Very short intro to 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. In addition, core cognition describes the processes of behavior selection for survival and thriving, which is relevant for all living individuals: from bacteria to humans. But cognition for flourishing – coping – is essentially different from the cognition for survival – co-creation. This website addresses the power and consequences of this fundamental distinction, and we argue that human cognition (psychology) also manifests core cognition in all its essential properties.
Update: The first part of mass formation is a more concise introduction to core cognition. This text is yet another application of core cognition.
The four 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 of being and remaining alive and maximizing the viability of self and habitat. From first principles, we derive core cognition and its two main modes, coping and co-creation. Then, we apply this by explaining the structure of personality and why two completely different approaches to social well-being can emerge.
With this text come two summary tables:
These texts are based on the original published version, but will deviate over time. The original version can be found here:
A combined pdf with both papers can be found here
A number of other texts are also relevant.
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.
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”.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
This discourse leads to a selection of core cognition key concepts with definitions.
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.
Berzonsky (1989), quoting Epstein, describes
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.
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.
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.
|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.
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).
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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).
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 section addresses two routes to social well-being. There are many routes to prospective well-being; in fact, all self-help literature and political, economic, or religious ideologies propose them. We have selected the “ontological security” framework and a recent formulation of “psychological safety” to represent very clear, actionable, and precisely-worded coping and co-creation alternative approaches to general well-being.
This section addresses two routes to social well-being. There are many routes to prospective well-being; in fact, all self-help literature and political, economic, or religious ideologies propose them. We have selected the “ontological security” framework and a recent formulation of “psychological safety” to represent very clear, actionable, and precisely-worded coping and co-creation alternative approaches to general well-being. In this section we will apply our core cognition framework as a metatheoretical lens to inspect the “theories” described below. This requires us to focus on the mindsets that spawned the theories behind either the coping or co-creation ontology.
Ontological security and psychological safety refer to seemingly similar, but essentially different, concepts of avoiding danger. We address that first.
Safety is a situation or state with positive indicators of the absence of viability threats. It is a precondition for co-creation and for achieving and maintaining the higher levels of well-being. Adequately co-creating agents self-organize a shared habitat while minimizing tension and conflict and maximizing natural unconstrained behavior. Their co-creation adequacy prevents danger, harm, or injury because it allows agents to focus on restoration and growth.
In humans, the role of this absence of threats is exemplified by the difference between calm and boring sonic environments, i.e., the presence or absence of audible safety (Andringa & Lanser, 2013; Van den Bosch et al., 2013; van den Bosch et al., 2018). Similarly, squirrels infer safety from bird chatter (Lilly, Lucore, & Tarvin, 2019). In addition, recent studies on how to improve the well-being of people with dementia (where reduced higher cognition opens a window to more basic processing) show marked reduction in problematic behavior by just reducing the prevalence of (unpleasant) sounds which are indicative of unsafety (Koster et al., submitted 2021).
While safety is a precondition for co-creation, security is the objective of coping. The Concise Oxford dictionary defines security as “the state of being free from danger or threat.” Here we sharpen this definition to “a state where viability-threats-to-self have been brought under control,” to stress its deliberate manifestation in coping. In our modern societies, increased coping prevalence is manifested by the changing role of the (national) security state from a sole focus on international war, to include policing domestic and foreign populations (Andreas, 2001; Raskin, 1976). It is no longer other states that are the problem, but our own domestic population represents a security threat to be controlled (Zedner, 2003). Similarly, organizations can both trust or distrust worker autonomy. Distrust of worker autonomy promotes coercive formalization of work as bureaucracy (Adler & Borys, 1996; Andringa, 2015). These examples suggest that “greater security” does not necessarily signify “more safety.” It just indicates more coordinated behaviors and stricter control of potential (even imagined) threats.
