In Self-Reg, we want to have it both ways: preserve Liberty as a birthright and ensure that everyone can become free. If the price of Democracy is that certain individuals, businesses, or political actors are allowed to influence the unwary by taking advantage of their limbic impulses, then we need to figure out how we can all become aware when this is happening – and wary of this happening!
Dan Ariely makes a wonderful point in Predictably Irrational: “In terms of our personal lives, we can actively improve on our irrational behaviors. We can start by becoming aware of our vulnerabilities.” But the social and prosocial impulses that the hook modeller targets are only “vulnerabilities” if they are being exploited for commercial or political gain. They are as much what makes us human as our ability to reason, and not to be shunned or ignored.
In Self-Reg, we strive for self-understanding by asking ourselves Why: over and over. But the Self-Reg Why is very different from that of a toddler incessantly asking “Why” – and never waiting for an answer. It is a form of self-discovery informed by science; as science advances, so too does self-understanding.
One of the more important sciences that we need to study is that in which Ariely himself is a leading exponent: The Psychology of Reasoning. The discovery of the many different kinds of reasoning biases has proved a goldmine for those in the business of dopamine hijacking. But triggers lose much of their potency once we become aware of when and why they are shaping our behaviour.
But while insight may be a necessary condition for freedom to grow it is not sufficient. We need to do all five steps of Self-Reg. We need to reframe our impulses as stress-indicators; identify and reduce those stresses that we can and should; substitute mindful for maladaptive modes of self-regulation that lead us into harmful habits. And, of course, we need to find calmness as this is understood in Self-Reg: i.e., as a function of homeostasis.
There is a constant tug-of-war going on between Blue and Red Brain, both sides critical for becoming free. Indeed, the anti-social or egoistic impulses that we find so troubling are often prefrontal and not limbic, and it’s the latter that saves us from our socialized selves. The self-control paradigm is so entrenched that it is natural to think of freedom in terms of prefrontal hegemony. But freedom comes, not from exercising control, but from balancing these impulses off against each other.
The goal here is not to float through life in the sort of “stress-free state” that one experiences in a sensory deprivation tank; the goal is to be able, not just to handle, but to thrive on and grow from our stresses. And choosing is often one of the most stressful experiences that we have to deal with. Even choosing which spaghetti sauce to buy can be incredibly stressful: which is why those “special sales stickers” (placed at eye height of course) are so effective: they provide a rationale for avoiding the stress of choosing.
As does authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is a maladaptive mode of self-regulation: a self- harmful way of dealing with the stress of choosing who to vote for by simply removing it. By shutting down the demand to think about the troubling political and environmental challenges that we face. The rise of authoritarianism is the strongest indicator we have of a society that is desperately over-stressed: to the point where individuals are willing to give up their freedom.
There is a line in Berlin’s seminal “Two concepts of Liberty” in which, echoing Descartes, he states his “wish, above all, to be conscious of myself as a thinking, willing, active being, bearing responsibility for my choices and able to explain them by references to my own ideas and purposes.” Without in any way diminishing the force of the body of this statement, Self-Reg is heavily focused on the first word: the “wish” to be free, to choose for oneself, to make mistakes and learn from them.
In Self-Reg we are striving to nourish the desire for freedom. And we do so by developing the resources to cope with it.
This is part three of Dr. Shanker’s three-part blog series “A Self-Reg Lens on Freedom”.