In this conversation, I’m really delighted to be speaking with a dear friend of mine, Dr Kiki Leutner, a Business Psychologist and Data Scientist, who combines psychological theory with machine learning methodology.
We explore, from a personality-based perspective, what creates a sense of self and identity, and how this relates to our feeling of connectedness and belonging.
Join in the conversation #hivepodcast
Kiki’s interests span from personality profiling, the ethical application of algorithms in behavioural analytics, game based assessment and consumer psychology, to personal values, social media psychology, and entrepreneurship.
She works with businesses by providing a more human-centred approach to data science, customer profiling, and personalisation.
NN: So, Kiki, thank you very much for joining me on this conversation. I’m excited about this because we’re friends and we’ve done lots of interesting talks with each other about personality and about the weird vagaries of human nature, and so, I’m excited to bring your voice into the mix.
KL: Yeah, very excited to be here and be on The Hive podcast which has had some very interesting guests, so yeah.
NN: So, I’m going to start by asking you the question I’ve asked all of the guests so far and that’s, where do you think we’re headed as a species?
KL: Ooh, this is very interesting. I think we’re headed upwards, ultimately. Maybe there will be a downturn, but if you look at the last years, or centuries, that we have visibility over, I think things have become better, right? People get smarter, we get more interesting things added to our lives, and this is obviously very interesting with everything that’s going on with the internet, and the destruction of the environment, and how it’s going to be handled.
But, ultimately, I think we’ll just keep going better and better. Is that very optimistic? Maybe.
NN: I love that it’s that optimistic. You’re the first one that’s shared even, well, a percentage of optimism. That’s not quite fair to my other guests, but this is why it’s also good to have a mix of different voices on the show.
So, interesting with the technology and with the upward direction of progress which is not a word that you used but I sense that’s where maybe you’re going with it and I’m curious what you think is likely to unfold with the crisis, the environmental crisis, which you just mentioned, how these things might blend together in order to give you a rosier outlook?
KL: Yeah. If you’re very optimistic there’s obviously lots of problems we could talk about, but if you’re very optimistic, humans are all about collaboration and communicating ideas, growing with knowledge, and technology has just made that easier, and made it easier on global scale, so I would hope that we can also find solutions to those massive problems using all of that technology and the connections that we have which is, I think, hopeful.
On the other hand, you can think that everything is globalized and we’ll make mistakes like we used to but we’ll make them on a massive scale. So, rather than one country ending up in a famine and really messing things up and everyone else around surviving, we might mess everything up for everyone globally. But I hope that is not the case and I hope that we can use other technology to share ideas more and to, ultimately, just drive progress faster, right?
So, it used to maybe take a team of scientists decades to even just find each other, and then, learn of each other’s ideas, and then, test new things and progress. That can now happen in a few years. Right? So yeah, I’m hopeful that technology helps because it helps us communicate and progress and innovate. But that’s not to say there aren’t other scary downsides.
NN: And I wonder if there’s also an aspect of technology amplifying human nature and human behaviours for good and for bad, as opposed to, I mean, clearly it provides a huge amount of potential for collaboration for rapid communication, for the sharing of knowledge on a scale and speed which we’ve never encountered before, but also, all the distraction that it facilitates and the consumption of energy.
Every time we whip out our phones to read an email, it feels as though it’s just effortless but, of course, there’s energy that’s going into us being able to access that, so I’m talking about electricity, and also, all the fundamental materials that are required to build the tech on which we so heavily rely. Yeah.
KL: Yeah. I mean, there are many, many destructive sides to it, but, I think, on the whole, it’s about helping us connect and communicate, but yeah, like you said, it’s also every time that there’s innovation, I think you’re quite open, innovative, and maybe so am I, right?
KL: But there’s also a benefit, I think, to being conservative and not wanting too much change too quickly, and when I look at some of the ways in which media has changed, right, with Facebook, and it just seems to me like there’s too much change too quickly and it’s getting out of hand a little bit. And when you look back in history, not that I’m a historian, but I have this theory. Every time there’s a new medium, it really stirs things up because it just changes the power balance and that’s what we’re witnessing at the moment. Right?
There’s a new medium, a new way of doing things, and it’s just stirring things up and giving people power that maybe previously didn’t have it, or didn’t have it as much and that can, obviously, accelerate bad things as well, like we’ve seen in the last few years, yeah.
NN: With your background in psychology and in personality, I’d really like to explore this question with you because with some of the other guests talking about how we conceive of the self, we look at the sense of relatedness that humans have. Many of us have lost, with the wider environment, as a networked organism, not just within the human networks of society, community, country, and then, on a global scale, the world, but also with other living beings.
And so, I’m curious, from your perspective, how do you conceive of the self?
KL: Yeah. Very interesting question. So, I actually studied this a lot, in terms of personality psychology and probably the centre idea here is that you define the self by defining it compared to others in a way, so you’re saying that what is unique about someone, what is their personality, is how they are different to everyone else in that aspect, or compared to everyone else.
So, when we define someone’s personality we might say someone’s behaviour preferences and tendencies, how they typically tend to behave, but then, we measure that in comparison to everyone else. So, I can say one important aspect of personality is how much energy we get from relating to other people versus maybe doing things more with ourselves, or we’re more comfortable dealing with people that we know rather than strangers. So, that’s what we call extroversion. And the way we define it is how much are you like that compared to everyone else.
