with the consequences of their own inadequacy. Their intentions are good; their realization is not. And one often ends up in, or even self-perpetuates, low viability states. And without the benefit of self-exploration, they do not understand the causes of their problems. Much more than with the other identity statuses, people with identity diffusion live in a random (and brutal and unjust) world of problems in which they cannot take responsibility for their actions. This contrasts with achievers who live in a world of opportunities to be explored and responsibly realized. Beaumont and Pratt (2011, p. 174) describe the associated identity style thus:

A diffuse-avoidant identity style is associated with procrastination and attempts to evade identity conflicts and decisional situations as long as possible [all due to self-perceived inadequacy and mitigating efforts to prevent adverse outcomes and being exposed as inadequate]. … The use of a diffuse-avoidant style is characterized by low agreeableness, conscientiousness, introspectiveness, [complicating rule following] and cognitive complexity [indicating a shallow worldview], and high neuroticism. A diffuse-avoidant style is also associated with less adaptive cognitive and behavioral strategies, such as using avoidant coping strategies, engaging in task-irrelevant behaviors, expecting to fail, having a low feeling of mastery, and performing less strategic planning. [all indicating coping and co-creation inadequacy]

This description clearly demonstrates that people with a diffusion identity exhibit a narrow range of marginally effective or ineffective behavioral options that lock them into this status and curtail their well-being (Berzonsky & Cieciuch, 2016). They express both coping and co-creation inadequacy. Nevertheless, self-development occurs, and they can, although later than others, adopt narrowly effective strategies (towards the foreclosed identity status), develop self-exploration abilities (towards the identity moratorium status), or both (towards the achieved identity status).

Psychology from Core Cognition

In Section 3, we have connected the four combinations of co-creation, coping, adequacy, and inadequacy to the four identity statuses. The psychological literature has derived the properties of these statuses and the associated information-processing styles via careful experimentation and observation (in particular the copious body of research by Berzonsky). But to our knowledge, we are the first to derive the structural properties of identity from first principles (in fact, this might be a first for any phenomenon in psychology). This provides evidence that human psychology is indeed rooted in the core cognition shared by all life.

We also suggest a phylogenetic scaffolding which has coping and co-creation (as essentials of core cognition) as the foundation; identity status and associated information-processing styles building on this; and then personality traits like the Big Five on top. This is not new; two personality meta-traits, referred to as plasticity and stability (DeYoung, Peterson, & Higgins, 2002), have been proposed with a similar scaffolding model. More recently, DeYoung (2015) posited the underlying role of plasticity and stability in a cybernetic Big Five theory of goal-directed adaptive systems. This is similar to DeYoung’s proposal, although its goal-directedness suggests that it pertains predominantly to the coping mode.


“This is an older text, but accessable text, that eventually developed into a paper called: “The Psychological Drivers of Bureaucracy: Protecting the Societal Goals of an Organization.” (Andringa, 2015) that develops the topic of bureacracy much deeper.

“This is an older text, but accessable text, that eventually developed into a paper called: “The Psychological Drivers of Bureaucracy: Protecting the Societal Goals of an Organization.” (Andringa, 2015) that develops the topic of bureacracy much deeper.

Bureaucracy as perfect manifestation of the coping mode. This text from 2013 foreshadows much of the main content of this site (at a moment where I was still unaware of the possibility of core cognition).


Andringa T. (2015) The Psychological Drivers of Bureaucracy: Protecting the Societal Goals of an Organization. In: Janssen M., Wimmer M., Deljoo A. (eds) Policy Practice and Digital Science. Public Administration and Information Technology, vol 10. Springer, Cham. (pdf)

“Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible” – Javier Pascual Salcedo

“Bureaucracy destroys initiative. There is little that bureaucrats hate more than innovation, especially innovation that produces better results than the old routines. Improvements always make those at the top of the heap look inept. Who enjoys appearing inept?” ― Frank Herbert, Heretics of Dune

“In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control, and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.” ― Jerry Pournelle

“If an idea can survive a bureaucratic review and be implemented it wasn’t worth doing” – Anonymous

“Whether the mask is labeled fascism, democracy, or dictatorship of the proletariat, our great adversary remains the apparatus—the bureaucracy, the police, the military. Not the one facing us across the frontier of the battle lines, which is not so much our enemy as our brothers’ enemy, but the one that calls itself our protector and makes us its slaves. No matter what the circumstances, the worst betrayal will always be to subordinate ourselves to this apparatus and to trample underfoot, in its service, all human values in ourselves and in others.” – Simone Weil

“A democracy which makes or even effectively prepares for modern, scientific war must necessarily cease to be democratic. No country can be really well prepared for modern war unless it is governed by a tyrant, at the head of a highly trained and perfectly obedient bureaucracy.” – Aldous Huxley


January 2013

Why does a researcher in the field of cognitive science and cognitive systems write a text about bureaucracy? Well, one of the main problems in cognitive systems research is that although we can develop robots and other systems that are able to solve particular problems intelligently, we consistently fail to develop robots that understand what they are doing. And not understanding what they are doing is a pretty good description of bureaucrats. Since the role of understanding is key to our field of science, I feel qualified to add a more cognitively founded analysis of the phenomenon of bureaucracy to existing accounts that tend to stem from the organizational or social sciences.

Not surprisingly this text concludes that bureaucracy is a pathological state of human organization, characterized by intelligence without understanding. Bureaucracy stems from the desperately embraced illusion, held by a particular subset of people, that human organizations can be approached as closed systems to be fully described in rational and formal terms. More specifically, this assumption is made by “superiors” who interpret the world either as filled with absolute truths or who believe that all knowledge outside the scope of their main competence is highly uncertain and therefore of little use. These “superiors” interpret any open world as too complex to handle – which it is true for them – and as such they consider complexity reduction the first priority of the organization. However they fail to acknowledge that this priority might be the result of their own limited or specialist understanding. As a result they do everything to bring the complexity of the organization down, even if this results in a mass destruction of the available competence and commitment.

It is this enforced attempt to complexity reduction that, if not curtailed, results in an organization in which co-workers are treated as and (effectively) reduced to robots devoid of understanding (replaced by procedure) and empathic involvement (replaced by blind obedience). In a bureaucracy the whole organization is treated more as a formal system (a computer program) than as an assembly of highly capable, willing, and autonomous individuals who contribute to the greater societal goal of the organization. This treatment is not only highly degrading towards the living, breathing, and feeling people who form the organization, but it is also deeply misguided, because we need pervasive understanding of the world at any part of the organization, otherwise the organization will degrade to mediocracy at best or a deeply corrupt and self-serving robotic zombie-entity at worst.

So the actual topic of this text is what happens if understanding, competence, and compassion are purged from an organization and the organization starts to consider itself as disconnected from the greater society from which it derives its existence. The result is, I argue, precisely the pattern that characterizes bureaucracy. This pattern will be contrasted to a non-bureaucratic approach that allows for the open character of human organizations and relies on autonomy, competence, and compassion, instead of rationality and imposed stultifying structure.


This text consists of two parts. The first part is a summary of the main text in the form of two tables. The first table presents a comparison of the properties, signs, symptoms, phenomena, and other characteristics that constitute the bureaucratic as well as the nonbureaucratic syndrome. The second table is a list of red flags, also compiled from the main text, that are indicative of encroaching bureaucracy.

The main text forms the justification of the summary tables. It starts with dictionary definitions of bureaucracy and authority and the concepts of authoritarianism and its opposite self-directedness that refers to either an underdeveloped or well-developed ability to deal with real-world complexity. From this, we progress towards an analysis of the role of understanding and lack thereof in human organizations. This leads to an outline of the quite predictable progression towards more and more bureaucracy and the eventual mediocracy devoid of compassion.

This vision of mediocracy is contrasted with a description of how non-bureaucratic organizations function and what their telltale properties are. This opposition is used to address the question how to fight encroaching bureaucracy, which is not at all difficult in the early stages. The treatise ends with a description of the known epistemological stages and their properties that are highly predictive of the leader-style and whether the leadership will lead to more or less bureaucracy. Ultimately, it is a moral question whether one wants to stimulate or oppose bureaucracy: whether one is in favor of stultification or growth. The answer depends on one’s epistemological stage.

Dr. Tjeerd Andringa Associate professor Sensory Cognition ALICE Institute University of Groningen


The New Oxford Dictionary defines bureaucrat as:

An official in a government department, in particular one perceived as being concerned with procedural correctness at the expense of people’s needs.

It defines bureaucracy as:

  • A system of government in which most of the important decisions are made by officials rather than by elected representatives;
  • a state or organization governed or managed according to such a system; • the officials in such a system, considered as a group or hierarchy;
  • excessively complicated administrative procedure, seen as characteristic of such a system.

The dictionary definitions already point out some key features. Bureaucracies:

  • are concerned with procedural correctness of excessively complex procedures
  • at the expense of addressing people’s needs,
  • they take over decisions from the places where they should be taken, and
  • it is a group or hierarchical phenomenon.

Of course not all administrative structures are bureaucratic, and not all bureaucracies are in administration. And most ways in which people (and even bureaucrats) interact are not at all bureaucratic. In fact in situations without leaders, such as with friendships, even bureaucrats are not bureaucratic. It therefore makes sense to expect a particular kind of leadership as culprit. So the question is what makes some group of cooperating people bureaucratic? Or put differently, what type of cognitive phenomena explain this particular pattern of behavior? A suitable starting point is the strong, and disturbing, tendency of bureaucracies to take over authority from the places where it should reside.

Authority - the capacity to control environments

The New Oxford Dictionary defines ‘authority’ as

“the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience; a person or organization having power or control in a particular, typically political or administrative, sphere; the power to influence others, esp. because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something”

It will be clear that a bureaucracy touches on many of these points.

One way to understand the concept and role of authority is from creation myths. Especially in Western creation myths, the pre-creation state was either chaos or some unspecified void or nothingness. From this, an omnipotent being created the order in which lesser beings such as humans function. This Creator is the ultimate authority who not only created the living world, but who is also responsible to sustain and control the conditions in which humans flourish or wither. No wonder kings and emperors claim to derive their powers directly from a deity; and no wonder that those who have no idea how to self-maintain the conditions in which they function well believe it.

This defines a number of key properties of authority:

  • authority masters both order and disorder better than the subordinates;
  • the authority controls and sustains the environment in which subordinates exists;
  • subordinates go to authorities for guidance and to solve problems they cannot solve themselves;
  • whenever a subordinate learns to take control over more and more of its environment, its dependence on authorities decreases and it claims more and more authority over its own situation.

These properties are keys to the concept of authority (and bureaucracy). It entails that whenever individuals do not know how to self-maintain proper living conditions, they rely on “authority” to keep living condition within manageable bounds. This need for authority scales inversely with the scope of inadequacy: the more pervasive the inadequacy, the greater the need for authority. Conversely, the better individuals cope with and maintain their own living environment the less they need authorities.

Within the domain of political psychology the first group is known as authoritarians and the second as libertarians (Stenner, 2005; 2009a; 2009b). Authoritarians prefer (centralized) group authority and uniformity, while libertarians prefer (decentralized) individual authority and diversity. Here we will refer to libertarians as self-directors.The predictability of authoritarian behavior has been studied in detail in “The Authoritarian Dynamic” (Stenner, 2005). Authoritarianism is characterized by a strong tendency of authoritarians to maximize oneness (via central control) and sameness (via common standards), especially in conditions where the things that make us one and the same—common authority, and shared values—appear to be under threat.

What follows is based on the scientific basis that culminated in Stenner’s work on political psychology, but here interpreted initially more generally – as coping with the ‘living environment’ – and later interpreted more narrowly – as coping with the ‘work environment’. For authoritarians, the need for authority is not an option: it is an existential need. Whether they hate or love their authorities is irrelevant: they depend essentially on authorities and obey their commands because the alternative — no one to maintain living conditions — is too horrible to contemplate. This entails also that authoritarians hate the idea that their authorities are untrustworthy or incompetent, which Stenner refers to as threats to the normative order, because this is experienced as an existential threat. Being structurally depending on others (i.e., authorities) is already suboptimal, and being dependent on authorities that are incompetent, don’t care about their wellbeing, or even abuse this dependence is highly unsettling. In fact, thoughts in this direction are avoided because it makes authoritarians feel even more inadequate than normal. This makes authoritarians about the worst possible judges of the authorities they depend on and align with. And it stabilizes bureaucratic organizations.

bureaucracy-status featured image

While authoritarians feel a pervasive (and generally subconscious) inadequacy to self maintain proper living conditions, self-directors are blissfully unaware of any problem. They feel – justified or not – in control of their environment. This also entails that when the situation deteriorates, self-directors find it normal to (re)take matters in their own hands. Authoritarians in the same situation will turn to their authorities for solutions which is less likely to yield results. self-directors might also be taxed beyond their coping capacity and from that moment they are more likely to adopt or accept authoritarian strategies. The reverse holds for authoritarians: when they experience a prolonged sense of control over their own situation they behave more self-directed. Crises and times or prosperity differ therefore in the prevalence of authoritarians and self-director personalities.

In what follows, bureaucracy is the authoritarian way to organize a professional environment. Organizations that are controlled by people in a self-directed mode, who by definition are able to self-maintain proper or even nearly optimal working conditions, will not be bureaucratic because they will keep the whole organization focused on its societal goals. However organizations controlled by authoritarians will gradually ignore the stated goals and replace them with more and more activities that serve another goal: namely minimization of feelings of (existential) inadequacy at every level of the organization.

To understand the dynamics of bureaucracy one needs to understand the roots of the concepts ‘authoritarian’ and ‘self-director’.

Authoritarians vs self-directors

Princeton researcher Karen Stenner (Stenner, 2005) used the following 5 two-option questions about child rearing values to determine the degree of authoritarianism.

Table 1: Child rearing qualities used to determine authoritarianism.

Authoritarian children should Self-directing children should:
obey parents be responsible for their actions
have good manners have good sense and sound judgment
be neat and clean be interested in how and why things happen
have respect for elders think for themselves
follow the rules follow their own conscience

The difference between the answers that authoritarians and self-directors choose is qualitative: authoritarians teach their children to behave in certain proscribed ways and to obey authorities (elders, parents), self-directors teach their children to understand the world and act responsibly. The difference between authoritarians and self-directors is therefore neither ideological nor political: it depends exclusively on of the depth and pervasiveness of understanding of the habitat: not of conveniently isolated parts, but of the whole environment in all of its diverse complexity.

