Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Maslow Be Damned: How Social Belonging Trumps Everything

The need for social belonging is the primal human need - and failure to have it satisfied is subjectively worse than death.


Social Pain Causes Suicide

People don't commit suicide out of just any sorrow.

What suffering, specifically, is bad enough to cause people to want to pull the plug on existence itself? It is only and exclusively social pain.

The most modern, scientific model of the causes of suicide that we have is that articulated by Thomas Joiner in his 2005 book Why People Die By Suicide (my review here). Joiner's model, supported by a large body of empirical evidence, posits three conditions that reliably predict suicide: a failure of social belonging, the perception of oneself as a burden on others, and the development of competence in actually carrying out the difficult act of suicide. Only the competence factor is not a direct function of social belonging.

Other kinds of pain aren't sufficient to cause suicide - not hunger, not remorse, not even extreme physical pain. The research suggests that being a valued member of a social group, with a role to play in supporting others, is the most basic human need - not just on par with, but frequently surpassing other human needs such as those for food, shelter, sleep, and sex.

For example, the misery of prison is primarily one of failed social belonging. In the general population, marriage is protective against suicide, as is employment. But married prisoners and prisoners who were employed prior to incarceration are more likely to commit suicide than unmarried, unemployed prisoners. For the first group, incarceration represents a severance of important social bonds and a failure of belonging. For the second group, prison may merely be a continuation of previous social belonging experiences.

The fear of death itself may be, when reduced to its essence, primarily a fear of the ultimate social cutting-off, the final ostracism. The data on suicide and social belonging support the idea of suicide as revealed preference - that the value of life is not as high as the negative value of complete social ostracism. This is in contrast to the idea of suicide as necessarily irrational and a product of mental illness.

Hunger and Sympathy

The United Nations reported in 2009 that over one billion people are hungry in the world; that number currently grows by about a hundred million a year. The suffering of physical hunger is the easiest form of suffering to empathize with; indeed, a recent Foreign Policy article noted that the statistic of a billion hungry "grabbed headlines in a way that any number of World Bank estimates of how many poor people live on less than a dollar a day never did."

Here's the fascinating thing about hunger, though: as bad as prolonged malnutrition is - and we all agree that it is very bad - poor, hungry people do not spend every extra cent on more calories.

When staples like wheat and rice are subsidized so that people may buy them at a cheaper price, in many cases they buy less of the staple, and more meat and shrimp. People suffering from severe malnutrition (wasting, growth stunting) still spend money on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. Starving families still have televisions and cellular phones.

One response to this is to harden one's heart: if they're not hungry enough to spend every spare rupee on more calories, they must not be hungry enough to deserve our sympathy (much less our money).

A more productive response would be to view the data for what they are: evidence that some things are more painful than hunger. Specifically, the need for social belonging is more pressing than the need for food. Alcohol and tobacco are addictive substances, but a quick look at actual practices reveals that they are generally used socially (as in the fixed men's social groups that smoke together late into the night, in the 600-person Indian village Christopher Alexander studies in the appendix to his Notes on the Synthesis of Form). Spending on "festivals" is by its nature social. Television, described by one interviewee in the Foreign Policy article as "more important than food," functions both as a social focus for actual people, and a pleasant, comforting substitute for actual socialization. (Cellular phones need no explanation.) Even the "better tasting" food the poor seem to buy rather than more cheap, boring, nutritious food - the meat and shrimp from the China wheat study - is "high status" food, conveying a social message at least as important as its nutritional function.

As I have stated before, poverty doesn't just suck - it hurts. I think it a valid hypothesis that poverty is actually dreadfully painful - not only physically, but emotionally and socially. There is only so much pain we can expect a being to endure before his attempts to relieve it through future-damaging means becomes perfectly understandable and, in fact, rational.

What We Know About Social Pain

Why and how do we perceive social pain and social belonging, and how do these perceptions affect us? A recent body of research has provided some surprising answers.