And I think there’s a deeper thought to that which is that yourself is not just you, it’s how other people see you, and that really is the important bit about you, right? So, reputation and how other people perceive you is what ultimately informs us in forming ourselves as well. Right? Because we’re social beings, we want other people to see us in a certain way.
We want to communicate who we are to others and that shapes how we dress, how we actually, what we say, what we engage in, and then, social media has exacerbated that massively because we’re sharing constantly what we’re doing and shaping impressions of ourselves to not just a few immediate people around use but larger audiences, and we’re constantly engineering what we’re doing or what we’re sharing to communicate almost a brand of who we are in the most extreme forms.
NN: So, the self is being fundamentally relational, so the sense of, I exist as a self in relationship to those around me?
KL: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely.
NN: And it’s curious, though, what you say about the brand of self, which is such a good way of putting it.
NN: And talking about maybe within social channels, certain behaviours or signalling of values being socially reinforced through things like, I’m guessing, validations such as likes, or engagement, or comments, or whatever it might be, or views of content, or sharing of content.
What role do you think there is for technology in helping us to generate a deeper sense of identity versus something which feels a little bit more surface level?
KL: Yeah, that’s very interesting. So, I think about, probably 10 years ago, researchers started looking at Facebook data. And back then it was controversial to publish with that data because people were saying, “But that’s just what someone puts on Facebook. That’s not really them.”
And then, of course, what happened is lots of research came out to show that is actually really them. We find a really high relationship between what someone does on Facebook, and then, how they report their personality, or how others rate their personality, and we learned that…
Which makes sense, right? You use social media because you want to communicate something about who you are. It wouldn’t almost make sense to make up a fake persona, or if you were, that’s probably who you want to be, in a way, right, and you would strive to be like that in real life, in parentheses, as well.
NN: So, I wonder with that, though, because I’m thinking also about the ways in which people splinter into different social channels for different things. So, for instance, since starting this art course, I use Instagram very heavily but only really to post art and “poetry”. For me, it’s an artistic platform and the people I follow, it’s almost all artists, and I take very few selfies, and occasionally I might put in my story something to do with my work.
But it’s a very compartmentalized domain. And then, Twitter might be for my more, I don’t know, thought-based offerings that’s connected more to my political perspective or ideas on technology.
What do you think about the propensity that we might have to share certain aspects of ourselves across specific channels? Can we ever get a more integrated, holistic sense of a person just from a single channel?
KL: I think that’s very interesting what you’re touching upon because, so from a personality scientist perspective, right, I would analyse both of your profiles, which I happen to look at all the time, so I would say both of your profiles show a very open personality, right? Someone who’s very interested in new ideas. You share thought-provoking, interesting stuff on Twitter. You share these really interesting quotes about what human life is on Instagram, you show that you’re doing interesting things on both platforms, right?
On one, you might talk about your speaking engagement, on the other, you show your artwork, so that doesn’t show to me a completely different person, but what you’ve done, I think, is you had to optimize the content so you get an audience on either platform, right, which is this whole thing of you get followers and you get likes by making a coherent brand on that platform.
Otherwise, you would have to catch someone who’s really into fine art, and also into this psychology interest, right? And everyone else wouldn’t follow that account.
NN: Well, it is curious, but I do wonder how that works.
KL: But you’re also a professional on social media, right? So, someone who is on there more to share their life and their friends, maybe they don’t do it to that much of a degree. But, I think there is that pressure to brand yourself, almost, right? And to go into that one aspect, and maybe you’re right that that’s limiting our experience of ourselves as a bit more one-dimensional because you’re enhancing that one side of yourself, even though there might be lots of other things going on too about you.
NN: That’s super interesting. I didn’t expect to get a… That was a really accurate perspective. But also, we know each other, so it’s helpful to have that extra context. But I’m also curious about what role, I mean, maybe this is something that touches on generational context possibly, but I also wonder what role one’s desire for privacy plays in how much we share across different channels, because I imagine there’s got to be quite a large amount of individual variants between one person and the next, in terms of how much intimate information they want to put out there about themselves.
KL: Yeah. Yeah. This is, I think, very interesting as well, in terms of, especially because where social media is so permanent and exaggerated and it’s there forever, I really struggle with it. I don’t like it at all. I would rather not have anyone know anything about me, right? But it’s difficult when you’re trying to get your ideas out at the same time.
KL: But I think it’s becoming a bigger part of the every day person’s life, that struggle, right? How much do I want to communicate, how much do I want to put on my profile? Do I add this colleague onto my Instagram or not? Who do I share with, which I do think it’s different than before we had this social media stuff around. There wasn’t as much of that pressure, but I don’t know, I wasn’t living a professional life, let’s say, in those times so I can’t compare.
NN: It’s weird because I think it goes back to your point about branding, so it gets us to explicit codify who we are, what traits we want be perceived as having, and how we want to be received, and then also, quantify or qualify a mixture of both, I would suggest, the relationships that we have, the networks that we have, and decide how to optimize the ways and the things that we share in order to create some kind of, I guess, in order to achieve some kind of goal, or create some kind of reputation or illusion.
It just feels like a lot of the stuff that previously we would have done implicitly, so being drawn to relate to some people more than others, we’re now being a lot more conscious about, in some respects.
KL: Yeah. That’s true.
NN: Of course, it depends on how much we care about our intimate details being made public.
KL: Yeah, that’s true.
NN: Yeah, do you think it changes the ways in which we relate to people and that we conceive of ourselves?
