From Rats in Cages to Primates in Paradise — The Scientific Story of Stress in Society

from rats in cages to primates in
paradise the scientific story of stress in
society the immediate need for basic income in recognition of the effects of
chronic stress and the importance of improving environments by Scott Santens
at the end of 2015 after a year-long journey I achieved the
realization of an idea with the help of about 140 people that has already
forever changed the way I look at the very foundations or lack thereof upon
which all of society is based I now firmly believe we have the
potential through its universal adoption to systemically transform society for
the better even more so than many of those most familiar with the idea have
long postulated because for me the idea is no longer just an idea it’s not
theory it is part of my life it’s real and the effects are undeniable for
someone actually living with it the idea of which I speak goes by the name of
basic income but it’s best understood not by name but by function and that
function is simply to provide a monthly Universal starting point located above
the poverty line as a new secure foundation for existence it’s an
irrevocable stipend for life in the u.s. it would be something like $1000 for
every citizen every month all other income would then be earned as
additional income on top of it so that employment would always pay more than
unemployment this may sound overly expensive but would save far more than
it costs it would also really only require an additional net transfer of
around 900 billion dollars and that’s without subtracting the existing welfare
programs you could replace and also without simplifying the tax code through
the replacement of all the many credits deductions and subsidies it could also
replace basically we’re already handing out money to everyone rich and poor
alike but in hundreds of different ways through thousands of government
middlemen who only serve to disincentive I as employment by removing government
supports as a reward for working odds are this idea is new to you but it’s not
a new idea it’s been considered for hundreds of
years from as long ago in the US by founding father Thomas Paine in the 18th
century to Richard Nixon Martin Luther King jr. and free-market living Milton
Friedman in the 20th century to a quickly growing list of new names here
in the 21st century its advocates know no ideological lines supporters include
Nobel prize-winning economists libertarians progressives conservatives
climate change activists tax reformers feminists anarchists doctors human
rights defenders racial justice leaders and the list goes on for such an old
idea that’s been endorsed by so many for so long and yet has obviously never yet
come to be you may be thinking why now the answer to such a question has
economic reasoning rooted in the globalization of labor and the
exponential advancement of technology is capable of entirely replacing labor but
as important as this particular discussion is to have it centered more
on the idea of a future problem and less a present one however our problems are
very much in the present and to see why we need to go deeper much deeper beyond
technology and economics and into human biology itself to do that we’ll first
need to look at what we as humans have learned from some animals in the lab and
in the wild because I think doing so pulls back the curtain on our entire
social system as is true with many scientific discoveries they tend to be
accidental and the story of Martin Seligman and some dogs back in 1965 is
no different Seligman wanted to know if dogs could be classically conditioned to
react to bells in the same way as if they’d just been shocked so we put them
in a crate with a floor that could be electrified and shocked them each time
he rang a bell the dog soon began to react to the Bell as if they’d been
shocked next however he put them in a special crate where they could leap to
safety to avoid the shock and this is where the surprise happened
the dogs wouldn’t leap to safety it turns out they’d learn from the prior
part of the experiment that it didn’t matter what they did the shock would
come anyway they had learned helplessness Seligman then tried the
experiment with dogs who had not been shocked and may leap to safety just as
expected but the dogs would learned helplessness
they just sadly laid down and whimpered fast-forward to 1971 where scientist
named je vais explored this further with rats and cages he put three rats into
three different cages with electrodes attached to their tails and a wheel for
each to turn one rat was the lucky rat no shocks were involved
another would get shocks that could be stopped by turning its wheel the third
was the unlucky one it would get shocked at the same time as the second rat but
it could do nothing about it the third rat would only stop getting
shocked when the second rat turned its wheel can you guess what happened even
though the two rats that were shocked got shocked at the same time and for the
same duration of time their outcomes were very different the rat who had the
power to stop the pain was just a bit worse off than the rat who experienced
no pain at all however the rat who had no control
whatsoever stuck with a lover that did nothing became heavily ulcerated like
the dog it too had learned helplessness the cost of this lesson was its health
of course humans are not dogs or rats there’s a bit more complexity when it
comes to us and our physiological responses
for us perception is a key factor this is where something called attribution
comes into play of which there are three important kinds
that lead to humans learning helplessness internal stable and global