  1. Social pain hurts like physical pain. fMRI studies have demonstrated that the pain of perceived social rejection involves the same brain regions as physical pain. Social pain even responds to acetaminophen!
  2. Social pain is ubiquitous. Everyone experiences it, even if they don't register it as such. People experience about one episode of social ostracism per day.
  3. Social pain is irrational. Subjects experience pain and lowered mood as a consequence of social ostracism even when they are explicitly told that it is merely a computer doing the "ostracizing." The pain of exclusion affects even people playing a computer ball game who are told their computers are not yet connected to the other computers, making inclusion logically impossible! Even ostracism by a despised outgroup - say, the KKK - induces the same misery as ostracism by other groups.
  4. Social pain affects individuals differently. A normal individual will experience depressed mood after minor social exclusion, but will recover within 45 minutes. A person with social anxiety will not have recovered even from a minor social exclusion after 45 minutes. Repeated exposure to cues of social rejection may even sensitize individuals to these cues, resulting in even more needless pain.
  5. What about autists? A 2011 study found that the brains of adolescents with autistic spectrum disorder did not process cues of social rejection the same as neurotypical brains, but they were just as hurt and concerned after experiencing social rejection! Not even autistic folks are immune from the pain of failed social belonging.

(For more on this fascinating subject, here are lists of publications for Kip Williams and Naomi Eisenberger, two major researchers in the field of social pain and ostracism. Williams' "Ostracism: The Kiss of Social Death" is an excellent introduction to the field.)

To sum up, social pain is more common, more painful, and less rational than is widely understood. Experiencing social pain is not optional; unfortunately, neither is causing social pain. By virtue of being born, each of us will cause innumerable incidents of social pain in others throughout our lives - most commonly without realizing it at all. But it's actually much worse than that, because one of the most common, effective responses to experiencing social ostracism is aggression toward others, even others not involved in the original ostracism event. Negative ripples spread out from each incident of social pain - and all the while the proximate source of the social pain may be entirely unaware of having caused it.

Analysis of a Decision to Smile

To illustrate the problem, consider the following everyday decision: whether or not to smile at a passing stranger.

A conscientious actor with a passing familiarity with evolutionary psychology literature will know that smiling at a stranger is potentially damaging, especially if the actor is attractive. When a woman smiles and acts warmly toward a man, he becomes less satisfied with his current partner. So smiling at a stranger may damage his relationship - negatively affecting not just him, but those around him as well, such as his partner and children.

However, the actor must also be aware that failing to smile may induce feelings of social ostracism in the stranger. This will not only cause the stranger suffering (especially if he happens to have social anxiety), but may cause him to act aggressively toward others to recover from the social pain.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the idea of the hedonic treadmill - the fact that an increase in welfare (say, from winning the lottery) does not lead to greater happiness, but causes one to reset one's expectations at a higher level. A benefit may only make the same level of happiness more expensive. I hope that this example illustrates that there is also an altruistic treadmill. It is impossible to do good for someone, because his expectations will reset to account for the deed. Unfortunately, others - even strangers - already depend on our altruistic inputs to them, and will feel their absence even while their provision would not make them any happier. It's a Giant's Drink situation: the only winning move is not to play.

But we've already all been forced to play.

The Lonely Modern

In learning about social pain, we have discovered a new Civilization and Its Discontents issue. Philippe Rochat, in a postscript to his excellent Others in Mind: Social Origins of Self-Consciousness, presents a picture of the kind of social life we evolved to experience:

Walking around in South Pacific island traditional villages, during the
day or in the pitch dark of moonless nights, it is almost impossible to cross paths with someone, young or old, woman or man, familiar or absolute stranger, without some greeting, without some acknowledgment of your existence, either called by your name or being asked what you are doing and where you are going, even if the response is very obvious. For individuals like me who grew up in rich postindustrial regions of the world, who struggle for their career and place in society, constantly under the spell of a panic fear of failure, of having failed, or of being an impostor, such simple, yet constant social acknowledgment amounts to the experience of tremendous relief. Finally one experiences the peace of being effortlessly recognized by others, the absolute sense of being socially substantial, as opposed to socially transparent.

