The Effects of Highly Habitual People

by Ran Prieur

June 24, 2003

Creative Commons License
[Edited December 7, 2012. I edited this one pretty heavily, so if anyone's curious about how I changed it, here's the original version.]

Evil seems easy to explain: It feels good to get what you want, and it's easier to get what you want if you don't care about anyone who stands in the way. But when you look at evil in action, it's not so clear-headed. People will go against their rational self-interest, both short term and long term, to support leaders who will destroy their nation in war, or to maintain obsolete prohibitions, or to follow some wasteful cultural habit. And if you ask them why, they will come up with weak arguments and clumsy lies. This is not just irrationality -- it's self-deception. The lies are a cover for a value system that could explain itself with perfect rationality, but for some reason does not. It would sound something like this:

I support my leaders because they are totally bad-ass! They are ruthless and merciless and don't fight fairly, and I feel great about being a part of that. It is painful to empathize with the weak and the losers -- especially when I'm one of them. Instead I focus my full sympathies behind whoever is kicking ass at the moment. That's the "I" that can't lose!

I support the law, even when it's stupid, because it makes me feel better than people who break the law. When choosing between two behaviors, it's scary to be wrong, but as long as I'm on the side that's backed up by more violent power, I don't need to even think about being wrong, because everyone will be forced to say I'm right.

This is an airtight value system. It's at least as logical as any justification for doing good. So why don't they just come out and say it? Why don't they even admit it to themselves? Wouldn't it be easier for dominators to simply hold up domination as a self-justifying absolute good? Why do they have to think of themselves as upstanding and righteous? Why must evil lie?

This has puzzled me for many years, and I can still think of only one answer: The larger context, human nature or the universe itself, must be fundamentally good. If the larger context was amoral or immoral, evil could be totally honest. The fact that evil has to lie proves that it's incompatible with reality: that receptive exploring attention and clear thinking will lead inevitably to extended empathy and more cooperation.

What is "evil" anyway? And what's "good"? I define them in terms of contraction and expansion. Have you ever touched a slug? Notice how its body tightens and contracts against danger. It's a basic biological response -- humans do the same thing. Of course we're vertebrates and we can't contract our bones, but we contract our muscles all the time. If we spent our first years enduring conflict and trauma, as everyone does in an unhealthy culture, then we learned to carry a permanent stiffness in our bodies. Wilhelm Reich called it "character armor" and saw it as a key component of emotional sickness.

We also contract our emotions. That's what we're doing when we withhold our empathy, when we pull back our consciousness to avoid taking a perspective that is weak or suffering. Of course in this world there is so much weakness and suffering that we have to withhold our empathy all the time, or we'll be overcome with sadness or anger. On top of that, first world humans have to withhold our empathy because the weakness and suffering of others gives us benefits. If we could fully experience the perspectives of the factory-farmed animals we eat, or the human laborers who manufacture our products, we would need to make life changes so radical that in practice they take years, so even if we make them we can extend our empathy only gradually.

That path, rather than staying pure, is the definition of doing good in an evil system. Good-doers are dedicated to emotional and intellectual expansion, and to making the difficult adjustments that go with that expansion. Evil people are addicted to the feeling they get from contracting, or resisting expansion. And then there are many people, probably most, who are neither evil nor doing good. Unlike evil people, they aren't secretly happy that forests are being cut down, that animals are in cages, that humans are obeying bosses. If they really looked they would feel terrible, and feel the need to do something about it, to make uncomfortable changes, so they don't look, and they don't feel anything. Conventional people in an evil system are like evil people in that they are addicted to resistance to expansion, but their addiction is indirect: They are addicted to a way of being that can be maintained only through resistance to expansion. They are the ideal servants of an evil system, more ideal than evil people, who tend to destabilize it.

What is an "evil system?" I define it as a sustained violation of a surrounding good system. This definition is tricky because it's recursive: To know if the larger system is good you have to look at the next larger system, and so on. I think this reflects real uncertainty which we can deal with only by continually looking beyond. And a test of whether a system is good or evil is whether it permits looking beyond -- whether it is strengthened or weakened by the active practice of honesty.

So I've made a definition of "doing good" by which I've done more good than most people. But I don't think I'm more virtuous than other people. I'm only less habitual, and that's just because I got lucky. Specifically, I feel like people are born with something like an antenna by which they pick up the conventional behavior, and through some quirk of biology or environment, my antenna is weaker.

At the beginning this was a disadvantage. For example, it took me hours to learn to roller skate. Everyone else was gliding around and I was just flailing in one place. I asked them how they did it and they said stuff like "You just move... you just go!" Finally I figured it out: You move forward by angling a toe outward and pushing outward with that leg. But nobody knew this was what they were doing! They were using their antennae to channel the correct behavior straight to their bodies without mental awareness.