think back to when you first started school and try to remember your first
math test what if after taking that first test you did poorly on it instead
of all the other possible reasons for why that could happen you decided it was
because you sucked at math that’s an internal attribution now imagine you
applied the attribution to all math tests that’s a stable attribution it’s
not a one-time thing now imagine you applied at beyond math to all classes
that’s a global attribution consider the results of such perceptions maybe that
first math test was simply too hard for everyone in the class maybe it wasn’t
just you maybe your poor grade was due to not studying hard enough or because
you were too hungry or too tired but instead because you decided it was your
fault and it meant you were stupid your entire life went down a different path
even though at any point along the way you could have escaped that path just
like Seligman’s dogs could have escaped the shocks what if you had learned
helplessness from that first math test we can learn to be helpless in an
environment that actually offers us control and the feeling itself of
control can be the difference between a life full of unending stress and a
relatively stress-free life it’s even been shown that we only need to be told
there’s nothing we can do in order for us to feel there’s no point in trying
it’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy tell everyone there’s no point in voting
and fewer people will vote what all of this shows is twofold and extremely
important to remember we can learn to be helpless in an environment that actually
offers us control and the feeling itself of control can be the difference between
a life full of unending stress and a relatively stress-free life stress is
more than a feeling stress is a physiological response and it has
important evolutionary reason for being back in the day many thousands
of years ago our ancestors who could shift into a kind of emergency gear
where long-term higher-order creative thinking shut down and the body was
enabled to think faster react quicker be stronger move faster run longer and
think only about survival those were the humans who survived we
call this now the fight-or-flight response and we’re this once incredibly
important response was evolutionarily adaptive it is now maladaptive we don’t
live in that same world anymore where it made so much sense we aren’t
being chased down by lions are being eaten by wolves while sitting in front
of our computers in her air-conditioned offices and yet our fight-or-flight
response is still being activated in fact for far too many daily existence is
nothing but fight-or-flight long-term stress is a real problem and I would
argue is not just a health problem it’s a problem for human civilization one of
the most knowledgeable scientists in the world in this area is Robert Sapolsky a
pioneering neural endocrine ologist and professor at Stanford University who has
spent more than 30 years studying the effects of stress on health of which
there are many over the years Sapolsky has found that long-term stress
increases one’s risk of diabetes cardiac problems and gastrointestinal disorders
stress suppresses the immune system it causes reproductive dysfunction in men
and women it suppresses growth in kids it affects developing fetuses newer
evidence even shows it causes faster aging of DNA but potentially worst of
all is what it does to the human mind prolonging fight-or-flight into a
chronic condition means that neurons in the brain related to things like
learning memory and judgment all suffer the consequences thanks to the
wide-ranging effects of our double-edged sword stress hormones called
glucocorticoids recent research has even shown this response made chronic
is a self-perpetuating cycle a constantly stressed-out brain appears to
lead to a kind of hardening of neural pathways essentially feeling chronic
stress makes it harder to not perceive stress creating a vicious cycle of
unending stress on top of this and related back to Isis rats in human
attribution theory is the coping responses of those who are stressed out
I think of the off lever in the second rats cage there are many such lovers
around us and although that can be effective in reducing our stress levels
many of them are arguably pretty bad off switches these responses include acting
out against others otherwise known as displacement aggression or bullying yes
bullying is an effective coping mechanism as the saying goes shit rolls
downhill and there’s actually a scientific reason for that other than
gravity in a hierarchy it is healthier after a loss to start another fight with
someone you can beat than to mope about the loss the former is the abdication of
control a form of learned helplessness and the latter is the creation of
control a kind of learned aggressiveness life in the 21st century is full of both
when the learned helplessness side there have been an estimated 45,000 suicides
per year since 2000 with a sharp rise since 2007 that can all be attributed to
the stresses surrounding the economic and securities of unemployment and
underemployment the u.s. is even confounding the world with a mysterious
and dramatic rise in mortality rates among middle-aged white men and women
who all appear to be drinking or overdosing themselves to death on the
displacement aggression side we see bullying of traditionally marginalized
groups in a global and market increase of anti-immigrant sentiment which has
already led directly to the election of Donald Trump and as a result cries for
border walls and travel bans we are seeing a rise in authoritarianism which
