Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Designing A Freer Social System

On occasion I'm blessed to read a book that radically changes my understanding of life by expanding my thinking in ways I never imagined. Recently, Dan Pink's excellent book, "Drive" has had that impact on me. The book details the many studies that have been conducted around human motivation, and reveals that - at least where our creative capacities are concerned - people are far more powerfully motivated by their intrinsic drives (energies arising from within) than they are by extrinsic pressures like rewards and punishments. This understanding actually violates one of the primary tenets of physics, which says that a body at rest tends to remain at rest while a body set into motion tends to remain in motion, but that principle - as is true of most strictly scientific principles - fails to account for the existence of consciousness and free will within the object.

If we look around today, much of our society is constructed around reward and punishment drivers. Our religions, for example, teach us that if we behave as we've been taught we'll go to heaven (eternal reward) and if we don't we'll go to hell (eternal punishment.) The thing is, once we know there will be a particular outcome based on our behavior, we're no longer truly free to choose how to behave. The certain outcome tips the scales, pushing us toward the behavior that will deliver the desired outcome. Under this sort of motivational driver, our attention shifts toward following a given set of rules to generate a specific outcome (the ends) and away from evolving and improving ourselves so we become more mentally and emotionally adept at determining how best to behave in any given situation (the means.)

Our educational systems use rewards and punishments to force children to learn what they're "supposed to" learn and make sure they feel shame and guilt if they do not. If they pay attention and regurgitate, as unaltered as possible, the information they're fed, they get good grades and are perceived as successes. If they ask too many questions, fail to agree with what they're being taught to memorize or find the whole process too boring to hold their attention, they're labeled stupid, failures or ADD/ADHD. They're even medicated (punished) back into compliance so they can be appropriately instructed and controlled. Teachers too are rewarded for getting their students to achieve good test scores, and are punished if they fail to teach to the tests. Somewhere along the way genuine learning, the art of critical thinking and the innate curiosity of children to ask and obsessively seek the answers to "why?" was squelched in service to spitting out compliant, high scoring data memorizers who could then neatly drop into our economic reward and punishment system.

It's not surprising then that we find the same sort of reward and punishment system underlying our economies. If we work hard and produce what our employers desire from us, we receive wages that will allow us to survive and possibly thrive. If, on the other hand, we fail to find an employer whose demands we can successfully satisfy, we're punished for it by the withholding of the money we need to survive. If we wish to start a new business a bank may lend us the capital we need to do so, but if we're not successful on our first go the bank will repossess what we've built and label us losers by damaging our credit ratings, making it that much harder for us to succeed in the future. This prevailing financial reward and punishment system does make certain grudging allowances for those who are old, infirm or ill (Social Security and Medicare are examples of this), but only to a limited extent and only for a specified period of time. We don't really like making these allowances for individuals, because we're not sure how many people are malingerers taking advantage of the system we've devised to benefit the truly needy. (Perhaps right there we find a clue that the reward and punishment system we've designed does not sufficiently motivate most people to attain their highest level of personal capacity.)

Modern justice systems are also grounded in rewards and punishments. Obey the laws and we're granted permission to live as we wish to within the restrictions and boundaries of those laws. Disobey the laws and we're punished with fines, jail time and criminal records that may haunt us for the rest of our lives. Interestingly enough, this system is grossly economically inefficient. For instance, a person who robs a convenience store and steals two hundred dollars may get arrested and jailed for seven years, at a net cost to the public of over two hundred thousand dollars. Economically we'd have been far better off - and the violence and suffering the offender created could have been avoided - by simply giving the individual the two hundred dollars he needed, or paying him an annual allowance so he could acquire the things he needs without resorting to social violence. That however, would violate our socially entrained sense of needing to "teach people how to behave," because we fear that by giving people what they need they won't learn how to behave properly. Ironically, the exact opposite seems to hold true. Deny people what they need and they may well begin to act improperly out of frustration, anger and physical desperation. Give them what they need and they will not feel compelled to violate their wish to live in peace.

Modern two-party governance is also founded on a system of rewards and punishments. If the party you support attains political power, you'll be rewarded by having the ideas you prefer be written into law, while the supporters of the losing party will be punished by not being able to test their ideas or have them properly heard and respected by the ruling party. Because neither party can maintain total political control long enough to actually see their party's platform executed and discover the underlying validity of its beliefs, the battle continues to rage because we never truly learn which way is better. We wind up with this policy contradicting that policy, or our ideas getting watered down so much that they aren't really the ones we wanted to test in the first place. This constant back and forth push of power means that whatever laws do get created can't even be counted on to last, because when the opposition regains power the first thing it does is attempt to dismantle the legislative efforts of the outgoing party. The people are the ones who suffer most during these push/pull struggles for the right to determine the nation's destiny, because instead of being able to charter a steady course for our own future we're blown about and battered beneath this typhoon of oppositional political energies.

