The Self Compass

Earlier this year in The Political Is Personal I suggested that our beliefs about how people in general work very much depend on how we work. Or at least how it feels like we work, because I went through a lot of words discussing how different people experience being a person differently.

We assume 1) that our experience of how our mind works is correct and 2) that other minds work the same way. This of course influences our attitudes on how to live life, and further extends to our beliefs about how society works and thus our political and moral views. So these are, ultimately, downstream of personal psychological quirks.

Just being more aware of this would improve communication a lot, I feel, especially when it comes to issues of politics, lifestyle, and mental health.

I this post I thought I’d say the same thing again, but differently. The Political Is Personal was very , well, personal, with examples and introspection, all that jazz. This time I’ll just set up a — completely pseudoscientific1model to complement that story. I won’t go into much detail or try to justify it, that was last time.

The self compass

Our selves are shaped by various forces that can be divided roughly into four classes: innate drives and traits, cultural scripts and schemas, formative experiences and relationships, and self-authorship.

It’s useful to think of such forces as coming from different directions. Innate drives are “from below”, self-authorship is from “above”, and cultural scripts and important experiences shape us “from the sides”.

To make this a little catchier, let’s pretend it’s a compass.

How these forces actually interact in any given person to form who they are is likely to be very individual, very complicated, and very unobservable. But as different people we experience each of them as being differently powerful when making sense of ourselves, and this is what matters. It likely reflects actual differences in the balance of forces to some degree, but that’s not what this model is about.

Now, depending on what seems most important for yourself, from the inside, you form a conception of human nature, what it means to be a person, and how we “work”.

South: Risen apes

Let’s start with me. I’m based in the South, and this is because I experience my own personality, and my desires, needs and appetites as being obvious, fixed, strong, and straightforward.

From the inside I feel like a bag of unyielding wants. I don’t get used to not having what I want and trying to ignore it requires constant struggle and remains a source of dissatisfaction and less-that-good mental health that I don’t know how to deal with. The only tool I know I have is “try to actually satisfy wants” because I have no experience of anything else working.

You could say I experience myself as more self-aware and complex but not fundamentally different from what I imagine it’s like to be any other kind of animal. Given that, the model put forward by evolutionary psychology makes a lot of sense to me. As does behavioral genetics and brain physiology — anything that traces mental phenomena back to the physical2.

I don’t mean that the other forces don’t matter, but in my headcanon they play second-to-fourth fiddle — they’re correctives to the main story — and accounts of mental or social phenomena that rely on any of them as the root cause tend not to be satisfying and convincing to me. I will accept and believe such accounts sometimes, but there needs to be strong evidence for the specific case.

Through the South lens the human condition is that of an ape that’s found itself in modern society by some freak occurrence. It has a lizard brain with a supercomputer of a neocortex taped onto it, and desperately tries to make sense of the layers and layers of spaghettish kludges and complications that is its self.

Life is largely about trying to get what we want, and the tragedy the human condition is that we likely won’t. Appetites are nearly endless and poverty and deprivation are natural states. Wants have to be balanced — against our other incompatible wants, against other people’s wants (which feel like external duties and obligations and not internalized as your own wants), and sometimes against cultural expectations (which often feel like annoying and possibly oppressive obstacles, not as your own ideas of how things should be).

Socially and politically, South implies a conviction that people’s preferences and wants should be respected and they should be granted as much freedom as possible to live their lives the way they want. Personal rights are paramount and it’s evil (and ineffective) to demand or expect that people change or deny themselves what they think they need to be happy3.

West: Blank Slates

Others don’t share these intuitions. They instead experience internalized social expectations and scripts as strong determinants of personality and behavior.

I obviously have a harder time understanding what this is like from the inside, but in my last post I explained why I’ve come to think that many do experience themselves as formed mostly from the West, far more than I do.

It would mean that you think of people as ~empty vessels programmed by a surrounding culture. Wants are not strong and obvious and not directly related to the actual objects of desire. They’re tied up with, and possibly even conjured by, cultural frameworks, learned expectations and layers of symbolic representations of what is considered desirable4.

Given this you would assign a lot of importance to cultural images and messages, and the structures and processes that produce them. You’ll think it has great power to shape people’s selves on a fundamental level, and not just superficial details of how they manifest.

Politically you’d find ideas and ideology extremely powerful, and have great confidence in various forms of instruction and education as the right way to deal with almost anything. Some ideas are dangerous and harmful, and choices regarding, for example, consumption and voting, are a function of cultural influences rather than reflecting “genuine” desires. Everything about society could be different (and better) if only its dominant ideas changed, because individual people and selves are downstream from culture, not the other way around.