is fundamentally a cry for more control and predictability a
society full of unhealthy people getting sick more than they otherwise would be
saddled with difficulties learning and remembering suffering from weakened
judgment and short-term survival thinking and violently turning on each
other as a means of coping is not a recipe for
success it’s a recipe for disaster especially faced with species and
dangering challenges like climate change that demand long term thinking but there
is hope and that hope Springs from the same well as our problems there is an
animal out there one of our cousins actually in the primate family who leads
somewhat similar lives to us they are high enough in the food chain to
generally not be bothered and smart enough to be the primary cause of each
other’s problems or as Sapolsky has described it they’re just like us
they’re not getting done in by predators and famines they’re getting done in by
each other that animal is the baboon and it’s the animal Sapolsky has been
studying for decades in doing so he’s found three primary factors in
predicting stress levels the first predictor is the social hierarchy itself
those are the top tend to live the most stress-free lives thanks to having more
control and those at the bottom tend to live the most stressful lives thanks to
having less control there is however an important caveat to this the stability
of the social hierarchy matters if the top baboon faces what is effectively a
baboon revolution that can be pretty stressful in other words more unequal
societies lead to more stress for everyone the second primary factor is
personality just as primates are smart enough to be stressed for other animals
wouldn’t they’re also able to not be stressed where others would a baboon who
worries for his life every time another baboon walks by is going to be far more
full of stress hormones than a laid-back baboon personality is therefore a factor
that can override one’s position in the hierarchy for better
you can even strongly predict one’s rank the third primary factor actually
Trump’s all it turns out that stress-related diseases are powerfully
grounded in social connectedness at the bottom of the social hierarchy and prone
to stressing out based on your personality that can still be okay for
your health and well-being as long as you have strong social supports friends
family and community to override it all sometimes all we really need is to know
we are not alone this social trump card even helps
explain the prevalence of religion in human societies it’s the creation of a
perceived control lever that reduces stress across all factors including the
all-important social support factor the result is that attending religious
services regularly is actually surprisingly good for human health all
of this goes a long way toward explaining a great deal of human
behavior the construction of a social hierarchy is a naturally emergent
phenomenon of our biology being above someone else in rank offers a level of
control and predictability our personalities help determine our ranks
and also how we cope with a lack of control and predictability our social
relationships help put our lives in the world around us into perspective however
this is no meritocracy and much depends on the circumstances of birth because
our personalities are greatly determined by our environments especially as kids a
positive feedback loop can emerge where those born and raised in high stress
environments full of impoverishment and inequality are unable to escape those
environments this can then become self-perpetuating through each
successive generation that follows we see this happening right now for all
those born into the bottom fifth of American society about half remain there
as adults the same is true for the top fifth meanwhile the middle 60% are twice
as mobile as either one if we care about the
American dream we should consider the implications what’s the result of such
generational stratification of little social mobility what need look no
further than our coping mechanisms the levers of control we create to
understand why so many things we don’t want emerge from highly unequal
societies remember displacement aggression in 1890 study of 50 countries
concluded economic inequality is so significantly related to rates of
homicide despite an extensive list of conceptually relevant controls that a
decrease in income inequality of 0.01 Gini a measure of inequality leads to
12.7 fewer homicides per 100,000 individuals simply put and this is a
robust finding growing inequality leads to growing violence a meta-analysis of
34 separate studies even found 97% of the correlations reported between social
inequality and violent crime to be positive meaning as one got bigger or
smaller the other got bigger are smaller addictions are another result drug use
is a lever of control that is also an escape we may not be able to control
anything around us but we can control an entirely personal decision that is as
simple as drinking that vodka or smoking that cigarette it can function as the
middle finger to everything and everyone around us as a way of saying I may be
stuck in this cage but you can’t stop me from using this to feel like I’ve
escaped if only temporarily and even if only an illusion this is me controlling
the one thing I can control myself consider again the mysteriously growing
mortality rates middle-aged white people do to overdoses and liver disease as
economic inequality increases others scientifically correlated effects
include reduced trust and civic engagement eroded social cohesion higher
infant mortality rates lower overall life expectancy
see more mental illness reduced educational outcomes higher rates of
