Braden, West Papua, Indonesia, off the island of Misool, paddling through an enormous cave, December 2018
A year ago, my chief collaborator, Ryan Martens, and I started work on a book called Empathetic Leadership. We produced a first complete increment or, as we tech people are fond of saying, a Minimal Viable Product. Based on feedback from that effort, we sharpened our pencil and wrote these two pieces to help correct some of our ills and direct the refactoring of those 185 pages. These two pieces represent our best effort to simplify, generalize and make more approachable our work.
We believe this book will focus on the rising generation of leaders who need to apply these tools quickly and not learn from trial and error. Whether they are building new products, new policy, new legislation or new organizations they need to better leverage empathy in their approach and core values. We hope you like these two posts and we would appreciate your comments on either of them directly or on this post, you could provide more general feedback on our target audience, approach, and meta-message. This is the second post, and centered around the question we are asked more than any other: “What is a v-Meme?”
Thank you for your attention and consideration,
Chuck and Ryan
What’s a v-Meme? And Why does it Matter?
Ever wonder why Donald Trump gets along so well with Kim Jong Oon? Or Vladimir Putin? You’ll get a good dose of insight if you just listen to your grandmother. She’ll likely tell you the old adage,
“Birds of a feather flock together.”
If we take Grandma’s insight and apply it to brains, we might come up a corollary.
“Their brains are wired the same way.”
Yep. Trump’s, Kim’s, and Putin’s brains are wired in the same way. Not on a superficial level — on a deep level, with the same needs for power, control, and public demonstration of the first two. The outside circumstances might be different, but their brains light up in all the same ways, whether it’s Kim cutting a political opponent in half with an anti-aircraft gun, Trump shutting down the government, or Putin arresting Pussy Riot. They’re getting off on the same brain juice.
Here’s the thing. Not everyone’s brain is wired the same. And how a person’s brain is wired will determine so many things, including how that person fits inside a given organization, as well as one thing vital for success in the world of the future — how they handle complexity.
Can we understand this matching brain wiring on a more scientific, reproducible level? Brains are both complex – intertwined with many synergies; complicated – consisting of ever finer scales. But they can be understood with simpler models.
Brain Wiring 101
One of the first was Paul Maclean’s triune brain. Elaborated on by many researchers, including Daniel Siegel, the famous trauma psychiatrist at UCLA, it splits the brain into three interconnected parts. These three parts – the basal ganglia/brainstem, the limbic system, and the prefrontal cortex, all give rise to the three big divisions in human behavior. These are automatic function, our emotional center, and our conscious mind.
Humans are not islands. New research documented in the book, ‘Social’, by Prof. Matt Lieberman at UCLA, has shown that how we connect is the primary driver of how we think. And so, not surprisingly, empathy — the primary function in our ability to connect — also maps to the three brain regions. These connection functions work on the same timescales as the three parts of the brain – instantaneous (I yawn, you yawn,) fast (you feel, I feel,) and slow (I anticipate from reading and processing your cues, as well as other models I’ve built of your behavior through observation.)
How we empathize and connect is how we build the larger social structures that run the different variations of human societies and cultures. These behaviors can be grouped in clusters called value-, or v-Memes for short, that are intrinsically dependent on the level of that development of connection.
What is a Meme?
But what exactly is a meme? It’s more complex than some photo of Kermit the Frog, making a pithy comment about wanting a beer, on a Facebook page. A meme is a piece of information that replicates, seemingly independent from an individual, across human communities and social networks. It works like a gene. But instead of hardware, it’s software — a fundamental building block of information that expresses itself in an aspect of culture and behavior. However, unlike genes, whose structure and content can now be understood through the DNA and RNA chemical chains when it comes to memes, we’re just getting started. Our work has shown, though, that memes have structure. And those pieces of replicable information are based on a set of master memes, called v-Memes.
So what are v-Memes? The term, invented by Clare Graves, Don Beck, and Chris Cowan, associates behavioral groups of memes, for a given stage of development of both a society and an individual. That software runs the show regarding the way we perceive and respond to our world. V-Memes are self-similar, meaning societies and individuals will possess similar information, with similar structure, albeit on different temporal and spatial scales, just as branches high up on a tree resemble tree trunks — just at a different scale.