This causes a lot of frustration with the pervasiveness and stubbornness of social problems, which should be eminently solvable, here and now, if only bad ideas could be defeated, removed from positions of influence, and replaced with good ideas. Tragedy comes not from the human condition itself but is the result of corrupt institutions and the ideologies that justify their preservation. Radicalism becomes the appropriate attitude.

Social learning models of the mind, and perspectives on society put forth by history, sociology, media theory etc. seem intuitively correct from the West. In contrast to South, West considers accounts based on biology ridiculous, far-fetched, and politically suspect. This makes perfect sense, since it’s natural from the West to evaluate ideas based on what kind of selves they contribute to creating, (and because we all look for alternate reasons when people claim to believe things you don’t find intuitively plausible at all).

East: Autobiographers

The other way selves can be formed “from the side” is more close range and personal, through formative experiences and relationships, especially in childhood.

If this East force dominates for you, you likely believe in some sort of psychoanalysis style ideas, and therapy is an absolutely central concept for understanding the self. For example, I see the word “trauma” all the time and a lot of people seem to think it’s the key to understanding everything about who we are. It means, it seems (and here I reveal how my mind doesn’t apparently work), strong, negative experiences in your past that have contributed to forming your self — especially parts of your current self that don’t work well.

This lens implies a self constituted by symbolic representations of early and formative personal relationships. You learn how to behave towards others and how to be yourself by imitating parents, siblings, other role models etc. somehow parsed unconsciously but with remarkable emotional complexity and sophistication5. Your wants and needs are the result of your early close relationships, of wanting closeness with and imitating others6 and forming yourself in their image. You also tend to get stuck on what was once denied you and spend life seeking it.

It could be true I suppose, and many, including people I know, are all over this, and think bad relationships to parents etc. are the reasons for personal flaws and problems. But I just find it unbelievable and weird, not because of any particular evidence, but because of my own experience — I was mostly oblivious to everything like this as a child, didn’t see or notice conflict or troubles of any kind, even where I now know they did exist.

I mentioned in the preceding post that I got a Jungian self-help book as a gift and noticed how it’s just not at all for me. It has this implied model of the self that apparently assumes (I have to read between the lines) that emotional problems are the result of “knots” or “blockages” or something like scar tissue from unprocessed trauma that can (I assume) be resolved thorough therapy.

It ties pretty neatly into the psychoanalytic(?) worldview: the mind represses bad experiences, it’s highly sensitive to guilt (I don’t remember feeling guilt as a child) and forms a bunch of symbolic obfuscation to hide emotional damage. Phrases like “love yourself” and “let go” make sense here in the East, and its faith in therapy is as great as West’s faith in education.

Psychoanalysis aside, models of the self found in literature and art (personal, particular, and intense) likely appeals to East more than anything analytical or scientific. I also assume a lot of new age stuff is related, where feelings — and symbols tied up with and referencing feelings and relationships — are thought of as fundamental to the world.

It’s harder to extrapolate to views of society and politics because it’s so focused on the small-scale and personal. Political views could be rather undeveloped, and run mostly along the (very vague) lines that society should be kinder and more nurturing. Social problems exist neither primarily because of human nature or corrupt institutions, but as the result of emotional damage and brutalization writ large.

North: Little gods

The final force is top-down, i.e. force of will, or rational deliberation and intentional decision-making.

According to North the self is self-formed, constructed from a long series of intentional actions and cultivated habits. There’s no clear division between desires and goals; you can more or less choose and intend your feelings, wants and motivations, and perhaps even your beliefs. Deviation from good behavior are largely understood as failures of character or rationality.

This sits well with a “mind your own business and take responsibility” mindset, which is compatible with politics that put heavy emphasis on personal responsibility (i.e. conservative or libertarian orientations).

I suspect those who experience their own minds this way, as largely unified and under intentional control, are drawn to economics as a field. Preferences as an economic concept sort of assumes unitary selves with well-ordered and non-contradictory wants. It abstracts away internal and intertemporal conflicts as if they were a simple rounding error rather than major determinants of behavior. Thus, economic accounts of society make sense in the North (while clashing primarily with West, which finds the idea of fixed and independent preferences so laughably naive that it corrupts and invalidates everything in which it is a core part).

Interestingly North also goes well with a religious (Christian) outlook, in that intentional action is assigned great power and thought of as something quite apart from ordinary causality. It’s easier to think of Free Will and Resisting Sin as a Major Thing if you have unusually good control of yourself7.

I suspect some-to-many who are the most eager to condemn sin are among the least susceptible to giving in, just like, say, it’s easy to condemn gluttons when you don’t struggle to stay slim, easy to condemn alcoholics or gamblers when those things don’t appeal to you very much, or to condemn philanderers in the strongest of terms when you yourself are not that horny nor that attractive.