imprisonment increased teen pregnancy rates greater rates of obesity and the
list continues to grow as inequality related research grows additionally if
you look closely at such a list of effects
it shows the erosion of social supports if you are less likely to trust your
neighbor if you aren’t as involved in your community if you were those you
interact with are more aggressive if you are depressed and just want to be alone
that means the all-important trump card for handling stress social connectedness
vanishes this too has its own feedback loop less social connection means more
stress which means less social connection it’s an unending cycle for
human misery it’s also exactly what we’ve been observing in the United
States for decades Robert Putnam wrote an entire book about it back in 2000
titled Bowling Alone the title originated from this statistic that
although more people are bowling less people are doing it in leagues as
observed by Putnam quote community and equality are mutually reinforcing social
capital and economic inequality moved in tandem through most of the 20th century
in terms of the distribution of wealth and income America in the 1950s and
1960s was more egalitarian than it had been in more than a century
those same decades were also the high point of social connectedness and civic
engagement record highs in equality and social capital coincided conversely the
last third of the 20th century was a time of growing inequality and eroding
social capital the timing of the two trends is striking summer around 1965 to
1970 America reversed course and started becoming both less just economically and
less well-connected socially and politically unquote viewed through
Sapolsky a decade of scientific investigation into the
of stress and backed by everything we’ve observed since the great decoupling in
1973 where national productivity has continued to grow
but wage growth has been non-existent it becomes disappointingly clear that all
of this is actually of our own making through the policy decisions we’ve made
to increase inequality in the blind pursuit of unlimited growth through the
cutting of taxes and subsidizing of multinational corporate interests and
through the pursuit of globalization without regard for its effects on the
middle classes of developed nations such that 70% of households in 25 advanced
economies saw their earnings drop in the past decade we’ve created a societal
feedback loop for chronic stress and we’re paying the price but it doesn’t
have to be this way just as we know more about why things are the way they are
because of some rats and cages and some baboons in East Africa those same
animals point the way forward and what was a sad day for Sapolsky but a
remarkable day for science he discovered back in the mid-1980s that the very
first baboon troop he’d ever studied had experienced a die-off half of the troops
males had died of tuberculosis from eating tainted garbage because those at
the top did not allow wicker males and any of the females to eat their prized
trash all of them died the result was a truly transformed Society of baboons a
greater sense of violet arianism became the new rule of the jungle so to speak
bullying of females and/or males became a rarity replaced with aggression
limited to those of closed social rank aggressive behaviors like biting were
reduced while affectionate behaviors like mutual grooming were increased the
baboons got closer literally they sat closer to each other
stress plummeted even among those at the very bottom of the new hierarchy even
more amazingly this happier more peaceful Society of baboons has lasted
over the decades despite members leaving and joining and what appears to
a transmission of societal values new baboons are taught that in this
particular society bullying is not tolerated and tolerance is more the
general rule not the exception essentially a new feedback loop was
created where the sudden reduction in inequality led to less stress and
greater community which led to a new normal of less stress and greater
community as dr. friends BM de Waal the director of the Living Link center at
the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University put it in a
2004 interview with the New York Times but the baboon findings quote the good
news for humans is that it looks like peaceful conditions once established can
be maintained as much as the story of these baboons how to reveal about the
importance and the hope of a less stressed-out
more peaceful society there is another animal story that in my opinion shows
the most potential for mankind of all in what has become a very well known and
discussed kind of study rats were put into cages and given the opportunity to
press a lever to self administer drugs like cocaine they medicated themselves
to death and thus went down in history as the kind of experiment to point to
that reveals the helplessly addictive dangers of drugs and how we must be
protected from their usage for our own good this is the ammunition for the war
on drugs in a nutshell meanwhile in what has become a far too little-known
variation of this study but I considered to be one of the most important ever
devised a new kind of experiment was run in an entirely different environment
called rat Park hypothesizing that perhaps having nothing to do but just
exist alone in a cage may have something to do with drug usage a psychologist
named Bruce Alexander decided to create a kind of rat heaven before offering
rats drugs instead of a cage rats were given a huge space to roam between tree
painted walls and a forest like floor full of toys and other rats to play and
mate with food to eat obstacles to climb tunnels
