Practical Philosophy

Positive and negative behaviour spirals

Certain activities and behaviours are self-perpetuating. In other words, doing X causes you to do more of X. This can be an upward, or downward spiral.

An example of self-perpetuating spiral is drinking. When you begin drinking, it feels great. Each sip reduces our self-consciousness. We feel more comfortable. But this good feeling only lasts as long as we keep drinking. The moment we stop, we begin to sober up and that good feeling goes away. We need to keep on drinking to keep feeling good.

The problem with drinking in excess is that it classically leads to alcoholism – a negative spiral. In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson highlights the tipping point, the moment when the drinker discovers that alcohol cures his hangover in the morning. The cure causes the problem and the problem causes the cure. Around and around we go.

But there are positive spirals too. In the first lesson of the book, JP talks about walking straight with your shoulders back – standing tall and confident. Interestingly, standing in a confident manner is linked to our levels of Serotonin – the feel good neurotransmitter – and this is typically an indicator of personal success. Biologically, the same can be seen with lobsters. Successful lobsters walk tall, while failing lobsters hunch over and take up as little space as possible.

Jordan Peterson’s argument is that by walking tall and confident, people will treat us differently, and this will actually make us more confident too. A positive cycle. Act confident -> Become more confident -> Serotonin higher -> Become more confident -> Serotonin confident -> Become more confident. The appearance of confidence perpetuates itself.

The same was said in The 48 Laws of Power, which highlighted the massive importance of appearances. Take for example, Christopher Columbus. He would blend in with the aristocracy with his confidence and aristrocat-like behaviours, even though he came from a family of weavers. By doing so, they treated him like one of their own – and funded his 4 trips across the Atlantic. His self-confidence was self-perpetuating.

In summary, we need to be careful of falling into negative spirals, especially with bad habits. At the same time, we should try to create positive spirals of behaviour like showing confidence, working productively, and so forth.

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