Imperfect Guides to Living: Our Five Core Concerns

decisionsEvery 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.

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Dangerous Ideas

My research, writing, and consulting focus on how five key issues—and the beliefs we hold about them—profoundly influence our personal and collective lives. I believe that concerns revolving around vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness are crucial contributors to how we experience and make sense of the world, and that they are also the key lenses through which we evaluate information and form judgments about appropriate priorities, policies, and actions. Here’s a very brief description of each domain:

Concerns over personal and collective vulnerability are central to our lives. For most of us, nothing is more immediate than the desire to protect and provide security for the people and things we care about, including ourselves.

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 a combination of anger and resentment, and often an urge to right wrongs and punish those we hold responsible.

We tend to divide the world into those who are untrustworthy and those worthy of our trust. If our judgments are accurate, we can select our associates and allies wisely, and we can try to avoid harm from those who have hostile intent or are merely unreliable.

We frequently compare ourselves to other individuals and groups, and conclude that we’re better than they are in some important way—perhaps in our accomplishments, or our morality, or our destiny. At times we focus on what we consider worst about others, which serves to further persuade us of their inferiority.

We strive to avoid the experience of helplessness, and instead do our best to control the important events in our lives. And when we’re overcome by despair and resignation we usually fail to achieve our goals.

With this blog I hope to offer my personal observations applying this framework to current events. Please do check back again, and I look forward to your comments.