to traverse etc within this paradise for rats morphine laced water was introduced
the rats could drink as much as it ever they wanted incredibly the rats didn’t
care for it opting for plain water instead the morphine water was then made
sweeter and sweeter until eventually the rats finally drank it but only because
it apparently tasted so good not for the narcotic effects this was even confirmed
by adding a drug to the water now Trek’s own that nullified the effects of the
morphine which resulted in the rats drinking more of the water all of this
was in strong contrast to solitary rats and cages given the same choices who
took to the morphine water immediately and strongly in fact it’s even been
found that solitary existence within a cage actively prevents neurogenesis the
growth of new neurons within the brain it turns out neuro scientists for
decades thought it impossible for adults to grow new neurons because they were
studying solitary animals in cages of the whole time it’s therefore only
recently that we’ve learned that impoverished environments actively limit
brain development what this all reveals is more than the great lie of the drug
war it reveals the vast importance and great differences of living alone in a
cage and living in a world of abundance and social bonds viewed in the context
of everything else discussed it shows the importance of constructing an
environment for the purpose of bringing out the best in us instead of the worst
in us building a paradise for humans is up to us we’re because everyone has
enough and inequality is low enough we won’t reach for those levers of control
that end up being against our better interests so how do we build human Park
it is only in my studies of the idea of basic income that I’ve seen glimpses
into this idea of a human Park like a bunch of puzzle pieces that can be
collected to form into a picture the evidence behind simply giving people
money without strings forms a profound image of a better world that can exist
right now if we so choose remember the three primary factors that determine our
levels of stress creating a less unequal Society is step one there exists in the
world today and has its 1982 something is close to a fully universal basic
income as anything yet devised it’s the annual Alaska dividend where things to
every resident receiving a check for on average one $1000 per year for nothing
but residing in Alaska inequality is consistently among the lowest of all
states not only that but we see what we’d expect to see and lower stress
populations where Alaska is also consistently among the happiest states
in galip’s 2015 ranking of states by well-being Alaska was second only to
Hawaii this annual ranking is a combined measure of five separate rankings
purpose liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
social having supportive relationships and love in your life
financial managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
community liking where you live feeling safe and having pride in your community
in physical having good health and enough energy to get things done daily
Alaska scored fifth fifth first seventh and sixth respectively in each of these
measures in other words in the only state in the u.s. to provide a minimal
amount of income to all residents every year such that no one ever need worry
about having nothing they feel the greatest amount of basically economic
security and the least amount of stress than any other state as a result they’re
also among the most motivated healthiest and have strong family friend and
community social supports Alaska is essentially a glimps a human park but
only a glimpse because even the $2,100 they all received in 2015 is not enough
to cover a year’s worth of basic needs some more the best evidence we
have in the world for what happens in the long term when people are provided
something that looks even more like a basic income than is found in Alaska can
again be a found in the u.s. in North Carolina in 1992 the Great Smoky
Mountain study of youth began with the goal of studying the youth in North
Carolina to determine the possible risk factors of developing emotional and
behavioral disorders because the Native Americans tend to be underrepresented in
mental health research researchers made the point of including 349 child members
of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation about halfway into the 10-year
study something that is the dream of practically any researcher happened as a
matter of pure serendipity all tribal members begin receiving a share of
casino profits by 2001 those dividends had grown to $6,000 per year by 2006
there were $9,000 per year the results were nothing short of
incredible the number of Cherokee living in poverty declined by 50% behavioral
problems declined by 40 percent crime rates decreased high school graduation
rates increased grades improved home environments were transformed drug and
alcohol use declined additionally the lower the age the
children were freed of poverty the greater the effects as they grew up to
the point the youngest ended up being a third less
likely to develop substance abuse or psychiatric problems as teens Randall
aqui an economist later even calculated the savings generated through all the
societal improvements actually exceeded the amount of the dividends themselves
however the most powerful finding of all was in personality effects these changes
were observed as a result of better home environments that involved less stress
and better parental relationships incredibly the children of families who
begin receiving what we can call something very close to a basic income
saw long-term enhancements in two key personality traits conscientiousness and
