Ferguson, Beheadings, and the Psychological Challenge of Living in the Modern World

The human mind did not evolve for the world we live in. Over the last twenty-four hours I’ve gazed at the image of a reporter…

The human mind did not evolve for the world we live in. Over the last twenty-four hours I’ve gazed at the image of a reporter about to be beheaded. Moments later in the same newscast I watched a mother and father express their rage, sadness, and dismay when their teenage boy was shot to death after an unarmed altercation with a police officer. How many of us imagined what it might have been like to be behind the eyes of that reporter, to feel what it was like to read that statement blaming the US for what would happen in the next handful of seconds? How many of us imagined what it was like to be a black teenager without much of a future on the streets of Ferguson to be shot at as he ran from an officer for stealing cigars? If you are comfortable inside your own skin with those questions (“Of course, I did that”), let me ask two more… How many of us imagined what it was like to be the police officer, firing that gun? How many of us put ourselves behind the eyes of a religious zealot, wanting to kill infidels? If you recoil at some of these questions, including the last one, I ask you to sit inside that discomfort a bit longer while I say a couple of things.

The Social Monkey

Humans are social beings. We show levels of cooperation that are otherwise unknown among primates. But there is a dark underbelly to our cooperation: It evolved because of competition between different groups. When groups compete, prosocial, cooperative acts within the group can pay off at the group level. Individuals in clans and tribes (which is how humans were organized when we developed language and other prosocial tools) showed an egalitarian streak because by working together they could compete successfully with other clans and tribes. That competition would not have to be war necessarily, though sometimes it was. The conditions that give advantages to cooperative groups are actually fairly common in the animal world, but what is not is the other condition key to its development: individual selfishness needed to be adequately dampened down within the group. That is when cooperation and prosociality has a chance to take hold. We have a model of this combination in our own body. Trillions of cells have to cooperate for any one of us to live; but the body also needs to keep selfish cells, such as cancer cells, in line. In human groups we keep others in line culturally: with laws, gossip, criticism, ostracism, or attack. Your body keeps cells in line by killing the rebels. This topic could take many an article, and I will likely investigate these topics in future pieces. For now you, I refer you to my friend and colleague, David Sloan Wilson’s, book Evolution for Everyone for a further investigation of this topic.

The Broader Human Family

In the modern world we cannot depend on blind evolutionary forces to ensure cooperation. We long ago left the savannah and the world of bands and clans constantly competing and fighting with one another. In the modern world we need to find a way for “the group” to be defined as all of us. And in the modern world, we need to confront the selfish forces that divide us. The problem is that this presents an extraordinary challenge to us all psychologically speaking. If we care about each other, then it hurts to see others suffer. If we defend against that hurt selfishly such as by defining people as “other” (and thus not in our group, and not to be treated humanely) then our ability to maintain a modern, diversified, interconnected world is harmed. A series of recent studies in my lab and other contextual behavioral science laboratories around the world helps us see the specific shape of the challenge we face. My former student, Roger Vilardaga (now at the University of Washington), has named this model the “Flexible Connectedness” model. It claims that caring about others requires three skills:1

  1. You have to be able to take the perspective of others.
  2. You have to have empathy.
  3. You have to not run away when it is hard.

Taking another person’s perspective means you know a bit of what it might be like to look out from behind their eyes. In our research we measure that in a very geeky way using an experimental task but the kinds of questions used in the task are easy to understand. When he was four, I trained my son in some of the perspective-taking basics while driving around in my car. “Stevie” I said, “If I were you and you were me what would you be looking at right now?” He would pause and say, correctly, “the road.” The ability to come up with answers like that across time, place, and person and their combination is what the task measures (the equivalent of Stevie being asked, “Now I’m driving but yesterday I was asleep. If I were you and you were me and today were yesterday and yesterday were today what would you be looking at right now?”) That skill is how we can begin to answer the questions I asked at the beginning of this article. But it is only skill one. By empathy I just mean the ability to feel what others might feel in a particular situation. I don’t mean agreement or sympathy necessarily – we can feel the anger of a zealot without agreeing with it or personally buying into its dictates. This skill goes beyond merely knowing another’s point of view. It includes understanding the emotional impact deeply enough to feel that impact. These two skills sound simple—and in an intellectual sense they are—but it is the third feature of flexible connectedness that shows what a challenge these simple skills can bring in the modern world. You have to have the ability to feel pain without avoidance or an easy escape into judgment. You have to sit inside the horror, sadness, anger, or loneliness and not run away—opening up to emotions and thoughts as emotions and thoughts, not as what they declare themselves to be. Again, I invite you to reconsider the questions I opened with. For some, seeing things through the eyes of victim or killer may feel “overwhelming” or “unacceptable”, so we shut them down consequently reducing our ability to relate to people as people.

The Roots of Prejudice

Our research has shown that if you do not have good perspective-taking, empathy, and psychological flexibility skills, you tend not to enjoy the presence of others. And a study2 now under review that was headed up by my former student Mike Levin (now at Utah State University) shows that if you do not have these three skills, you tend to be prejudiced toward others. The challenge of the modern world is that it invites us to back into our mental “in groups” and “out groups”. We tend not to take the time to see the world through the eyes of others or to feel what they feel. Even when we do, we tend not to find that psychologically open place in which it is possible to feel painful things without escape and avoidance. It is tempting to “defend ourselves” by emotion isolation and objectification of others. The cost, however, is too high. We lose our ability to be in this world as part of a whole human community, and to confront the selfishness that we do need to confront: both in ourselves and in others. Opening up to our thoughts and feelings for what they are is where psychological flexibility begins. I will expand on the topic of psychological flexibility in future articles, spelling out in more detail precisely what I mean by that term. For now, suffice it to say that acquiring high levels of psychological flexibility is a challenge, and, yet, in a world of beheadings and shootings, beatings and deprivations, it is a skill we must seek so that we can be healthy and whole amid the cacophony.


1 Vilardaga, R., Estévez, A., Levin, M. E., & Hayes, S. C. (2012). Deictic relational responding, empathy and experiential avoidance as predictors of social anhedonia: Further contributions from relational frame theory. The Psychological Record, 62, 409-432. 2 Levin, M. E., et al. (in review). Examining the role of psychological inflexibility, perspective taking and empathetic concern in generalized prejudice.

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