Authoritarians and self-directors may experience and interpret a shared world quite differently. If authoritarians experience the world as too complex the highest priority is to eliminate all sources of diversity to bring complexity down to manageable levels. And this, and only this, is the reason why bureaucrats take control over decision processes. It is not because they think they can do it better, but because of a strong unconscious urge to establish a measure of control over their world. And because they do not know how to do that independently, they turn to their authorities for ideologies, interpretations, and marching orders.

A problem here is that their limited understanding, in combination with the deeply unconscious nature of the root problem, precludes a proper assessment of the true sources of diversity and complexity that boggle their minds; they need their authorities to tell them why they feel inadequate, what the sources of their problems are, and how to cope with these1. Which of course provides authorities ample room for manipulation. This is another example of the fact that authoritarians are the worst possible judges of their leaders. It is also a reason why so many “revolutions” realize the opposite of what they (cl)aim to realize.

For self-directors the complexity of the world is well below daily coping capacity and where authoritarians see problems they see opportunities. This is actually problematic because realizing these opportunities is bound to lead to a further social complexification that might aggravate authoritarians even further. self-directors are therefore, quite unwittingly, major sources of feelings of inadequacy in authoritarians.

And this leads to a one-sided resentment toward anything beyond coping capacity that authoritarians share with other authoritarians and of which self-directors are typically completely unaware. In fact encroaching bureaucracy can be interpreted as a (lowintensity) war between two ways of facing reality. While self-directors are unaware of any war being fought (especially because they do not understand the need for it), they can be blamed for co-creating a complex world surpassing authoritarian coping capabilities. Authoritarians, with their limited understanding, share a deep anxiety and are highly motivated to do something about it. This subconscious attitude towards the world makes them highly motivated to oppose all sources of complexity, unpredictability, novelty, and growth that complexify, confuse, and destabilize any ordered state of affairs.

Authoritarians do have and alternative strategy to deal with complexity: they can be educated their way out of dependence. This is a perfectly feasible strategy, but it is not a strategy that they will come up with among themselves (self-directors choose this strategy naturally). In practice it works only when their superiors and colleagues double as mentors who help to deepen and (especially) broaden their understanding of the world, allow them to experiment and make mistakes to learn from, coach them to see opportunities where they originally saw problems, and allow them more and more control over their living and working environment. This is the simple solution to prevent and counteract bureaucracy.

On the other hand, authoritarian superiors who feel threatened by subordinate independence will curtail any subordinate creativity and budding understanding. Selecting this kind of leaders in an organization is a sure (and time honored) strategy to foster bureaucracy.

Authoritarian - self-director interactions

Most research on authoritarianism has been aimed at the more extreme authoritarian and self-director personalities. However it make sense that most people shift in and out of authoritarian and self-director modes-of-being as function of whether the demands and the environmental complexity and diversity exceeds coping capacity and real-time understanding.

This leads to motivational differences: authoritarians, especially the ones with the shallowest understanding, are highly motivated to change the situation into one that is sufficiently purged of perceived sources of complexity; in society typically people who look different (ethnicity) or adhere to different norms (religious minorities, sexual orientation, and self-directors). Initially self-directors fail to see a complexity induced need for change and often allow authoritarian tendencies a free rein because they can deal with some additional curtailment (or additional complexity for that matter). While authoritarians are motivated and unified in their yearning for a less complex world, the self-directors enjoy their freedoms and add further complexity and diversity in the system in their efforts to realize their individual potential and enjoy their freedoms. Which of course bolsters the authoritarian determination to oppose this progressing ‘moral decline’.

self-directors only start to become upset when authoritarian curtailment of complexity effectively constrains their freedom. Initially they use their more pervasive understanding to reach goals in spite of an increasing self-serving environment. This of course increases complexity and diversity, with the stereotypical authoritarian response to further increase curtailment and uniformity. Typically only at a (too?) late stage they confront the red tape, incompetency, and self-serving character of the organization they have allowed or even helped to develop. This window of opportunity is an important reason why unnecessary bureaucracy can develop and become institutionalized.

Intelligence versus understanding

Intelligence is unrelated to the difference between authoritarians and self-directors. In Stenner’s words:

Authoritarians are not endeavoring to avoid complex thinking so much as a complex world (Stenner, 2009a).

Authoritarians are just as intelligent as self-directors, and might value intelligence even higher than self-directors do. This is not because self-directors value intelligence and rationality less, but because they value understanding and creativity even more.

The authoritarian preference for intelligence is unsurprising because intelligence as measured by an IQ-test reflects one’s ability to produce expected and desired answers in response to problems formulated by others. IQ measures therefore intellectual compliance and conformity, which are typical authoritarian values. So it is to be expected that authoritarians judge a high IQ — as intellectual compliance — as highly desirable. However in complex times of change and uncertainty authoritarians judge behavioral compliance — obedience, even if it defies logic — as even more desirable.

Where intelligence leads to particular context-deprived standard solutions, understanding leads to situationally adapted, context-aware, unique solutions that are always in flux because they are in continual pursuit of optimality. With mere intelligence one can improve a bad situation to a standard situation (which may or may not be optimal), but mere intelligence is equally able to reduce excellence to the same standard situation. With understanding and situational optimization, it is possible to track optimality because it allows for a continual, broadly shared, autonomous optimization process. Without understanding, one cannot see nor evaluate, nor appreciate the opportunities for longterm optimization, which entails that the creative diversity necessary to remain excellent is interpreted as unnecessary and unwanted complexity.

Intelligence without understanding

Authoritarians live, conform Table 1, in a world of which they understand many aspects only shallowly: they know the rules, protocols, and norms of normal behavior, they adhere to ideologies and religions, they know many examples of how to respond to particular situations, and know what to say and who to obey. But they have no pervasive understanding of why and how things happen and how the world is interconnected. In addition they are definitely unable to think and decide for themselves, follow their own conscience, and accept the responsibility for their own actions. Authoritarians obey their authorities and these are therefore responsible for their actions. This also entails that authoritarians cannot oversee the long- (or even mid-)term consequences of their own and other’s behavior and they offload the responsibility for that to their authorities. And if these have no idea about the long-term consequences or even if they have opposing goals than their stated goals, the authoritarian neither cares nor understands.

Our current educational system, which favors IQ and specialization over pervasive understanding, is conducive for the development of authoritarians. In fact it seems that Einstein was referring to the authoritarian disposition when he described the goals of education:

The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgment should always be placed foremost, not the acquisition of special knowledge. Otherwise he – with his specialized knowledge – more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person. Albert Einstein (1954)

The well-trained dog resemblance is a direct reference to intelligence — as intellectual compliance — resulting from specialist education without the benefits of the pervasive understanding that allows for independent thinking and judgment. The well-trained dog comparison is an effective analogy of authoritarians who exhibit desired behavior while neither understanding the larger context nor the consequences of their compliance. On top of that it is also the ideal personality type for the organizational ideal they envision.

Rationality and reality

Rationality – the ability to think clearly, sensibly, and logically – is a valuable, but ultimately a limited ability: rational and logically sound thinking is only possible in a closed domain consisting of concepts that can be manipulated with logical operators. The key problem with rationality is that it is perfectly possible to be rational in knowledge domains devoid of factual reality. Bureaucracies have many ways to create phony realities that arise from many generations of documented and gradually more formalized accounts (i.e., redefined towards reduced complexity) of the impact of the real world on the bureaucracy.

The formal response of the bureaucracy, for example the way it assigns funds and other forms of support to some activities while discontinuing other activities, is a very strong incentive to behave according to whatever the bureaucratic decision processes favor. This then leads rapidly to a bureaucratic “reality” in which behavior in compliance with the bureaucratic goals – whatever these are – is favored over behavior that actually realizes the societal goals of the organization. The rational thing to do is to behave according to the bureaucratic reality: and rationality is just as suitable for that, as it is for any other closed domain reasoning.

What the self-directed mode of being brings to organizations is a sense of reality; a structural grounding in the larger societal context that ultimately provides the reason d’être of the organization. Without dominant self-director influences, an organization looses track of its goals and turns into a – rationally and intelligently managed – activity that becomes increasingly self-serving: the internal dynamic, based on formal procedure, has become more important than the societal function of the organization.

The driving forces of bureaucracy

Where intelligence and rationality are mainly concerned with local/specialized solutions and static and specific end-states (such as in an IQ-test), understanding and creativity are concerned with pervasive holistic optimization via novel and situationally appropriate approaches. These often non-standard and diverse solutions are typically well outside the scope of understanding and coping capacity of the true authoritarian and therefore highly suspect. This is the reason why authoritarian superiors hate (more) competent subordinates and generally do everything to curtail them. This underlies the gradual purging of competence in an encroaching bureaucracy.

The ‘intelligent ignoramuses’ —literally intelligent individuals who are ignorant— at key positions in an organization are the main driving forces of bureaucracy. This can be a functionary who is promoted to the level of incompetence (Peter’s Principle). But it can also be technocrats as the prototypical example of highly intelligent authoritarian specialist who lacks the benefits of pervasive understanding. For all domains in which technocrats are not competent they rely on shallow ideologies, sloganeering, minimal understanding of past events, caricatures and suspicion of complex phenomena, and especially on the wishes of the people or structures that have promoted them to their control positions. These technocrats are Einstein’s well-trained dogs that optimize, in all sincerity and without malice, a few aspect of the functioning of a complex organization, while destroying all other facets and peculiarities characteristic of the healthy organization that optimizes its organizational goals.

Especially in times of perceived thread and adversity, technocrats are, as all authoritarians, deeply anxious and deeply suspicious of any future situation that cannot be predicted or understood with their limited understanding. If pushed beyond their scope of understanding they have one, and only one, goal: the reduction of the complexity of the working (or living) environment to a (for them) manageable level. This goal can be reached via a range of strategies but is characteristically implemented through adherence to formal structures and the reduction of diversity in any way possible and as long as it does not require more than shallow understanding.

The spread of bureaucracy

This entails that technocrats focus on formal structures such as bodies of rules and regulations, detailed protocols (for standard situations), and shallowly interpreted best practices. True work floor competence and proven organizational excellence are an annoying obstacle in the simplification and uniformization of the organization ( a process often referred to as “harmonization”, a characteristic authoritarian reinterpretation of the meaning of the word ‘harmony’).

And because the authoritarian fear of a complex world is existential, the technocrat in charge is quite ruthless in simplifying the working environment: it is even seen as a good thing, because if (s)he with his/her intelligence and proven (specialist) competence does not understand his working environment, who can? Of course many do, but their attempts to communicate and convince the authoritarian leader are interpreted as subversive resistance against the good cause of simplification. Which justifies the activation of the bureaucratic bag-of-tricks for psychological warfare in which the now “harmonized” chain-of-command is used to crush subordinate dissent (and competence).

These tricks include promoting compliant friends (“team-players”) at key-positions and sidetracking competent others. Key information is increasingly kept among an authoritarian inner-circle and used to gain advantage over independent thinkers (who at this stage typically do not yet know they are under some sort of a coordinated attack). Promotions are easier made within the inner-circle, which entails a gradual, but quite effective spread of authoritarians at key-positions. In addition impossible deadlines are set and mind-numbing tasks are given to the competent resistance, and extensions of deadlines and other favors are only granted after acknowledging the power of the new bureaucratic realities.

This result inevitably in a fearful and demoralized formal organization that is devoid of its original shared purpose and enthusiasm and which relies more and more on shallow cognition: existing and potential subordinate competences are no longer appreciated and the organizational goals are sacrificed for the benefit of the perpetuation of incompetence. This of course increases the need for authority. And even when the authorities do a bad job, the incompetent and demoralized have no choice in accepting its rule, so the resulting cesspool of self-serving incompetence is surprisingly stable. It is also devoid of enthusiasm, passion, growth, and commitment.

There are strong parallels with the time-honored practice of slavery. Enslavement is not in the first place determined by physical constraints, it is primarily a state of mind in which one is kept incompetent to manage one’s living/working conditions. This entails that masters/superiors that value the stability of their relation to slaves/subordinates should prevent the development of a deeper and more pervasive understanding and with that the erosion of the need for authority. It will be clear that encroaching bureaucracy follows the dynamics of slavery, although unacknowledged because the bureaucrats in charge generally miss the understanding of what they are doing. And if they do, they do not really care because they do not see an alternative.


Mediocracy - a dominant class consisting of mediocre people, or a system in which mediocrity is rewarded (New Oxford Dictionary)

The authoritarian need for structure and authority fosters hierarchy. Authoritarians crave a clear chain of command in which, without any need for justification, it is assumed that the higher levels of the hierarchy are sufficiently competent. This assumption does not need to be backed-up by facts or even to be partly true because the assumption of authority competence is an existential necessity for the authoritarian (as outlined above). The true authoritarian only needs an illusion of competent authority figures and this is another reason why bureaucracies become self-serving: as actual competences are suppressed (e.g., because the truly competent coworkers search for more rewarding opportunities elsewhere) it becomes essential to keep up appearances. In practice this eventually entails the disappearance of any form of accountability in the higher levels. It illustrates why it is so important to speak truth to power: without this critical function there is no way to stop encroaching bureaucracy/authoritarianism.

At the same time the higher levels in the hierarchy become increasingly intolerant of errors, because it reflects badly on the organization (i.e., the higher levels). All in all this entails that a once healthy organization becomes obsessed with preventing errors and changes from an organization that pursued its original function as well as possible into an organization that does not want to make (publicly known) mistakes. The typical instruments are Service Level Agreements that cover all standard services (that can be executed with minimal understanding) but that not even try to address non-default services (that require more understanding and commitment). In addition it is usually agreed that customer satisfaction of these services should at least be 7.5 out of 10 or so. Effectively this entails that service quality will improve if customer satisfaction is below this threshold and decreases if it surpasses it sufficiently. This is an example of mediocracy.

The organization in this state has now abolished even the pretense of excellence. However the remaining self-directors that do value the original goals of the organization will be forced to compensate for the mediocratic we-can-and-will-do-it-if-it-is-standardand-does-not-require-understanding attitude for everything that is really important to optimize. Of course self-directors can do this to some degree, but it leads to all kinds of parallel and unofficial structures where the required quality is realized despite the formal organization.