“Security” and “safety” play central roles in the two attitudes towards the creation of well-being that we will discuss. Security provides actively maintained short-term sanctuary by controlling threats to viability and through enhancing control over diversity and complexity to promote oneness and sameness. It is a manifestation of coping, associated with the foreclosed identity status, and the normative identity style. In contrast, safety provides and creates environmental conditions conducive to long-term well-being through avoiding problems, actively signaling the absence of threats, and maintaining an environment for restoration, growth, and, in general, co-creation. It is associated with the achieved identity status and its informational identity style.
Creating “security” is associated with reducing fear by excluding “the unknown” and controlling whatever activates feelings of inadequacy. An in-group, as a defining feature, shares common adequacy limits and aims to control the environment to make it more orderly, stable, structured, predictable, and therefore, less threatening to the in-group by imposing limits on agency via routines, norms, and rules. This method of creating well-being is defined by theorists in Sociology and International Relations as “ontological security,” and we interpret it here as a perfectly formulated attempt by individuals in the coping mode to improve their well-being. However, since it has the coping mode’s limitations, it can only improve low well-being to a situation of no symptoms. It cannot bring about the higher levels of well-being achievable by co-creation.
The concept of Ontological Security was popularized by Anthony Giddens who described it as the secure feeling an individual derives from attaining “on the level of the unconscious and practical consciousness, ‘answers’ to fundamental existential questions [i.e., problems] which all human life in some way addresses” (1991, p. 47). However, the origins of ontological security can be found in Laing’s The Divided Self (1960). For Laing, psychoanalysis is about helping the patient reconstruct his identity, or “way of being himself in his world,” so as to show no overt symptoms (Laing, 2010, p. 25). Laing states that individuals who have a “partial or almost complete absence” of this “person-in-the-world” theory are more likely to develop psychosis and schizophrenia (1960, p. 39). He describes such individuals thus:
His identity and autonomy are always in question. He may lack the experience of his own temporal continuity. He may not possess an overriding sense of personal consistency or cohesiveness. He may feel more insubstantial than substantial, and unable to assume that the stuff he is made of is genuine, good, valuable (Laing, 1960, p. 42).
Here Laing describes the diffusive identity status; inadequate, unskilled, with an underdeveloped self-theory, and with an inadequate behavior repertoire that is often ineffective, and potentially or progressively disconnected from the inner (self) and outer reality. He does not describe the other identity statuses because, as a mental health practitioner, his concern is with removing the symptoms of schizophrenia and psychosis. In the absence of a diagnosis, he has no tools to promote optimal mental health, or maximize human potential or self-actualization (Maslow, 1954). Hence, the concept of ontological security emerges exclusively from the logic of the coping mode, as its formulation and conceptualization are ignorant of co-creation.
Giddens (1991) provides a sociological interpretation of Laing’s insights, arguing that our identity and autonomy, and by extension our ontological security, depend on our ability to trust in social narratives and routines in which we are contextually embedded, and through which our identity is constituted. Adhering to norms and routines means individuals are not “obsessively preoccupied with their contingent, and fragile nature” (Rossdale, 2017, p. 371).
For Giddens the aim of gaining security is not to “accept” reality, or broaden and deepen adequacy by developing a richer self-theory through exploration of self and the world. Instead, its purpose is “to create ontological reference points” which simplify reality so that inadequate agents can deal with “the contexts of day-to-day life” (1991, p. 48) without learning and growth towards full self-actualization. In the terms laid out in Figure 2 in Part 1, the aim is to make the behavioral repertoire more effective through social mimicry via the adoption of behaviors of (authoritative) others. It does not promote broadening the scope of behaviors. Hence it promotes both the normative identity style as much as it promotes authoritarianism.
According to Giddens, norms and routines which coordinate behavior, provide us a “cognitive and emotional anchor” from which (inadequate) individuals derive the “trust” (Giddens, 1991, p. 36) that continuity and stability will prevail in everyday relations, so that they are not confronted with their own inadequacy. Routines rely heavily on a complex body of shared knowledge, constituting a societal status quo that can be mimicked wholesale: taken-for-granted local practices, cultural narratives, institutional structures, and “common” knowledge (Berger & Luckmann, 1991, p. 35). In other words, the status quo is the “anchor” from which security is derived. Ontological security is associated with (normative) individuals who have acquired a narrow but conditionally effective skill set for coping; they lack the behavioral breadth to deal with a world that is not under control of their in-group, and they feel an existential threat when so confronted.