KL: I think what you said there is very important that you’re doing it publicly and when you think about being on social media and you’re liking certain things, and other people can see that you like them, right?
And you can’t control who those other people are, so you’re immediately, if you’re aware of that, you’re immediately confronted with this thing of, “I have an intuitive reaction to this that I like this content, or I find it interesting, but then, would I want everyone else to see that I find it interesting? How do I define myself? What do I want other people to know about me? How do impression-manage who I am and define myself in this area?” And you’re confronted with that very explicitly and constantly. Yeah.
NN: One of the things I’ve been reading about quite a lot recently is this idea of the different constructions of self that different cultures and traditions might have. So, in the west, we have this idea of a very atomized, individual, impermeable self, so this sense that we turn inward, we do therapy, we read self-help books.
We live in a culture in which we’re determined to have a successful life, many of us, depending on what that looks like for each individual, and so, there’s this sense of almost excessive focus on the individual.
Whereas in other cultures, another one of my guests, I think it was Andy Letcher, was talking about how in some other cultures there’s more of a sense that the self can be a permeable thing, which sits within a wider network which is touched more intimately by one’s surrounding, and so, this sense of a self which is constantly responding to, and in relationship with other beings, not just human, but also, I don’t know, your pet dog, or the pigeons that come and bother you while you eat, or whatever it might be.
And so, I wonder with this emphasis by technology, where we are now, on the self, on this constant self=reflection, this constant self-assessment, and also this sense of perceiving oneself through the lens of the imagined other, the imagined audience, I wonder what does to a deeper sense of identity that we might have about who we are.
KL: So, I think there’s a lot around what you mentioned with being in an individualistic culture and social media, I think, is the perfect result of that, right? So, it’s not just technology, it’s technology coming from America, right?
I always think about this with the dating apps as well, right? So, the whole concept of going on dates. I’m German, as you can tell from my accent, so that whole concept, in Germany, it just works in a completely different way. And then, these apps come over from America where going on dates is a very normal thing to do and a very standard way of approaching dating, right? You take someone out on a date.
And this technology gets ported over and it’s maybe used differently in other countries, but it brings this way of one culture into another country or another culture, and I think with individualism, it’s a bit similar, right?
So, we have these social media platforms that have this big emphasis on how you brand yourself, and talking about yourself, and what you do, which is maybe to some other cultures is more foreign than it is to Americans who are using the platforms, but it’s changed the way all of us interact now, and how we use it, and how we brand ourselves, so there’s a big component, I think, of culture that is put into these technologies.
So, I think that could be a social media that works completely differently and doesn’t just focus on the individual, and that focus on the individual itself, I think, can have really positive advantages, right? So, you can share your talents, you can achieve something that you want to, but it also has some negative connotations, right, which is that not all of us can be superstars, not all of us can have the most followers Where does it leave everyone else? How do we value someone who does things without having a massive audience? Right? All those questions are thrown up.
And then, if we define ourselves as the attention we get from an imagined audience, like you say, then what is left if there isn’t that attention?
NN: Ah, that’s such a fascinating question. And, actually, it’s interesting, this is a conversation that comes up quite a lot with the people I’m training in art with, and one of the questions that comes up is, “Is someone an artist if there’s no one there to see their art?” It’s the same… Well, I guess it’s a slightly different question to the tree in the woods, if a tree falls down in the woods and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound.
I think the art question, well, this one, because it’s essentially, we’re tapping into, on the one hand, this sense of performance of self, or performance of a work, or in the case of an arts piece, it’s the product itself that lives outside of the artist and if someone witnesses the art, is that the thing, the interaction, that makes it a piece of art?
And so, I wonder with the sense of self, how real could a person be in a modern age if they’re someone who decides not to be on social, or maybe the more interesting question is, how real are the people who are most reliant on their social platforms for attention, for reinforcement, for validation?
What have us seen as being some of the darker effects of social media use and misuse, in some senses?
KL: Yeah, very interesting. I mean, I think there’s this existential question which is almost philosophical, right? Where is this culture coming from? What’s the benefits of having this individualistic culture? And I think arts is, like you say, or performers, or people who have, let’s say, sought audiences. Traditionally, they would have thought about these questions a lot. Now, maybe, more of us think about it, that weren’t traditionally in those areas or even just people in everyday life.
And then, the other question is more on a general basis. How does social media negatively affect people? And I tend to think that it reminds me a little bit about the discussions around TV. Back in the ’90s, when we were growing up, and how bad is TV, and how much of it should we watch? And every time there’s a new-ish technology people get worried.
So, on that individual level effect, it comes back to the same answers that you need to have responsible use. Obviously, don’t engage in it on an addictive level. Limit your time on it. People who struggle with whatever problems that might be, right, anxiety, depression, self-doubt, they might use the platforms in a way to worsen those conditions. But that doesn’t mean the platform is causing it.
What I am way more worried about and interested in as well, is the societal affect that Facebook, especially, has that, right? So, when they changed the way in which people consume news and the way in which we can buy opinions, and influence decision-making, that’s, I think, where we’ve seen the biggest “hmm” from social media, when that wasn’t what people were originally worried about.
Five, 10 years ago, people weren’t saying, “Oh my God, this is going to change our politics.” They were saying, “Oh, people are addicted to it. We’re going to have to all become these washed up versions of ourselves.” Nobody was really worried about the things that we’ve now seen that are really problematic.