This holds in general: inevitable the rigidity and self-serving properties of the formal hierarchy lead to informal parallel structures to either realize above-average quality or to hide below-average performance. However these parallel structures are murky and easily corrupted. At best these result in a situation in which the functional hierarchy is quite different from the formal hierarchy. At worst it leads to a factual, never acknowledged, disintegration of the formal hierarchy into highly corrupt factions that use the formal hierarchy as a cover for and cover-up of self-serving activities. For example drug-running or black-mailing schemes by security forces, accepting or demanding bribes for favors and information by civil-servants, or sexual abuses among the clergy. These are all sure signs of institutionalized authoritarianism and the associated self-serving nature of bureaucracy.

Self-directed organizations

Interestingly, self-directed organizations have similar unofficial structures as late-state authoritarian bureaucracies (without the corruption). This is not because of a formal choice, but simply because the idea that a formal structure can cover all necessary eventualities was an illusion in the first place: functional structures that contribute to realworld requirements need flexible access to the available competence and enthusiasm, without being bogged-down and interfered with by bureaucratic structures of mediocre competence that offer no discernible contribution towards meeting real-world needs.

Unlike authoritarian organizations that unsuccessfully try to reduce the complexity of the world to match the institutional understanding of it, self-directed organizations match the available competences and institutional understanding to whatever the world (justifiably so) demands of the organization. Where authoritarian organizations realize stasis and mediocracy, self-directed organizations realize personal growth, institutional excellence, and with that effective contributions to the wider society.

In non-bureaucratic organizations the formal hierarchy is as important as in a bureaucracy, but its role is quite different: it has to manage autonomy instead of enforcing compliance. However this is, for superiors in a self-directed mode, not at all demanding because the very autonomy and commitment of a healthy self-directed organization ensures that it can deal with stability (where efficiency and organizational optimization are priorities) and change (where protection of quality and the realization of opportunities are prominent).

Properties of non-bureaucratic organizations

  • A “lived” vision of the goals and roles of the organization is widely shared. It allows everyone in the organization to contribute to its realization via wellformulated procedures and competent improvisation alike.
  • Focus on pervasive competence development; stimulate overlapping competences to ensure organizational redundancy, optimization opportunities, and more timely services.
  • Distribute responsibilities according to available competences, interests, ambitions, and enthusiasm.
  • Let co-workers organize their own work and make sure they have ample opportunities to volunteer for activities.
  • Be alert of indications of low competence, stagnated development, insensitivity to adverse consequences of (in)action, low inherent motivation, low commitment to the organization and the services it should provide (e.g., 9-to–5 mentality), and as early indicator lack of enthusiasm.
  • Approach the organization holistically: optimize everything in context of the whole; prevent at all cost strict compartmentalization of responsibilities and information, because specialism and other forms of close-mindedness are seeds of stagnation and corruption.
  • Allow for ample opportunities for unstructured information sharing. The Scottish proverb “When the heart is full the tongue will speak” will ensure that really important information will be shared.
  • Put real responsibility in every job description and allow a diversification or responsibilities as competence grows. Stimulate expertise, but prevent specialization.
  • Allow people to be enthusiastic about what they have done well and allow them to learn from mistakes.
  • Continually match organizational goals and individual growth. In healthy self-directed organizations everyone develops in terms of understanding. This entails that eventually many can “play” a diversity of formal and functional roles.

Basically the only real requirement for a healthy self-directed organization is that everyone in the organization is at a position that does not exceed their understanding capacity: their epistemological development.

Epistemological development

Epistemological development (van Rossum & Hamer, 2010) is a highly predictable, although barely understood, process in which the first two stages, absolutism and multiplism are characteristic for authoritarians:

  • Absolutism

    This is a worldview marked by dualism and certainty: knowledge is black or white, right or wrong, highly certain, composed of discrete facts, and handed down from authorities unquestioningly. Reasoned arguments to convince an absolutist leader are pointless, (s)he just follows authorities. You need to become an authority in the eyes of the absolutist to impose your views. And as long as you are the authority, you will have their devoted support.

  • Multiplism

    • This is a worldview characterized by the idea that one opinion is equally valid as any other, that knowledge is highly uncertain, and that there is no agreed-upon means for justification. And because of this there is no reason for a leader to take other opinions into account on the basis of their quality. However the multiplist leader is sensitive to arguments related to goal achievement: feasibility is more important than the desirability since the multiplist leader wants to uphold the illusion of competence, especially in the own eyes.
    • The further stages, that are probably only reached by a minority of university graduates, start with a position sometimes referred to as evaluativism and are characteristic for self-directors (and academics).
  • Evaluativism

    Marked by a growing realization that there are means of justification of various positions and that this enables an individual to assert some positions with confidence even if knowledge is evolving and contingent. The evaluativist leader is able to deal with uncertainty and balances arguments of varying quality, but generally only within a limited scope.

  • Advanced understanding

    Is characterized by the ability to evaluate a range of expertise and qualitatively different arguments, reconcile theory and evidence, provide support for a diversity of claims, and re-evaluate those claims in the light of new evidence. Leaders in these stages are able to reconcile the available resources with the organizational goals, while taking the full societal context into account.

Organizations that prefer excellence to mediocracy should be highly sensitive for signs of absolutist and multiplist leaders. All leaders in a hierarchy should understand the Peter Principle (employees tend to be promoted to their level of incompetence). Insufficiently competent leaders can function when tightly controlled by self-director superiors, but this is dangerous since the self-director superiors expect subordinate autonomy without the need of tight control. Fortunately, leaders with advanced levels of understanding will generally have no difficulty in shaping and maintaining a non-bureaucratic organization.

Opposing encroaching bureaucracy

Opposing encroaching bureaucracy in its early phases is especially simple when no one really wants more bureaucracy: simply score the current state of affairs and current plans of the organization in terms of their effect of purging competence (e.g., with the list at the beginning of this text) and start an open discussion based on arguments.

If a part of the leadership is absolutist or multiplist and simply refuses to accept any nonbureaucratic alternatives it is more difficult because arguments do not work, which is counterintuitive for self-directors and is likely to lead to a waste of their efforts. In this case a sufficient group of self-directors need to organize themselves to quickly organize more pressure on the absolutist or multiplist leadership in the form of naked power. The strategy is basically simple: offer two approaches; the carrot and the stick. The carrot involves a work floor derived face saving solution for the problems the leadership has, on conditions that do not enhance (or actually reduce) bureaucracy, while making clear this is 1) not negotiable and 2) already in progress. The stick involves refraining from taking any responsibility for any plans towards more bureaucracy through a combination of 1) actively boycotting the bureaucratic process and 2) making leadership failure as public as possible. The prospect of immanent public failure is highly motivating for authoritarians and it will be clear who the real authorities are in this situation (namely those who define the environment of the leaders).

However absolutist and multiplist leaders are no idiots, they are just as intelligent, and have many institutional tools at their disposal to demoralize their opposition. The most prevalent of these is probably the simplest: structurally ignoring, non-addressing, and ridiculing of the issues of those opposing bureaucratic tendencies. That the opposition is fighting to prevent or repair a pathologic organization is not understood and therefore irrelevant. The complexity reduction these leaders crave, justifies pretty much any strategy. This entails that the self-director opposition should act firmly and timely. They should realize that real authority shows itself as control over the environment (pretty much the only concept authoritarians grasp better than self-directors). So controlling the environment of the leaders is a key strategy. Put in more positive terms (that self-directors do understand): it is all about co-creating an environment in which every key process can flourish: even the leaders.

Opposing bureaucracy in its advanced stages is almost impossible from within the organization, because hardly anyone has any real competence and autonomy left. The result of any work-floor opposition in this stage yields generally not less bureaucracy, but a reorganization of inadequacy with little benefit for the public. In this case the organization needs highly competent self-director leadership that is well versed in the power play of highly intelligent and highly motivated apparatchiks. Fortunately, even in this situation bureaucracies can make a fairly quick turnaround because the gradual development of opportunities to (re)express and (re)develop individualism, autonomy, and competence are highly appreciated by many in even the most stultified and corrupt bureaucracies (as third world anti-corruption policies have demonstrated). However this should be a gradual process.

Ethical wrap-up

Bureaucracy, as interpreted here, is a pathological state of human organization that opposes some of the most central tendencies in human individuals: namely to growth, towards autonomy, and to the co-creation of a high quality living environment. Given the consequences, not opposing encroaching bureaucracy might be interpreted as highly unethical.

From an ethical point of view, educational organizations, and maybe even each individual educational program, should make a well-advertised choice whether they aim to produce the highly intelligent specialists – devoid of pervasive understanding – that Einstein compared to well-trained dogs. This will foster bureaucracy. Alternatively they may aim to educate harmoniously developed personalities, which requires a careful consideration of the development of the individual student and is, as such, a safeguard against bureaucracy.

Although bureaucracy is per definition focused on the working environment (in a broad sense), a society-wide degrading of understanding and competence is of course also facilitated if people are actively limited in their ability to contribute autonomously to the co-creation of their society. As such it is a serious danger facing democratic societies and it may lead even to society-wide bureaucracies that are only democratic in name because real democratic competences have been purged from society. In these societies citizens only participate in the façade of democracy and not in the population-wide coconstruction process that democracy is supposed to be.

Bureaucracy recapitulation as tables

Bureaucratic syndrome Non-bureaucratic syndrome
Key properties
Societal goals of the organization are only adhered in name, but neither understood nor clearly implemented Organizational goals Development of a broadly shared vision about the societal reason d’être of the organization and the way to realize it
Stimulating sameness and oneness through standardization and obedience Continual skilled improvisation on the basis of a shared vision and well-chosen procedures Overall strategy Competence Ignoring, discouraging, and demoralizing competent “subordinates” Relying on and fostering all proven and budding competencies in the organization
Subordinate autonomy is not an option. Obedience is more important than competence Autonomy Autonomy and competence development of subordinates expected
Complete disregard of content while favoring form Content Content is leading, form a means
Structures and procedures adapt to the lowest competence level Organizational development Everyone is expected to learn and grow towards autonomous roles in organization
Main conflicts
Stability and other forms of high predictability leading. This defines the organization Stability versus development The workers in the organization are constantly developing their skills in order to improve all aspects of the societal role of the organization (i.e., quality and efficiency)
Obsessed with form and formalisms. Centralized optimization of standard responsibilities Form versus optimization Actively eliciting creative and decentralized optimization of organizational goals. Disregard of form when counter-productive
Obsession with standardization and curtailing diversity, at the cost of quality if quality entails diversity. Standardization versus diversity Concerned with the overall optimization of all work processes in context, of which both standardization and increasing diversity are options
Obsessed with preventing errors and mistakes. The organization redefines itself to produce what it can, not what it should; “race to the bottom” Error versus learning Error and correction after error part of continual creative optimization of work processes
Exclusively short-term (form) oriented, no care for or understanding of mid of long term goals Short versus long term Optimization on all time-scales and all dimensions of success
Structural properties
Hierarchy formalized and inflexible, based on assumed competence of superiors Role of hierarchy Hierarchy task dependent, and therefore flexible and competence-based
Authorities never fundamentally questioned Perception of authorities Incompetent authorities not accepted, but coached or dismissed.
Formation of stable authoritarian cliques, who take control over the institutional change processes to prevent further complexity Locus of control Loosely and varyingly linked self-directors at control positions.
Performance measures redefined to what is delivered Measures of success Performance measure based on what should be delivered (given reason d’être)
Suppression of all forms of accountability at the higher levels and prevention of errors and retribution in case of error at the lower levels Accountability Accountability part of normal institutional learning and competence building.
Rationality and “objectivity” leading. Emotions treated as irrelevant source of variation, to be suppressed Overall role Central role of positive emotions (compassion, enthusiasm, interest) as key motivators; pervasive negative emotions indicative of organizational failure
Motivating emotion negative: activities guided by the fear of losing control Emotion of workers Motivating emotion positive: activities aimed at realizing shared benefits
Utter disregard of the feelings and emotional wellbeing of co-workers Emotions of coworkers Strong focus on the creation of optimal working condition in which coworkers feel optimally motivated to give their best

Red flags

Topic Indicator
Vision The absence of a shared, living vision about the organization’s goals in a larger societal context
Leaders Leaders insensitive to reasoned arguments by competent individuals at any position in the organization
Leaders only sensitive to arguments related to goal achievement or procedure: realizable goals are preferred over desirable goals
Leaders preferring obedience over autonomy and who curtail work-floor autonomy
Competences Neglect of work-floor competences
Demotivation of highly autonomous, competent and committed co-workers
Gradual deterioration of quality of the working environment, the most competent and committed co-workers leaving
Standardization at the cost of curtailing of essential/useful diversity
Uniformization Strong focus on formalities while neglecting (or indefinitely) postponing content
Compartmentalization of information and plans


  • Stenner, K. (2005). The authoritarian dynamic (First Edition.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Stenner, K. (2009a). “Conservatism,” Context-Dependence, and Cognitive Incapacity. Psychological Inquiry, 20(2), 189–195.
  • Stenner, K. (2009b). Three Kinds of “Conservatism.” Psychological Inquiry, 20(2), 142– 159. doi:10.1080/10478400903028615
  • van Rossum, E. J., & Hamer, R. (2010, May 26). The Meaning of Learning and Knowing. (J. Vermunt, Ed.). University of Utrecht.

  1. Advertising performs this function as well

Inclusive definitions

How can we define scientific concepts such that they are inclusive of all phenomena that pertain to the concept? In the years from 1991 to 1999, I contributed to the design and development of an applied cognitive science department – what has now become the department of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Groningen (the Netherlands)

How can we define scientific concepts such that they are inclusive of all phenomena that pertain to the concept?

Improving definitions

What distinguishes the language of science from language as we ordinarily understand the word? … What science strives for is an utmost acuteness and clarity of concepts as regards their mutual relation and their correspondence to sensory data.
– Albert Einstein

In the years from 1991 to 1999, I contributed to the design and development of an applied cognitive science department – what has now become the department of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Groningen (the Netherlands). In that process we discussed the meaning of terms like ‘cognition’ and ‘intelligence’ extensively. As a physicist I am uncomfortable with ill-defined terms. But on the other hand, science is about discovery and the discovery of the meaning of terms is a worthy scientific pursuit. In fact, one might say that defining phenomena is the purpose of science.

For example, Galilei Galileo discovered a key property of gravity in that it accelerated light and heavy stones – dropped from the tower of Pisa – equally. Newton expanded this by formulating a law describing how masses – as the relevant property of the stones – attracted each other (accelerate towards each other) and that the magnitude of acceleration scaled with the inverse of the mass and the inverse square of the distance between the center of the masses. Einstein refined this picture by stating that in space, acceleration and gravity were indistinguishable. Which entailed that mass, space, time, energy, and gravity were intimately and mathematically related.