This is a direct reference to Stenner’s book The Authoritarian Dynamic (2005) that we addressed in Section 3 on the foreclosed identity status, which predicts authoritarianism. Individuals with a foreclosed identity status respond with intolerance to diversity when confronted with normative threats, and hence they promote common authority (oneness) and shared values (sameness). The most threatening conditions to oneness and sameness “are questioned or questionable authorities and values, for example, disrespect for leaders or leaders unworthy of respect, and lack of conformity with or consensus in group norms and beliefs” (Stenner, 2009, p. 143).
Here, the normative “threat” to oneness and sameness concerns the condition of the self, more than of the perceived disturbance: “the self is unsure what to expect of the new: the exact boundary and inclusion or exclusion of the newcomer are not clear” (Chernobrov, 2016, p. 586). In general, the unfamiliar “new” exposes the individual’s inadequacy; uncertainties regarding the unfamiliar “hamper calculation and increase risk, jeopardize perceived or actual security, or signal indeterminacy and lack of meaning” (Chernobrov, 2016, p. 582). Consequently, security is concerned with maintaining one’s relationship with the environment as it is, via purging it of sources of uncertainty. This makes sense since inadequate agents are not equipped with the skills to understand or deal with the unknown outside of in-group-controlled environments. (See Part 1, Section 2 “Coping,” and the subsection on the foreclosed identity style)
The process of gaining ontological security is the process of becoming partially adequate via adoption of normative strategies (the mimicking of status quo behaviors) to minimize viability threats. As Mitzen (2006, p. 342) puts it, “for theorists of ontological security, individual identity is formed and sustained through relationships” with significant others, as is expected of people with the foreclosed identity status and the associated normative identity style (Berzonsky, 2008), who express the coping mode structurally and preferentially.
Berger and Luckmann (1991, p. 71) refer to the adoption of empowering routines and norms as “habitualization.” Habitualization is the consolidation of routines via reference to socially constructed symbols, myths, and heritage – shared knowledge – that sustain an in-group identity, which, in the words of Kinvall, provides “a guide for future actions” (2004, p. 756). Norms, rules, and routines impose in-group level limits on agency and reduce diversity (Rossdale, 2017), while increasing the probability of intended outcomes. All moves to achieve or retain ontological security enact limitations which restrain political critique and possibility, and securitizes subjectivity (Rossdale, 2017, p. 370). Interestingly, habitualization activates resistance in the form of the psychological phenomenon of reactance: the motivation to liberate oneself from limits on self-directed behaviors (Miron & Brehm, 2006).
Individuals don’t only ascribe meaning to their own normative experience but are able to “unite […] in a way that promotes order and predictability” (Gergen, 2001, p. 18 in Skey, 2010). The resulting less complex environment no longer confronts inadequate individuals with their inadequacy because it is, for them, more manageable and predictable, and hence it appears and is appraised as less threatening. However, this complexity reduction also stipulates that security is achieved via adherence to the status quo at the expense of personal freedom, options for self-directed contributions (implementing authoritarianism), and diminished congruence with the actual state of reality. Inevitably, the façade of a less complex environment needs continual and effortful maintenance so as not to crumble in the face of reality. The weaker the façade appears, the stronger the normative threat, and the more frantically the façade is defended and diversity suppressed.