NN: Yeah. I do worry about that a lot. This obscure nature of it. The fact that everything is hidden and it’s an Orwellian vision of a future where it’s very difficult to be able to figure out what’s real and what’s not, or more, what’s opinion and what’s fact? This whole sense of doubt that creeps in.
And I think also, things like, connecting to an earlier thought that I had while you were talking about the social side of things, the immediacy of response that we get when we experience something that we have a feeling about. So, for instance, seeing something beautiful, or experiencing pleasure and wanting to respond to that naturally and intuitively, and then, second guessing ourselves because of how we might be perceived.
On the one hand, it seems to me that there’s the tendency for us, I definitely experience this with myself, to be more impulsive and more compulsive in the way that we digest information, whether it’s news, whether it’s any kind of content online.
And on the other hand, there also seems to be an intermediary response between consuming something and having a feeling about it, and then, deciding what to do about the feeling. It’s almost like there’s an observer in the middle going, “Oh, I’ve just had this feeling. Do I post about it? Do I respond? How do I respond?”
I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s clear enough in the way I’m describing it.
KL: Yeah. That is completely impression management, right? So, I think it’s just exacerbated because it happens so much every day, right? So, if you’re on social media platforms all the time, you’re constantly thinking, “Okay, what should I put on here?”, and we might, in our every day life, when we’re talking to people, we’re thinking about the same things, right?
So, we might have a fear. We might not say everything that comes to our mind. We’re trying to give up a certain impression. When you think about, there’s lots of thoughts and research on people at work and how they change who they are at work versus in their social life, and how we can adapt who we are to different contexts to be appropriate.
So, I think that’s a human tendency, to do that. It might just be exaggerated because we’re doing it all the time on social media, and maybe also because we have less visibility on who’s watching. If you’re in a meeting at work, you see the people in front of you. You see their reactions. You might learn from feedback what’s appropriate, what’s not.
But it’s a very human tendency because we ultimately depend on other people’s approval and help and existing together in a community, so it’s a very, I think, innate concern of us to want to have good relationships, and good impressions, and just show ourselves in a way that’s, I don’t know, either demonstrating power, likeability, in whatever situation we’re in.
So, it’s a very core human desire that’s being prodded all the time when you’re using these platforms.
NN: And so, when we’re getting reinforcement that certain behaviours are good, how does that influence our behaviours?
KL: I think, so humans are innately social, so you want to get good feedback from others around you. And when you get it, it tells you, “This is a behaviour that gives me that, so I’m going to it more.” Right?
So, if I’m friendly to people, and then, they talk to me more, I might do that more. And, in the same way, it works on social media, right? So, we have this business-y goal, maybe, if you’re very tactical about it, of increasing your followers, but I think there’s also just the emotional, innate thing that happens. You just want people to like your content and engage with it.
And some of us maybe more so than others, right, which is probably part of the self of personality, right? Some people seek that approval more so than others, but I think it’s innate to everyone, and I think we can’t underestimate how deeply hurtful it is, as a human, to be rejected in any kind of way.
So, not getting positive feedback, getting negative feedback, realizing that people might fight against you or not like your ideas, it’s threatening because, ultimately, you need to exist with other people around and you can’t exist, literally, as a human, without others around you. So, at a deep level, it’s quite important to us that other people approve, or see us in the way that we want to be seen.
NN: And so, for instance, some of the research that I read was looking at how people would change what they post based on the feedback that they get. So, for instance, if you post one out of 10 images that’s a selfie and you get lots more interest and engagement on the selfie, then you’re likely to post more of those, and then, that changes the way in which we maybe perceive ourselves, the way that we relate to our experiences, because if we’re taking more selfies, the focus of the experience is probably going to be on getting the perfect shot and not just experiencing the thing itself.
So, when people decide, and this is a wider question, I guess, but when people decide that certain behaviours that they engage with are not serving them, or there are certain behaviours that are creating a sense of discomfort, or whatever it might be, how can we choose to break these conditioned responses, yeah, this desire to create or relate in a way that is going to get us that affirmation from others online?
KL: Yeah, I think what you touch upon is very interesting. It’s that relationship between what we do and what our attitudes are, what we think or what we believe. And there’s some really interesting research about it and it turns out that if you don’t act in the way that you believe, you either change the way you actually, or you change what you believe.
NN: So, there has to be that internal consistency?
KL: Yeah. Nobody can live in that space of, they call it cognitive dissonance, where your behaviours don’t match with your beliefs. And I think everyone has witnessed it or done it themselves, that slippery slope of, “No, I would never work for a company that has dubious morals and that includes nuclear energy, oil and gas, blah, blah.”, then we all find ourselves doing it and you make up some sort of excuse and you’re like, “Yeah, but I’m just working for that division.” Or, “Actually, the bit that I’m working on is helping.”, or whatever excuse it is and you need to do that because it’s not in our nature to say, “Yes, I’m working for that company and they’re evil and I shouldn’t be doing it, but I’m doing it anyway.”
We need to align it so I think the stuff that you’re talking about, if you constantly get reinforcement that, yes, the best content is if you just post with a pouty face in front of a selfie, you’re going to start forming an identity around that and thinking, “Yeah, that’s actually quite interesting, and it’s cool, and yeah, why don’t I become more of this?” Yeah, Nathalie? You should be grateful that you can product beautiful paintings that you can put onto your Insta.
NN: Oh God. It’s so depressing. To me. It’s super-fucking depressing to me that we’ve gotten to this point where we can achieve so much and we’re just taking pictures of asses and lips. I love asses and lips, but just, there’s a limit. I love chocolate cake. I’m not going to eat it for every single meal of the day. I don’t know. That’s probably quite judgemental of me.
