One of the books I recently read that got me thinking and thinking (and thinking) is Pathological Altruism. Two chapters particularly grabbed my attention and thought: "Self-Addiction and Self-Righteousness" by David Brin, and "Pathological Certitude" by Robert A. Burton*. As I watch Twitter, Facebook, and the media, I have, since reading these chapters, thought everyday about the good feelings associated with certitude.
Can we unswervingly hold to our point of view not so much because of the truth of our position but because we are addicted to the feeling of indignation or self-righteousness? Brin thinks that kind of addiction is possible.
I wonder: Is it possible to mediate when addiction to indignation is present in one or more of the parties?
What does Brin mean by addiction to indignation or self-righteousness? From the introduction to his chapter:
- If a mental state causes pleasurable reinforcement, there will be a tendency to return to it. Meditation, adoration, gambling, rage, and indignation might all, at times, be "mental addictions."
- Self-righteousness and indignation may sometimes be as much about chemical need as valid concerns about unfair actions. Among other outcomes, this may cause "pathologically altruistic" behavior.
Now, let me ask a couple of questions . . .
As you look back, can you think of just one or two parties to disputes in which you have been involved that seemed to crave indignation? Have you ever been indignant at least partly because it felt so good? Perhaps we all have succumbed to that feeling? Have you ever connected the notion of addiction with indignation?
Brin elaborates at his Web site in an article which is very similar to his chapter in Pathological Altruism:
We all know self-righteous people. (And, if we are honest, many of us will admit having wallowed in this state ourselves, either occasionally or in frequent rhythm.) It is a familiar and rather normal human condition, supported -- even promulgated -- by messages in mass media.
While there are many drawbacks, self-righteousness can also be heady, seductive, and even... well... addictive. Any truly honest person will admit that the state feels good. The pleasure of knowing, with subjective certainty, that you are right and your opponents are deeply, despicably wrong.
Sanctimony, or a sense of righteous outrage, can feel so intense and delicious that many people actively seek to return to it, again and again. ...
Indeed, one could look at our present-day political landscape and argue that a relentless addiction to indignation may be one of the chief drivers of obstinate dogmatism and an inability to negotiate pragmatic solutions to a myriad modern problems. ...
If there is any underlying truth to such an assertion, then acquiring a deeper understanding of this one issue may help our civilization deal with countless others.
And if there is any truth to his assertion that self-righteousness and indignation can be addictive states, then might understanding of the addiction help us as conflict professionals? Not only as we suspect the addiction in parties but also in ourselves? Is is possible that some of the debates in the field about such topics as, e.g., certification, caucusing, appropriate model of mediation, are partially fueled by indignation addiction?
If this is an addiction, what might be an antidote, a "treatment"? Of course, the most obvious ones are self-awareness, self-observation, yes, even mindfulness. Addiction is the realm of reactive brain; an effective way to move out of reactive brain is to move into reflective mind. The quickest routes to reflection are those I just mentioned: self-awareness, self-observation, mindfulness.
What are your thoughts on addiction to indignation or self-righteousness? I'd like to hear before I write more on this topic.
*I hope to blog about "Pathological Certitude" in a future post.
Note (added September 14, 2012): Here are two interviews with Barbara Oakley, the co-editor of Pathological Altruism:
- Asking Barbara Oakley: What is the virtue of being selfless?
- Barbara Oakley on the dangers of killing with kindness
Note (added May 31, 2013): Today's Word of the Day is related: dudgeon—DUJ-un—noun: a fit or state of indignation.