Galileo’s discoveries improved the computation of the trajectories of cannon balls. Newton’s law of gravity extended this to the trajectories of planets and it led to the discovery of new planets on the basis of minute perturbations of the orbits of the known ones. And Einstein’s general relativity predicted that even the trajectory of (massless) light would be be influenced by the Sun’s gravitational field. Newton’s formulation included Galileo’s formulation and Einstein’s included Newton’s. In fact, Einstein’s formulation connected gravity, mass, acceleration, time, space, the speed of light, and even energy. Hence it integrated much of known physics at the time.

Name Connected concepts Example application
Galileo Gravity & acceleration Improved cannons
Newton Gravity, mass, acceleration & distance Planetary movements
Einstein Gravity, mass, acceleration, time, space, speed of light & energy Accurate GPS in smartphones

Table: Progressive formulations of gravity include evermore phenomena

Natural laws

Einstein’s formulation of gravity is the result of the stepwise improvement of approximate theories that become evermore inclusive by elucidating, until then, obscured relations between phenomena. This increased the connectedness and pervasiveness of our understanding of (physical) reality. Although Einstein’s formulation survived 100 years of testing, it is likely that it will be superseded by even better and more general formulations that connect it to the quantum reality. And perhaps from there connect to an even deeper (information?) “reality”. See the work of Erik Verlinde for example.

What Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and countless other natural scientists did is to combine concepts, to ever-better and more parsimoniously describe the outcome of experiments (and other interactions with reality). An experiment is a question posed to reality: “If I set up these and these conditions, how does reality respond?” A well designed natural science experiment leads to a consistent (time- and place-invariant) response and the same outcome when conducted by others. A well-formulated theory allows a parsimonious and precise prediction of the outcome of many experiments. A valid theory of something allows us (and all of life) to predict our real-world interactions: it allows the mind-world to predict real-world outcomes. 1

Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavour to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility or the meaning of such a comparison. But he certainly believes that, as his knowledge increases, his picture of reality will become simpler and simpler and will explain a wider and wider range of his sensuous impressions. He may also believe in the existence of the ideal limit of knowledge and that it is approached by the human mind. He may call this ideal limit the objective truth.
– Albert Einstein

The time and place invariant core of reality

This is essential: well-designed experiments lead to results that can be predicted in the context of a proper theory. This not only defines much of science – as a way to ever-better predict the outcomes of our our interactions with reality – it also says something about reality itself: reality seems completely consistent with itself. It seems, and almost must be, internally consistent because every time we properly investigate an arbitrary aspect of it – do an experiment – we get consistent results.

Reality, in all its diverse manifestations, has a time and place invariant core that allows outcomes to be predicted if particular conditions are satisfied. Put differently: IF some real-world conditions are satisfied THEN some real-world outcome is guaranteed. A simple example is: IF you drop a stone THEN it accelerates until it meets resistance (hits the ground).

Mind-world IF-THEN combinations underly intelligence. Problem solving – the ability measured by IQ – is modelled by IF-THEN rules. And so-called cognitive models are build as “production systems” in which production-rules of the IF-THEN type “fire” when the IF-condition is met to produce a THEN-outcome. Suitable sequences of IF-THEN rules can be used to make a plan to change an undesired/problematic situation into a more desirable state where the problem is resolved or made irrelevant. This plan can then be executed in the real world, by carefully ensuring that in all steps 1) the conditions are satisfied and 2) the intended outcome is realized.

The same IF-THEN effect underlies the biochemistry of life. Life processes can only occur only IF particular conditions are satisfied. Cells create these conditions when particular life-functions need to be executed. The moment the conditions are set up correctly, THEN the outcome (e.g., some enzymatic reaction) is realized. Like with problem solving, the trick is setting up the conditions for desired outcomes. When the necessary conditions are met, a specific outcome is inevitable due to the time-invariance of reality.

This is also the way life remains alive. Life is a way of cheating death – at least for a while – through the selection of behaviors that promote survival and thriving. That selection process – and with it life – is possible, is rooted in the predictability (internal consistency and time-invariance) of reality. Life – all life – can to some degree predict outcomes of behavior in terms of positive and negative effects on self and habitat and uses these predictions to select behaviors that avoid negative (less viable) futures and promote more favorable futures. This is called adaptive behavior. The ability to select adaptive behavior – behavior promoting survival and thriving – is referred to as cognition.

And this is a definition of cognition that is more advanced and productive than the definitions we came up when we designed our cognitive science program.

Creating inclusive definitions

The purpose of this website is to play with concepts, their relatedness, and their real-world usefulness. Dictionary defines the words of a language in terms of the other words of the language. On its own, such a dictionary is completely self-referential: it is a little self-contained universe that has disconnected itself from reality because it only refers to itself. And still it allows its users to make more sense of structures of actual reality. Somehow the relations between the dictionary entries and their definitions and examples reflect the structures of actual reality in a helpful way.

This website aims to do something similar: to define scientific concepts associated with core cognition in terms of other concepts and then work towards something that is internally by and large consistent, while helping to make more sense of actual reality because the concept’s defining properties are grounded in reality and they can be tested through real-world interactions.

Taking the example of the progression of Galilei, Newton, and Einstein that gradually included and explained more and more physical phenomena – and improved their defining qualities – we try to do something similar for the domain of life and behavior.

That is why the reason we focus on ever more complet, precise, and consistent formulations of our key concepts and ever more comprehensive and precise descriptions of our two ontologies.

The adaptive cycle

Mini lecture on origin of the adaptive cycle (a construct developed in ecology). The explanation we give for the origin of the adpative cycle – as a multi-facetted consolidation process of sustainable building blocks – is new as far as we know.

Mini lecture on origin of the adaptive cycle (a construct developed in ecology). This video played a role in the Systems View on Life course at the University of Groningen.

The adaptive cycle is a very useful conceptual tool. Note that we have flipped the horizontal axis (referred to as connecteness) compared to the normal presentation. In a core cognition framework connecteness refers to low viability (stasis compared to vibrancy).

The explanation we give for the origin of the adpative cycle – as a multi-facetted consolidation process of sustainable building blocks – is new as far as we know.

Video topics

  • The rule of adaptive change: the building blocks of life are sustainable and super stable throuhout evolution.
  • Evolution is a step-wise progression of added sustainable building blocks
  • Agents clearly build the biosphere, but combining agency is actually difficult and not often sustainable.
  • Life consolidated itself. Actually the different meanings of consolidation covers what life needed to do to ‘consolidate itself.
  • The adaptive cycle exemplifies how life learned to discover sufficiently sustainable building blocks. Collapse, leading to a purge of the unsustainable, is part of this process.
  • The adaptive cycles involve: Stabilization, improvement, integration and fortification (all meanings of the term consolidation).
  • The adaptive cycle can be linked to the structure of values
  • We end with a comparison of expressed values of two countries that suggest quite different cycle positions.

Note that the convention for drawing and naming the adaptive cycle is different from what we do. We flip it left right and we use more general terms than the regular terms that make sense in the original ecology context. Adaptive Cycle

Overview of Core Cognition

5 - Conclusions

We derived two separate forms of cognition; coping: for addressing pressing problems and, hence, aimed at its termination; and co-creation: aimed at optimizing everything in the context of everything else and aimed at its perpetuation.

In this (long) two-part paper we aimed to derive central aspects of cognition from first principles and called the resulting framework core cognition. We summarized many of its key terms in Table 1. We derived two separate forms of cognition; coping: for addressing pressing problems and, hence, aimed at its termination; and co-creation: aimed at optimizing everything in the context of everything else and aimed at its perpetuation. We claim that both strategies are essential; but it is the interplay of their strengths that, somewhat unexpectedly but logically, leads to the dominance of one of them: co-creation. Because we derive our conclusions from studying generic living agents, we claim that our results not only pertain to human well-being, but to well-being in general: well-being for all living beings, and by extension, for the biosphere.

The different purpose and character of coping and co-creation leads to two complementary ontologies of cognition that each follow their own internal logic and have separate key concepts. Coping expresses the cognition for survival and co-creation expresses cognition for flourishing. The differences in goals and internal logic of coping and co-creation entails that individuals who approach the world from these different logics do not understand each other at all. Coping and co-creation adequacy has to be learned from real-world interactions on top of innate abilities (to acquire these). But not everyone becomes adequate in both.

Section 3 showed that the four combinations of coping and co-creation adequacy or inadequacy underlie the structure of identity in humans and shed a new light on why the identity statuses have their characteristic properties and how this connects to how each status approaches information. In particular, the combination of adequate coping and inadequate co-creation leads to individuals who strive to control their environment – by promoting a single shared world-view and a single set of appropriate behaviors – to prevent it spinning out of the scope of their control, and hence exposing a narrow basis of adequacy. This is the authoritarian mindset as reflected by the foreclosed identity and its normative information processing style. Stenner’s (2005) authoritarian dynamic – intolerance to diversity equals the degree of authoritarianism times the normative threat level – follows directly from these properties.

In Section 4 we applied core cognition as a meta-theoretic tool. We concluded that striving to realize what is known in the literature as ‘ontological security’ is a precise expression of the coping mode’s (limited and doomed) capacity for well-being. In fact, we concluded that ontological security leads to a self-limiting form of well-being – pathological normality – that has been described as “abnormal normality” by Huxley (1958) and Fromm, and as “the pathology of the average” by Maslow (1968, p. 16). In contrast, Maslow’s understanding of well-being and self-actualization exemplifies co-creation. And we concluded that psychological safety provides the preconditions that maximize well-being and the healthy normality of developing coping and co-creation adequacy.

Already in 1973, Newell wondered about Psychology’s ability to produce wonderful scientific papers (Newell, 1973). He asked himself the question whether Psychology would have achieved “a science of man” at his assumed retirement age in 1992, or would another multi-decade period of paper production be necessary to “home in on the essential structure of the mind.” Newell concludes: “I am worried that our efforts, even the excellent ones I see occurring here, will not add up” (to the formulation of “a science of man”). He speculated: “Maybe we are reaching the day of the theorist in psychology, much as it exists in other sciences such as physics. Then the task of putting things together falls to them and experimentalists can proceed their own way” (Newell, 1973, pp 306)

Perhaps we have contributed a unifying perspective – by assuming core cognition shared by all of life – that helps make sense of the huge body of data that psychology has compiled. We hope we have and we will investigate this further by applying core cognition insights in diverse domains such as happiness and education research, separate brain systems such as dual type processing (Evans and Stanovich, 2013) the left & right hemisphere (McGilchrist, 2012), the structure of values (Fontaine et al., 2008), and radicalization and extremism. Our hope is not to fragment knowledge and understanding any further, but to find more ways in which to unify the acquired body of evidence in a more manageable framework.

Overview of Core Cognition

Key Concepts

Text based on Andringa & Denham (2021a). The environment from which agents can derive all they need to survive (and thrive) and to which they contribute to ensure long-term viability (of self and others), Note that we use the term habitat to include other agents, but to exclude the agent.

Text based on Andringa & Denham (2021a)

| Concepts Core cognition key concepts with definition
Core Cognition The cognition shared by all of life
To live Self-maintaining being different from the environment
Death End of self-maintained difference from the environment
Need satisfaction Acquiring and executing the necessities (food and energy) for life (self-maintaining being different from the environment)
Agent “An autonomous organization that adaptively regulates its coupling with its environment and contributes to sustaining itself as a consequence.” (Barandiaran, Di Paolo, & Rohde 2009, pp. 1)
Behavior Agent-initiated and context-appropriate activities with expected future utility that counteract life’s precariousness and maximizes agent and habitat viability.
A need Something that, when satisfied, protects or increases agent viability
Viability Probabilistic distance from death (i.e., discontinued agency)
Agent viability Agent probabilistic distance to death. To persist, all life needs to optimize viability
Threat a perceived reduction of context appropriate behavioral options to include only those that allow the agent to survive.
Agency The ability, or a measure of the ability, to self-maintain viability (through need satisfaction) for survival and thriving
Cognition The ability to select behavior in the service of the agent’s continued existence and flourishing.
Coping and co-creation Two complementary forms of cognition. Coping is in the service of continued existence and co-creation in the service of flourishing. (These two forms of cognition are opposed in the two ontologies tabel
Stigmergy Building on the constructive traces that past behaviors left in the environment (increasing habitat viability)
Authority Expressing stigmergy
Habitat The environment from which agents can derive all they need to survive (and thrive) and to which they contribute to ensure long-term viability (of self and others), Note that we use the term habitat to include other agents, but to exclude the agent. Hence, we can speak of agent + habitat to refer to the whole of existence relevant to the agent
Habitat viability A measure of the degree to which the habitat can satisfy the conditions for agentic existence (i.e., satisfies its needs)
Biosphere The sumtotal of all agentic traces left in the environment. Since the biosphere grew from fragile and small, to robust and extensive we can conclude that life is a net constructive force and co-creation has been dominant
Carrying capacity A measure of the sum-total of the life activities that a habitat can sustain
Original perspective A perspective on the world originating as the yet undeveloped ability to separate individual viability from the combined viability of self and habitat, which allowed primitive life to optimize the whole, while addressing selfish needs and creating the conditions for more agentic life
Purpose of life The (Emergent) purpose of life is to produce more life
Well-being Process of co-creation leading to high viability agents, increased habitat viability, and long-term protection of the conditions on which existence depends. Note that this is a process, not a state or the evaluation of a state.
Context Agent’s assessment of the (current) state of the habitat
Behavioral repertoire The set of all context-appropriate behaviors the agent has access to. Appraisal activates context appropriate subsets of the repertoire
Learning The process to extend the behavioral repertoire and tune the effectivity of individual behaviors to the context
Worldview The set of all that an agent takes as reliable (true) enough to base behavior on
Appraisal A worldview-based motivational response to the perceived viability consequences of the present that activates context appropriate behavioral options
Core affect Mood level action readiness based on the appraisal of indicators of (un)safety and situationally appropriate activation of behaviors, expressed as motivations to avoid or end (coping) or motivations to perpetuate or to aim for (co-creation).
Resilience “The capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks” (Walker et al., 2004)
Realism A measure of whether individual behavior leads to intended and/or viability enhancing outcomes
Identity A theory of me-as-actor-in-the-world

References Andringa, T. C., & Denham, F. C. (2021a). Coping and co-creation: one attempt and one route to well-being. Psychology in Russia, 14(2), 152–170.

