March 15, 2013
New scientific evidence of the Golden Rule goes beyond the usual assumptions and suggests that if you treat others with disdain, you not only suffer, but activate the same neurology as physical pain.
Richard Ryan, co-author of a new University of Rochester study says, “This study shows that when people bend to pressure to exclude others, they also pay a steep personal cost. Their distress is different from the person excluded, but no less intense.”
“Although there are no visible scars, ostracism has been shown to activate the same neural pathways as physical pain,” says Ryan. But complying with instructions to exclude others was equally disheartening, the data shows, albeit for different reasons.
Something in our makeup intuitively understands our connectedness and suffers when others suffer
Spiritual sages over time have been clear about this. Modern science validates it. Case closed. Maximize your happiness by treating others how you’d like to be treated.
Why doesn’t this simple truth translate into world peace? For that matter, I often wonder why it doesn’t translate into greater peace within the walls of my own home. Somehow, the Golden Rule is not making its way, nearly enough, into practical life.
I can think of two reasons why. They both have to do with research that explains why we are so willing to inflict pain.
Yale University research demonstrates people are disturbingly willing to inflict pain on others
Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram demonstrated that people are disturbingly willing to inflict pain on others when instructed by an authority figure. In his classic research conducted in the wake of Nazi war crime trials, 65% of participants were willing to deliver 450 volts of electric shock to innocent victims who were obviously screaming in pain and objecting to the whole experiment. The participants were told that the shock there were delivering was beyond dangerous, but “ominous.”
Why were people willing to inflict such torture? Because they were instructed to do so by the researcher. They were told, “It is absolutely essential that you continue. You must go on.”
Before the study, researchers predicted that only 3% of participants would be willing to go all the way and really fry people. Not so; 65% were willing, even though they clearly showed signs of concern and needed to double check that it was “ok” to keep up the torture.
This study is not without controversy, as most people are not comfortable with the idea that people are so willing to hurt each other, but the results stand. When those in power give orders, people tend to follow. If the power structure is destructive, most people still obey.
Psychic masochism: the hard-to-believe, unconscious motivation to chuck the Golden Rule
We still haven’t dealt with the fact that if breaking the Golden Rule causes the perpetrator pain, why would anyone ignore it just to obey an authority figure? Further, how is it that individuals in the power structure are so willing to destroy, especially when they would be happier if they respected their fellow human beings? In short, why isn’t the Golden Rule the ultimate authority?
At this point it is obvious that something is distorted. The Golden Rule makes us happy. Breaking it causes everyone pain. Ignoring it consistently causes mass contention, war, death and a host of ills for our planet, way of life and the sustainability of our existence. We ignore the Golden Rule anyway. You must see the masochism – not sexual deviance – but readiness to inflict harm upon ourselves.
The answer lies in the work of the Edmund Bergler, psychiatry’s lost hero. Dr. Bergler should be a household name, yet his vast work – 25 books and 273 papers published in major medical journals – has been deleted from modern mental health.
Why? This is a story waiting to be told. If Dr. Bergler’s work had not been suppressed, mental health would be very different today. Psychiatry would not focus on medicating us, but on our multi-level blindness to why we inflict pain upon ourselves.
Dr. Bergler’s basic premise is this: long ago, you learned to take unconscious satisfaction in pain, misery and all manner of emotional angst. He called it psychic masochism – the basic human neurosis. It’s been referred to over the years as the “pleasure in displeasure” pattern.
Overwhelmed with infantile fury over the deprivation that all babies must endure (compared to the womb) even when your parents were conscientious, you developed a tolerance for suffering. Rather than suffer in agony, you made the suffering pleasurable. And, you became attached to it. You are still willing to experience suffering; even seek it out. If this were not the case, you wouldn’t suffer 90% of the emotional angst you suffer – it is self-inflicted, albeit unconsciously.
According to Bergler, this is simply how we have evolved and are far from beyond it. The pleasure-in-displeasure pattern is universal. If you think people are not attached to suffering, just look around. Many don’t know who they would be without their fear, guilt, shame, humiliation, anxiety, rejection or other brand of emotional pain. For many, some form of emotional angst is actually their baseline state of being. How is this not an attachment to suffering?
A Berglerian would say, then, that we are willing to ignore the Golden Rule to our own detriment because we find unconscious pleasure in emotional pain. We seek it out like a old, comfortable shoe.
Bergler stated that psychic masochism, the willingness to hurt ourselves emotionally and take strange satisfaction in it, is an indestructible force unless we consciously intervene. This is why self-sabotage is so commonplace. This is also why good psychotherapy works.
Of course, our massive psychological defenses keep us blind to all of the above. We have a hard enough time admitting common anger is our own responsibility and not caused by someone else. Admitting that we actually enjoy the wreckage is unimaginable.