Thinking and Civilization


Isaac Asimov had a good idea when he created the fictional science of Psychohistory. He didn’t discuss the equations used to predict the course of future events because…well…it was science fiction, but Kalev Leetaru of Google has started trying to do that. His vision is described in an excellent article available online. This is a great idea and will certainly lead to a better understanding of the behavior of societies. However, there is no theoretical basis for processing global data, looking for patterns in actions, emotions, texts, images, etc. It’s simply an empirical algorithm.

Asimov’s imagined science of Psychohistory has become a reality, but researchers in the field don’t take the approach of Leetaru and Google. It is a spin-off of social sciences, focusing on the history of childhood, psychobiography (studies of individual historical figures), and the motivation of large groups (through studies of available material that reflect unconscious thinking and behavior). Although not recognized as legitimate by most sociologists and psychologists, Psychohistory is stubbornly hanging in there. Nevertheless, this isn’t a useful way to understand societies’ cycles. For that, I will go far out on a limb, possibly into thin air.

In this essay, I plan to propose a fundamental conjecture for what happens to societies and why. My theory is based on the axioms of Psychohistory originally proposed by Asimov, with a couple added by later writers: (1) applicable to large populations; (2) the population remains ignorant of the prediction; (3) no fundamental change in society; and (4) human reactions to stimuli remain constant.

What the approaches of Google and academic Psychohistorians lack is a basic tenet for their analyses. Google analyzes big data looking for “Key words” whereas the academics are applying complex theories from psychology and psychiatry.


The basis of my approach to Psychohistory is straightforward, but it’s based on an idea that may not be fully understood by the reader.

Systems One and Two

From a functional perspective, the human brain is divided into subconscious and conscious processing operations. It isn’t easy to separate them cleanly, however, so it’s a slightly fuzzy idea. One alternative approach doesn’t treat all conscious processes the same. Some are actually functioning in support of subconscious operations. Mental processes that are dominated by, or in direct support of, subconscious processing are called System One.

System One processing is often called intuition or general knowledge. These are skills or information that you don’t have to think about to use, like how to drive a car or operate a machine. All goes well using System One, until something unexpected occurs. Accidents result. Where the conscious mind is dragged into the System One thinking is by making excuses afterward, e.g., “It’s not my fault.” This is clearly a judgement decision, but it isn’t based on analysis.

System Two doesn’t make excuses. It analyzes the options supplied by System One, balancing them against the situation that has to be dealt with, taking into account new information not yet stored in memory and thus readily available to System One. Instead of coming up with fast solutions using a heuristic process of sifting through (often incomplete) memories, it analyzes every option, weighs it, and is (typically) able to overrule System One, which has no say in the final action. At least that’s the plan. The problem is that thinking (using System Two) is slow and tedious. Sifting through all those data can be time consuming, so we skip it most of the time, settling for whatever is offered by System One.

We sometimes get carried away and make bad decisions using System One. Why does this occur? And is it predictable? These are two questions that this post is going to address.

The Evolution of Cultural Cognition Patterns

Sociology is the application of psychology to groups of people, which makes the study more statistical than studies of individuals. Thus, extrapolation of cognition style (i.e. Systems One and Two) is also going to become more averaged out in general; extreme thinking will of course exist in societies, but won’t dominate their development.

We can ask the question: Does cultural cognitive style change with the passage of time, i.e., with the generations? We need to answer this corollary question to answer the fundamental ones posed above.

There is no way of directly addressing such an abstract question, so we have to rely on inductive reasoning. For example, consider the conditions in prehistory when System One thinking would have been more advantageous than System Two.  When there are no rapid changes in external factors (e.g., dramatic climate changes), there is no reason to spend much time analyzing problems. Many generations face the same environment, the same animals and plants, the same neighbors threatening them. Environmental factors are in dynamic equilibrium and analytical thinking is a waste of time.

The situation is different if something dramatic occurs, a series of events lasting several generations, which gives the group long enough to adapt new cognitive thinking patterns. Cultural evolution would have occurred, from the System One society of static times, to the  System Two cognitive response during a dynamic period. All with no change to the mental capacity of the society living through these intervals.

Application to Cultural Evolution

This process is not new nor has it ended.

Cognitive Revolutions

It is easy to imagine millennia passing with hunter-gatherer kin-based groups slowly evolving cognitively, even with no change in brain size; of course, soft-tissue changes would leave no record to be examined by anthropologists. When the rate of environmental change increased, as during documented episodic retreat and expansion of the ice sheets and associated changes in global weather, people had to think more to survive. These were stressful times, not just for one generation but for many cohorts. Consequent to changes in climate, the animal groups early humans would have interacted with were changing due to migrations in response to climate change.

