Citizen Action Monitor

Once our absolute basic needs are met, we start to compare ourselves relative to others — Nate Hagens (13)

And in a culture that values income, status, and ranking, comparisons of relative success can create problems.

No 2296 Posted by fw, June 11, 2018

To access links to all other posts in this series, click on the Tab titled “Where Are We Going? by Dr. Nate Hagens” in the top left margin. 

“Once our basic needs are met, once we have our food and our shelter and a job, we intensely care about comparing ourselves to others. And that’s a real problem in our culture because our culture is measuring success, so far, largely in [terms of] who has the biggest house and the largest paycheck. So people, even if they’re making 40 grand a year think they’re losers because their neighbors [are] making 50 grand or 80 grand or whatever it is.”Nate Hagens

In Pt 1, the Introduction to Dr. Hagens’ talk at Kansas Wesleyan University on April 23, 2018, he declared:

“The story I’m going to tell is almost the perfect storm for the human brain to ignore and reject, because it is complex, it is threatening, a little bit scary, it’s in the future, not today, it is abstract.”

As it turns out, our human behavior is complex, threatening and more than “a little bit scary.”

Today’s post, Pt 13, continuum 12, if not exactly scary, is an example of an aspect of human behavior characteristic of those of us who live in our highly competitive, materialistic, capitalist culture. To illustrate this, Hagens relates the story of the capuchin monkey who gets really upset and throws a cucumber reward back at the experimenter because he sees that the monkey in the next cage is getting a more highly valued grape reward for performing the same task. Who, in our society, would not also be upset at being unfairly treated? We look at the value of what we have relative to the value of what others have, rather than appreciating the absolute value of what we have regardless of what others have – as people living in a communal society might do.

Below is the embedded video of Hagens’ 60-minute address, followed by an 18-minute Q&A session. My transcript of Pt. 12, continuum 11, runs from 21:14 to 22:41. (NOTE: I have added to the transcript the embedded 2:43-minute video of the two monkeys).

Alternatively, a video of Hagens’ talk, along with a “loosely related” essay on the talk, are available by clicking on the following linked title. This version, published by Resilience.org, also includes excellent readers’ comments, including responses by Hagens.

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Where are we going? by Nate Hagens, Resilience.org, May 8, 2018

TRANSCRIPT (from 21:14 to 22:41)

[HUMAN BEHAVIOR]

21:14[Continuum 12: Relative vs Absolute] – Once our basic needs are met, once we have our food and our shelter and a job, we intensely care about comparing ourselves to others. And that’s a real problem in our culture because our culture is measuring success, so far, largely in [terms of] who has the biggest house and the largest paycheck. So people, even if they’re making 40 grand a year think they’re losers because their neighbors [are] making 50 grand or 80 grand or whatever it is.

21:53 – There’s this video online by a biologist showing these capuchin monkeys that do a task, they give a rock for a food treat for a reward. And they’ll both be happy to do it for a cucumber. But once one of them starts getting a grape instead of a cucumber, the one that formerly was happy to do the work for a cucumber gets really upset and throws the cucumber back at the experimenter because he’s no longer getting a fair shake.

22:27We are not that dissimilar from that. We do not like imperfect slights when someone is getting more than us because we feel it’s unfair. Relative versus absolute—huge bearing on our environmental situation.

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[Resilience.org Supplement] — Relative vs Absolute – Fitness in nature is correlated with caloric intake per unit of effort.  We each follow this simple ‘foraging algorithm’, mediated by the neurotransmitter dopamine, to get more for less.  But after basic needs are met, this algorithm shifts to caring significantly more about our comparative performance, income, status, ranking vs others than we do about absolute measures of same.

*****

About Dr. Nathan John Hagens – Hagens, 51, worked on Wall Street at Lehman Brothers and Salomon Brothers for 10 years before closing his own hedge fund in 2003 to develop a systems synthesis approach to the human predicament. At present, Dr. Hagens is a professor at the University of Minnesota where he teaches a systems synthesis Honors seminar called Reality 101, A Survey of Human Predicament. The readings and lectures cover literature in systems ecology, energy and natural resources, thermodynamics, history, anthropology, human behavior, neuroscience, environmental science, sociology, economics, globalization/trade, and finance/debt with an overarching goal to give students a general understanding of how our human ecosystem functions as a whole.

Visit Nate Hagens’ personal website at The Monkey Trap.

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