The “Dangerous Ideas” Framework
My years of research and clinical practice have led me to conclude that there are five fundamental psychological concerns which profoundly influence our personal and collective lives. These concerns revolve around issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. These five are especially significant because they operate simultaneously at multiple levels and in a broad range of settings: family relationships; work relationships in organizations large and small; community relations among diverse constituencies; and political relationships in local, national, and international spheres.
As individuals, our cognitive and emotional experience of the world is often meaningfully linked to one or more of these concerns. But of equal importance, this is also true for the groups to which we belong--that is, shared experiences and relationships are frequently governed by these same five issues. As a result, they play crucial roles in creating, maintaining, and resolving situations of personal, interpersonal and intergroup conflict. It is because our beliefs in these five inter-related domains have such pervasive power to shape our lives--for better or for worse--that I refer to them as "dangerous ideas." Here I briefly describe each in turn.
Concerns about safety are central to how we evaluate the world around us, and to how we make choices every day. How could it be any other way? Survival is an obvious first priority that makes everything else possible. The desire to ensure our own well-being and the welfare of those people and groups we care about therefore runs very deep inside us. When concerns over vulnerability--and the fear that accompanies them--leap to the fore, they can quickly take center stage and consume all of our energies.
But just as importantly, we often perceive danger even when objective evidence indicates otherwise. And these misperceptions can unleash their own problems. Time and resources wasted on unnecessary precautions; promising opportunities cast aside by phantom threats. At the same time, equally costly is the possibility that real peril will go unrecognized until it’s too late. Such can be the sad fate of those who mistakenly see themselves as invulnerable, or those who fail to be sufficiently alert to signs of trouble on the horizon.
Questions about fair treatment are also especially powerful and recurrent issues in our daily lives. Most of us are strongly aroused by instances of injustice, whether the grievances are solely our own or those of individuals or groups we care about. Indeed, there is seemingly no part of our lives where the question “Is this fair?” fails to gain entry. Moreover, we often react to perceived mistreatment—from minor slights to profound abuses—with a combination of anger and resentment, and with an urge to right wrongs and punish those we hold responsible.
However, claims of injustice and calls for corrective action can spur heated debate and disagreement. What one person or group considers unfair another may view as entirely justified. What some see as a just solution to a problem others may perceive as yet a further miscarriage of justice. In short, sensitivity to perceived injustice often leads us to fight for what we believe is right, but these perceptions that drive us may not always prove accurate. Equally troubling can be those instances where we fail to recognize or act upon clear evidence of mistreatment. We all know of many cases where perpetrators of injustices are not brought to account for their actions.
We tend to divide the world into those who are trustworthy and those unworthy of our trust. Often we do so on the basis of only limited information of doubtful reliability. But if our judgments are accurate, we can select our allies wisely, and we can better avoid harm from those who have hostile intent or are merely unreliable. Assessments of when and where distrust is appropriate can be critically important in steering us away from bad outcomes and from the considerable costs of misplaced trust.
But matters are not quite so simple. Because when our distrust leads us astray--that is, when our suspicions are unfounded--we can miss out on valuable opportunities. In fact, unwarranted distrust can turn would-be allies into adversaries--in our personal lives and in relationships between nations as well. In short, when we make the right choice about who to trust or distrust, we’re in good shape; if we get it wrong instead, we may be in serious trouble. Clearly this represents a fork in a very important road.
We are typically quick to compare ourselves with others, whether as individuals or groups. Often we do so with the expectation or hope of confirming that we are better than they are in some important way--perhaps in our accomplishments, or in our character and values, or in our destiny. To reinforce our positive self-appraisal, at times we focus on what we consider worst about others, which serves to further persuade us of their inferiority.
There well may be benefits in perceiving oneself as special, but there are serious potential costs as well. In particular, this pursuit can routinely lead to conflict with those we deem less worthy. Sometimes the resulting harm includes painful humiliation that runs counter to basic human decency. Moreover, the conviction that we are superior can produce a seemingly unquenchable thirst to stretch the contrast further and further. And the overconfidence and hubris that comes with “knowing” you are far better can lead to dangerous overreaching.
When, either individually or collectively, we feel that our actions do not make a difference, we’re inclined to do nothing. In this way, despair and resignation can overwhelm the commitment and motivation to work toward achieving personal or group objectives. In most cases we actively resist the notion that our efforts are futile or that adversity cannot be overcome. But once we’ve reached that conclusion, it becomes a conviction very difficult to turn around.
At the same time, it may be valuable and adaptive to recognize that specific goals simply cannot be reached in particular ways. This knowledge can lead us either to productively change our strategies or to redirect our energies toward more worthwhile pursuits. In fact, there are times when the often desirable quality of persistence can be turned against us--keeping us focused on failed routines and thereby distracting us from the real pathways to important successes.