The result of this stimulus-response cycle would be cognitive and cultural languishing for millennia, until something reached a tipping point, forcing System Two to become prevalent for anyone who wanted to survive. One outcome would have been episodic cultural accomplishments; e.g., new tools, horticultural, agricultural, pastoral techniques.

If the hypothesis of System Two thinking dominating societies during periods of stress and leading to cultural advancement is accepted, it is natural to ask what happens when societies fail to adapt System Two cognitive patterns in response to environmental threats. Many authors have discussed examples, but Jared Diamond’s books document societies that adapted and others that failed to do so, and subsequently disappeared. These potential cognitive and cultural states suggests the growth and decay of societies by their own decisions, supported by the archaeological and historical record.

It is not an excessive leap of imagination to identify climate change as a major driver of cultural cognitive evolution. For example, it is quite reasonable to interpret the growth of civilization during the last ten-thousand years as a single, cultural response to the most-recent warming trend of earth’s climate. Once agriculture had been invented, allowing larger population densities, there was a new environmental factor–population density. But progress hasn’t been steady because human societies are splintered and each develops more-or-less independently for most of its history. The Greek and Roman civilizations burned out after flourishing for centuries.

Cognitive Entropy

I use this phrase differently from neuroscientists and psychologists, who posit the concept for an individual brain. I’m borrowing it and applying it at larger scales. Just as sociology borrows from and is dependent on psychology, so Psychohistory is dependent on work by many brain researchers.

Thomas Jefferson said that a nation needs a revolution every generation. I think this was his way of expressing the need for new ideas to influence society, not a call for civil unrest. But he naively assumed that new ideas could develop without an existential threat. He didn’t understand about stress and cognition. I also think that he was stating his fear of equilibrium dominating the evolution of American society, stifling it.

Germany is an example of stress and how it can lead to good and bad outcomes. The Germans came close to Jefferson’s ideal, suffering through several radical changes in government within a century: an absolute monarchy, a constitutional monarchy, a democracy, a fascist dictator, a liberal democracy. They survived but it wasn’t fun. They innovated in response to external pressure from their European neighbors.

Alternatively we can see an example of what I call cognitive entropy in the history of China, which has not had an existential threat to its society in more than 2000 years, when a period of civil war ended. Because of this social equilibrium, the case can be made that the early technological and social advances made by China were extinguished by cultural stability. I call this an entropic process because the natural state is  a cognitively homogeneous society, with local hot spots of innovation rapidly assimilated through shared cultural processes.

There is an inevitable sequence of events resulting from societal cognitive entropy:

  1. When a human mind is not stressed, it stops thinking using System Two. Analysis ceases. System One is sufficient to handle known environmental conditions with minimal stress.
  2. When System Two thinking stops, conservatism dominates: there is no need to change anything. It’s all okay. We don’t need different tools, social structures, ideas. New ideas are actually discouraged or forbidden.
  3. When conservatism reaches the roots of a society, progress stops because there is no perceived need for innovation. Eventually, the society will accept any bad situation, no matter how dire, because it has lost its collective ability to think with System Two. Individual warnings go unheeded.Trusted institutions are responsible for responding to increased stress.
  4. System One and System Two societies often alternate, especially where geographical factors are important. For example, Europe was fractured and definitely in a System Two cognitive phase during the Muslim invasions of 355-1291 CE, culminating in the independent repulsion of the Arabs by the French in the west and the Viennese in the east. The resulting stability led to the Middle Ages, a period of extreme System One thinking.

There is ample intellectual support for the concept I’m proposing. No historian has failed to glimpse, if not propose, coherent cycles of history, from nations to the world. These authors simply didn’t acknowledge the fundamental relationship between psychology, sociology, and societal development I’m advancing here. Implicit in the concept of Psychohistory.

We have answered our original questions. Cognitive decline occurs when a society is not facing an existential threat, especially from an external source. Internal sources are more difficult to identify and are less likely to be successfully challenged. This is an important difference between Germany in the late 19th and 20th century and the U.S. in the late 20th and 21st.

And is cognitive decline predictable? I think so, but not with the precision of Asimov’s Psychohistory. We’re not living in a science fiction story; but the idealogical polarization of America in the face of no existential threats, is predictable from psychohistorical axioms. In such stable times as exist today, people rely on authorities to make decisions (compare to the Middle Ages of Europe); following is easier than System Two thinking, so opinions become polarized. Ambiguity is dissolved in the clarity of partisan politics. A similar process occurs with religious and other kinds of institutions because people rely on these organizations to solve complex problems and present simple choices. Democracy at work.

Recent political events in the United States suggest that we as a nation are approaching a state of cognitive entropy. This clearly affects large fractions of society (both liberal and conservative, recalling that a political conservative is not necessarily the same as a social conservative). This process occurs despite many experts speaking in the media about the problem.

They are ignored by people who don’t want to think.



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