Overview of Core Cognition

Two contrasting ontologies

This is a table with two contrasting self-consistent ontologies that arise from the defining properties of coping and co-creation. Ideally the ontology of thriving dominates with continual focused contributions of the ontology of survival. But it is also possible that coping starts to dominate to the exclusion of the other ontology: a coping trap

This is a table with two contrasting self-consistent ontologies that arise from the defining properties of coping and co-creation. It complements the key concept table Ideally the ontology of thriving dominates with continual focused contributions of the ontology of survival. But it is also possible that coping starts to dominate to the exclusion of the other ontology: a coping trap

Ontology of survival (coping) Ontology of thriving (co-creation)
Languishing Low viability state as the outcome of a pattern of ineffective or misguided behaviors High viability state as the outcome of a pattern of broadly effective behaviors Flourishing
Threat: behavioral constraints Agent appraisal of viability threats, entailing a reduction of the set of context appropriate behavioral options to include only those that allow the agent to survive Agent appraisal of the absence of viability threats, allowing self-guided exploration of opportunities that enlarge the set of context appropriate behavioral options Safety: behavioral freedom
Problem A perceived threat to agent viability that activates a pressing need and hence motivates reactive behavior A perceived possibility to improve (agent or habitat) viability and hence motivates proactive behavior and the expression of novel behaviors Opportunity
Coping The reactive fallback mode of behavior aimed at protecting agent viability by ending problem states. Quick and effective deactivation of coping is the measure of success of the coping mode The pro-active default mode of behavior aimed at producing indirect viability benefits through habitat contributions that improve the conditions for future agentic existence Co-creation
Reactive behavior Behavior in response to perceived threats to viability Behavior aimed at setting up or protecting the conditions for co-creation Proactive behavior
Coping trap (Coping failure) The continual or predominant activation of the coping mode of behavior through ineffective or counterproductive problem-solving strategies. Prolonged or near continual activation of co-creation. Successful co-creation
Targeted optimization Goal oriented behaviors such as problem solving and task execution Optimize the whole of agentic existence, while addressing selfish needs and creating ever better conditions for agentic life. Pervasive optimization
Social mimicry The adoption of behaviors of effective, healthy, or otherwise attractive agents leading to sameness and oneness Skilled contribution of self-deciding individuals that adapt and use opportunities to promote habitat flourishing Responsible autonomy
Learning to become less ineffective Mimicry based learning, where behaviors of effective, healthy, or otherwise attractive agents are copied and expressed and hence manifest shared knowledge The adoption of new behaviors via interactive engagement with different environments. Manifested as tacit knowledge Learning as extending the behavioral repertoire.
Main mode of cognition: Intelligence The ability to solve problems and fulfill goal oriented tasks (to end states of pressing needs) The ability to avoid problems and co-create: (Also: The balancing skills to contribute to the biosphere) Main mode of cognition: Generalized wisdom
Inadequacy The tendency to self-create, prolong, or worsen problems that keep on activating the coping mode. An inadequate agent is predominantly coping, but unsuccessful in ending the activators of coping. The skill to avoid problems or end them quickly so that coping is rare and co-creation prevalent. An adequate agent is a predominant co-creator Adequacy
Coping adequacy The skill to solve pressing problems (ending the need to cope) or mitigate their impact through control of the environment and constraining agency (continuing coping) The skill to avoid and end problems through harmonizing relations, (inter-agent) conflict mitigation, and promoting unconstrained innate behaviors Co-creation adequacy
In-group A group of individuals sharing similar limits on adequacy (and worldview) A group of individuals that each freely and self-guided contribute whatever benefit their adequacy offers Community
Out-group Individuals who violate sameness and oneness and hence frustrate coordinated coping See above See above
Security A situation or state where viability threats-to-self are brought under control A situation or state with positive indicators of the absence of viability threats Safety
Power The ability to realize intended outcomes by effortfully shaping and controlling the habitat and the activities of the agents that comprise it. Exercising power is a way to be authoritative. Effortless action expressing authority through harmonizing a diversity of agentic interests by promoting natural agentic dynamics and development. Wu wei
Security A situation or state where viability threats-to-self are brought under control A situation or state with positive indicators of the absence of viability threats Safety
Well-being - short term Self-evaluation of one’s agentic viability Holistic self-valuation of one’s own and the habitat’s viability Well-being - long term
Ontological security The secure feeling an individual derives from attaining “on the level of the unconscious and practical consciousness, ‘answers’ to fundamental existential [problems] which all human life in some way addresses” (Giddens, 1991) Self-realizing one’s full individual potential Self-actualization
Rules of ontological security I am accepted when I contribute to sameness and oneness
I learn rules and routines of my in-group
I adhere to in-group roles
I protect the in-group against unmanageable diversity
I can join freely
I can learn
freely I can contribute freely
I can criticize freely
Rules of psychological safety
Habitualization The consolidation of routines via reference to socially constructed rules and routines, sustaining a group identity and the security on derives from in-group membership. The motivation to liberate oneself from imposed limits on self-guided behavior and the restoration of the safety associated with co-creative processes. Reactance
In-group A group of individuals sharing similar limits on adequacy (and worldview) A group of individuals that each freely and self-guided contribute whatever benefit their adequacy can bring. Community
Out-group Individuals who are not in-group and hence frustrate coordinated coping
Othering The process of assigning individuals with other or less limits to adequacy to out-groups (possibly disgust driven) Unconditional acceptance Acceptance
Pathological normality Complete and symptomless adaptation to a world shaped through coping that imposes limits on individual agency and self-development The ability to co-create and cope in the service of full self-development Healthy normality
Normative threat Threats to oneness (shared authority) and sameness (shared values and rules) Perceivable indications of other agents engaged in unforced activities. Indicators of safety

Source: Andringa, T. C., & Denham, F. C. (2021a). Coping and co-creation: one attempt and one route to well-being. Psychology in Russia, 14(2), 152–170.


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The Kruger-Dunning effect

What Kruger & Dunning “discovered” is that people with low levels of domain competence tend to exhibit an equally low level of the metacognitive abilities to realize they are incompetent: they are “unskilled and unaware of it”.

In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning wrote a paper called “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”. They noted that “People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains”. Because of this they “reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices”. This makes sense: if you overestimate your abilities, at some point reality will prove you wrong and you will suffer unexpected and generally unfortunate consequences.

You may have wasted your own or other people’s time, but it may also entail that you seriously harm yourself or others.

What Kruger & Dunning “discovered” is that people with low levels of domain competence tend to exhibit an equally low level of the metacognitive abilities to realize they are incompetent: they are “unskilled and unaware of it”. Hence, they judge their competence as adequate or good, while they are still pretty incompetent. While this is a unfortunate on an individual level, it may be disastrous on a societal level. Especially if policy makers, managers, and in general authorities, overestimate their abilities and remain completely unaware of this, even in the face of utterly failing policies. This lead to wasted resources at best and widespread harm and destruction at worst.

Progressing to mastery

The way the Kruger-Dunning effect manifests itself during learning is straightforward. When you do not know anything about a topic you rate your competence as low. Most knowledge acquisition starts – rapidly and without much effort – with the adoption of an informative and explanatory narrative from an authority figure. This is the first step of knowledge and skill acquisition. Initially you need to hear the narrative a few times, but soon you become proficient in the explanatory narrative: you know the narrative components and can predict what will come. This is also the moment that you can formulate the narrative independently, which gives a sense of mastery: you mastered the narrative, you can give the proper answers within the new knowledge domain, and you now have a basis of confidence.

At the same time you still lack insight in the real-world aspects of applying the just acquired knowledge. Lacking this insight, you are at peak confidence, you think the real-world application of your new (narrative level) knowledge is simple, straightforward, and even obvious.

Kruger-Dunning effect

The normal progression towards true mastery is to start applying your new knowledge and go through a discovery and skill-development phase associated with the real-world aspects of your newly acquired narrative. Here you discover that real-world mastery not only requires narrative mastery, but it forces you take the intricacies of reality into account. Strategies that appeared straightforward have unexpected consequences that you only gradually learn to deal with, and other strategies work only when executed with a skill level that requires considerable practice. You discover: “it is complicated”, your good intentions and contributions are no guarantee to produce outcomes you foresaw. In fact you might screw-up a few times, be corrected regularly, and even be ridiculed due to your incompetence and naiveté.

Rapidly your initial sense of competence deflates and you pass what is called the valley of despair. You think “It is not easy at all and I’ll never master this!”. Weirdly enough, this disillusionment with your narrative’s validity is a sure sign of your growing real-world competence since it signifies the gradual appreciation of the real-world aspects of the domain, and the gradual transition from “book knowledge” into skilled behavior. Once the real-world aspects are sufficiently mastered they can become ever-more self-initiated, and your self-guided interactions will work out as intended (mostly that is).

But, although your real-world mastery increases, your respect for the real-world intricacies remains. While you’re competence rises, so does your experience and appreciation with the efforts required to make it work as intended. High competence is always respectful. You might say “I’ll find a way to do it”, but you do not expect it to be effortless: it rarely is. And as multiple thinkers have observed, the more you know, the more you know what you do not know. This curtails your justified feeling of competence to levels well below you initial inflated explanatory narrative competence.

Individuals who developed many and diverse skill domains to the level of respectful competence, represent a lot of knowledge about the structures of reality and they have developed many subtle ways to guide reality in a desired direction. These high level skills (tacit knowledge) are neither easy to communicate, nor easily appreciated by the unskilled. In fact the higher the skill-level the easier it seems.

Remaining at peak confidence

The previous assumed a true effort to progress to real-world mastery. But that process came with fairly high and prolonged self-confidence costs. Suppose now that your original self-esteem was pretty low and that narrative adoption and mastery inflated your confidence to really high levels. Will you allow your self-esteem to be returned to a level similar to your original sense of incompetence and inadequacy? Will you pass through the valley of despair in the hope of becoming truly competent?

Or will you protect your inflated sense of confidence? You have just mastered the adopted narrative to proficiency, you can explain it to others, you can say the proper things, think narrative-appropriate thoughts, and correct others if they don’t. As long as you do not progress towards real-world mastery you can remain on an island of self-esteem that is appropriately named ‘Peak confidence’.

And you can do that by just preventing any application of your narrative in the real-world.

What will you do? Allow your first fragile and now inflated self-esteem to be lowered again or will you actively maintain the comfort of peak confidence? If you choose the latter you only have to make the explanatory narrative your ideology whilst preventing yourself from any real-world application of your narrative. You speak it and repeat it as often as you want, but since you never apply it you will never screw up, never be corrected, and never be ridiculed. You will not learn anything of value, but you will also be shielded from indications of your fallibility.

Maintaining peak confidence is alluringly easy. Even when applying your ideology – the explanatory narrative is now part of your identity – does not lead to the desired outcome it cannot be blamed on you, nor can it be the ideology itself that is flawed, your overly favorable views of your competence will convince you of this. And if it is neither you nor the ideology that is wrong, it must be the world; in particular those others that frustrate the expected real-world benefits of your ideology. These others are the problem: they create and maintain a world that frustrates the realization of the potential of your precious narrative. You are correct and those others need to change.

If only they understood the world as you do! If only they adopted the ideology that you know so well and that made you feel competent! Why not spread your ideology actively and start proselytizing? The more people who adopt your ideology, the more it will bolster your convictions and the further your self-esteem will be raised. Others listened to you, they gained competence boost from your insights, they tell you how well you master your ideology. More and more they form a bubble around you that shields you from other explanatory narratives and the intricacies of applying it in the real world. The more effective your proselytizing, the less you will be exposed to people and situations that expose your lack of real-world competence. And the more comfortable and secure your island of self-esteem feels.

This sense of comfort is worth fighting for; if your sense of comfort deflates, so does your identity. Your low self-esteem will reappear with a vengeance, since you have not gained much real-world mastery other than through proselytizing a narrative without mastering the real-world skills to apply it. So, any dissenting voice, in particular anyone who confronts your ideology – the narrative on which your self-esteem depends; is an existential risk. These might expose you as an inadequate actor in the world that – deep down – you know you still are.

Cost of Learning

Defending the ideology

Your self-esteem is now firmly dependent on the adoption of your ideology in your immediate environment, your in-group.

If you are confronted with a dissenting voice, your first tactic will be to convince the other with the best arguments your ideology can provide you with. If your narrative stems from the Bible you might talk about God’s love and commandments. If you are woke, you will discuss intersectionalism, white guilt, and patriarchy. If you adhere to a white nationalist narrative you will laud the benefits of the Arian race in comparison with other races and promote racial segregation and traditional values. If you espouse a socialist ideology you convince others of the oppression of workers by the capitalist class. And if you have adopted the vegan narrative you convince meat-eaters of their irresponsible behavior towards animal well-fare and energy use.

Whatever ideology you adhere to is ultimately irrelevant. Your explanatory narrative is the only one you are proficient in and have accepted both as truth an as replacement of real-world mastery. It is therefore true by default and hence infallible and complete: it is one totalizing perspective to explain all that needs explaining and all that can be explained. All your arguments stem from it and they are always sufficient and complete. And since you did not master other explanatory narratives, you are impervious to arguments that do directly relate to your ideology; you simply see no value in them. In fact you can only represent the arguments of others in relation to and limited by your ideology. This leads to straw man representations of the viewpoints of others that you then attack with the best arguments your explanatory narrative can produce.

And that feels good because you always win the argument. That you win the argument by attacking a straw man position that nobody actually holds is irrelevant, because the difference between your straw man and the actual position of others eludes you. What does not elude you is that you win all arguments. So if there was doubt left it disappears and you feel even more certain.

But how about those who do not argue with you, that just do not take you seriously or that remain unconvinced by your infallible argumentation: who do not accept the validity of your narrative and the authority of those that adhere to it? How to deal with these irritating people who refuse to see the light that you have seen?

Easy. You feel you are correct. And because you feel no doubt, you must be correct. And they are wrong, misguided, pitiable, and likely lost forever. You see no value in them and feel no need to protect them because of that. Quite on the contrary. The moment when you and your in-group gain sufficient social power you can deal with them by offering them a choice: adopt the ideology or be excluded or otherwise suppressed, made irrelevant or destroyed. You are a true authoritarian.

So what happened?

You got trapped in the perfect closed world that the coping mode allows us to create. It self-maintains the illusion of perfection because it closes itself from the being confronted by its imperfections. Real-world influences that cannot be fit in the narrative world are rejected in favor of ever more elaborate narrative constructs that explain why the real-world can and should be discounted in favor of the narrative we keep repeating.

