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A Rising "Social Psychosis" In Public And Private Life

The pursuit of greed, self-centeredness and materialism have become the holy trinity of public and private conduct in America. And it's generating a growing "social psychosis."
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Much of the ongoing debate in political, business and social/cultural arenas is rooted in an underlying disagreement about what best serves national interests and individual lives. Is it promoting the common good, or serving self-interest?

As interdependence and interconnection on this planet become ever-more apparent, new challenges and conflicts arise for personal life, the role of government and the conduct of business leadership. In response to these new realities, people's attitudes and behavior are shifting more towards serving the larger common good; now necessary for successful, flexible and psychologically resilient functioning.

However, these shifts clash with a long-prevailing ideology, that the primary pursuit of self-interest best serves the public interest and personal success. That ideology has also prevailed in our views of adult psychological health and maturity. In essence, the pursuit of greed, self-centeredness and materialism have become the holy trinity of public and private conduct. And it's generating a growing "social psychosis."

That is, the benefits of self-interest in personal lives and public policy supposedly trump any that accrue from serving the common good; the latter would undermine the former, if put into practice. For example, the argument against helping the unemployed, extending health insurance for all Americans or addressing climate change is that they would hurt the economy and therefore negatively impact your well-being and life success.

To question or critique this ideology might even be called "un-American." That would be correct; a good thing, actually, because the values and conduct that seem to have "worked" for so long now falter in today's rapidly changing world. No longer do they ensure long-term success, well-being or security. Several observers have written about the faltering of the old system in today's world. For example, Jeff Jarvis of CUNY, who has written about a "'great restructuring' of the economy and society, starting with a fundamental change in our relationships -- how we are linked and intertwined and how we act." Or Umair Haque, who has been describing "the new principles of a new economy, built around stewardship, trusteeship, guardianship, leadership, partnership" in his Harvard Business School blog posts.

The Social Psychosis Backlash
The reaction to the growing interconnection is a creeping "social psychosis." Like the frog in the pot of water who doesn't notice the slowly rising temperature and is eventually boiled alive, American society is living through growing, massive delusions about the new world realities -- and what's needed to deal with them effectively. This is highly dangerous for society and our personal lives.

I use the term "social psychosis" because a psychosis is a mental state in which a person shows a diminished or loss of a sense of reality. It typically includes delusions and diminished capacity to function effectively in daily life. When delusions are shared on a mass scale, they can be hard to recognize. In fact, individuals who share the mass delusion may not be psychotic, themselves; what they embrace, is.

When a social psychosis prevails, any proposals for dealing with social, political and global realities will be flawed from the start, since they are based on delusional thinking to begin with. They will lead to increasingly destructive outcomes. And that's the state we're in today.

The social psychosis that has taken root across our political, economic and social landscape contains delusions in four areas: personal values and conduct; political/economic ideology; public/social policy; and science and factual knowledge.

Personal Values and Conduct
This delusion is that narrow self-interest and self-absorption equates with a successful, stable life. Unfortunately, mental health practitioners have bought into this as well, by defining psychological health in terms of giving primacy to self-interest in careers and personal relationships. Even when social conditioning to such values and behavior fall short of narcissism, that view ends badly when you're hit with conflict or loss in your relationship or career because you ignored the need to support a larger purpose, not just your own needs and desires, in your relationship or your job.

Emotional and value conflicts are the downside of too much self-interest in careers and relationships. They've been apparent for some time. For example, I wrote about the "working wounded" several years ago in Modern Madness, but today we're seeing a broader impact in the context of current worldwide changes. And it's not pretty.

For example, Thomas Friedman has described in the New York Times a values breakdown that was reflected in an "epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism," and that in a " flat world where everyone has access to everything, values matter more than ever." Honing in on serious problems of the new world environment, like decline in U.S. education, competitiveness and infrastructure, along with oil addiction and climate change, Friedman emphasizes the dangers of expecting that all solutions must be painless and the problem of having no sense of having to sacrifice or postpone gratification.

