Psychological Freedom

Imagine you live in a society that has achieved economic and informational freedom. Would you make good use of those freedoms, or would your beliefs and fears hold you back from engaging in the knowledge loop? Or worse yet, would your attention be taken up by systems designed to capture it for someone else’s benefit? Would you feel free to pursue your own interests, or would your Industrial Age beliefs keep you trapped in the job loop? Would you have a strong sense of purpose, or would you feel adrift without a clear career path and a boss telling you what to do? Would you seek out new knowledge, or would you seek to confirm what you already believe? Would you feel free to create, or would you hold yourself back out of fear? And would you recognize when your attention is being manipulated?

While the previous sections on economic and informational freedom examined changes that require collective action, this section addresses individual action. We must free ourselves from our deeply engrained Industrial Age beliefs, and we can start on that path by developing some form of mindfulness practice. This, in my view, is essential to freely directing our attention in the Knowledge Age.

I should start by acknowledging the profound psychological dimension of the transition out of the Industrial Age. Social and economic disruption were making life stressful even before the Covid-19 pandemic. The unfolding climate crisis and the ongoing escalation of political and social tensions around the world are further causes for anxiety. To make matters worse, we have yet to learn to live healthily with new technology, and we obsessively check our smartphones during meetings, while driving, and before we go to sleep. This is taking an immense psychological toll, as increases in sleep disorders, suicide rates, drug overdoses and antisocial behaviors (e.g., bullying) show.

We need to go beyond that general insight about the population at large and look at what goes on in our own heads, but that requires time and effort because our brains are easily hijacked by emotional reactions that interfere with introspection and self-awareness. Can we overcome the anxieties that might prevent us from gaining, creating and sharing knowledge? Can we put down our phones, when they are designed to draw us in? It might seem like a monumental task, but humankind is uniquely adaptable. After all, we have navigated two prior transitions that required dramatic psychological change, first from the Forager Age to the Agrarian Age, and then to the Industrial Age.

We now understand why humans can adapt so well. As neuroscientists have discovered, our brains remain plastic even as we age, meaning that what and how we think can be changed. In fact, we can change it quite deliberately, with techniques such as conscious breathing, meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy (McClintock, 2020; “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,” 2020). As a crude approximation, the brain can be thought of as consisting of two systems: one that instinctually produces emotions and snap judgments and one that allows for rational thought but requires effort (Kahneman, 2013). Mindfulness techniques allow us better access to our rational faculties by limiting the extent to which our instinctual reactions control our behavior.

The idiom “take a deep breath” captures this idea well: pause and reflect before acting. The larger concept of deliberately freeing the mind is found in both Eastern and Western traditions. The Stoic philosophers developed practices of thought to temper the emotions, such as imagining the loss of a possession repeatedly before it occurs. In Buddhism, meditation techniques help practitioners achieve similar psychological freedom. We now have neuroscience research that lets us begin to understand how these techniques work, showing that their persistence over time is not a matter of religious belief or superstition, but grounded in the physical reality of our brains (Yoon et al., 2019).

We will now examine what we need to free ourselves from so that we can direct our attention to contributing to the knowledge loop and other Knowledge Age activities.

Freedom from Wanting

The extraordinary success of capitalism has made us confused about work and consumption. Instead of seeing them as a means to an end, we now see them as sources of purpose in themselves. Working harder and consuming more allows the economy to grow, so that... we can work harder and consume more. Though this sounds crazy, it has become the default position. We went so far as to ingrain this view in religion, moving to a Protestant work ethic that encourages working harder and earning more (Skidelsky & Skidelsky, 2013). Similar changes have taken place throughout Asia, where other religions have undergone this transition, most prominently in the case of the “New Confucianism” as championed by Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore (Pezzutto, 2019).

Even worse, we frequently find ourselves trapped in what’s known as ‘positional consumption’, or “Keeping up with the Joneses.” This is where what matters to us are not the inherent benefits of the things we buy, but their relative prestige. If our neighbor buys a new car, we find ourselves wanting an even newer and more expensive model. Such behavior has emerged not just with respect to goods but also to services—think of the $1,000 haircut or the $595-per-person dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant (Orlo Salon, n.d.; Cross, 2020). Of course, much of this confusion has been fueled by trillions of dollars of advertising spend aimed at convincing us to buy more, flooding us with imagery of how happy we’ll be if only we do. Between economic policy, advertising and religion, it is no wonder that many people are convinced that materialism is part of human nature.

