Every day we face decisions that help determine what tomorrow will look like — for ourselves and for others as well.
In my work as a clinical, social, and political psychologist, I’ve found that the decisions we make are powerfully influenced by five core concerns. These concerns revolve around issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Their impact is felt almost everywhere: at home, at work, in the community, in politics, and even in international relations.
Of particular importance, these five concerns shape our perceptions and actions by serving as persuasive yet imperfect guides to the world around us. In our pursuit of positive personal and social change, they can both illuminate the path forward and lead us far astray. Sadly, too often we fail to recognize the difference. Let’s briefly consider each in turn.
Concerns about safety are central to the way we evaluate our circumstances. This isn’t surprising. Survival is an obvious first priority — without it nothing else would be possible. So efforts to protect ourselves and the people and groups we care about are a primary focus of our attention.
Nevertheless, we’re not particularly good at making judgments about risk. As a result, we routinely discover too late that valuable time and resources were wasted on unnecessary precautions, and promising opportunities were cast aside as we built defenses against phantom threats. Of course, such lessons are hard to apply because we’ve also learned that the failure to exercise due caution can have devastating effects. Indeed, “better safe than sorry” is a philosophy that has saved innumerable lives.
We are strongly affected by perceptions of injustice, both in our personal lives and in our group attachments. Most of us react to perceived mistreatment with anger and resentment, as well as an urge to right wrongs and punish those we deem responsible.
But again, our judgments are fallible, in both directions. In some cases, our perceptions of wrongdoing are misguided — such as when we confuse what’s unfair with what’s merely unfortunate, or when we blame the wrong people for the adversity we face. And then at other times we’re much too slow in recognizing the legitimacy of another’s grievances, or in holding accountable those whose unjust acts have caused great suffering.
We tend to divide the world into people we consider worthy of our trust and those we view with doubt and suspicion. In so doing we hope to choose our allies wisely, while avoiding harm from those who have hostile intentions or are simply undependable.
Yet here too, errors are commonplace. Acting on the basis of information that’s often incomplete and unreliable, we regularly mistake potential friends for foes and as a result fail to pursue important avenues for collaboration. But at the same time, we’re all too familiar with the painful consequences that can result when we gullibly place our faith in people who abuse our trust for their own selfish purposes.
We are quick to compare ourselves to other individuals and groups. In many cases, we hope to confirm or demonstrate that we’re better in some important way — perhaps in our accomplishments, our values, or our destiny. And to reinforce this positive self-image, at times we choose to focus on what we consider worst about others.
But these judgments can prove problematic. Perceiving others as inferior often leads to destructive conflict, while narcissistic convictions of superiority set the stage for acts of abuse and humiliation that run counter to basic human decency. At the same time, excessive pride and overconfidence tend to encourage dangerous overreaching that can produce personally disastrous outcomes.
We strive to avoid the experience of helplessness by doing our best to control the important events in our lives. But when we believe our efforts are futile, despair and resignation can quickly overwhelm our commitment and motivation to pursue change.
Once more, our perceptions can lead us astray. In some situations, repeated setbacks cause us to abandon our goals prematurely. We lose sight of the progress already made and discount the likelihood of future advances. On the other hand, there are times when we greatly overestimate our capabilities. As a result, we may stubbornly persevere with unproductive strategies when we’d be much better off pursuing alternative routes.
In the Public Square
One critical arena where these five concerns repeatedly take center stage is in today’s public policy debates. War, health care, immigration, workers’ rights, climate change, and taxes are just a handful of examples that quickly come to mind.
In this context, individuals and groups often specifically highlight issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness when appealing for our support and our votes. This approach can be highly effective and entirely legitimate — if the aim is to advance our collective welfare and the foundations of a just society.
But our natural susceptibility to such appeals means that we must work especially hard to resist well-crafted and expertly marketed proposals designed instead to advance the narrow and self-serving interests of their powerful proponents.
Our key challenge, then, is to recognize the difference.