What I Learned in Graduate School
Individualism is dead.
It’s official: I have a master’s in psychology. You can call me Master Mark if that will make you feel more comfortable.
To be honest, though, the degree seems like a Pyrrhic victory. I don’t feel much smarter, and 18 months is a long time to spend adding only one line to my resume. So I’m going to convince myself I learned lessons in grad school that I couldn’t have learned anywhere else—or that I didn’t already know—so I can pretend like the tuition was worth it.
Psychology is political
Your views on human psychology naturally inform the way you want to deal with humans. Similarly, your understanding of chimp psychology informs the way you set up their habitat at the zoo. This, combined with the fact that politics is more visceral, has rendered psychology seminars eerily similar to a political rallies. People will use psychological beliefs to rationalize their politics, and conversely use their politics to rationalize their psychological beliefs. Which beliefs come first? Only peoples’ childhood trauma could tell you that.
Sure, it’s possible for psychology to be based on something other than confirmation bias. And men can maintain a healthy 10 percent body fat—but just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. And it doesn’t mean the vast majority of us will do it.
Humans are political
Another way of saying this is: Humans don’t care about facts, only their group—especially when the facts get in the way of what their group wants. Every research group at school ignored facts and confounding variables to prove what they wanted to prove. Now, when I see the phrases “scientists prove” or “a scientific study shows,” I replace them in my head with “Jerry Falwell proves” and “the pope’s divine revelation shows.” It gives me a more accurate depiction of what’s going on.
Knowledge is sought to make us feel better, not to learn and grow. Especially at the highest echelons of learning. Like politics, academia is a power grab, no matter how they make it appear. PhD candidates resemble a group of hippos who automatically kill any foreign species that comes in their territory. There is no meeting of the minds; only a meeting of the amygdalae.
People make enemies to mask their own issues
I’ve said before that when you lose your composure, it’s a signal you have a psychological issue to work on. For instance, I used to get enraged when another guy at the gym would drop weights unnecessarily. I can still remember how this used to make my blood boil. The problem, of course, wasn’t that a guy was dropping weights—rather, the problem was my inability to confront other men. Dealing with this one issue exposed other insecurity and shame issues I had. The rage I felt—more specifically, the rage I made myself feel—was used to cover up my own shortcomings.
The rage you feel toward your enemies serves the same purpose as your loss of composure. We create enemies to cover up our own bullshit. It’s easier to tell yourself how stupid other people are instead of realizing how stupid you are. I’m not saying to agree and compromise and sacrifice your beliefs. But if you truly believe there is a person, group, or institution out there standing in your way, then ask yourself: Why do I need to fabricate this enemy? What’s my payoff?
Empathy is a crutch
Most people need empathy because otherwise they wouldn’t know how to feel. Without self-selected values, empathy is an excellent fiat value. When people chastise you for lacking empathy, what they’re really chastising you for is being an individual who dares to consider his own feelings before he considers the feelings of others.
Of course, lacking empathy is necessary for psychotic behavior, but just because you have to leave your house to commit murder doesn’t mean leaving your house is wrong.
People are tribal, believe that
I’m not sure whether tribalism is a product of peoples’ philosophy (or lack thereof) or their DNA; whether tribalism is a social construct or a biological construct. But most people will sooner identify with people who look like them than somebody who has the same beliefs as them. I always knew this, but until grad school, I never believed it.
The common denominator of all these lessons is: Individualism is dead. To be more precise, individualism is forgotten. Psychologists don’t even argue the pros and cons of individualism—collectivism is assumed. To put it another way, psychologists don’t understand how to talk about the psychology of an individual without assigning him to a collective. And when individualism is brought up, it’s treated as self-indulgent, childish narcissism. Classic straw man.
But no matter what the prevailing minds preach, people still need to feel a sense of self, so they construct their selves from the remnants of second-hand values—like politics, their tribe, their enemies, and the feelings of others.