Any out-group identity is constructed via **othering, ** “which denotes exclusionary and antagonistic differences” (Rossdale, 2017, p. 374; Kinvall, 2004). Inadequate co-creators are only familiar with and comfortable in their own in-group context, so they construct the unfamiliar individual’s identity comparatively to their own, with a focus on difference rather than similarity (Skey, 2010), and exclude everything, even things of great value, when they fall outside the knowledge base of the in-group. This results in the construction of identities and routines as “relative to other identity constructions’’ (Kinvall, 2004, p. 762), making each in-group seemingly incompatible and inherently separate. By viewing each other as stereotyped members of a group relegated to a foreign status (Skey, 2010), they create out-groups. As the foreign is threatening to inadequate co-creators, out-groups perceived as “different” are almost always seen as a problem (threat-to-self). This process of othering leads to polarization, which traps the in-group deeper in the coping ontology.
The resulting security is short term because it relies on exerting continual control through the suppression of unwanted diversity (which exposes one’s inadequacies). “The process of achieving (or seeking to achieve) ontological security frequently involves forms of exclusion and othering which may be both violent and counter-productive” (Rossdale, 2016, p. 370). As there is only coping, there is zero-gain; “Increasing ontological security for one person or group […] is thus likely to decrease security for those not included” (Kinvall, 2004, p. 763). Routines and rules are advantageous to the in-group, as they stipulate order and increased predictability. However, members of the out-group are disadvantaged by these rules and, in turn, are threatened and feel insecure. In-groups provide the out-group with grievances: exclusion, suppression, supervision, et cetera. Silke (2008, p. 112) asserts that if “marginalized groups are discriminated against or […] believe that there is discrimination, then there will always be sections within such communities who will be receptive to radical ideologies,” thereby jeopardizing the security of the environment. “Empirically and normatively [ontological security] push[es] us in the wrong direction” (Nesbitt-Larking, 2016, p. 13).
Searching for security by relying on in-group norms and routine also can distract from real-world threats, and actually make the group less safe and effective. When speaking of the failure of commercial organizations such as Radio Shack, Blockbuster, or Kodak, Clark (2020) stated: “These organizations were filled with large numbers of highly intelligent people, and yet they all fell prey to competitive threats that were hiding in plain sight. The countervailing strategies their competitors put in place were not mysterious. They were, in fact, obvious. What these organizations failed to do was challenge the status quo and disrupt themselves. […] They allowed the status quo to fossilize and would not allow themselves to change it.” In other words, protecting the status quo might actually degrade one’s situation in a changing world. This is the fate of individuals existing exclusively under the coping mode’s limitations: it may postpone death, but it provides no guarantee for being or becoming well.
What does the ideal of ontological security look like? It would be a symptomless perfect adaptation to a carefully controlled environment, protected from everything that might freak out the foreclosed personality. Aldous Huxley (1958), quoting Erich Fromm, noted that symptoms means conflict, which indicates
that the forces of life which strive for integration and happiness are still fighting. The really hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be most normal. “Many of them are normal because they are so well adjusted to our mode of existence, because their human voice has been silenced so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does.” They are normal not in what may be called the absolute sense of the word; they are normal only in relation to a profoundly abnormal society. Their perfect adjustment to that abnormal society is a measure of their mental sickness.
These millions of abnormally normal people, living without fuss in a society to which, if they were fully human beings, they ought not to be adjusted, still cherish “the illusion of individuality,” but in fact they have been to a great extent de-individualized. Their conformity is developing into something like uniformity. But “uniformity and freedom are incompatible. Uniformity and mental health are incompatible too … Man is not made to be an automaton, and if he becomes one, the basis for mental health is destroyed.”
This corresponds with Maslow’s observations about the suppression of an essential human core, of which he says “even when its existence is denied, it never goes away, even in a sick person; and is constantly trying to get out. Discipline, deprivation, frustration, pain, and tragedy are necessary because these experiences foster and fulfill his inner nature” (Maslow, 1968, pp. 3-4). Maslow argued that “psychologically speaking, that which designates a normal human being is in reality a psychopathology of the average. It depicts a lifestyle that is so widespread and nondramatic that we don’t even notice it ordinarily. In general, this normal life is one of general phoniness, illusion, and fear; showing that it is a sickness that is widely spread.” (1968, p. 16).