For me it's like that with everything. What comes naturally to other people, especially cultural behaviors, I learn clumsily and years late, but I do it starting from scratch, and I am forced to pay attention. This has become an advantage, because it turns out that a lot of the things people's antennae tell them to do are not in their best interests. Sometimes I feel like normal people are all walking around with anvils on their heads. At first I awkwardly try it, and then I stop, and people ask me "Why don't you carry an anvil on your head?" I say "It's very heavy, it doesn't do any good, and it's much easier to walk without it," and they say "Ha ha, you're so weird!"

If you think I'm exaggerating, consider lawns. Why not just do nothing to the land around your house? No watering, no mowing, no pulling "weeds," no poisoning, nothing. Let it go wild! It will save money, work, time, and resources, and on top of that it will make the land look better -- because people will travel hundreds of miles to look at wild land, but nobody travels to look at lawns; there are no lawn photographers or lawn landscape painters.

The honest argument against me would sound like this: "I put hundreds of dollars and tedious hours into my lawn because I enjoy absolutely controlling physical space and whatever lives there. It makes me feel powerful and valuable. And I choose to put there exactly what everyone else puts there because I enjoy fitting in, being part of a group, following strict rituals beside other people."

Again, why don't they just say this? Why do they choose to remain unaware of their real motivations? It must be because such awareness would threaten their beloved habits, by giving them the perspective to choose otherwise, to abandon the rituals or change them. Soon we might stop ironing our clothes, washing our cars, caring about social status, or doing any labor beyond what's necessary for comfortable survival. The reality to which we are accustomed would break apart. It would be like dying!

I'm going to call a habitual whole way of being a groove, a smooth, easy, comfortable channel that tells you where to move. I could also call our present system a rut, a dull, entrapping, suffocating channel. For most of us it feels like both. But for any such pattern to last, the overall positive feelings must exceed the negative.

Civilized humans are in a groove that has destroyed almost all other cultures, that has captured us into numb, shallow lives of stressful toil and perpetual dissatisfaction, and that is causing an ecological mass extinction. And we like it!

I'm not just talking about loving our cars, which eat friendly downtowns and shit strip malls, and demand the deaths of people living on top of the oil, or loving television, which treats us all like we're the stupidest person watching, and replaces the last shreds of our cultural diversity with a global monoculture where the meaning of life is to be richer and thinner and buy standardized products and services. These are just the latest manifestations of an out-of-balance groove we've been in for thousands of years. When ancient civilizations made bronze weapons to go kill and enslave their neighbors, what were they getting out of it?

It's complicated. On one level you've got your evil individuals who love killing and dominating because it gives them an opportunity to contract their empathy. Then you've got the economic motivation, but that doesn't seem to make sense, since late stone age people had a higher standard of living than the early agricultural people who replaced them. Also you've got group narcissism, the same thing we have today with flags and sports teams, where people feel more valuable by identifying with some dominating abstraction to which they think they belong. But why must these symbols dominate, or even compete? Why can't soldiers and athletes all play cooperative games with no winning or losing? Why does your group have to be better?

There are two things going on here. One is old: we are descended from tribes of primates who fought violent wars with other tribes, and this remains as an obsolete and harmful part of the human potential. The other is new: modern culture does not allow us to be happy where we are, but tells us to hold tension between where we are and where we want to be, to constantly seek a better future.

Monkey tribe consciousness might be enough to explain the attraction of the political right, and raw physical domination. But economic domination feeds off our addiction to "better". That's what drives our labor so far beyond what's necessary for survival, billions of poorer people sacrificing the trillions of hours of their lives so their kids or grandkids can move up the pyramid, can fail to enjoy the trappings of higher social status while stepping on the next person down.

It's a narrow, quantitative "better," a tight, competitive, judging "better." It has nothing to do with the feel of warm sand on bare feet, or the pleasure of hanging out with your friends. It's about things that can be numbered and ranked, things that are scarce and demand striving. It's because of this addiction that people who go into the wilderness don't just relax by a stream all day, but push themselves all day up a trail. What "better" really means is "requiring more labor."

If the ground were littered with diamonds and gold, and we could get mud only by digging deep mines, mud would be considered better, and people in shameful golden houses would work their whole lives for the privilege of living in classy mud huts. It sounds absurd, but the world we live in is even more satanic, because what's actually all over the ground -- soil and clay and grass and wood -- is good for growing food and making houses, while what's deep in the earth -- iron and gold and oil and uranium -- is good for building weapons and social inequality and alienating machines.

So we've got several habitual behaviors going at once. There's the tension between the unsatisfying experience of the moment and the ideal image in our heads. Then there's the stressed-out activity driven by this tension, and the satisfaction of succeeding, contracting our reality toward the ideal. And also there's the terror of having nothing to do -- we call it boredom but it's really free time, truly open time in which all the pain we've been hiding threatens to flood our awareness.