However, our addiction to consumption is exactly that—an addiction that exploits a mechanism in the brain. When you desire something, a new car for instance, your brain gets a dopamine hit based on your anticipated happiness, which makes you feel good. Once you get the car, you compare it to your prior expectations. If the car turns out to be less than you expected, your dopamine levels will decrease and this can cause extreme disappointment. If your expectations are met, your dopamine levels will stay constant. Only if your expectations are exceeded will you get another hit of dopamine. Now as you get used to having the new car your expectation adjusts and so quite quickly after the initial purchase you no longer receive any new dopamine from having a new car. The unfortunate result of all this is known as the ‘hedonic treadmill.’ When your brain grows accustomed to something like a car or an apartment, then recreating the same feeling of happiness as your original anticipation for the car or apartment now requires a faster car or a bigger apartment (Szalavitz, 2017).

That same mechanism, however, can provide long-term motivation when the anticipation is aimed at creation or exploration instead of consumption. As an artist or scientist, you can forever seek out new subjects. As a traveler, you can forever seek out new destinations. Freedom from wanting—in the sense of the delusional belief that consumption as such will bring happiness or meaning—is possible if we recognize that we can point our brain away from consumption and towards other pursuits, many of which are part of the knowledge loop. Redirecting our reward mechanism re-establishes the difference between needs and wants. You need to eat, while you may want to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant. You need to drink water, while you may want to drink an expensive wine. This is why UBI, as discussed earlier, focuses on meeting needs rather than wants. Once you are economically free to meet your needs and are freeing yourself from wanting, you can direct your attention to the knowledge loop.

Suppose skiing is your passion and you want to keep seeking the perfect powder. How would a UBI let you focus your attention on it? On a UBI alone, you might not be able to afford an annual ski trip to the Swiss alps, but ski equipment is actually not expensive when you consider that it can last for many years and can be shared with others. And if you’re willing to hike up a mountain, you can ski as much as you want without buying a lift pass at an expensive resort.

In this instance, psychological freedom means freeing yourself of assumptions that you might have about how to go skiing. It helps, of course, to remind yourself that many of these assumptions are formed by companies that have a commercial interest in portraying skiing that way. If you can learn to reframe it as an outdoor adventure and a chance to be in nature, it needn’t be expensive. A similar logic holds for any number of other activities.

To free ourselves from wanting, we should remind ourselves of the difference between needs and wants, learn how our brain works and point our seeking away from consumption towards creative and experiential activities. For many of us, that means letting go of existing attachments to wants that we have developed over a long time. Finally, we should always cast a critical eye on the advertising we encounter, understanding that it perpetuates illusions about needs and wants and keeps us trapped in the job loop.

Freedom to Learn

Young children ask dozens of questions a day, often annoying their parents who don’t have the time to answer. Humans are naturally curious, and it is this curiosity that has driven much of our progress (Shin & Kim, 2019). At the same time, our curiosity was not well-suited to the Industrial Age. If you employ people in a factory job that has them performing the same action all day every day, curiosity is not a desirable trait. The same goes for many modern service jobs, such as operating a cash register or delivering packages.

The present-day educational system was built to support the job loop of the industrial economy, so it is not surprising that it tends to suppress rather than encourage curiosity (Gatto et al., 2017). While educators hardly ever identify “suppressing curiosity” as one of their goals, many of our educational practices do exactly that. For instance, forcing every eight-year-old to learn the same things in math, teaching for tests, and cuts to music and art classes all discourage curiosity.

A critical way that we undermine curiosity is by evaluating areas of knowledge according to whether we think they will help us get a “good job.” If your child expressed an interest in learning Swahili or wanting to play the mandolin, would you support that? Or would you say something like, “But how will you earn a living with that?” The latest iteration of this thinking is an enthusiasm for learning how to code in order to get high-paying job in tech. Here again, instead of encouraging curiosity about coding, either for its own sake or as a tool in science or art, we force it into the Industrial Age logic of the job loop.

