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Doing the right thing, we erase consequences

In life, we often like feedback. To know that something we’ve done has gone well, worked, made things better. Whether that’s a natural instinct or something inculcated in us by education, psychology or other theories of human motivation is perhaps impossible to answer – once we’re used to receiving confirmation, its absence can easily make us anxious or insecure.

Apparently, it’s neurochemicals: when we receive praise or condemnation it creates reactions in the brain that filter on through the body to make us feel either good or bad, shaping our next response by way of that “message”. This carrot and stick approach to behaviour change through reward and punishment, acceptance or rejection, happiness or fear (Notes One).

It’s clearly pretty effective, much as I’m not convinced using such techniques to achieve “our” outcomes is particularly respectful or, ultimately, wise. Thinking about it, my concern seems to be that it’s making us externally motivated: we’re trained to use social cues from our environment in order to evaluate ourselves. Society’s standing around us, clapping or frowning in this big show of approval.

And it’s strange, because who are we trying to impress? Is society’s approval worth gaining? It is if we want to belong to it, obviously; but, beyond that, are its “standards” truly valuable? Are these simply “tribes”, formed around any given principle, for the sake of creating belonging and motivation within a world left slightly desolate by the fading of tradition and community?

Thoughts have pulled me a little off track. My point, really, is how we’re so conditioned to look for feedback: parenting, education, social life, all largely work off this use of punishment and reward. We shame, coerce, praise, smile, withdraw affection, hint at perilous danger, make people face consequences. This subtle form of communication whereby some hope to shape others’ behaviour “for the better”.

How much of life is spent talking about consequences? Thanking people, admiring their work, fretting about mistakes, strategizing over how choices might play out. Life, in many ways, is simply thought and action as a feedback loop: we decide what to do, see how it goes, reflect on the experience, and repeat or change our behaviour (Notes Two).

But, is our judgement of what’s “right” determined by that crowd expressing approval or some other means? Often, the right path is one that avoids causing problems: knowing enough to get ahead of ourselves and set everything up to work smoothly (Notes Three). Understanding how to act to preserve and enrich life for the future is, presumably, the path of wisdom? A kind of thinking that imagines, sees fully, acts accordingly.

When that happens, though, we’re erasing the consequences that previously alerted us to something being wrong. Once you understand, you lose feedback – the environment sends no messages. You might stand alone; hopefully, confident in the knowledge you did the right thing. It’s almost as if wisdom creates silence: no ripples, no dramas, no reassuring feedback, only the quiet sense of having known what to do.

Notes and References:

Note 1: Fear or coercion as motivators
Note 1: Need to suffer in order to change?
Note 1: Tell me why I should
Note 2: Imperfection as perfection?
Note 2: Problems & the thought that created them
Note 3: The beauty in home economics
Note 3: Passivity, or responsibility
Note 3: Making adjustments

Broadening this out to the more systemic perspective, there’s Can we solve our own problems?

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