This kind of small village experience lifts the curse of social transparency. One rediscovers what might be a long-lost intimacy and bonding with others, something like the absolute trust and acknowledgment we might have experienced once in love or with our mother in the long-lost high-dependence state of infancy. Who knows? What I am convinced of, however, and have tried to convince the reader of this book is that this kind of intimacy and bonding with others that is the wealth of small traditional society is what we all strive for, regardless of where we live and where we grew up. It is the force that leads us toward self-consciousness, probably more forcefully if we grow up in an industrial region of the world. If there is such a thing as a universal criterion for ‘‘the good life,’’ a comfort we would all aspire to, then it must be the sense of social proximity. It must be the sense of being acknowledged and recognized, of being included and intimate with others, no matter what. It is being safe, the ultimate prize and the ultimate refuge. [Emphasis mine.]

Rochat provides a glimpse of the alternative to our modern experience of daily social ostracism and consequent social pain: small village organization. Of course, this is not a real alternative; it is not possible for our enormous, complex modern society to operate in this way. Most of us would not even wish to live in this way, with its concomitant social control and extreme conservatism. I certainly would not. But it demonstrates that we are adapted to something very different than the environment in which we live. And this necessary mismatch - which, in fact, defines us as moderns - ensures that we will all suffer, and make each other suffer, interminably.

28 comments:

  1. Rob Sica points me to a study suggesting that living in a collectivist culture ameliorates an individual's genetic predisposition for depression - and that genes that result in depression in individualistic cultures are more common (though, again, not resulting in depression) in collectivist cultures. (I.e., the genes are common because they're not dangerous in context.)

    From the Science Daily write-up:

    "The study compared genetic frequency information and cultural value data across 29 countries (major European countries as well as South Africa, Eastern Europe, South Asia, East Asia and South America). The serotonin transporter gene (STG) that the researchers studied has two variants -- a short allele and a long allele. In Western populations, the short allele leads to a phenotype of major depressive episodes when people who carry it experience multiple life stressors.

    Previous research shows that nations in the East Asian region have a disproportionate number of short allele carriers, and the Northwestern researchers replicated that finding. They also replicated cultural psychology research demonstrating that nations within East Asia are typically more collectivistic."

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  2. How do you suppose then, that people in the developed West survive, on a day-to-day basis? It's no secret that most people experience far less social contact and recognition than they otherwise would in a tribal community.
    My idea is that these people survive due to the presence of superstimuli in their daily lives; music for human speech, television for social contact, video games for recognition and achievement, and so on. It is rare, certainly, to find at least one person who does not indulge in any form of escapism outside of Buddhist temples.
    I think, however, that the development of the internet may reverse this trend to an extent, as it allows one to quickly receive recognition and praise within seconds - from far more people than we would naturally be accustomed to. Hypothetically, I'd wager if humans eventually integrated the internet into their brains directly, there'd be far fewer suicides - I have seen so many cases myself of downtrodden social misfits having a completely separate, more successful, life on the internet.
    3 more chapters of Others in Mind to go, by the way.

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  3. IIRC, people from Eastern cultures self-report lower happiness levels than their Western counterparts, probably due to the fact that happiness is not considered as important in those cultures (can't remember where I read that). More evidence that less depression!=more happiness (and the bankruptcy of the whole concept of happiness).

    I really like your idea of the altruistic treadmill.
    I think it's also important to note that people in countries that receive hunger relief tend to have more children (due to high mortality rates, to ensure that some survive). Feeding such people while they are allowed to be fertile (or, at least, as long as they are allowed to have custody of and exploit the children they produce) is a fucking atrocity. This equally applies to beneficiaries of SNAP and similar programs, obviously.

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  4. Hmm... I'll have to think about this one for a while. It certainly doesn't gel with my personal experience at all, but hey, the plural of anecdote isn't data.

    I'm almost certain I'd kill myself to escape torture, for example- pretty much regardless of my social standing at the time.

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  5. Sister Y,

    Does the argument you present in this post coincide with your suicidal tendencies?

    -MM

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  6. I'm glad you mentioned television. It seems that every few years there's a new survey showing that some lamentably high percentage of the population wouldn't give up TV for a zillion dollars and the editorial spin is always so predictably snide. But I'm quite convinced that television brings great comfort to countless lonely and otherwise disconnected people. I suppose this may be sad in some deep sense. But is also good, I think, that such a palliative is so widely available. If the sense of connection one finds in a laugh-track is inauthentic, it hardly seems to matter. Anomie is worse.