How does this work in reality? An individual who is concerned about applying rules will be most comfortable in a society with rules. An individual interested in control will be happiest in a society where one person and their viewpoint runs the show. Someone interested in achievement will be very interested in setting up performance goals to be met.
The reverse is also true. Hang around in an authoritarian power structure long enough, it will turn you into an authoritarian. Inhabit a government bureaucracy for a while, and you’ll be spouting rules and regulations when you can’t get the job done. It’s a two-way street.
There are six total v-Memes in all, listed below, oscillating back between the individual “I” and the group “We” and two in what is known as the Second Tier – which is really a fancy word for being self-aware enough to reflect on your own behavior and consciously choose what you want to do. Graves and Beck arranged them in a line and called them developmental stages. This general Theory of Everything is called Spiral Dynamics, as the overall structure is not a circle, but a Spiral, open at the top for stages (and v-Memes) as yet undiscovered. According to them, an individual or a society must pass through one before ascending to another.
Graves’ basic v-Memes are:
Survival: Characterized by immediate concerns, and changeable circumstances.
Tribal: Group culture, shared origination myths.
Authoritarian: Power structures, egocentric behavior, and control.
Legalistic/Absolutistic: Emergence of rules and laws that apply to everyone in a structured hierarchy.
Performance/Goal-Oriented: Focusing on results, with less focus on status, and using agency to set one’s individual course.
Communitarian: Societies concerned about individuals
And then, we’ll list one Second Tier mode:
Global Systemic: Being able to take the six prior v-Memes, and use them as appropriate to accomplish one’s personally determined ends.
But it doesn’t take a whole lot of reflection to realize that Graves’ v-Memes, grouped solely on surface-level behavioral analysis, leave much to be desired. Someone could be concerned with human well-being because that was a rule they were taught to follow in church. Would that make them a communitarian, or a legalist? Someone interested in control that was clearly Authoritarian might seize on a rule to gain control and exploit someone else’s development in order to bring everything into their wheelhouse. The same with reaching a goal, in order to achieve a status in a hierarchy. And so on.
One of the big problems with the v-Meme stack was solved by the original researchers. They asserted that once you developed to a given level, you had access to all the previous stages you had passed through. A Communitarian could, at times, be a Legalist. A Legalist could join a Tribe (think about that the next time you’re sitting next to a lawyer with her face painted with team colors at a football game!) This process of nesting is key for understanding how humans act in more complex ways.
But there still remains the original contradictions. These do not go away as long as one only focuses on surface-level behavior.
Reformulating v-Memes with Empathy as a Guiding Principle
But what Graves missed was the role of empathy inside those social structures. Once you understand the connection between empathy and v-Memes, it forces rethinking of what we call the deep code creating the original six groups. What is the underlying OS that we can’t see, that’s allowing execution of the app? Similar to the way we understand gravity as a guiding principle all over the Earth — you don’t go jumping off buildings in the Southern Hemisphere hoping gravity is going to pull up — there turns out to be one enormous guiding principle that governs how information is constructed.
That dynamic is empathy. The three stages of empathy map well, in different relative levels, to the six v-Meme levels, from a quick response in Survival settings to reading individuals and their backgrounds in a more Communitarian setting. In between, we have the gradations of the three primary types setting up the social structures we talked about before, in an emergent, or intrinsic fashion. If you’ve evolved to the point where you’re mostly data-driven, you get to the point where you move past just feeling empathy, and into thinking empathy. And you’re going to want to have a conversation with someone who works on your level. If you’re a control-oriented boss, you might care how your people feel – don’t want them sneaking up on you and sabotaging your plans – but you’re likely not to care much how they think, or what their individual circumstance is. All this is embedded in the type of empathy you exhibit, as well as whether, in your social structure, your communication is either one- or two-way (simplex or duplex.) Authority-driven chain-of-commands, for example, tend not to be two-way streets. Communitarians honestly want to know how your day is going. They want details.
By considering empathy, we’ve stepped away from looking at particular topical positions on a given issue as a way of understanding how people have their brain wired. Instead, it comes down to the balance of the Big Three brain parts, and their empathetic function, as a good indicator. Issues don’t matter. But timescales, spatial scales, and appropriateness of reactions matter a ton.
