Basic introduction to the human psyche
I think many of us would agree that there seems to be an over abundance of ego in this world. Egos getting in the way of everyday life, causing friction in even the simplest, most briefest encounters. Recently I have become fascinated by the human psyche and how fragile it can sometimes be. This fascination has probably been spurred on by some of the fiction-like stories that have made global headlines over the last several months. For instance, the morbid story of the Canadian amateur porn star, Luka Rocco Magnotta, who violently murdered and dismembered his boyfriend, while video-recording the entire incident. Then there is the ongoing Mexican gang violence, which has seen civilians, snitches and journalists dismembered for the public to see, and most recently, the Aurora massacre, which saw James Holmes open fire into a busy Colorado cinema, at the opening of the latest Batman movie. What pushes a person to that point and self-justifies such horrendous acts? Whether they are remorseful after the incident is inconsequential, the fact remains at the moment of said act, their minds justified murder. Before doing a bit of reading about the human psyche, especially ego, I must admit I was adamant on blaming the ego with what is wrong with the world, but this would be unfair and dangerous. The majority of us tend to automatically blame ego, turning it into a societal scapegoat. So it is important to understand the difference between ego and egotism, a mistake I think many of us make. In common language ego has been often substituted and mistaken for egotism or egoism, which is the forceful assertion of oneself.
Basics of the human psyche.
According to Sigmund Freud's structural model, the human psyche is made up of three parts; The Id, Ego and Superego.
The Id is childish and selfish and functions on the pleasure principle, and is interested only in instant gratification, which it is unable to delay.
The Superego is the internalized standards or morals one has set by society and by parents, which is of the “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong” behaviour.
The ego is the moderator between the Id and Superego, it tries to find balance and compromise by pacifying both.
The Id is obviously inappropriate in a civilized society, imagine all seven billion people on earth, unable to delay their sense of instant gratification (perhaps the world is not far off...). Everyone would literally be doing what they instinctively felt. We therefore modify this pleasure principal in favour of the reality principle, which are the requirements for the external environment; being civilized society.
The Id's counterbalance is the Superego which forms, develops and evolves as the child grows and matures. It comprises of two facets; the conscience, which stores what is bad and what has been punished, and the ego ideal which contains the good and what one should do or be.
When there is too much anxiety, or there is a conflict between Id and Superego, and negative emotions are stirred, the ego has a variety of defence mechanisms to help protect from perceived threats to its equilibrium. The defence mechanisms work by blocking Id impulses, consciously or unconsciously, into acceptable forms, thereby slightly distorting the subject's perceived reality.
According to George Eman Vaillant's categorization of defence mechanisms, there are four levels:
Level I – Pathological (delusional projection and psychotic denial)
Level II – Immature (fantasy, passive aggression, projection)
Level III – Neurotic (intellectualization, dissociation, repression)
Level IV – Mature (humour, sublimation, suppression, anticipation, altruism)
A healthy person will use a variety of defense mechanisms throughout life, the problem occurs when the ego defense mechanism becomes pathological through persistent use which leads to maladaptive behaviour such that the physical and or mental health of the person is adversely affected. So it would seem that repetition can lead to habit, and that habit will eventually become character.
Human behaviour and the environment
Now we have a very basic understanding of the components that make up our psyche, but we also need to try understand how our environment affects human behaviour, and there is an equation for this: Genotype + Environment = Phenotype. What does this mean?
Genotype describes the specific set of genes one inherits from their parents. This is your unique DNA blueprint, which contains all the information on how to construct a 'you'.
Phenotype is a description of the physical traits and behaviours that one currently displays. This term describes a subject as a unique organism that one is (likes, dislikes and general personality), whereas genotype is the specific and unique set of DNA to physically construct you.
Environment is everything that is not you and that may have an effect on you. This includes climate, food, job, the people you socialize with, amount of sunlight, television shows you watch, your activity levels, literally everything that is not you. So the equation Genotype + Environment = Phenotype means your set of genes, added to the environment/lifestyle you live, gives you your unique physical and personal personality or trait. Just because someone has an aggressive or violent gene, does not mean they will display this behaviour. Studies suggest that an environmental trigger is needed for a subject to display aggression. The study showed that those who were subject to abuse as children were significantly more likely to be aggressive, regardless of whether they inherited a violent/aggressive gene or not. To say that people are naturally violent could be true, but only to the extent that we are all capable of violence. This violent capacity does not just manifest itself due to an individual's genetic makeup, instead it seems that violent behaviour is a response to a violent environment.
Philosopher, Julian Baggini, challenged against the traditional, 'common sense' concept of a 'hard core' of self. Instead he theorised that we do not have a permanent identity because our psycho-physical, personal existence is a constant change of bodily growth, varying mental perceptions and memories. The idea of an unchanging self (having a constant identity) is a concept that has been developed in culture and taken over during the socialization process. Physical and social environments plays influence on both the body and the mind, while self-perception is also a variable. People behave differently according to their situation, and don't necessarily always show the same character traits or responses. A person who is truthful to most people may be different in other circumstances, the self is able to vary.
So what can we draw from these introductory concepts of the human psyche? Well, for one, our psyche is a system and for any system to run at optimum performance, balance needs to be maintained. We should be more mindful of our moods and emotions and try understand why we feel the way we do and identify the cause of our mood. As humans we are made to feel emotion, we will feel and experience them, whether good or bad, we cannot control it. We can, however, control our reactions to those emotions and moods. I am under the impression that there are many people in the world unable to control their actions, under their emotions. Their emotions can be caused by a whole host of reasons, but we must remember the equation Genotype + Environment = Phenotype. We are the result of our environment and our genes. If we were to create an environment which we all could equally thrive, then I believe the world will be on its way to heal itself. At the moment there are far too many rules, restrictions and systems which are causing us to react negatively in many ways.
To identify and correct the systems and flaws within the systems that are affecting us negatively is an important step, but it is also one that is far more easier said than done. We are too many, each a subject and each experiencing a unique and subjective life. We all have different motives, inspirations and aspirations and to make all 7 billion of us happy is close to impossible, but I do believe quality of life on this planet can be made a lot better. Unfortunately a large majority of this world's fate is left to those of power, those who can afford to make things happen. The majority of the world is at mercy to their psyche's and unfortunately too many of them have not developed them in a way that promotes a healthy society. At the end of the day a system is put in place by those who believe the system will improve things. It is subjective, but who truly has the right to enforce a system unto those whom which that system adversely affects? Egotism is a killer and may just be the suspect in our societal demise.