Instead of using your intelligence to ever-improve and generalize your understanding of the world, it does just the opposite: you used your intelligence to protect youself from any (sometimes painful) learning experience that reduces your inadequacy. The result is that your inadequacy becomes a central part of your identity. This fits with what we have written down in part 3 of Coping & Co-creation in the part on the normative identity style.


Introductie Systems View on Life

Systems view of life is een vrij uitdagende eerstejaars college met een complex structuur. Hier wordt een en ander uitgelegd en wordt een grote hoeveelheid aan informatie erover beschikbaar gemaakt.

In de media is een veel aandacht besteed aan het college Systems View of Life en dan in het bijzonder over het feit dat er conspiracy theorieën in gedoceerd werden en dat de docent, ik dus, zijn conspiracy-ideëen aan anderen oplegde. In deze posts is heel veel materiaal over de cursus beschikbaar gemaakt zodat iedereen zelf kan bepalen waar het vak over gaat en of de claims terecht zijn.

Het vak wordt in het engels gegeven aan eerstejaars Liberal Arts and Science studenten.


Persverklaring Kritisch denken controverse

Officiele verklaring van Tjeerd Andringa aangaande de media ophef rond Systems view on life. Hierin wordt ingegaan een een van de doelen van het vak: respectvol luisteren. Er wordt ook ingegaan op een aantal aantijgingen die gemaakt zijn in de pers. Nadere informatie na afronding van het onderzoek naar Systems View on Life.

Relevante links

Kritische denken controverse

Core cognitie website

YouTube kanaal Systems View on Life (versie 2020-2021)

Introductievideo Systems View on Life


Wie ben ik?

Tjeerd Andringa. Ik ben van origine fysicus, gepromoveerd in de signaal analyse van het auditieve systeem en publiceer steeds meer over de relatie individu en omgeving. Zowel heel concreet – “hoe beschermen en verbeteren we de beleving van de geluidsomgeving” – als heel abstract – “is er een vorm van cognitie die gedeeld wordt door alles wat leeft?”. Dat laatste noem ik core cognition.

Ik heb een flinke publicatielijst in allerlei gerenommeerde wetenschappelijke tijdschriften. En ik ben ook boerenknecht.

Core cognition is een theorie in ontwikkeling en richt zich op vragen als:

· Hoe kan het gezamenlijke gedrag van al het leven op aarde leiden tot een steeds groeiend biosfeer?

· Welk deel van onze cognitie delen met we al het andere leven op aarde?

· Is core cognition toepasbaar op zaken als identiteitsontwikkeling, sociaal welzijn, en politieke ontwikkelen (in het bijzonder dictatuur en vrijheid).

Ik ben niet bijzonder bezig met complotten, maar ik heb complottheorieën wel eens als middel gebruikt om met studenten te discussiëren over verschillende perspectieven op dezelfde informatie. Complottheorieën komen in mijn vakken niet aan de orde. Zelfs aan de borreltafel praat ik er amper over. Ik heb wel een hobby-matige interesse in geopolitiek.

Systems view on Life

Het vak wat de pers heeft gehaald heet System View on Life. Dit vak wordt zeer goed geëvalueerd. Het is nuttig om eerst te lezen wat de studenten zelf schrijven over het vak.

Andere relevante informatie:

Het gaat over een eerstejaars Liberal Arts and Sciences vak waar studenten onderhandse nog geleerd moet worden om respectvol om te gaan met wetenschappelijke informatie.

Respectvol luisteren

Respectvol luisteren naar mensen die informatie delen waar je het mogelijk niet mee eens bent, is een belangrijk onderdeel van het vak. Het is dus niet de bedoeling dat je:

  • De informatie negeert en je eigen verhaal verzint over wat je denkt dat de ander bedoelt
  • En het is ook niet de bedoeling dat je alleen luistert naar wat jij wilt horen (soundbites)

Het juist wel de bedoeling dat je luistert naar wat de ander over wil brengen en dat je daarop reageert.

Het gaat over respect voor de informatie: respectvol luisteren kun je alleen maar meten wanneer je luistert naar iemand waar je het niet al bij voorbaat eens mee bent. Daarom gebruik ik materiaal waarvan ik verwacht dat niet iedereen het ermee eens is.

Relevant link (in het huiswerk): Ted-talk “Meeting the Enemy”, Cassie Jaye



Wanneer ik naar diverse media luister, luister ik inmiddels respectvol: om te leren van wat men te zeggen heeft. Ik besteed vooral tijd aan bedachtzame en precies formulerende mensen die de wereld op een andere wijze bekijken dan ik.

Dat vind ik verrijkend, maar ik weet dat heel veel anderen dat verwerpelijk vinden: “je moet niet naar dat soort mensen luisteren”.

Academisch denken

Universiteiten produceren in merendeel kennis van hoge kwaliteit. En het centrale idee van een universiteit, en van de wetenschap in het algemeen, is dat iedereen steeds voortbouwt op de al bestaande kennis.

Respectloos omgaan met bestaande wetenschappelijke kennis en een ieder die kennis met je willen delen omvat typisch:

  • Het selectief negeren van relevante kennis
  • Het vervormd of foutief interpreteren van kennis.

Omgekeerd komt het respectvol omgaan met wetenschappelijke kennis neer op

  • Het zoeken,bekritiseren, en eigen maken van alle relevante inzichten

In het algemeen probeer je je ook te verdiepen in de argumentatie en onderbouwing van onderzoekers die een ander perspectief het of die het niet met je eens zijn. Dat leidt tot een constructieve dialoog.

Dit is niet een gemakkelijk trucje, dat je even leert. Het kost vaak jaren het is nuttig om studenten er direct op te wijzen wanneer ze het goed en fout doen.

Kritisch denken

Kritiek leveren is doorgaans goedkoop en makkelijk: des te minder je ergens van af weet des te gemakkelijker kun je harde kritiek leveren. Je eigen onbegrip biedt immer geen bescherming tegen het produceren van onzin.

Kritisch worden op je eigen gedachten: dat is moeilijk, uitdagend en soms confronterend. Maar door kritisch te zijn op je eigen gedachten kun je zwakkere gedachten vervangen door verbeterde varianten. Wanneer dat plaatsvindt is er sprake van intellectuele groei.

Wanneer je er een gewoonte van hebt gemaakt om op deze wijze kritisch op de eigen gedachten te zijn is er sprake van een geschoolde geest die zich zelfstandig steeds verder ontwikkeld. In het vak wordt kritisch denken op deze wijze behandeld.

Studenten geven aan dat het vak ze ‘life skills’, oftewel handvatten, gereedschap, vaardigheden en technieken, heeft gegeven die zij kunnen inzetten in de rest van zowel hun persoonlijke als academische leven.


De faculteit en ik zijn er beide overeen dat ik in de huidige situatie niet gewoon les kan geven. Er is daarmee geen sprake van schorsing.

Onafhankelijk onderzoek

Ik ben blij dat er een onafhankelijk onderzoek komt. Er waren de afgelopen jaren regelmatig seintjes dat er iets niet goed was bij SVL. Ik begreep die seintjes niet omdat er eigenlijk geen onvertogen woord over gerept werd door studenten.

De evaluaties van het vak en van mij als docent waren zeer positief (altijd dik boven de 8 en vaak boven de 9). Maar toch bleef er van buiten het vak vage kritiek op me af komen vanuit de Board or Examiners. Eerst over de vage eindtermen. Op basis daarvan is een verbetertraject doorlopen dat tot een rapport leidde.

In dit najaar sprak de Board of Examiners over een vermeende onveilige leeromgeving. Het was onduidelijk waar dat op gebaseerd was en ik kon er niet op acteren. Ik kon de vage klachten niet rijmen met de evaluaties en mijn student-contacten.

Ik begrijp heel goed dat er een probleem is, maar ik kan het nog niet duiden (en anderen ook niet). Ik hoop dat het onafhankelijke onderzoek hier snel uitsluitsel over geeft.

Schrappen van het vak

In December 2021 heeft het Faculteitsbestuur besloten om het vak dit collegejaar niet aan te bieden. Het Faculteitsbestuur had geen duidelijke aanleiding of klachten die ze met mij kon delen.

Ik was hier natuurlijk teleurgesteld onder. Maar ik was al lang op de hoogte van een soort “er is hier iets fout onderbuikgevoel” dat te maken had met het vak. Ik heb daarom ook ingestemd met het niet-aanbieden van het vak voor dit jaar.

De paradox

De paradox van dit vak is dat de evaluaties zeer positief zijn en dus dat het niet gemakkelijk is om een casus te maken dat er tijdens het vak iets fout gaat.

Zo is er heel veel lof over de bijdrage aan kritisch denken, zelfontwikkeling, en dat het een typisch Liberal Arts and Science vak is. Vaak zeggen studenten dat dit het vak is waar ze het meest van hebben geleerd. Het vak is ook bijzonder populair onder studenten: ouderejaars raden het zeer aan en het kan gemakkelijk twee keer gegeven worden qua belangstelling.

Aan de andere kant bestaan er de vooralsnog vage gevoelens, die blijkbaar zo sterk zijn dat 1) het Faculteitsbestuur zich genoodzaakt zag het vak dit jaar niet aan te bieden en 2) er een landelijke controverse ontstaat rondom de docent.

Dit is een moeilijke situatie voor iedereen. Het vereist zorgvuldig handelen.

Gebruik complottheorieën

In Systems View on Life heb ik naar mijn weten geen aandacht besteed aan complottheorieën. In de Honors College cursus Critical Thinking heb ik complottheorieën gebruikt om studenten te laten zien dat er een grote diversiteit bestaat in de reactie op dezelfde informatie.

Ik heb studenten geconfronteerd met 3 zelfverzonnen “complottheorieën” van een A4-tje lang.

Ik liet eerst alleen de titel zien, waarna ze vragen over hun reactie beantwoordden. Bijvoorbeeld of het hun boos maakte of juist geïnteresseerd en of ze het plausibel vonden. Daarna kregen ze de gehele tekst te zien en weer werd er naar de reactie gevraagd. Een week later kregen ze de tekst nog eens, maar nu met links naar bronnen. Na twee uur bestudering van het bronmateriaal werd weer om de reactie gevraagd.

Bij elke “theorie” en in elke fase kwamen een breed scala aan reacties voor. Van “Dit is totale onzin en waarom moet ik hier tijd aan besteden!" tot “Heel interessant, maar het verbaasd me eigenlijk niet”.

Er was geen goede of foute reactie omdat het ging om de diversiteit van de reacties op hetzelfde materiaal. Men werd ook niet beoordeeld op hun reactie.

Uit de diversiteit kwam het volgende plaatje (niet gepubliceerd) voort dat klassikaal besproken werd:


Er was een tweedeling in het type reactie: in de binnenste ring ('building') ging het om het zonder kritisch analyse verwerpen (links) or accepteren (rechts) van de informatie. In de buitenste ring rechts ('refinement') was er wel sprake van een kritische analyse van de informatie in het verhaal.

Ook hier ging het dus weer over de vraag wat respectvol met de informatie omgaan is en hoe moeilijk dat wel niet is.


De issue over antisemitisme ging over de het voornemen van de Britse overheid om kritiek op de staat Israël onder de definitie van antisemitisme te laten vallen. Uiteindelijk heeft de Britse overheid daar niet voor gekozen: “However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” Dit was ook mijn standpunt.

Mening opleggen

Iedereen heeft recht op een eigen mening.

Ik ben echter veel meer geïnteresseerd in de onderbouwing van die mening, dan de mening zelf. Zonder onderbouwing besteed ik, vrees ik, weinig aandacht aan een mening. Een goede onderbouwing kan mijn eigen mening verbeteren. En dan ben ik dankbaar voor het verworven inzicht.

Ik weet dat er mensen zijn die op grond van iemands meningen bepalen of de persoon “bij ons” of “niet bij ons” hoort.

Ik doe dat niet.

Studenten reflecties over beoordeling en niveau

Hierbij een analyse van 12 citaten uit de theory reflections die verijzen naar het brede interdisciplinaire karakter, de geleerde “life-skills” en verbeterpunten

Deze reflecties, onderdelen van een langere theory reflection, zijn van een iets vrijere aard en uit een ander jaar dan die van 2021. (Alle jaren hebben een vergelijkbaar karakter)

De reflecties van studenten die het vak Systems View on Life (SVL) zijn geanalyseerd en gecategoriseerd door een persoon die niet betrokken is bij de RUG en zelf het vak niet heeft gevolgd.


Uit de reflecties is op te maken dat deze cohort van 12 studenten overwegend positief zijn over het vak Systems View on Life (SVL), gedoceerd door Tjeerd Andringa. De feedback is gecategoriseerd naar grofweg 3 punten, die elk zal worden toegelicht.=

  1. De brede oriëntatie en interdisciplinaire opzet van het vak, waarbij studenten worden blootgesteld aan verschillende perspectieven, wordt zeer gewaardeerd.

Niet alleen worden studenten uitgedaagd hun eigen ideeën te formuleren, ook worden zijn geconfronteerd met de ideeën van anderen, waarbij ze leren met een ‘open mind’ te luisteren. De geestverruimende en provocerende ideeën werden als verfrissend ervaren. Er werd vaak aangehaald dat de verschillende perspectieven een meer holistische blik kon werpen op bepaalde problemen of stellingen (Zie 1, 2, 3, 9, 12).

  1. Het vak heeft studenten ‘life skills’, oftwel handvatten, gereedschap, vaardigheden en technieken, gegeven die zij kunnen inzetten in de rest van zowel hun persoonlijke als academische leven.

Deze categorie werd verreweg het meest aangehaald. In vrijwel elke reflectie worden de toegevoegde waarden van het vak genoemd, namelijk de vaardigheden die studenten opdoen die hen helpt om ideeën te vormen, onafhankelijk, kritisch en vrijer te denken. De verschillende perspectieven die worden geboden helpen studenten hun eigen ideeën te onderzoeken, te verbreden of te verwerpen (zie 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11). Vooral op individueel niveau draagt dit bij aan de ontwikkeling en zelfontplooiing van de studenten. Dit wordt ook vaak benoemd als een waardevolle bijdrage van het vak.