So, okay, so let’s talk about this cognitive dissonance and I want to ask you a little bit about social identity theory, which I’ve been reading about a bit more recently. And so, it looks at how our membership to group with shared values contributes to our sense of identity. So, if, for instance, in this context, let’s say we think, “Okay, well, we want to do more things to help mitigate the negative impact of the climate crisis and the things that we’re doing to contribute to that.”, and I want to be pro-environmental, maybe I join some groups, like Extinction Rebellion, or whatever it is.
So then, suddenly that group shares some explicit values that I’ve named. What happens when, for instance, someone is part of another group, like working at a nuclear power plant or, I don’t know, in oil and gas. What happens when someone has a set of values that then comes into conflict with their existing group’s prevailing ideology? What are the choices that happen there?
Also, I’m thinking about the ways in which most of us are inhabiting a capitalist system which has this idea of perpetual upward growth that is clearly coming into some difficulty, and maybe it’s time to change the system, but we’re embedded within it. How do we go about changing how and who we are?
KL: Yeah. I think it’s really interesting, at first, to even realize that we all have that conflict and I think we all bury it down a bit, not to be Freudian and get into the discussion about repression, but Greta’s fame got me to really reflect on this and I was thinking, “What is so touching or special about her?” And I thought, “Actually, when I was in school, as a kid, I was really into the environment.” Again, I’m German, so it’s a bit more of a trend there, maybe.
And you would feel bad to throw away stuff and you’d want to do things. I did this whole project on renewable energies and how everything should be renewable, trying to get my parents to put solar panels on the roof. And then, life just happens and you start making compromises, or getting distracted, or making excuses and with Greta, it’s this hard core. She says it herself, right? That her autism is her super-power because it keeps her focused on the issue, and I thought, “That is so true.” She just kept focusing on one issue which is something that most other people don’t seem to be able to do because we get distracted with other things.
But I think that the conflict remains in ourselves. So, you might define yourself as someone who cares about the environment and who cares about certain political issues, but then, your life happens and you’re also interested in this thing professionally, so you’re going to do it, or you really want to go on this vacation, so you’re going to do it. And you live with this inner conflict.
And then, you probably compromise yourself by saying, “I don’t care about it so much, really.”, to make it okay or to make it feel better that you’re not acting in that way.
NN: Or, there’s another approach, which I am trying to grapple with, which I think is just, in some ways, more intellectually honest and with more philosophically honest, which is that, as humans, we have the tendency to be able to live dissonantly. It’s basically acknowledging that and not trying to bury it by self-justifying or hiding the dissonant behaviour. So, for instance, looking at the hypocrisy of espousing certain values, and then, going against them in certain actions, which almost all of us do at a certain level.
So, for instance, I take flight in order to go speak at conferences and one of the radical ways to deal with that is just to be like, “That’s hypocrisy. I’m being a hypocrite in doing that.” I shouldn’t really say this on the podcast. I don’t know what it will do for my reputation.
But I think there is honesty and power in at least trying to name the situation as it is in order to then make change. Because if you do that, and my aim is to reduce my flights, I first have to acknowledge the dissonant behaviour, because otherwise nothing is going to change.
NN: Or, at least it will change but outside of my conscious awareness. And I think if we honestly want to be able to consciously create something that is better than we have been able to create so far, then it requires a grappling with the darker shadow side of how we live and who we are, and what humanity is capable of.
NN: At least that’s my thought.
KL: I think it’s very interesting what you said. Even the whole other level to this is how we communicate with others, and I think, even then, the approach can’t always be so radical. There are just these different aspects to life within ourselves, we have that conflict with other people, we have that conflict.
And sometimes I think it’s more about coming together, understanding what the other person is thinking, rather than finding one perfect solution. Often, solutions to these really complex conflicts are found somewhere in the meddling grey zone. There isn’t this one [bang 00:37:08] solution, and now, it’s all solved. It more evolves over time and growing together.
And the same way in which you can have this dissonance within yourself and you somehow have to find a way to acknowledge it first, right? I would think we should try and do that with others as well. So, when you think about the kind of social identity you talked about, I think it’s problematic that you form your social identity as belonging to one group that shares one very specific set of opinions, because you should be able to connect with people of other opinions, and you should be able to have a conversation with them.
You don’t need to always change their opinion or find a solution, but it helps, right, to just connect with others so that we don’t end up in a bubble of, these are the people who think this thing versus these are the people who think the other thing and we don’t have anything in common.
NN: So, on that note, actually, because if we’re talking about one’s openness to other perspectives and opinions, maybe you can tell us a little bit about the traits of openness.
NN: And then also, a little bit about whether personality can change.
KL: Yeah, exactly. So, openness is a very interesting trait. So, it describes whether someone is into looking into new ideas. It’s related to liking things like art, exploring new things. And then, on the other hand, you have the opposite of openness, which is people who prefer to do things that they already know, keep things the way that they are, protect what they have.
So, the interesting thing about this trait is that it’s connected to political opinion, right? So, somewhere the two-party system that we see in some countries, it’s somewhere connected to what seems to be this human tendency to fall on each end of that spectrum. So, wanting change, or wanting to keep things the same, being excited by new things and people who are different and ideas that are different versus really enjoying what you have and wanting to hold on to it and wanting to protect it.