We need to free ourselves from this instrumental view of knowledge and embrace learning for its own sake. As we’ve already seen, UBI can go a long way in allaying fears that we won’t be able to support ourselves if we let our curiosity guide our learning. But will we have enough engineers and scientists in such a world? If anything, we’ll likely have more than we do under the current system. After all, forcing kids to study something is a surefire way to squelch their natural curiosity.

The knowledge loop, accelerated by digital technology, brings to the fore other limits to learning that we must also overcome. The first of these is confirmation bias. As humans we find it easier to process information that confirms what we already believe to be true. We can access a huge amount of online content that confirms our pre-existing beliefs rather than learning something new. We risk becoming increasingly entrenched in these views, fracturing into groups with strong and self-reinforcing beliefs. This phenomenon becomes even more pronounced with the automatic personalization of many Internet systems, with ‘filter bubbles’ screening out conflicting information (Pariser, 2021).

Another barrier to learning is the human tendency to jump to conclusions on the basis of limited data. After a study suggested that smaller schools tended to produce better student performance than larger schools, educators began to create a lot of smaller schools, only for a subsequent study to find that a lot of smaller schools were also doing poorly. It turns out that the more students a school has, the more likely it is to approximate the overall distribution of students. A small school is therefore more likely to have students who perform predominantly well or poorly.

Daniel Kahneman discusses such biases in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. We rely on heuristics that result in confirmation bias and storytelling because many of the systems in the human brain are optimized for speed and effortlessness. These heuristics aren’t necessarily all bad as they can contribute to important ruin avoidance mechanisms (something which Kahneman ignores), but they served us better in a world with an analog knowledge loop, where more time existed for correcting mistakes. In today’s high-velocity digital knowledge loop, we must slow ourselves down or risk passing along incorrect stories. A recent study showed that false stories spread online many times more quickly than true ones (Vosoughi et al., 2018).

The bulk of online experiences we currently interact with are designed to exploit our cognitive and emotional biases, not to help us overcome them. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter become more valuable as they capture more of our attention by appealing to what Kahneman calls “System 1”: the parts of our brain that run automatically and that are responsible for our cognitive biases (Kahneman, 2013). You are more likely to look at cute animal pictures or status updates from your friends than to read an in-depth analysis of a proposal for a carbon tax. The recent explosion of “fake news” exploits this flaw in our systems, making large-scale manipulation possible.

New systems can help here. We might, for instance, imagine an online reader that presents opposing viewpoints to a given story. For each topic, you could explore both similar and opposing views. Such a reader could be presented as a browser plug-in, so that when you’ve ventured beyond the confines of a social media platform and are looking around on the Web, you could be drawn into actively exploring beyond the bounds of your usual sources (Wenger, 2011).

Fundamentally though, we all have to actively work on engaging what Kahneman calls “System 2”: the part of our brain that requires effort, but that lets us think independently and rationally. Developing and keeping up some kind of mindfulness practice is a key enabler for overcoming biases and freeing ourselves to learn.

Freedom to Create

After learning, the next step in the knowledge loop is creating. Here again, we need to work on our freedom. As Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist [...]” As adults we censor ourselves, inhibiting the natural creativity we enjoyed as children. The educational system, with its focus on preparing for standardized tests, further crushes our creative impulses. Many people eventually come to believe that creativity is something that they’re not capable of.

The job loop further solidifies these beliefs about creativity, and even institutionalizes them. Society categorizes people into amateurs and professionals. We venerate the professional guitar player, artist or sculptor but denigrate the amateur, dismissing their work as “amateurish.” When we start to measure creativity by how much money an artist or musician makes rather than the passion they feel for a pursuit, there is no wonder that many people fear they will never measure up.

Distractions also inhibit our impulses to create. There’s always another YouTube video to watch, another email to read, another post to glance at. Our brains are poorly suited to environments that are overloaded with information specifically curated to capture our attention. We evolved in a world where potentially relevant information—for instance, the sound of an approaching animal—could be a matter of life or death, and our brains are thus easily distracted. This is an example of a maladaptation to the current environment akin to our evolutionary craving for sugar in a world with added sugar everywhere.

In order to be able to create, we need to disconnect ourselves from many of those strategically selected and concentrated stimuli. Again, a mindfulness practice will be helpful here, allowing us to tune out interruptions, and there are many hacks we can use to prevent them in the first place, such as putting our phone into Do Not Disturb (DND) mode (I keep my phone on DND at all times with only family members being able to get through—that way I use my phone when I want to and not when Facebook or Twitter want me to).