But at the same time that we must be busy improving things, we also love sameness, recognition, being where we've been before. We resolve this paradox by striving for more and more unattainable versions of the same thing: the lawn we're used to with fewer and fewer weeds, the TV programming we're used to on better TV sets, the driving we're used to in newer classier cars, a higher position in the labor career we're used to. Whatever it is, it's never truly different, and it's never enough.

So civilization as we know it is a bad groove, or a giant intertwined nest of bad habits, and how it got started we can only guess. But deeper than this, why are we habitual in the first place? Why do we tend to get in grooves and stay there? Grooves themselves are not civilized -- they are natural. People are habitual because biological life is habitual.

Are animals evil? They obviously take great pleasure in resonating with the conventional behavior of their kind, going through the same patterns over and over, patterns which include killing. But an eagle who kills a mouse is unlike a military leader ordering a bombing, because the eagle's behavior is in balance with the whole, and also because the eagle takes no pleasure in withholding its empathy from the mouse -- because it lacks the option to extend its empathy that far.

But, from wherever its empathy normally extends, it might have the option to contract it. I think I once saw evil pigeons. They were in a park in London but right now anyone would recognize them as American pigeons -- someone had been systematically feeding them massive amounts of junk food, and they were all grossly fat, and when a piece of food fell, and one pigeon got to it first, the next pigeon would not politely turn away, like normal pigeons do, but would bite the first pigeon and squawk angrily.

I think nonhuman animals are capable of all the same simple negative emotions as humans, and that they can become directly addicted to emotional contractiveness and be personally evil. But they will do so only in exceptional circumstances, and these circumstances cannot perpetuate themselves as evil societies because the animals' range of behavior is so limited, or their grooves are so deep, and what they're deep in is nature, which as far as I can tell is the surface of a symbiotic loving greater universe.

Human animals can form evil societies not because we're smarter or higher, but because for some reason our behavior is unusually flexible. I've called humans adaptable, but now I notice that this word blurs together at least two meanings. One of them I'll call impressionable. The blank slate theory is a simplification of this quality: that very young humans, far more than any other animal, will develop to fit their environment. So a human raised by wolves will act like a wolf, but a wolf raised by humans will act like a wolf.

The other meaning of adaptable, I will call the ability to readjust, the ability of an adult to adapt to a changing environment. Most humans don't readjust any better than nonhumans -- thus the saying "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." This failure to readjust is identical with cultural conservatism, the act of holding tightly to the ways we're used to, whether they're helping or not. And to form an evil society, we must be both impressionable, to learn behaviors far out of balance, and not readjustable, to stay there.

Are humans unable to readjust, or unwilling? Could we do it if we really wanted to? Are some humans biologically more able to readjust? Can the skill be learned? Is readjustability subject to impressionability, so that we could potentially all develop to be masters of readjustment?

If we can, we haven't yet. Resistance to readjustment has been strong in all human societies that we know of. Primitive humans are just as habitual and narrow-minded as conventional civilized people, and even more resistant to social change. They have strict rituals and taboos; they pretend you're joking when you try to stretch the walls of their reality; they have tribal loyalty that's psychologically the same as our loyalty to sports teams or nations.

But their groove is good: their habits keep them symbiotic with the wider universe and with each other. They are stewards of their ecosystems, not consumers. Even warlike tribes conduct warfare in a ritualized way that minimizes serious injury. Even in the worst tribes people don't feel that their life is meaningless.

Now we're at an impasse. Nature-based people will say that their groove is the place where humans belong. Civilized belief systems say that the primitive groove is something like a trap for our consciousness, that it's our destiny to transcend it. Both sides can show their opponents' position to be an illusion of the particular way their opponents are narrow-minded.

The groove of known nature-based peoples is open to our descendants, but will anyone choose it? The groove of civilization as we know it is hellish and limited, but what about civilization as we don't know it, or unclassifiable societies that we have not yet imagined?

So a third vision is to slide into a new groove different from any we have known. From this perspective, and the ones that follow, the nightmare of civilization was necessary to replace the dream of the earth and make us want to wake up.

A fourth vision is to transcend habit completely, and never be in any groove -- no sense of home, no comfortable familiarity, just headlong newness forever. Even to me that sounds like too much.

The vision I favor is that we will learn to master our habitual behavior, but will not use our mastery to stay out of grooves, but to make more grooves, to slide in and out of them at will and jump from one to another to another, so we can have as much newness and as much familiarity as we want.

For example, we could all live like Indians again, except this time it will be normal for individuals to move around from tribe to tribe. Or we could diversify more and add some agrarian peoples, or some technological peoples, if their technologies keep them in symbiosis with nature and other societies. Or we might add something totally new, or even shift into grooves that our present understanding would call alternate realities or parallel universes.

Is any of this possible? And even if it is, how many people would choose it? Only a few of us talk about transcendence and we're the ones who never got into our home reality in the first place. And why didn't we? If it's because our world is so far removed from nature, then why are we not much into nature either? Why do some people resonate more strongly with certain kinds of imagined worlds than with any apparently real world? Where are we going? What are we doing here? Who are we?