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  7. I never thought I'd start asking this sort of question, but: is it better, then, to smile and greet and otherwise act "warmly" toward others, or does this spoil them and backfire?

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  8. CM, absolutely - the guy who mentions that television is more important than food has 13 children. Population is not mentioned AT ALL in the Foreign Policy article. I think David Attenborough is completely correct that there is an effective taboo about discussing population.

    Todd, just think back to high school. <3

    Modern Man, I am an introvert but have a pretty happy social life, although I'm certain I don't get the same pleasure from socializing that my more extroverted friends get. I find socializing to be mostly a chore and a burden, other than with my closest friends and lovers (and sometimes even then). I dunno.

    Chip, I agree. Television is at least as important as alcohol and tobacco to worldwide happiness.

    Tim, I have no idea which is better. I struggle with this every day.

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  9. Sister,

    In high school I was rather enamored with transhumanism, and more or less convinced I was going to live quite happily for multiple centuries. Needless to say, I am now somewhat unimpressed by the idea. :)

    I find it's pretty easy to accept the validity of psychological research until it says something about me that I don't like. ;) What I take away from this post is that I'm not nearly as suicidal as I thought- that I'm pretty much hardwired to just lie back and accept all kinds of horrific suffering, as long as my in-group still needs and accepts me. You can imagine how that's a deeply unsettling revelation to someone who abhors suffering so much that they wish nobody had ever been born.

    My deep-seated intuition is that I would rather not exist than be homeless, or go to prison (not because of the ostracism part, but because of the ass-rape part), or be part of a human centipede, or have a root canal without anesthesia. Yet science seems to tell me that I would go along with any of those things (and much worse) so long as I'm loved and wanted by other people, that my intuition is totally wrong, that I don't know myself or my motivations very well at all. I have no control, no real faculty of self-determination.

    It's... it's just a tough pill to swallow, that's all.

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  10. Todd, your response indicates you understand what I was trying to get across perhaps even better than I do. It is incredibly disturbing.

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  11. Todd: My deep-seated intuition is that I would rather not exist than be homeless, or go to prison (not because of the ostracism part, but because of the ass-rape part), or be part of a human centipede, or have a root canal without anesthesia.

    One of these things doesn't seem to be like the other. A root canal without anaesthesia would suck massively, but it's momentary and largely physical pain rather than social or psychological or emotional pain. Once it's over, it's over.

    I broke my nose two weeks ago, and five days after the accident I saw a doctor who put it back into place by inserting the butt of a scalpel into one of my nostrils and yanking the lower part of my nose back into place so that it wouldn't be off-center and so that I could breath through a nostril that after the fracture was constricted. The lower part of my nose had already started to knit to the upper part it was broken off from, so he had to re-break my nose while I was fully conscious (though with local anaesthesia), and I had to cooperate by keeping my head stiff so he could move it back into place. I have no memory of any greater pain, and during the procedure accessed a palette of expletives I didn't know was in my repertoire, but the pain subsided to the level of nuisance after a few minutes as was gone by the next day. Still, I'd rather have that procedure done again than suffer a double-dose of the social and emotional pain I experience on a fortnightly basis.

    I may just be weird (especially for a man -- aren't men on average supposed to be less tolerant of physical pain than women?) in that physical pain doesn't really bother me or that emotional and social pain bothers me as much as it does, but this would be hugely counterintuitive and from what I can tell counterevidential.

    Todd, do you suffer more now than you did in high school? Does the same amount of insult from the world hit you harder? Was the move away from transhumanism entirely cerebral or did life *feel* suckier?

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  12. One of these things doesn't seem to be like the other. A root canal without anaesthesia would suck massively, but it's momentary and largely physical pain rather than social or psychological or emotional pain. Once it's over, it's over.

