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Karma & Socio-Psychological Feedback Loops

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Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing an old friend.  At one point during our conversation, he basically asked me if I believed in Karma (that good things happen to good people, etc.).  My answer to that question was yes and no.  No, in the sense that I don’t believe in any kind of supernatural moral causation, which is what Karma technically is.  But on the other hand, I do believe that there are other naturalistic mechanisms that produce similar effects which would be indistinguishable from what people would call Karma.  Specifically, I believe that there are various psychological, cognitive and social factors that ultimately produce these kinds of effects on one’s life.  So I decided to expand on this topic a little bit in this post.

First of all, the level of optimism or pessimism that a person has will undoubtedly affect not only their overall worldview but also the course that their life takes over time in profound ways that are often taken for granted or overlooked.  If a person has a positive attitude, they will tend to invite others (whether explicitly or not) into their social circle not only due to their personality being inviting and comforting, but also because that person is more likely to be productive in helping others.  Furthermore, if they are also altruistic, other people will often take notice of this, and are more likely to solidify a relationship with them.  Likewise, since altruism is often reciprocated, then a person that is altruistic is more likely to have help returned to them when they need it most.  So in short, a person that is positive and altruistic is more likely to continue along a positive path in their life’s course simply because their attitude and less selfish behavior serve as catalysts to solidify more meaningful relationships with others, thus allowing them to increasingly gain more safety nets and mutual socioeconomic benefits as time progresses.

One can see how this principle would operate in the converse scenario, that is, with a person that is generally pessimistic and selfish.  This person is clearly more likely to deter new meaningful relationships due to their uninviting personality (especially if they are anti-social), due to how they make others feel generally, and due to them only focusing on their own best interests.  Others are likely to notice this behavior, and if that pessimistic and selfish person needs help at some point in time, they aren’t nearly as likely to receive any.  This in turn will make it more likely for that person to fall into a downward spiral, where their lack of help from others is likely to cause that person to be increasingly resentful, bitter, negative, and even less likely to help others around them then they were before.  So we can see how a person’s attitude and behavioral trends often have a catalyzing effect on their life’s course by effectively amplifying their behavior in a reciprocated fashion from those around them.  That is, whatever socio-psychological environment is being nurtured by that person (whether good or bad) will most likely be reciprocated thus creating a feedback loop that can become amplified over time.

There appears to be a sort of avalanche effect that can occur, where even a tiny chaotic deviation from the present state can lead to very large differences later on.  Most of us have heard of the so-called “Butterfly Effect” where tiny perturbations in a system can lead to huge changes that are increasingly amplified over time, and this socio-psychological feedback loop is perhaps one of the most important illustrations of such an effect.  Even tiny actions or events that influence our perspective (or the perspective of those around us) can often lead to dramatic changes later on in our lives.

Another important point regarding the effect of optimism and pessimism within this socio-psychological feedback loop is the placebo/nocebo effect, where if one believes that either positive or negative outcomes are more likely, their physiology and cognitive states can change in accordance with those expectations.  People that strongly believe that they will fail to reach a goal or that have some other negative expectation (such as getting sick) are more likely to self-manifest that expectation (i.e. the “nocebo” effect) since their expectations not only influence their perception for the worse, but also because they often channel their focus and attention on that negative belief (which can increase stress levels and thus impair cognitive faculties and overall health) and the belief can become reinforced in other ways since the brain’s cognitive biases often function to reinforce whatever beliefs we have in the first place, even if they are unjustified, incorrect, or ultimately bad for our well-being.  Following along this line of reasoning, we can see how a person that strongly believes that they will in fact achieve a goal or some other positive state are more likely to do so.  Thus, the placebo or nocebo effect can directly result from optimistic or pessimistic perspectives and are often reinforced by our own cognitive biases and cognitive dissonance reduction mechanisms.

It seems that even a small boost in encouragement, optimism, or altruism, can lead to a cascade effect of improved social relationships (thus providing more socioeconomic stability) and an improvement in overall well-being through various socio-psychological feedback loops.  Furthermore, our attitude or perspective can also lead to various placebo effects that further reinforce these feedback loops.  In any case, we should all recognize and appreciate how even small perturbations in our attitude as well as in our behavior toward others can have profound changes in our lives.  Even small acts of kindness or morale boosts can go a long way to changing the lives of others, as well as our own.  So to conclude, I would argue that if any kind of Karma seems to exists in this world, those Karmic effects are naturally brought about by the kinds of mechanisms I’ve described here.

The Butterfly Effect

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I am simply amazed at how some seemingly inconsequential actions in our lives can lead to such drastic changes in our life’s course.  There are a number of examples one can think of if they ponder long enough.  For instance, I could argue that something as simple as visiting a particular website eventually led to my current career, marriage, child, as well as much of my identity and who I’ve become in terms of my philosophical beliefs and what I care about in life.  In short, visiting one particular website eventually formed who I am at this time as an adult.  Allow me to explain briefly.

After graduating high school, I was still living at home, and often surfing the internet.  I didn’t have any concrete plans for going to college, and ended up not going to college until a couple years after graduating high school.  During this “educational intermission”, my best friend at the time introduced me to a social networking website called “Face The Jury”.  He found it to be a great platform for meeting women, and I decided to indulge myself and try it out.  It was here that I met my soon-to-be girlfriend.  We finally got together for the first time, and after having a good time and enjoying ourselves, we hung out a few more times, continued to develop the relationship, and eventually moved in together.  This happened to be my first time moving out and away from “home”; that famous rite of passage many experience as part of their quest to becoming an adult.

After meeting my new girlfriend’s family and becoming more acquainted with everyone, I got into a serious conversation with her and her parents about going back to school.  Had I not had this conversation with them, I can safely say that I would have taken a bit more time off before re-entering any form of institutionalized education, and I have no idea what would have happened years down the road.  So my “intermission” ended and I finally began my college education.  It was around this time, that my relationship with my girlfriend began to take a downward spiral.  We simply weren’t meant to be with one another, but after having sustained a relationship for a couple of years, we tried to salvage it, despite the difficulties we were encountering.  All relationships tend to have periods of difficulty, so I simply didn’t know that this was any different from what every couple goes through at some time or another.  Our relationship reached a point where it was inevitably the beginning of the end or so to speak. We had a relationship that lasted for five years and when it ended, it was the most heart breaking time of my life.

Several months prior to our relationship’s demise, I was taking an “Elements of Micro-Electronic Manufacturing” course at the U of MN, and had a laboratory section of this class at the U of MN’s Nanofabrication Center (now called the Minnesota NanoCenter).  There was a position that had opened in this laboratory, and my professor at the time, pleased with my work in his class, thought that I should apply prior to graduating as the job opportunities in that department were hard to come by.  I was flattered to say the least, and took his advice.  I was hired not long after and became a process engineer for the NFC.  It was here that I met my soon-to-be wife, as she was working in the administrative end of the lab.  We became friends and felt a connection early on.  After being friends for a year or so, we became a couple.  Then on Valentine’s Day of 2010, we got married.  In June of 2011, my wife gave birth to our baby girl (now 2 years old of course), and in March of 2012 we bought our first house together.  Needless to say, my life has been quite different ever since.

My wife introduced me to several new philosophies and ways of living that I hadn’t dabbled in before, and I have to say that because of this she has greatly influenced who I’ve become as a person.  My inter-subjective experiences with her have been an enormous catalyst for my own personal growth.  I love her and my daughter, and can’t imagine living without them.  I can’t even imagine who I would be, for that matter, had I not gone to one particular website.  Behold, the Butterfly Effect.

Written by Lage

July 17, 2013 at 10:35 pm