Striving for ontological security then fosters a psychopathology of the average: a state of marginal well-being and psychological emptiness which is the best that coping can produce: it is pathological normality. Unfortunately, it is also what Hannah Arendt (1963) refers to as the “banality of evil” in her description of the normality of Eichmann who “would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do.”
The question then is how to promote and achieve higher levels of well-being.
Psychological safety is a term that was first derived in teamwork research where it helped to predict which teams would work well and which would not. Psychological safety promotes interpersonal risk taking (Edmondson, 1999) and signifies a change from a defensive and self-protective team member to being a fully collaborating member without any motivation to self-protect.
Feeling safe is conditioned on positive indicators of safety. Safety is an outcome of successful previous behaviors (both coping and co-creation), and signifies that all is well. Therefore, safety signifies high adequacy, pervasive optimization (wisdom), inclusion, and wu wei. In such an environment, changes are attended to before they become pressing problems because in an inherently safe environment enough individuals have adequate skills to approach and adapt to the (natural dynamic of the) unfamiliar, without feeling threatened and defensive.
Whereas ontological security has a focus on maximizing environmental mastery through minimizing habitat complexity, psychological safety has a focus on maximizing agentic contributions in ways that benefit the whole. Via anthropological fieldwork conducted on organizations “from every sector of society,” Clark (2020) described the concept this way: Psychological safety is a condition in which you feel 1) included; 2) safe to learn; 3) safe to contribute; and 4) safe to challenge the status quo — all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way. Step four exemplifies interpersonal risk-taking most clearly.
Clark (2020) argued that the progression toward psychological safety is derived from the natural sequence of human needs; the pre-conditions required for co-creation to occur. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943) has five stages (physiological, security, belongingness, esteem, and self-actualization) that correspond directly to Clark’s progression towards psychological safety. The most basic needs for Maslow are physiological: food, water, and shelter; these needs are not included in Clark’s psychological safety because it “is a postmaterialist need” (2020). Maslow’s next three stages (security, belongingness, and esteem) are the needs that Clark conceptualized as the three needs on which psychological safety depends. Psychological safety “is no less a human need than food or shelter,” since it is the manifestation of the need for agentic self-preservation, which has as much to do with “social and emotional needs as physical ones” (Clark, 2020). Once the basic needs of food, water, and shelter are met, psychological safety becomes a priority so that an individual’s maximum potential is unleashed; self-actualization and co-creation preconditions are satisfied.
The first step for psychological safety is inclusion. The concept of inclusion underpins the difference between safety and security. When creating well-being via security, in-group membership is always conditional. In-group members feel unthreatened because of sameness and oneness: security derived by the suppression of diversity. When creating well-being via safety, membership in the community is “based on the sole qualification that they possess flesh and blood” (Clark, 2020) (which is easily generalized to include all living agents).
For inclusion safety, agents must be equipped with the skills to negotiate the unfamiliar by extending both respect and permission. By respect, Clark means the average level of esteem agents afford to each other; how much agents value and appreciate the unfamiliar. By permission, Clark means the degree to which the group allows the unfamiliar to influence them; that all, including newcomers, are permitted to participate as members of the community. Permission and respect are important affordances that agents grant one another in order to create an environment that provides safe passage for maximizing agentic potential and cultivating confidence, resilience, and independence (Clark, 2020). All in all, unconditional membership allows full access to the co-creation side of Figures 2 and 3.
The next level of safety is learner safety. Learner safety implies that you feel safe to participate, engage with the discovery process, ask questions, and make mistakes. The transition to learner safety means the agent faces the anxiety of the unknown (all signs of in-groupiness) and is not limited by it.
As individuals feel increasingly safe in a nurturing environment that offers respect and permission, we enter the stage of contributor safety. This is the stage where the individual is invited to participate as a full-fledged member of the community, and his/her esteem needs are fulfilled (Maslow, 1943). The agent’s contributions are successful; he feels adequate, skilled, and valuable. Hence, he gains self-esteem and, in turn, is increasingly respected by the community. Contributor safety emerges when the individual has acquired skills and is able to apply them adequately to produce shared benefits. The community has to provide both encouragement and appropriate autonomy to the agent (Clark, 2020). If the individual is hampered by discrimination, prevailing norms, internal bias, a lack of empathy, or general aloofness, he or she is denied contributor safety.