And both of them, I think, are beneficial and probably if we had a world where everyone is super-open, or everyone is super-conservative, it wouldn’t end up well. So, in a very optimistic sense, I think the fact that we have that split in our personalities, right, it shows that we need both, and both are beneficial, and you have to balance them out.
NN: So, how do we enter into relationship when there are many forces at play that are trying to enhance that sense of division, because I think even though people at the end of those spectra might have very different senses of what they value? As you mentioned earlier, we all have a sense of social connection, however that expresses itself. There are many things that we all seek, or that we all search for in our lives.
So, a desire to belong, a desire to connect, to be valued, to feel like we contribute in some meaningful way. This existential sense of wanting to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. So, given that I would suggest that all humans have that, how can we create a context in which people with different opinions, different sets of values, can actually meet and, I guess, find common ground again? Because it seems like there’s so much emphasis on difference that we forget that we have so much more that we share, and that these two elements have to be in dance with one another in order for the dance to happen, in order for it to actually work.
KL: And not just that. We find, also, that when you look at research in the corporate world, you find that teams who are diverse, so they have different ideas, different personalities, they tend to do better, or come up with more innovative ideas. So, there seems to be something really beneficial to that exchange, right?
And on an interpersonal level, I think sometimes it can be really helpful for people to just understand the concept of personality and how everyone is slightly different in the way that they act and what they like, and how they might react to what you say, or what they’re interested in. And that can often go a long way at just communicating this reassurance that they’re not against you, or they’re not crazy, or they’re not trying anything. They’re just different.
So, when you might be really excited to meet someone new, so you go up and you give them a hug and you talk to them, that might make them feel really uncomfortable, because they’re maybe more introvert. And just to acknowledge that difference in how we are, I think can sometimes help, at least, I think that’s why people value getting personality feedback, for example, right?
They take our personality tests, and then, they get some feedback and they learn something about themselves and that work can also happen in a team, where you can then learn about how the different team members might react to different situations. And it often goes a long way at just helping people appreciate that everyone is different and that it’s okay. It just means that you have to think about them a little bit differently than you would think about yourself.
NN: It almost sounds like we’re touching on this sense of awareness around the context so, the individual context, the person that we’re dealing with, so this sense of empathy or perspective shift, depending on someone else’s personality, their experience. And then also, having a sense that our perspective is not the only one that comes into play, and taking things maybe less personally.
Is that something that you think we can educate people on? Because I think a lot of the people who I’ve met who have a greater sense of context and of people actually living quite different lives in their own heads, despite sharing the same space, often people who have that perspective are the ones who’ve gone through therapy and who have been challenged themselves in breaking open what it is that drives them, how they perceive the world. And in being challenged, yeah, in what they think or what they took for granted as being real.
KL: Yeah. Everyone should do therapy first, if they get the chance to. It can never hurt. Well, it can hurt, if you find a really bad therapist.
NN: Famous last words, KL. Went to a therapist and they fucked me up. That’s not been my experience, but I have met people who’ve had bad times.
KL: But yeah, so I think we can change who we are, right? And, of course, we can learn more about other people, so I was raised in a family of psychologists, so this has been very intuitive to me, right? To think about people and what they’re thinking, and how they are, and what they’ve been through, and all of that stuff.
But I find that, to a lot of people, that’s not so intuitive and it’s interesting to learn about it. So, that is a good first step. And then, you can also change yourself, but that change doesn’t have to mean that you become, instead of being conservative, you become open, right? It’s okay to be that as well.
But like you said, to explore where your position is compared to other people and to be able to talk to them and engage and learn about other ideas is probably helpful.
NN: I think a lot of it, for me, comes down to this ability to cultivate curiosity.
NN: And also, to find a stable enough root within oneself to not feel threatened by difference, and that’s something which I think can be really difficult, especially when we’re going through a hard time.
To be able to say, “Okay, well maybe I’m taking this personally, but maybe this person has a completely different perspective and a different story, and what they’re saying has, actually, nothing to do with me or my backstory, or whatever that is.” Very easy to slip into a sense of taking things personally when, really, there are lots of other elements at play.
KL: Yeah. I find the most interesting conversations are when you’re trying to find out from the other person what got them to think in a certain way, rather than debating. So, when I disagree with someone, right, that can slip into a conversation that is very confrontational in our political times.
But what I find much more interesting in those instances is just trying to figure out why they think that. What they like about that idea. How they came to think it. And then, you walk away and you learn something about that person and you can maybe start talking about issues where you have a common ground or just sharing how your interpretation of the situation is very different.
So, unless, obviously, the other person is a complete disaster, usually, you can connect with people very interestingly if you try and find out where they’re coming from, basically.
NN: So, I’m curious then, because I’m focusing in this series on connection with the living world. And I’m curious what you think our sense of self does, in terms of defining our relationship to others, and to species, and to the natural world. How does our sense of self color the way that we relate to others?
KL: Yeah, I think there’s this, I don’t know if it’s Buddhist, but there’s this idea that first you help yourself, then you help others. And I think about that quite a bit because I don’t think that you can bring goodness and positivity to the world if you’re really hurting yourself, or if you’re really angry yourself.
So, the way in which you feel yourself, and your personality and who you are, that’s what you bring to the world, right? That’s what we want to communicate to others. That’s what we want others to see. And it happens, I think, very implicitly, in a way, right? So, if you’re in a really rough time in your life and you really can’t empathize with anyone, you’re much more likely to be drawn to those more confrontational ideas, or radical ideas.