  1. Negatieve feedback komt weinig voor (3 van de 12 reflecties), maar bestaat uit twee typen:
    1. Twee van de drie negatieve reflecties gaan over de groepsgrootte van de lessen. Het vak is zó populair dat er eigenlijk teveel studenten zijn, waardoor er niet altijd genoeg tijd en ruimte is voor elke student om te spreken. Het advies vanuit de studenten die dit noemen is dan ook om het vak twee keer aan te bieden, om kwalitatieve feedback tussen student en docent te waarborgen (zie 7, 10).
    2. Een andere vorm van kritiek is dat het vak zó veel ruimte geeft aan de student voor eigen invulling, dat niet elke student dat even prettig vindt. Dit is echter niet inhoudelijke kritiek op het vak, maar meer een aandachtspunt, omdat de andere studenten daar geen last van lijken te hebben, maar er juist profijt bij hebben (zie 2).

De reflecties geven mooie indicaties van het proces van het onder controle brengen van je eigen geest. Dit is precies het process dat dient te gebeuren tijdens adolescentie. In iedereen is het een uniek proces.

Waar studenten het duidelijk over eens zijn is dat het vak zeer goed aansluit bij wat studenten verwachten van de opleiding én de slogan van UCG: “Think bright and differently”.

De reflecties

Student 1

In addition to that, I started to feel sorry for some of my friends back home, as I know that in their university they will usually not gain a mind changing class or experiences useful for their entire future life, but learn what they need for their job. Since I moved away, I already started to lose contact with some of my old friends, and I began to realise that this is also due to our different education. We cannot talk about the same things anymore, as I am not having the same interests and thoughts as I used to have before I left. This is one reason why I am convinced that this course is very useful, if not even necessary for every UCG student, as it helps students with managing and appreciating their education more. I think one course in the first year is very useful to introduce the holistic view on life, which is in my opinion closely connected to the general aim of University Colleges to provide students with a comprehensive education. However, I am not sure if more courses are useful or necessary. I enjoyed this course, but I probably would not attend another one about the same topic in the future.

Student 2

In my opinion, UCG definitely needs more courses like Systems View on Life; I believe it is the embodiment of interdisciplinary learning. If it was an option I would probably attempt to do systems theory as my major, even if it would lead to a lot of frustration at some times. However**, I do acknowledge and maintain that not everyone is well suited to this sort of course or learning; some struggle with the independent work requires and the vague nature of the course which leads some people to feel irritation and experience unproductivity**. In conclusion, I believe that a Systems View on Life has taught me many relevant and applicable skills (and I also believe that systems theory should be offered as a major!). I think that the theory alongside the homework has taught me the skills to slowly improve my own project over the duration of the 8 weeks. I believe that the theory was crucial for the improvement of my project; slowly, but confidently, I gained the techniques required to make my ideas as unbreakable and supported as possible.

Student 3

I do believe that the Systems View on Life course embodies some of the core values of UCG. First one would definitely be multidisciplinary learning. Although a lot of the content was quite science oriented, you could definitely see the links to other fields, and apply the theory to almost anything. Open-mindedness would also be another aspect. Like the Systems Track in the first block, this course made me question my previous knowledge and biases about the weekly topics. Sometimes they would change, other times they would become stronger. But in order to take in the information and entertain it, you definitely need to be open-minded enough. Critical thinking is also very much emphasized in the course, as well as UCG. All in all, this course is a very nice balance next to the other, more traditionally taught courses at UCG.

Student 4

I also really like the fact that you trusted us to create something, to come with an idea. I am absolutely certain that we need more courses like that at the UCG, more courses that ‘force’ us to think beyond our borders and give us the possibility (force?) to develop something on our own. This is probably the most helpful part for me: letting us try. Peterson wants us to first be able to deal with our complexity, and this course is for me a first step.

Student 5

At the same time we think we’re being successful because life is so much more convenient the way we structured it, but also boring enough to make people go crazy, suffer burn-outs or depression because deep inside they seem to know that they are trapped in a world which poses too much structure on them to be free. If we’d use our increased knowledge, improve education everywhere and also teach people how to use that knowledge in order to actually co-create the environment into a space where life can flourish, the world would be a better place. That’s why I go to this university and that is what I want to learn: how we can use this weirdly big brain to actually make things better and not to destroy ourselves. And yes, I do think you’re doing a great job there and that ucg should have more courses like yours. I think the first block should have this course or something similar as a mandatory class for everyone. It only makes sense to teach people, that come right out of a suppressing structure like high school, how to free their thoughts, become agents, question authority and information, understanding the interconnectedness (hello, liberal arts and science???), and become more competent in independent thinking.

Student 6

Systems theory prioritizes generalism over specialisation, which is why this course is valuable to a faculty like UCG, as it already encourages a cross-domain education. Students must have the essential tools to connect their insights from different fields. UCG identifies strongly with promoting sustainable thinking and the Systems course offers a very fundamental and in-depth definition of sustainability. Much of today’s education system is based on reproducing knowledge which is aimed at monitoring student’s discipline. UCG differs in that sense as it has more resources and has implemented more applied teaching methods. The systems course puts an emphasis on values, autonomous thinking and creativity which are the fundamentals to developing wisdom. One of UCGs slogans is to “think bright and differently”. The high quality thinkers I have been exposed to during the course have been a lot of inspiration on how to think in such a way. In conclusion, the systems course was a journey that took me through all facets and eras of life in only a few weeks. I learned a lot about myself and for my future intellectual development I feel empowered to take my own pathways and use my creativity as a tool to create my own knowledge out of the connections I make. If I were to define Systems thinking, I would call it “observing things you cannot see with the naked eye.” If more people would start to think in Systems, then Elon Musk might not have to plan the colonization of Mars and we would not need technological escape phantasies such as dimming the rays of the sun to tackle climate change. Instead of creating virtual realities of things that do not even exist, we should start looking more closely at the reality that we are facing.

Student 7

I believe that the course SVL is embodying the UCG mentality very well. It grants the students a huge freedom to explore topics in a way that suits them most without leaving them completely without guidance. Further, it complements very well with UCGs aim to educate young individuals in a way, which makes them able to shape the future. To do this an individual requires confidence in situations of uncertainty, thinking and reflecting on information critically and openly, an eye for how seemingly unrelated topics might affect each other and the ability to make autonomous decisions. I think all this is taught or promoted in this course. This is why I consider it a very valuable course, especially for students who are not 100% certain in what direction they want to continue their studies. As the number of students following the course was comparably high to other UCG courses and the course strongly builds on a strong exchange between students and teacher, I think UCG could use another course like this in order to ensure the quality of teacher-student feedback, which is so important to this course.

Student 8

In Systems View on Life we haven’t necessarily learned much dry content in the way we do in normal courses like Calculus or Living Cell. We don’t learn how to differentiate. We don’t learn the intricacies of animal cells. We do, however learn skills like I talked about before. Skills that are useful in life in general and that are not taught in normal courses. The people studying here are intelligent. The fact that you are studying here is generally enough proof of that. This also means that we don’t have much trouble understanding and remembering things. What UCG can offer is more than that. True UCG courses teach you more than what is generally taught in a classroom. True UCG courses are taught in a similar way as this one. Not by following a textbook word by word, but by exploring the world and learning from that. Thereby learning skills that are useful even outside the classroom.

Student 9

It is possible that this course also encouraged me to express my opinions and to challenge those of others, not necessarily to try and prove them wrong but more to experience more sides of the story. I do agree that such courses emphasize the teaching philosophy at UCG. The classes were very interactive and became an open zone to express your opinions and thoughts. And while all opinions were challenged, none were disregarded entirely. The course encourages you to see the world through a very different set of lenses, especially for someone who can have the tendency to become one track minded.

Student 10

On Ocasys, there are several main goals that this course was supposed to answer. Questions like “what makes life possible?” and “What makes living matter different from non-living matter?”. It is absolutely true that this course addresses the questions, but in a totally different way than I expected beforehand. What I expected was that we would address each of these questions separately in different lectures. In reality, we actually addressed each of the questions throughout the whole course, only from different perspectives. A downside of this course was that we were with quite a large group. This made it sometimes hard for me to speak up. I am not really fond of speaking in groups and this did not help me to give a lot of individual comments in class. I believe that this course is a course where it is very important to see different perspectives on topics, but in classes with a lot of people this might be hard. Maybe in the future, this class could be offered twice. This could also help with giving more feedback. What I would really like for the future is if there were more courses like these. It might be very useful to have a more general course about how to use knowledge in a different way – similar to this course. It might help UCG students to connect subjects from different fields. This may help to enhance the interdisciplinary structure of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Especially the combination of content-oriented courses with courses like this one would be great. In conclusion, this course has offered me a lot. It has helped me to think in a totally different way than I used to and it helped me to develop my knowledge and skills. I would recommend this course to others if it is given again next year.

Student 11

I definitely believe that courses like the Systems View on Life embody the teaching philosophy of the UCG for multiple reasons. I experience the UCG to be a study which offers a variety of courses, in order for student to choose their own program what gives them the possibility to study something unique by combining different fields of sciences. Every student develops an own package of knowledge and interests. However, what makes the UCG special is that it gives students the ability to bring their knowledge together by working on projects that need different perspectives and information. In this way such a project has the potential to be fully developed in all kinds of different aspects. The importance of this is that this is what eventually is needed in the real world when looking at problem solving which requires different perspectives, as one will merely solve a small part of it, and could possibly cause even more problems as other perspective were left out of picture. The projects we have during the whole academic year enables students to practise this. However, the Systems View on Life goes one step further, in my perspective, in the aspect of bringing knowledge together and look at a problem as a whole, as students are working on an idea individual instead of having the possibility to rely on the knowledge of others. In the Systems View on Life students are required to develop an idea by themselves, which requires creativity and the skill to bring different fields of knowledge together. As problem solving needs both, these capabilities are of a highly importance and the ability to do this as an individual is even more of a quality of importance. Such an educated mind will be able to make differences. It also makes the individual an independent thinker as he/she is capable of creating something on their own. For problem solving not only knowledge is required but also the ability and creativity to invent new ideas to complex problems.

Student 12

I think these kind of courses are really essential in UCG as it is all about multidisciplinary learning here. Courses like this allow you to understand how useful this kind of study is and how lucky we are to be able to benefit from it. It is also really useful for students like me who are not as sure about what field they might want to take or just students who are a little bit lost in general but are still really passionate and want to learn. Overall I found this course to be extremely thought-provoking and a very refreshing outlook on education and the world in general. I always like to learn new things and gain new perspectives, if I were to do it again I would approach the idea with more precision and not try so hard to predetermine anything.

Studenten over beoordeling en het niveau van SVL (2021)

Hierbij citaten uit de theory reflections van 19 van de 23 studenten. Het betreft alleen selecties die iets te maken hebben met beoordeling, de wijze van leren en het academische niveau.

Systems View on Life omvatte een min of meer vrij reflecties op het vak. In deze reflecties blikken studenten terug op het vak en reageren op het proces en de inhoud. Er is nog een andere set reflecties met een iets andere informatie.

Onderstaande is gebaseerd op citaten uit de theory reflections van 19 van de 23 studenten van vorig jaar (overige 4 hadden geen reflectie op het onderwijsproces gegegeven). Het betreft selecties die iets te maken hebben met beoordeling, de wijze van leren en het academische niveau.

Er was geen bijzondere reden (zoals de kans op een hoger cijfer) om overdreven positief te zijn in deze reflectie.

De reflecties van studenten die het vak Systems View on Life (SVL) zijn geanalyseerd en gecategoriseerd door een persoon die niet betrokken is bij de RUG en zelf het vak niet heeft gevolgd.


Het vak Systems View on Life (SVL) wordt overwegend hooggewaardeerd door studenten uit het 2021 cohort. Studenten spreken over vaardigheden die ze kunnen toepassen in de rest van hun persoonlijke en academische leven, zoals kritischer en onafhankelijker nadenken op eigen kracht. Hoewel sommigen de lesmethoden onorthodox vonden (en een enkeling ook was geshockeerd), werd de vrijheid voor de student om eigen keuzes te maken en ideeën te ontwikkelen zeer gewaardeerd.

De onorthodoxe lesmethoden en -inhoud lag voor veel studenten buiten hun comfortzone, wat als ongemakkelijk wordt omschreven, maar werd uiteindelijk om diezelfde redenen zeer gewaardeerd en als leerzaam ervaren.

De overwegend positieve feedback van deze studenten is te vangen onder een aantal thema’s

  • Opgedane ‘life skills’: vaardigheden die wijd toepasbaar zijn en studenten zullen meedragen in de rest van hun leven (zie 1, 5, 7, 13)
    • Kritisch, onafhankelijke en vrijer nadenken en luisteren (zie 1, 4, 9, 10, 16)
    • Redeneren buiten eigen comfortzone (zie 10, 15)
  • Het persoonlijke karakter van de cursus en de ruimte voor persoonlijke ontwikkeling en zelfontplooiing (zie 6, 13, 14, 15)
  • Lesmethodes: dit vak laat veel ruimte over voor de groei, ontwikkeling en inbreng van de student, blijkbaar in tegenstelling tot veel andere vakken aan de UCG. De lesmethoden werden omschreven als ‘onconventioneel’, maar daarmee ook als ‘verfrissend en spannend’ (zie 11). De studenten zijn veelal te spreken over het enthousiasme van Tjeerd en frequente feedback die zij kregen op de wekelijkse opdrachten (zie 1, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 19).

Over het algemeen geven de studenten zeer positieve reflecties op de SVL cursus en geven aan veel geleerd te hebben (zie in het bijzonder 3, 5). Echter, hoewel gering, was er ook duidelijke kritiek aanwezig:

  • De cursus laat veel vrijheid over voor de student voor eigen ideeën en invulling. Hoewel vaak gewaardeerd, ervaarden sommigen studenten ook een gebrek aan structuur en onduidelijkheid over de beoordeling en becijfering van geleverd werk (zie 17, 18).
  • ‘triggering’, ‘ongevoelig’ woordgebruik, ‘respectloos’, onveilige omgeving: één reflectie bevat een zeer duidelijk kritiek op zowel Tjeerd Andringa, de lesstof én de resulterende afbraak van een prettige leeromgeving. Verklaring 18 is verreweg de meest kritische uiting op de SVL cursus. Hoewel de gehele reflectie van deze student uiteindelijk overwegend positief is, bevat deze kritiek zaken die meer aandacht behoeven en speerpunten dienen te zijn voor verbetering van de cursus (zie 18).