While rewards and punishments may have served humanity to some limited extent in the past, these extrinsic motivational techniques of rewards and punishments no longer serve an intelligent, creative and empathetic adult population. They may in fact be what's hindering our ability to successfully evolve. By contrast, the intrinsic motivators Pink discusses in his book are drivers that are, by nature, hardwired into us to motivate us without the need for external sticks and carrots, and if nurtured and permitted to flower, they may well hold the power to propel society forward in great leaps of unleashed creativity.

According to the studies, our three primary intrinsic motivators are:

1) The desire for autonomy, in which we possess some element of control and choice over what we do, and how and when we do it.
2) The desire for personal mastery, in which we are free to take as long as we like and are given access to the tools we need to practice our passions, talents and skills until we've attained a satisfying level of performance proficiency.
3) The desire to serve a higher purpose than ourselves, such that we are free to apply the skills we've mastered in ways that uplift and support the rest of life.

When we observe children we see these three motivators at work. Children will cry when they are hindered from exploring what they wish to explore, when and how they wish to do it. They will spend endless hours developing their own innate skill sets...walking, talking, learning to use their fingers and hands and to coordinate their bodies. (For them this is play, not work!) They will also take great delight in bringing joy to the grownups around them, when we observe them achieving a new milestone and provide them with laughter as feedback. It's only through the process of socialization (in the schools, through parenting and in religious training) that these natural drivers become subverted and external drivers supplant them over time. By applying material punishments and rewards to motivate our children to do what we want them to do, we deny them the autonomy to figure out what they truly wish to do. We also convert their natural curiosity and play into grueling work, and we substitute external rewards (like grades and allowances) for the deep intrinsic joy of doing something well so they can bring joy to the world and be helpful to others.

How can our society best support these intrinsic motivational drivers that in turn would help us uplift the human condition? For starters, we could free up all humans from the need to labor in exchange for life's basic necessities. By giving everyone what they need, we free ourselves from the stress of having to work to earn what we need. Our time and energy could then be redirected toward determining what it is we want to create - as individuals, and for the benefit of our society. If we're no longer all slaving to earn our daily bread, we will each have more time and freedom to pursue our personal passions and develop our unique skill sets and abilities, so we can discover what unique gifts we have to offer the world and attain sufficient mastery to bring bring them forth. Because our attention will no longer be focused solely on providing our basic needs for ourselves, we'll be free to allow our intrinsic desire to serve a higher purpose to emerge and serve the collective needs of humanity, the planet and the living ecosystems that sustain us.

This single shift - from demanding that human beings each work to earn what they personally need to survive - to ensuring all human beings freely receive what they need from the larger society, holds the power to set alight human creative capacity and foster an explosion of energy that could, in turn, resolve the many, many challenges we face as a species today. Freed from the grinding need to provide all our basic needs for ourselves, we could turn all that newly unleashed energy toward cleaning up our planet, fully educating all children, protecting our delicate ecosystems, freeing ourselves from dependence on fossil fuels, redirecting our shared resources with intelligence and compassion and setting a steady course toward a shared higher vision of where we'd like to see humanity go. In a very real sense, this is a higher-consciousness fractal of the seminal shift that single0-celled organisms made when they agreed to come together and be part of much larger multi-cellular systems. By sharing the burden of providing for each cell's basic needs, they in turn freed each other up to practice their unique talents and abilities, and to specialize in service to the formation of a greater whole living system. You and I would not be here today had not single-celled organisms attained this realization at the limited level of consciousness they possessed.

That we're hardwired to act in cooperative and intrinsically motivated ways means we're not really taking too much of a risk to let go of our old power-dominator systems of reward and punishment and allow nature to take its evolutionary course. Apparently God truly does not play dice with the universe; we've been gifted these intrinsic motivations - along with the desires for communion, peace, harmony, beauty, happiness and human companionship - for a reason. Let's purposefully use these gifts then instead of suppressing them, and perhaps we'll surprise ourselves by how much we're able to accomplish once we let go of our fears of how others will behave (which drives our present need to control each other) and instead trust higher nature to have provided us with the tools necessary to motivate and successfully activate ourselves in service to life.