And so, I think when we talk about the way in which we’ve destroyed the environment over the last decades and how we can respond to that, one way to think about it is, I think, how that was informed by our culture and who we are as individuals, and this focus on, “I, as a person, need to get the best possible life. I need to have the most comfort. I need to be comfortable. I need to own these things. I need to have success, and fame, and social media likes.”, right?
And that’s the number one goal, and it’s the goal despite everything else versus maybe thinking of a culture where it’s more about we’re connected to the world and to nature, and we want to live with it and experience it, and maybe grow something that goes beyond ourselves.
This is maybe a bit philosophical, but I see the two as related right? So, the way in which we’ve destroyed the environment and put that creation and production of things, and having what we need over everything, is related to the underlying culture. But maybe that’s all not true because it happens globally and there’s very different cultures engaging in it. So…
NN: So fascinating. That’s such a fascinating perspective. Do you think then it might be true to say that our sense of self is too small to encompass a meaningful sense of belonging within the natural world?
KL: Maybe. Yeah. Or at least we would have to… No, actually, I think, as humans, we are connected to the natural world, but we maybe don’t, at the moment, have the culture that helps us live that connection.
NN: So, with that in mind, the way that we are creating cultures that maybe supports certain systems, so for instance, I’m thinking about the political and economic systems that we have. You mentioned our desire for success and for individual accomplishment, which are things that I can certainly relate to.
A lot of what we try to do when we attain these things is to project ourselves into the future. To say, “Okay, well, when I get this job, when I get this marriage or this hot date, or the house, or the promotion.”, we’re projecting ourselves into the future.
And so, I wonder, how much of the choices we make now are reliant on this belief in our future, both individual and as a society, and what might change about how we feel about ourselves if suddenly this sense of human legacy and human civilization comes into question.
So, to be more concrete. If I am not sure that the people born today will actually survive in great numbers into adulthood because there’s food that might be scarce, water that’s going to be scarce, there’s going to be mass migration, there’s going to be famine. I know this is painting a very dystopian picture but let’s take it to that extreme to make the point.
If I don’t believe in the legacy, the possibility of legacy, or a future, how does that change the sense of self that we might have now, and the choices that we make?
KL: This is a very deep question. I think you can have very philosophical answers to it, right? But, I think part of that, we’re seeing at the moment, with people saying, “Hey, our future looks very different than what we thought. Our future will have all these consequences quite quickly from destroying the environment.”, and they’re acting on it, right, because they’re scared and they don’t see the odds playing out the way that they would have though they would.
And I think, not just how the future changes, but the political stability and climate around you hugely influences how you feel and how you act. I don’t think that it would necessarily influence your personality, but it gives you a completely different outlook and it might change how you behave and how you plan your life. And we’re very used to this political stability, at least my generation, we’ve grown up in extremely political times and we just see, I don’t want to call it small, but we see this slight political disturbance in the last few years and it’s already having this impact, right?
Our future is uncertain, and what about the environment? And what about all of this? And how is it going to go, and how am I going to plan now, that I don’t know where the future is going to go? And it’s a much more unsettled position to be in, and we will see how it plays out, right?
But if you look at generations who’ve grown up in turbulent times, in war times, I think it just takes so much energy away from progress, and all the energy is put into dealing with the pain that it’s caused. Right?
NN: So, surviving instead of thriving, really.
KL: Yeah. Not that you can’t do anything meaningful when you’re struggling to survive, right? But it’s a very different position to be in, and I think a lot of this, being on a podcast discussing where our lives might go, all of that gets taken away when there’s an immediate threat, right, and things become a lot more concrete and it’s just, I think, a completely different life.
When I talk to my grandmother, she grew up during the war and after the war. It’s just a very different outlook on life. Their focus was to be safe, to have a home, to live in a peaceful way, and just be okay. And when my granny looks at what we do today, she always says, “Oh, you have all these amazing opportunities, and look what you can do, all the exploring you can do.”
And it’s really sad because she would have probably done the same, had she grown up in similar circumstances but it gets taken away when you’re dealing with these existential threats and they last with you for the rest of your life.
NN: So interesting having this conversation because I feel like with the climate crisis unfolding as it is and the global self is already experiencing huge impacts. Mass flooding, droughts, et cetera. Wildfires, well, even in California. I mean, that’s not even the global self, but we’re starting to see this coming over the horizon and I think it’s starting to feel a lot more concrete and tangible to a lot of people who had previously been happily trundling along with our day-to-day lives. I include myself within this.
And we currently still have maybe the naïve luxury of being able to have these conversations. Or maybe it’s a necessity, that we actually get to prepare a little bit to do the work, to look at ourselves, to think about resilience, to think about adaptation, to consider how we might use the opportunities available to us, the technology, to be as adaptive as possible.
I wonder, given that we have all of these tools, and we have some time to prepare, which many people are not granted, what do you think may happen when social structures that uphold our current, let’s say, social behaviours suddenly change? So, for instance, when we get these political instabilities, or natural disasters occur, or we get this polarization between left and right, what happens to us as individuals and as societies when we’ve got a bit of a head’s up, but these things are coming our way? Does it have to go the way of your grandparents who suddenly didn’t have the opportunities and it was about survival, or is there another way to thrive in these difficult times, in the times that are to come?
KL: Yeah. It’s a difficult question. I don’t know that I’m can have a solution.
NN: Well, just even your sense, or yeah, your impression.