De reflecties

Student 1

I am very pleased with this course because what I have learned is applicable in many situations. I know this because I already see a difference in myself. That is very refreshing compared to other courses I have had so far, both in UCG as in Mathematics. Having real-life benefits from learning is the strongest motivation for me. I admit that I do not even care about my grade or assessment method for this course anymore because it cannot even express the knowledge I have gained so far.I learned a lot by listening better to people in the documentaries for this course, but also from others outside this course, and it has only been a few weeks. This strongly motivates me to keep listening and ask questions.

Student 2

There was so much freedom in your course, as long as you were respectful and good and strong reasoning. There was also a lot to learn in this course, but the nice thing was that you could almost choose to learn as much as you wanted.

Student 3

This course is very different from other courses, but it has taught me more than I have learned so far from other courses. This course teaches not only all the things I mentioned before but also that progress is far more important than the end product. You asked how this type of learning should be assessed but I think it is pretty perfect how it is right now. I really liked doing the homework assignments and your feedback was a little confusing at the beginning but very helpful after. I also really liked the idea because you could do whatever you wanted to do, choose whatever you liked and that’s the reason why I chose for Liberal Arts & Sciences, I wanted to choose my own path.

Student 4

This course is also full of hope because it shows us that we are able to educate ourselves of our own volition. We should know that we have the ability to develop our full autonomy and acting is always more effective than staying in the ambiguities.

Student 5

At first I was not sure what to expect, but I think I have never learned so much in this little amount of time in life. It goes beyond learning some information, it makes you think critically. Something I will be able to use the rest of my life.

Student 6

When I decided to take this class, I was excited to be able to write about my views and opinions about the subjects mentioned in the topics. I thought we would be given material that was obviously biased, and we would write what we thought and discuss. I didn’t expect this class to change most of my views and my mindset. I walked into something completely unexpected, and it ended up opening my mind, making me more understanding towards others, decreased my own internal extremism, and affected both my daily and personal life. This class is the reason I came to a liberal arts and sciences program. This class helped me open my mind so much and I am now in a place where I believe I am on my way, but I KNOW my mind needs more of this. This class by itself changed the way I see almost everything in my everyday life and I believe it’s helped not only myself but people around me. If there was another class similar to this or an informal continuation I would be very very interested. I haven’t really experienced this type of learning before. I am grateful to finally have had a class that was focused on development in general but also our own personal development. The fact that we were graded and assessed on our personal development in response to the material given was not only a stress reliever, but also incredibly beneficial because I was able to focus on my own development and actually SEE it happening with each homework assignment. I also believe the discussions and ability to choose our own final project helped me understand the information more. I was interested every time and was excited to see the way other people thought. I was also very grateful to work on a topic of my choice for the final project, because I not only learned a lot about something I have a lot of interest in, I was also able to apply it to the class and to my own life. I honestly believe this class should be mandatory for everyone, not only because of the content but because of the way of learning, how it is personal and about how we GROW instead of what we remember.

Student 7

As for my individual development, this course has given me all the tools I need for what life has to offer to me. That is what I mainly liked about this course, it will give you tools for you to develop depending on your life path, it does not force you to life your life on a certain way or to use the tools on a certain way, it shows you all the options that you will need eventually and gives you the tools for it. It depends on us how we use it and how much we benefit from it.The way of learning and teaching the course is an incredibly unique one. The learning objectives are much more abstract and are difficult to assess since they are more oriented to personal growth and mind expansion rather than facts and figures that can be tested**. I think that every course should be like SVL in some way. This course prepares us for life and teaches us awareness towards different topics and the opinions we can find there.** It teaches us how to improve our ways of thinking and understanding the world.

Student 8

In conclusion, I have gained much from this class but most importantly it is an example that learning can happen in a different way; Although not all subjects can be taught like this, for me Systems View on Life proved that we don’t need to standardise everything for education to work and that creativity can be rewardable in academics.

Student 9

Only because of this course I started to educate my mind in a way I have done it before. I’m on my way to getting better and better but I think that I need more coaching and input, I would love to just continue the course in block 4I would like to thank you Tjeerd for putting so much effort into the course! I really enjoyed the constant feedback and conversations we had. The course made me realize why I wanted to study Liberal Arts in the first place. Your course challenged me in the best possible way and I hope we can find a way to continue this course in some informal way! I am supporting this type of learning a lot and I think it should be part of every single course to learn how to think for yourself and not only say what the teacher wants to hear. In order to assess the learning outcome in the end of the course the close contact to the teacher is the most important thing in my opinion because only when the teacher can see how the student improved over time he is able to assess the work. Furthermore a clear syllabus is really important (which was the case in SVL) because then the student is able to combine their individual learning and working style with the clear grading rubric.

Student 10

Wisdom allows to apply knowledge and a theoretical understanding to the real world, it is a valuable skill that I believe should be more developed in the educational systemSVL is more focused on you developing from your inner self than willing for you to develop defined skills. If I had to describe it in terms of dynamics I would say it is our inner self meeting the world and not about making the world meet us. By that I mean we are pushed to truly think for ourselves, to self-reflect on our boundaries and comfort zone. On the contrary, other courses have a tendency of ‘imposing’ competences and knowledge as an unquestionable truth. Most often, the syllabus’ are rather rigid making it impossible to go in a relatively free direction. Although it seems quite difficult for RUG to assess the exactitude of SVL, it is actually its lack of precision that should be valued - students and teachers get to choose together what they want to explore and discuss and there is no better way to have a positive and motivated working atmosphere. It is the best way for people involved to enjoy themselves during the course, while making the skills assessed individually persuadable to everyone.I also believe the way the course is assessed is very adapted to both the true flexibility of the course and the need for more rigidity coming from bureaucratic needs.

Student 11

I was definitely taken out of my comfort zone on multiple occasions but I believe that it was part of the journey and learning outcomes. I have definitely learned how to act in situations such as these and found it extremely rewarding Extremely interesting course with unorthodox methods which was refreshing and exciting. Assessment was fun and weekly classes and homework were fun to participate in. Marleen was really great help and assisted me whenever I had questions. Tjeerd is an incredibly interesting and wise character and I enjoy listening to him and learning from him.The focus on addressing alternative, and sometimes, frowned upon perspectives of world events was a great method of teaching refined thought which I will carry with me in the future. Briefly touching on the method of teaching in the SVL classroom, it was, as I said above, unorthodox, refreshing and exciting. I learned that this is a common opinion shared by members of my year group and the SVL class of last year. In the discussion with Jan (I’ve forgotten his surname), many praises were given to the layout of the course including how we are taken out of comfort zones and how development is the focus of the course. The simple facts are that we are in an educational setting and the overall goal of such a setting for the majority of students is exactly what is taught in this class; development and wisdom. The focus on discussions and reflections each week help us all to gain a deeper understanding of themes and I would like to see such methods be taught in other lessons. Overall, I have thoroughly enjoyed the SVL course and I would strongly recommend others to take it if I am given the opportunity to do so. It has taught me, through unorthodox teaching methods, discussions and interactive learning about my life, the future, and how true development works.

Student 12

Already the question “ what do you value more intelligence or wisdom” in the first questionaire of the course sparked my interest. In the following weeks, I was happy to learn more of the concept wisdom. I really like the idea of wisdom but firstly I could not name what exactly it entails ; merely that it is a skill that is of high value and you gain it through experience. Soon I learned more, for instance, what the core-creation mode is and the three-dimensional concept of wisdom by Ardelt. What fascinated me about wisdom is for instance that it is a skill/state of mind that is not linked to a specific time /epoch. Instead it is said to stay similar throughout the course of human existence. This kind of questions of the questionnaire I appreciated a lot, similar to our discussions in class - all the topics were of high importance/value. Furthermore I appreciated your one by one feedback on our weekly reflections. Overall already with the first lesson you catched the interest of everyone and I, and many others similarly I assume, were very motivated towards the course and the learning process :) (for example by inventing us to your farm, being very engaged and motivated by yourself, sharing interesting content)

Student 13

I perceived “The Systems View on Life” to be a very unconventional course, both in terms of the content being taught and the method of teaching it. The lectures and homework worked together to promote a deeper understanding than a purely academic approach could provide.Enjoyed it a lot, even though (or maybe because?) it was probably the most challenging course until now. I perceived “The Systems View on Life” to be a very unconventional course, both in terms of the content being taught and the method of teaching it. The lectures and homework worked together to promote a deeper understanding than a purely academic approach could provide. The type of learning in SVL differs a lot from other courses in the way that the course is much less about specific information, but more about a general outlook on how the world works and how one can make sense of it. One could say that it is much more “meta”. By building connections from the course content to my personal life, I feel like this course’s main function for me was providing me with tools for my personal and academic development. For this purpose, the assessment methods used in the course were appropriate, as personal development is strongly dependent on where one’s starting point is. Therefore, it would not make sense for this course to have standardised learning outcomes, which would limit the nuance and decrease room for individuality. In general, I still believe that “classic” standardised tests have their place in education; they can serve as a motivation to learn important concepts, which might otherwise not be properly understood, and are more feasible when needing to evaluate the performance of a large number of students. It is of course not ideal, as different people have different styles of learning, but at the same time, many students do not have the luxury of small classes like the ones in UCG, and so individual assessment of all of the students might be very difficult to implement on a large scale.To conclude, I believe that this course will be of much help in my further academic and personal development, and I would recommend it to anybody who is willing to broaden their horizon and be brought out of their comfort zone, as those were the main effects that it had on me.

Student 14

SVL course provided me with multiple insights about the topics that I was already acknowledged with. However, homework, materials, and lectures made me look at these topics from a different point of view. I realized that I approached many issues from the side of my closed bubble. Through provided materials and homework I went beyond my comfort zone, which was challenging, but at the same time very developing. It made me think outside the comfort box I was familiar with. The course had a significant impact on my self-development. The discussion about intelligence and wisdom changed my mind on both notions. I acknowledged the power of wisdom and I started to respect and value wisdom more than beforeAfter the course I have more motivation in educating my mind and I’m really exciting where this will lead me.

Student 15

This course fits into the reasons why I picked this study; multiple perspectives, thinking outside ‘the box’ and not everything is just black-and-white terms. In the beginning, we had to fill in a questionnaire. There was a question about what I thought about ‘offending opinions. I filled-in that if I feel triggered by it, I’m interested in why it did so. The comments on the homework were very direct, clear, and triggering. This fits into critical thinking and getting me out of my comfort zone. It was really nice because I could actually apply the statement about being interested in why I feel so triggered about something. Each time I tried to understand it and eventually saw where the comment was coming from. Understanding people, statements and circumstances is something I always wanted to reach in life and this course got me on the right track.

Student 16

Reading the description of this course left me a bit confused, but interested at the same time. I really liked the idea of creating your own voice and position without following the crowd. A couple weeks into the course, both the confusion and interest stayed with me. I am used to other courses where I am used to being told exactly what to do, which I like and am very good at. Systems view on life pressures you to create your own opinions without much help.However, that is the reason I have learned so much and I am very appreciative of that. I used to listen in order to answer and now I am trying to listen in order to understand.

Student 17

What I found really cool were Tjeerds answers on the homework while those words really showed me that I was making progress in my work and I thought that was really nice. The difference between Systems view on Life and other courses was really nice. But I think for one block it might be enough. Tjeerd let us do our own thing a lot and in some cases that is really nice but I personally like structure too. That is also why I disagreed with replacing ECMS with SVL because I thought that SVL is a course that everyone should follow but one block is definitely enough. The grading in this course might be something that can be improved since it was really vague most of the time on how assignments were going to be graded. Honestly, it isn’t entirely clear for me still. Are we graded on everything by itself or on the growth and development between each assignment. Especially for the homeworks. In the beginning no one really knew what to do and what Tjeerd wanted from us which was a bit weird. In the end I really enjoyed following this course and I think it will help immensely in the future. Especially for capturing information and really listening to what others are saying so you can form your own worldview and get an educated mind.

Student 18

I really loved this course! At the beginning to be honest I thought Tjeerd was a bit insensitive (even if he had asked what triggered people) as I heard some people got really offended by some of the selected words that he uses. I think at times its a cultural shock as well. But other times we see that most of what he says he can back up. I think the only problem at times is the word choice (at the beginning at least) was a bit shocking… What was also shocking is that this class is kind off made so that we question people and our own beliefs and sometimes I felt like we were getting lectured on not questioning the people in the videos because they are some big fanzy professors or researchers that know what they are talking about and we (students) don’t… This felt a bit insensitive because they might know more than us but it doesn’t mean we can not question them. He was trying to talk to us about respecting them (which I try to follow of course) but it also seemed like a huge disrespect to us. After that I thought it created a little bit of a hostile environment (for me) to say anything going against the videos. However, even with that said most of the time I felt safe to express myself in the class (although I was always intimidated by the other students as well). And I feel like I have learnt a lot more than in other classes to be honest. I want to continue this way of thinking as it opened my eyes a lot of the times to things I was not seeing before. The type of learning in this course is so different as it is tailored to the students. In the beginning, we got a form to fill out with our interests which was already so different to any other course. In our first class, we went through the syllabus, but then we went through the form, and as we went through it, we would discuss our preferred grading, feedback and learning systems. Then Tjeerd took this new information and made adjustments to the syllabus with our chosen topics. Moreover, I truly appreciated the weekly homework. At first, the 300-word commentaries were daunting and challenging, but I started to improve so much with each week’s personalised feedback and discussions. I had never felt improvements like this. Usually, it is like memorising or understanding new concepts, but this was more in-depth. However, I would have liked to see some grading for these homework assignments not initially because it might discourage this type of feedback learning and improvement. Still, maybe there can be a mid-block average grade of the assignments. This would give us some guidance on how we are doing.However, overall I appreciated this new way of learning/teaching as I feel like I have learnt more from this class than probably any other class so far.

Student 19

Then, the case of the type of learning during Systems View on Life. I personally really liked it. It brought me out of my comfort zone because of the topics presented, but more importantly (I think), in the way I had to learn. Especially the Idea forming was really fun for me. I loved that we could pick almost any topic and really make it our own. Combined with the theory we learned, this Idea has turned into something I have never produced before and I really value that. Also for me personally, I coupled this Idea to making changes in my own life through academic ways. This has greatly helped me already and I don’t think I could have achieved that in this fulfilling way without the contents in this course and the way they were presented. Although I most definitely wasn’t someone who participated a lot during the classes, I did like the format of the classes. It wasn’t just a long-lasting lecture, there was actual discussion and we went deeper into the learning material than in any lecture where the lecturer just babbles on for hours on end. Because the actual lectures were just pre-recorded, this was possible and I would honestly not mind if other courses started to adopt this way of teaching too.