The final and crucial stage of psychological safety is challenger safety; an individual feels free to challenge the status quo without fear of retribution or reprisal (Clark, 2020). Challenger safety enables individuals to overcome the pressure to conform and, hence, can enlist themselves in co-creative processes; improvement, innovation, development, and hence communal growth (the more-than-zero-sum feature of co-creation).
While allowing and promoting challenger safety is a defining feature of psychological safety, challenges to the status quo are exactly what is to be suppressed from an (ontological) security perspective. Here the in-group’s focus is on protecting and defending the rules, routines, and norms that define the ingroup by suppressing diversity. Since ingroups feel inadequate under normative threats (challenges to sameness and oneness), any challenge is interpreted as an assault on precisely what constitutes the normative and authoritarian identity. And that is why suppressing diversity is incompatible with psychological safety.
Psychological safety is achieved via maximizing member contributions so that 1) members are equipped with the skills to confidently negotiate the unknown and unfamiliar; and 2) new and current members feel free to join, learn, contribute, and criticize freely, and, therefore, never harbor the motivation to threaten the well-being of the community. The result is a community or habitat presenting a high concentration of safety indicators in the form of unscripted contributions to the community. The progression towards psychological safety and fulfilling the natural sequence of human needs provides a recipe for co-creative well-being and growth.
The very formulation of the theory of ontological security shows that it is possible to formulate, with the best of intentions, a framework that is almost guaranteed to lead to a deeply pathological state of individual and societal non-development. Ideally this results in a situation of no symptoms, populated by individuals perfectly adapted to a world that is kept within the limits of their underdeveloped co-creation adequacy: pathological normality. Additionally, maintaining a world within tight constraints is arduous and wasteful compared with societal developing of the skills to deal with full real-world complexity, threats, and opportunities, as effective co-creation allows to be done.
Although this argument might be convincing for some, it is not acceptable for in-groups (i.e., authoritarians), especially not for those under normative threats, who simply assume that out-groups must either comply with their in-group rules or be dealt with otherwise (eliminated, removed, or made irrelevant). Due to the absence of self-exploration and the associated lack of broadening of the behavioral repertoire towards co-creation adequacy, this means that the coping worldview is simply not rich enough to adequately assess its own limitations, let alone understand full human potential. Possibly, this also characterizes the formulators of ontological security, since they seem unaware of the existence of co-creation. The formulation of psychological safety, on the other hand, expresses co-creation very clearly, but it is concurrently aware of coping and its limitations because it straddles co-creation and coping skills.
Figure 4. Well-being pyramid. The key transition is from conditional acceptance by ingroups to unconditional acceptance by a (diverse) community.
Clark’s (2020) description of the preconditions for psychological safety, in combination with the internal logic of the ontological security framework, inspired us to produce a metatheoretical summary (Figure 4) which builds on Maslow’s pyramid of needs (1943). The key transition in this well-being pyramid occurs between the lower level and access to self-directed growth towards self-actualization (Maslow, 1954). The transition occurs when coping strategies stop being dominant and co-creation takes over, while coping remains a valuable fallback to address pressing problems quickly and effectively. This corresponds to a change from in-groups that conditionally accept individuals – namely if and only if they accept the in-group worldview and, hence, direct and curtail their behaviors according to shared adequacy limits – to a community that offers unconditional acceptance to individuals and allows them to learn, contribute, and criticize. This makes the group diverse in its ability to solve problems and realize opportunities, and it offers ample context for individual and community growth. The transition also corresponds to a switch from “cognition for control, order, and certainty” (coping) to “cognition for exploration, disorder, and possibility” (co-creation) that we described in Figure 2 of Andringa et al. (2013b).
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.
The references to the basics series (published in Psychology in Russia)
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