Freedom to Share

Even after we have created something, many of us fear that when we share it, it will be criticized. Someone will call our painting ugly, our code incompetent, or our proposal naive. Given the state of much online commentary and the prevalence of ‘trolling,’ those fears are well-founded—but they need not inhibit our participation in the knowledge loop. Part of the answer is to work on the inner strength to continue sharing despite criticism.

Another part of the answer is that we should cultivate empathy. Whenever we comment on the work of others online, we should keep in mind that they dared to create and share it. And we should also remember that by contributing to the knowledge loop, they have engaged in the very thing that makes us human. Those who manage online communities should provide tools for flagging and banning people who are abusive or make threats aimed at shutting down sharing.

If you live in a country that is subject to dictatorship, censorship or mob rule, sharing opinions, art or research can result in imprisonment, torture or even death. And yet despite that, we routinely find people who freely share in these places. We should take inspiration and courage from those people, and we should support people’s ability to build systems to enable sharing in these places that are censorship-resistant and that allow for pseudonymous and anonymous expression (even though these systems ultimately can provide only limited protection, as discussed in the earlier section on privacy).

In the Knowledge Age, there is such a thing as sharing too much—not sharing too much personal information, but mindlessly sharing harmful information. Threats, rumors and lies can take on lives of their own, and we can find ourselves contributing to an information cascade, in which an initial bit of information picks up speed and becomes an avalanche that destroys everything in its path. So, as with freedom in other contexts, there’s a double-edged aspect to having the psychological freedom to share. We need to free ourselves from fear to share our creations and our ideas, while also needing to control our emotional responses so that we do not poison the knowledge loop. Ask yourself whether what you’re sharing will enhance or hurt the pursuit of knowledge. If the answer is not obvious, it might be better not to share.

Psychological Freedom and Humanism

Self-regulation lies at the heart of psychological freedom, and allows us to separate our wants from our needs. It lets us consider our initial reactions to what others are saying, writing or doing without immediately reacting in anger. It lets us have empathy for others and to be open to learning something new. And it lets us overcome our fears of creating and sharing.

Still, as humans we have a need for meaning that has us searching for purpose and recognition in ways that can all too easily result in us being psychologically unfree. Existential angst can express itself in many different forms, ranging from an inability to do anything to a manic desire to do everything. The persistence of religion is partly explained by its ability to address the need for meaning. Most religions claim that our purpose is to follow a set of divinely ordained rules, and that if we follow them, the respective god or gods will recognize and potentially even reward our existence.

Many organized religions intentionally disrupt the knowledge loop. They restrict the process of critical inquiry by which knowledge improves over time, through mechanisms such as censorship and “divine knowledge,” which is often encoded in sacred texts. This serves to maintain the power of the gatekeepers to the texts and their interpretation. While adhering to a religion may meet your existential psychological need for meaning, it may also make it difficult for you to participate fully and freely in the knowledge loop.

The same is true for many informal beliefs. Belief in a preordained individual destiny can be used to fulfill the need for meaning, but it also acts as an obstacle to psychological freedom via thoughts such as “this was meant to be, there’s nothing I can do about it.” Or people can belong to communities that meet the need for meaning through recognition, but impose a strict conformity that restricts participation in the knowledge loop. It can often be difficult to recognize how much of one’s behavior is controlled by custom or peer pressure.

A new humanism, built around recognizing the importance of knowledge, can provide an alternative that enhances psychological freedom instead of inhibiting it. With participation in the knowledge loop as a key source of purpose, learning new things, being creative and sharing with others is encouraged. This doesn’t mean that everyone has to be the proverbial rocket scientist. There are a great many ways to participate in the knowledge loop, including creating art, as well as caring for others and the environment.

In order to help people be psychologically free, we need to substantially change most countries’ education systems. Today’s systems were developed to support the Industrial Age, and their goal is to shape people to participate in the job loop. We need a system that celebrates knowledge for its own sake, allows students to discover their individual interests and deepen those into a purpose, and teaches people about how to be psychologically free. In other words, we need to put humanism at the center of learning.

Humanism and the knowledge loop thus have important implications for how we can reorganize society and take responsibility for the world around us. This is the subject of Part Five.

Last updated