How some speak of religion — emphasizing positive effects, or bringing up Pascal’s Wager — also leads me to believe there’s a link. Note the implication that you can choose to believe which makes no sense to me — positive effects from believing something doesn’t make it any more likely to be true. What an odd idea. If you somehow can make yourself believe in [religious claim] by force of will, that’s certainly interesting, and it makes a Northern view make sense.

From this vantage point, social problems and evil in the world don’t so much come from harmful institutions or emotional damage, nor is it a natural consequence of a physical reality that doesn’t automatically satisfy human needs and wants. They are the result of intentional decisions to pursue evil goals, of weakness of moral fibre, of irrationality and decadence.

My compass, your compass

These orientations don’t exists pure and alone; hardly anybody is a pure North, West or whatever. I do think people vary in terms of what their first-order, bog-standard, go-to angle is for making sense of human behavior, even if they’ll nearly always be more nuanced when more time and bandwidth is available. After that the rest are correctives, maybe ordered from second to fourth.

Whenever you’re talking to someone, whether it’s about politics, mental health, or how to live life in general, I feel it would help a lot to know how their compass looks. You’d know how much you’d have to work to find common ground, how relevant their understanding is to you and vice versa etc.

There are 24 possible ways to arrange the four orientations in order. That’s a a lot, and simplifications are in order. My first is South but I don’t have a clear order for second to fourth, maybe West is second but only slightly. So my compass is simply heavy on South, the last one below.

What’s yours?
Or does this not make sense at all to you?


  1. Is something pseudoscience if it says it is? A key feature of pseudoscience, as I see it, is the pretension of being science. ↩︎
  2. You might argue that my beliefs in innateness and human nature etc. simply comes from reading such literature early in life, and had I read other things my beliefs would be different. I honestly don’t think so. There’s a difference between reading things that immediately make sense to you with no effort and things that doesn’t at all, and I’ve reacted very differently to texts arguing different things about human nature. So no — I don’t believe we’re just passive receptacles of belief. See, it all adds up! ↩︎
  3. More about this in Platist Politics. ↩︎
  4. Many seem to be fascinated with the thinker René Girard, who has mimetic desire as a central concept. It seems (?) to claim that our desires are formed by imitating others and learning to want what they want. The fascination eludes me because that description makes no sense to me whatsoever, and I have no understanding of how anyone could think this is true, intuitively. I’m not saying it isn’t true, I would just never in a million years think so based on my own experience of desires — and if everyone was like me in that regard, this idea would not exist in the world. Ergo, everyone is not like me in this regard. ↩︎
  5. Personally I’ve never interpreted my early/family relationships as having that much depth or emotional complexity. They were what they were. They were fine. Idk… I don’t remember thinking or feeling much about it at all. Nor do I now. ↩︎
  6. Role models, as it were. I said in the previous post that I’ve never quite understood what’s so incredibly important about role models. ↩︎
  7. ↩︎

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7 thoughts on “The Self Compass

  1. I think the implication of East for politics would be that you give more importance to problems that were relevant during your formative years. For example, I’ve always thought that my libertarian tendencies are due in great part to having grown up in Argentina. I perceived my country as falling apart every few years due to incompetent governments, and thus it made me unreceptive to arguments in which an all-knowing altruistic social planner can solve your problems. I completely buy the idea that the increased power of Evangelical Christians during the early 2000s led to increased atheism, or that the Vietnam War led people to be pacifists.

    I like this taxonomy, but I can’t see why it has to be in a compass. The extremes don’t seem opposed to me. For example, you can easily believe that people are malleable, and thus will respond to their lived experiences (East) and to their culture (West).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good point. I don’t mean they’re always and necessarily opposed, but sometimes they have opposing implications. That they’re in a compass is just to make it a little catchier, as it fits vaguely with the theme — I do think it makes sense to put drives from below, free will from above, and influence from other people from the sides.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting way of analysing drives. I’m a north Souther by that measure but not in the least conservative or religious. I believe in self control and willpower but also in doing what you want, as long as it doesn’t fuck up your long term goals.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great post. I thought the first was a very useful and thoughtful model for thinking about politics, and I am glad you decided to flesh those ideas out even more.

    I don’t know if this was intentional, but I noticed a pleasing symmetry for how you oriented the poles. If I am interpreting you correctly, East and West both focus on the role of external forces in shaping a person’s values, but differ in their optimism about how much room there is for change once those forces have been exerted. The North-South pole is different in that both dispositions instead emphasize the internal, but the contrast between the two is the same as the East-West pole in that they differ in how much control a person thinks we have over those forces.

    Liked by 2 people

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