Yet those are the very kinds of values and behavior that support the well-being of all in today's world. They are also undermined by reactive fears of the "other," the person who's different from me and may take from me what should be "mine." The latter is one source of the growing acceptance of falsehoods from "birthers" and those convinced that Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim.

Political-Economic Ideology
The delusion here is that it's possible to cut deficits without both tax increases and spending cuts, and also wage expensive wars without some kind of sacrifice in our way of life. In this delusion, Republicans denounce Keynes' views, despite the fact that Keynesian theory is universally embraced. Writing in the Washington Post, Dana Milbank has pointed out that, given this contradiction, "Republican denunciation of him has a flat-earth feel to it." He points out that Keynes described exactly what happened: that the financial crisis caused a spiral of falling demand, investments and employment, and that a sudden rise in savings among anxious consumers accelerated the decline. Yet the delusion that non-government action is going to help persists. As Milbank points out, an alternative, of course, is that "the government could do nothing, and let the human misery continue. The Democrats seem to be joining in with this delusion ... and this result."

Public/Social Policy
Ready for another one? This delusion is promoted by the Republican Tea Party, and embraced by rising numbers of Americans. Essentially, it's that government is bad for you. Except, of course, when it authorizes tax cuts for you, if you're rich. Or, when you would like some firefighters to come by when your house is burning. Or if you'd like schools to exist to educate your child. Or ... well, you get the point.

Even a conservative writer like David Brooks has objected to this false portrayal of the "badness" of government, per se, pointing out that the Republicans are mired in a delusion about American history. He writes that our history is not just about limited government, but about "energetic governments that used aggressive federal power to promote growth and social mobility." Leaders have treated government as "a useful tool when used judiciously and a dangerous menace when it gets out of control," he writes. The issue is not whether government is big or not; it's a means, not an end. Brooks also observes that there are going to have to be spending cuts and tax increases. And, "If Republicans decide that even the smallest tax increases put us on the road to serfdom ... the country will careen toward bankruptcy."

Similarly, Robert Reich argues in his new book, Aftershock, that the growing wealth gap is dangerous. The top-earning 20 percent of Americans received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the United States. The last time wealth was concentrated this much at the top was just before the Great Depression. He argues that a high concentration of wealth at the top hurts everyone, and that "the inevitable result is a slower economic growth and an economy increasingly susceptible to great booms and terrible busts." Yet the delusion persists that this gap is somehow good policy.

And as Brooks argues, "If all government action is automatically dismissed as quasi socialist, then there is no need to think." Exactly. Which brings us to the fourth delusion of our social psychosis:

Science and Factual Knowledge
The delusion here is that a society can progress -- or even hold it's own -- by embracing an anti-science position and glorifying ignorance. The delusion consists of the belief that denying scientific evidence or knowledge of facts in general is a good basis for making decisions that affect the public. Whether in the halls of Congress, in the media or on Boards of Education, the delusion of the anti-science/pro-ignorance crowd have increasing influence and impact, as polls indicate. It includes denial of evolution, rejection of the evidence for human-created rise of carbon emissions that creates ongoing climate change, and a general embrace of ignorance as a virtue; that it trumps the usefulness of empirical facts.

A Tsunami Of Awakening
Now for the good news: The current wave of social psychosis may be with us for a while, but it's destined to fade. Data from surveys, polls and research coalesce around a growing recognition of interconnection, coupled with embracing values and conduct that serve the common good. These shifts are increasingly visible in all sectors of society. Some highlights: The impact of diversity -- most children born in this country are nonwhite; near-majority support for gay marriage and acceptance of non-conventional definitions of family; a rising business model that combines profit with social benefit; the view that empathy, now known to be hard-wired, should drive personal behavior and public policy; and career paths based on the impact they enable you to have on something larger than personal power and recognition.

In my next post I'll elaborate on the evidence for these growing shifts towards serving the common good in personal and public life.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development, in Washington, DC.