    True. It's mostly an anticipation thing: I'd be much more active in pursuing ways to eliminate my ability to feel pain if the procedure were scheduled to be an hour from now, than I would be after the ordeal has already taken place. It's another one of those loss-aversion things (as recently discussed on this very blog) that seems totally irrational on the face of it, but actually speaks to our real, lowest-level psychological priorities.

    I've always perceived myself as having lower pain tolerance than other males. Hell, I can't even watch people getting punched in kung-fu movies without feeling queasy. :)

    Todd, do you suffer more now than you did in high school? Does the same amount of insult from the world hit you harder? Was the move away from transhumanism entirely cerebral or did life *feel* suckier?

    That's a tough question to answer. My whole worldview has evolved so radically over the last few years that I can't retrace the exact path that led me here. I think a sharp increase in mortality salience must have been a critical factor.

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  13. The Plague DoctorMay 22, 2011 at 3:05 AM

    Sister Y: "Even ostracism by a despised outgroup - say, the KKK - induces the same misery as ostracism by other groups."

    This does not go together with your evolutionary explanation: it should not be suicide-inducing to be despised by nonrelatives.

    * * *

    Todd: "What I take away from this post is that I'm not nearly as suicidal as I thought- that I'm pretty much hardwired to just lie back and accept all kinds of horrific suffering, as long as my in-group still needs and accepts me. ".

    (Physical) suffering and social disutility are not mutually exclusive. Torture may lead to physical disfigurement or disability, and imprisonment may reduce economic productivity to zero, both resulting in negative social utility. Also, one would expect that it is perceived social utility, not actual social utility, which is predictive for suicidal desire. If you feared the torture would negatively impact your abilities, that would be enough.

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  14. Plague Doctor,

    I have no doubt that the (very real) fears of impairment and disutility factor into my fear of torture, but I don't think it's wildly off the mark to say that something like 99% of it is merely the fear of physical pain. Consider a device like (NERD ALERT!) the agony booth, which combines the physical suffering of old-fashioned torture without the utility-lowering side effects (setting mental trauma aside for the sake of argument).

    Based on what I (believe I) know about myself, given the choice between spending time in the agony booth or going to sleep and never waking up, I would choose the latter with little or no hesitation. The question is: does that mean that physical pain divorced from social consequences really is enough to drive me to suicide after all, or does it mean that, at a primitive level, my brain is unable to accept that one can occur without the other? I don't know. As it turns out, introspection only goes so far.

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  15. The Plague DoctorMay 22, 2011 at 11:10 PM

    As Agony Booths (suffering without consequences) did not exist in the EEA, the second half of my reply to you applies.

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  16. I find this article and your commentary largely agreeable, but I do have several alternative views

    *Social and/or sexual failure (neither meant perjoratively / in a bigoted way) are, IMO, very much linked - in one's own mind if nowhere else. However, one can diminish the value of these things in one's own mind IF he or she develops a strong capacity for creative, independent thought. In fact, even these aren't absolutely necessary. It's simply enough that they sink their teeth into hobbies and interests with NO social or sexual content. Still, these interests have to be able to distract them adequately from it so where the socially isolated person can say "Well, ok, I failed. But at least I have my hobbies,interests, independent thinking, and interest in learning more and more about the nature of things". That alone will take at least a lot of the edge out of feeling worthless. Therefore, while social contact is important, it's not necessarily the spirit-killer your blog post suggests it is (even less do I find sexual success that important - but that might be becuase I, like you, am antinatalist, and therefore know the game the DNA and our brains play: warp our perceptions of reality so that there's one more living thing out there!)

    *Being rejected by highly despised people causing pain - I think only the most socially desperate person imaginable could ever react in this way. Maybe that is your point - that being accepted by a despised group is a good think if other more respected groups reject you. Still, this does not hold for most people with even rather poor social standing.

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  17. PS. I suppose my point was that this post works for most people out there, but nevertheless there are ways to be content without social, sexual, career, etc. success - especially if you feel you are learning more about the world. Then again, I suppose that's also part of your point: people will watch TV for much the same reasons, or throw themselves into a career, also for much the same reasons.

    It's mainly when we pay too much attention to popular culture that we tend to think status, career, social and sexual success is the end-all be-all reason for existence. Also, by we (on average) ourselves judging others by these same criteria, we are just perpetuating the problem.

