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.

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.

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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