realness that is they grew up to being more honest more observant more
comfortable around other people and more willing to work together with others and
because personalities tend to permanently set as adults these are most
likely lifelong changes if you remember how important personality is to the
perception of stress and one’s location within social hierarchies
these children are end up far better off and as a result their own children
likely will as well this is another glimpse into a basic
income enabled human part although it’s been happening for years in both Alaska
and North Carolina are close to universal basic income in practice they
are not actually he bi u bi requires regularly giving everyone in an entire
community an amount of money sufficient to cover their basic needs this has been
done in three places so far a city of dolphin in Canada the Otis vero o
Mataura area of Namibia and the Madhya Pradesh area of India it’s in these
areas that humanity has achieved what’s closest to creating human parks as a
direct result of guaranteeing everyone a basic income in Dolphin hospitalization
rates decreased 8.5% and high school graduation rates
surpassed 100 percent as dropouts actually return to school to finish in
Namibia overall crime rates were cut almost in
half and self employment rates tripled in India housing and nutrition
improved markets and businesses blossomed and overall health and
well-being reached new heights but if it’s one thing I find most interesting
across all experiments it’s the improved social cohesion a proliferation of new
and strengthened social sports in Namibia a stronger community spirit
developed apparently the need to ask each other for money was a barrier to
normal human interaction one space can come made it so that no one needed to
beg anymore everyone felt more able to make friendly visits to each other and
speak more freely without being seen as wanting something in return
in India where castes can still create artificial social divisions those in
villages given basic income actually began to gather across caste lines for
mutual decision making and in Canada the basic income guarantee had a notable
impact on caring with parents choosing to spend more time with their kids and
kids spending more time with each other in schools instead of jobs
remember social supports are the trump card of societies with less stress and
it appears that providing people with ubi strengthens existing social supports
and creates new ones freed from a focus on mere survival humans reach out to
each other this is also something that makes us different from every other
animal on earth our ability to reach each other in ways unimaginable even to
ourselves until only recently we as humans are entirely unique in our
ability to belong to multiple hierarchies and through the internet
create connections across vast distances and even time itself through recorded
knowledge our place in a hierarchy matters but we can decide which
hierarchies matter more is it our position in the socio-economic
ladder is it our position in our place of employment or is it our position in
our churches our schools our sports leagues our online communities or even
our virtual communities within games like World of Warcraft and the Second
Life we as humans have incredible potential to create inform communities
and realize world-changing feats of imagination and this mostly untapped
potential mostly just requires less stress and more time if all we’re doing
is just trying to get by and our lives are becoming increasingly stressful it
becomes increasingly difficult to think and to connect with each other
it’s the taxation of the human mind and social bonds studies even show the
burden of poverty on the mind depletes the amount of mental bandwidth available
for everything else to the tune of about 14 IQ points
or the loss of an entire night’s sleep basically scarcity begets scarcity on
the other hand if we free ourselves to focus on everything else other than
survival if we remove the limitations of highly unequal and impoverished
environments then we’re increasingly able to connect with each other and we
minimize learned helplessness as a result our health improves crime is
reduced self motivation goes up teamwork overtakes doggy-dog and
long-term planning overtakes short-term thinking presumably many an IQ jumps the
equivalent of 14 IQ points a greater sense of security has even been shown to
reduce bias against out groups from immigrants to the obese and if we take
into account the importance of security and people deciding to invest their time
and resources and build new ventures innovation also has the chance of
skyrocketing in a society where everyone always has enough to feel comfortable in
taking risks without fear of failure basically abundance begets abundance if
what we seek is a better environment for the thriving of humans a human Park full
of greater health and happiness then what we seek should be the
implementation of basic income in nation after nation all over the world there is
no real feeling of control without the ability to say no because ubi is
unconditional it provides that lever to everyone for the first time in history
no other policy has the transformative potential of reducing anywhere near as
much stress in society than the lifelong guaranteeing of basic Economic Security
with a fully unconditional basic income plus with that guarantee achieved the
fear of technological unemployment comes the goal of technological unemployment
why stress about automation when we could embrace it no more fight or flight
it’s time for live long and prosper

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