KL: I think people have also a different… It depends what change it is, right? But let’s just say change of a political system, people have different bandwidth, let’s say, to deal with those changes, and to accept them, and to adapt within it. And some people really struggle. And I just find it a bit ironic at the moment that a lot of this change is pushed through by a shift to conservatism when often people who are aligned with the values of conservatism want to keep things the way that they are, right?
NN: Yeah. There is an irony.
KL: Yeah, but it’s also very interesting at the same time because to maybe people who are less conservative, now it feels really uncomfortable, and why are all these things happening when we thought we’d made all this progress? But then, on the other side, you have to think, what about these people which are conservatives and who’ve seen a lot of social change over the last decades that they didn’t agree with? Were they feeling alienated the entire time? Is this what it feels like?
It’s very interesting because you have these different groups who feel left behind either way. That’s why you have to find a middle ground, is what I think. I have these discussions a lot around more radical political candidates, and I think, of course, we need all the change, but then, it’s worth nothing if you leave half of the population, or half of people just really upset and not comfortable or safe, in a way. But yeah, I’m not a politician.
NN: Yeah, I mean, I think the thing that I find so extraordinary is, and the more I read about this, the more complex the landscape appears to become, so just the sheer complexity of humanity and all the things that are impossible to resolve because it’s the nature of who we are as a species. We are complex. We are intentioned within ourselves and between ourselves, in terms of what we want for ourselves.
There’s just so much complexity and the more I dig the more I realize that there are certain things which appear to be irresolvable, and maybe that’s a good thing, but it’s about how to cultivate a sense of kinship, and tolerance, and value, to value the traits that maybe we feel less comfortable or familiar with, in order to find something that hopefully works for most of the people most of the time.
KL: Nobody wants to feel excluded or alienated, so that’s where I see a bit of the problem with the more extreme sides that have developed in British politics and in the US, I think as well. Because you almost feel like there is no solution because either side wins and the other side has completely lost. So, as long as you define things as these extreme sides there’s never going to be an end to it. But yeah.
I’m not a politician. As a psychologist, I can only say it’s very emotional, so when we try and make sense of Brexit, it’s a very emotional point. It’s the only way that I can make sense of it. There is not logical point to it.
NN: And I think maybe also there’s so much focus on the extremes that we forget that, actually, many people don’t sit at the extremes, that there is a huge appetite for coming together in some centre ground.
But I’m realizing that we’re already an hour, but I had two more questions that I want to ask you.
NN: I can ask you these two massive questions and you can give me a brief answer, which is completely unfair. I’m sorry. The first question is, what can we do to strengthen a core sense of self and belonging?
KL: Yeah. So, like I said, I think you need to talk to people about why they believe in things, what they see in things, right? So, if you find someone who supports another political candidate, or had a completely different opinion, try and find out what they see in that candidate, why they believe in them.
And I think often you find that you have similar reasons, at least, which gives comfort, right? So, everyone wants to be safe, everyone wants their family to be okay. Then obviously, there’s people who are evil, maybe, as well, but it often can help you.
Yeah, I don’t want to say it, other than I think about people who are like, “Yeah, but I never want to have these foreigners in my country.” Right? But I would say that even those people, they do it out of a sense of fear because, to them, foreigner means something threatening, someone who’s going to take away something from them.
So, I would hope to think that if you can show them that that’s not the case, then they wouldn’t think that, right? Maybe that’s a bit too optimistic and giving too much credit.
NN: No, I think I-
KL: Yeah, then there’s all the psychological tricks that we know and psycho-hygiene. There’s a lot of wellbeing things you can do, just from research, what we know what helps people, right? So, if you look at things that make people happy, it’s a meaningful relationship, so focusing on the big relationships in your life over work, or other constraints and making sure you foster relationships.
There’s things like being active, exercising. Having experiences in nature, actually. That makes people happy and feel connected, and then, not having a long commute, which I recently learned.
KL: If you can.
NN: So, on that note then, on recommendations for living a more meaningful, or satisfying, or pleasant life, what one insight or advice would you give to anyone listening about how to achieve that?
KL: Yes. Yes, you should do psychotherapy if you can. It helps.
NN: But find a good therapist that you like and trust. I remember one of my friends, Dr. Aaron Balick, once said to me, “It’s like dating. You’ve got to go on a few dates to make sure you’ve got the right chemistry.” Because if you’re going to spend quite a bit of time and money with this person, you want to make sure that you actually like and trust them.
KL: Yeah, but it’s like anything. When you want to learn a new sport, you should also find a good class, right?
NN: Yeah. Yeah.
KL: But if you can’t find the perfect class, just do it. A therapist also doesn’t have to be the best therapist in the world to have some benefit to you.
NN: No. But at least they’ve got to be good at what they do. That’s for sure. Yeah. Certain baseline.
KL: I think there’s lots of things you can do, but I think with psychotherapy, okay, my parents are therapists so I’m a bit biased on the subject, right? But there is a lot of stigma around it, yet it’s such an easy tool to make such a big difference.
KL: So, imagine you lived in a world where everyone just sits on their sofa all day and they never work out, that’s pretty much the world we live in on a psychological level, right?
NN: That’s such a good metaphor.
KL: Yeah, and we’ve learned that we need to exercise, and we need to do a sport or go to the gym, but we don’t do that for our psycho-hygiene. And if you can’t go to a therapist, you can do things like meditation, you can read books that help you think about yourself. But it’s important to even start thinking about that your wellbeing and your mental health can be something that you can shape.