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  18. Plague Doctor -

    This does not go together with your evolutionary explanation: it should not be suicide-inducing to be despised by nonrelatives.

    Very important issue - so important I wrote a separate post in response. Thanks.

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  19. This entire thread should definitely be read while listening to the Divine Comedy's "A Lady of a Certain Age."

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  20. The Plague DoctorMay 23, 2011 at 11:47 AM

    estnihil,

    Advocatus Diaboli has argued that 'real-life friends' are useless.

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  21. The Plague DoctorMay 23, 2011 at 11:49 AM

    filrabat,

    I suspect you may be asexual, and are assuming others are equally capable of sublimating their sex drive.

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  22. Plague Doctor: This does not go together with your evolutionary explanation: it should not be suicide-inducing to be despised by nonrelatives.

    For most of our evolutionary history, we haven't been in social environments with non-relatives. Or, more nuancedly, the density of relatedness in our environment was a lot higher than it is today. So a mechanism to distinguish between social disapproval by relatives and social disapproval by non-relatives wouldn't have been very fitness-enhancing.

    And even if such a mechanism existed, it would be unlikely to discriminate cleanly. There's still be bleed from relatives into non-relatives.

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  23. I'm not quite sold on the idea that the conclusion we should draw from this is that "It is only and exclusively social pain [that can despair people to the point of suicide]."

    I would lean towards the competing hypothesis, which would be that only social pressure is capable of guilting people into trudging on despite suicidal impulses. I know that this is true of my own case. Even though I am accepted and appreciated within a particular circle, I would trade all of it (i.e., have these people no longer have any emotional investment in my continued existence and be able to emotionally cope with my chosen death) for a peaceful way out in a heartbeat.

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  24. Plague Doctor,

    A few people have wondered if I am asexual - including me for several years once past age 29. I ended up doubting it though, given I still find women's bodies and charm interesting to a degree. However, I'm very much better able to resist than I used to. That may be due to age though (I'm 43).

    Still, I think at least part of the blame must go to the media for artificially intensifying the sex drive (especially in young males).

    @Lysandor

    I definitely agree with your remarks - social pressure keeping people from committing suicide. Still, I think suicide, despite being a reasonable option in some circumstances, should be very carefully considered. After all, family and friends will be hurt by your actions. Consider if what you have to gain from the suicide is really worth the inevitable agony they would feel if you offed yourself.

    As it is, I think that - any religious beliefs aside - the best we ANs can do is alleviate whatever suffering we can PLUS get the AN message out to people who need to hear it. That should give give us a good counterargument to the "Why don't you commit suicide?" charge, if nothing else.

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  25. I agree with Todd's first comment. The existence of hermits and misanthropes should lead us to question the idea of a universal need for social belonging. The conditions of human upbringing and human life make it difficult to identify the extent to which the supposed emotional need is just a combination of emotional addiction and pragmatic need. By emotional addiction to other people, I mean an expectation of emotional gratification (the details may be idiosyncratic) that is not actually necessary for happiness; by a pragmatic need, I mean division of labor and the practical assistance in general which people can offer each other.

    Other people can be good for you and they can be bad for you. But the idea that you emotionally need there to be other people in your reality is like saying that you must find other people who are good for you, or else life will be intolerable. I think this is the emotional addiction speaking - a dependence acquired in childhood and usually never abandoned. I suspect it's only when necessity forces a person to become practically self-sufficient that they also begin to discover emotional self-sufficiency as well. (Practical self-sufficiency = you're on your own in the world, no-one is looking after you.)

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  26. "Half Sigma's Instinct Hierarchy": http://www.halfsigma.com/2012/09/half-sigmas-instinct-hierarchy.html

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  27. Sister Y, You definitely understand this subject by depth. I'm thinking about suicide as an emergent version of the cellular scale delete-yourself autophagy.

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  28. Maslow was wrong. See SSRN article:

    Nain, Bhavya, Nain's Hierarchy of Needs: An Alternative to Maslow's & ERG's Hierarchy of Needs (June 14, 2013). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2279375

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