So when we say that it’s not a surprise that Trump and Kim Jong Oon like each other, we can predict this based on them sharing the same v-Meme, which, as we’ve stated before,is independent of specific, topical information. Trump and Kim are both supremely self-centered and status-driven. They are both leaders of their respective countries, and in their minds, have no need to seek the truth from others. They believe they are the authority on all things. They make the truth.
When they meet, there is little surprise engendered in the other how they’re going to respond. Both are down in the short time-scale world of mirroring behavior, and maybe a little emotional empathy. When Kim says he’s got a nuke, Trump counters immediately with the notion that he’s got a bigger one. For Kim, or Trump, when either one says something to the other, they likely shrug their shoulders and say “well, that’s what I would say. And since I’m so awesome, I just get this guy.” That’s why Trump can call Kim his friend. And exactly why someone like Trump doesn’t like Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany. A far more evolved and sophisticated thinker, he never really knows what she’s going to come up with. Even, and especially given, the same set of inputs.
The implications build from here. If v-Memes, and social structure are actually a reflection of brain wiring, containing both the sequencing of firing (and the amount) between the different sections of the brain, we start gaining an appreciation that the core dynamic is actually empathy.
Then other conclusions start falling out. If we add a principle from the software development community called Conway’s Law, other important patterns start emerging. Conway’s Law says:
The design of a system will map to the social structure of the company that built the design
If one is building airplanes, what that means is that the wing person needs to talk to the fuselage person if they ever want to merge the wing onto the body of the plane. And if that’s going to be successful, what that means is that both the wing person, as well as the fuselage person, have to a.) understand each other well enough to get the main design goals (aerodynamic profile, structural integrity, for example) of the other party, and b.) be able to give a little and form win-win solutions that keep the plane from breaking apart in the sky.
If we are going to have merged design solutions, the parties on either side of the table have to connect with the parties on the other side of the table. In other words, they have to have empathy for each other. They have to combine and synergize their knowledge so that a new, better solution becomes emergent.
Now we start pulling our logical fishing line in. In order to have empathy, one has to have a social structure that will create it. And in the case of the wing and the fuselage, both people have to have the same goal – an airplane that flies and doesn’t fall out of the sky. And since they’re likely the only experts at this, they have to have agency– the ability to act for their interest, in a combined mode toward a goal.
But in order to have agency, one also has to have an organization, with an appropriate social structure (per the org. Chart, the wing person has to be able to actually talk to the fuselage person) that creates it. And the combination of the wing and fuselage is going to create a knowledge structure that has a particular form, supported by all the scaffolding from rules and algorithms, authority-driven knowledge, tribal knowledge, and so on, that is incorporated.
Empathy in the Individual = Complexity in the Problems They can Handle
All that is well and good. But if your engineers aren’t evolved enough to the point where you can handle both the technical challenge of managing the merger, as well as the social knowledge to communicate and merge ideas, the plane isn’t going to get off the ground. It’s not just the specific knowledge. It’s the ability to arrange the pieces, carry the responsibility for getting it right, believing in your knowledge and knowing what you know, as well as what you don’t know.
They are directly interconnected. That’s why v-Memes, that representation of both empathy and social structure, dictate the complexity of the knowledge that the people inside that organization, or society, can hold. We literally can’t maintain a complex society, without more complex social structures and v-Memes. And we can’t have those without empathy, because we won’t have a critical mass of people who can think at the level of complexity required. They are all intertwined together.
There are more, equally important conclusions that can be drawn. In a given society, there will be those raised with empathy, in classrooms where connection and teamwork are emphasized, and modes like active learning and shared experience are the norm. There will also be those crowded into more standard, authority-driven classrooms. Who is going to emerge with the ability to fit in the slots for the jobs the future will provide? What will happen to the v-Meme have-nots? How will they perceive their interests?
And who will represent the have-nots in a way that guards their stake in the future? Those raised with little agency, and taught only to follow orders, are also to likely have poor consequential thinking. In a democracy, the potentials for co-option by a raw authoritarian will also grow. And lest one think that this is a plea for elitism, it’s actually not. Even if a large sector of society is empathetically favored, they’re still likely to live inside their own circle, buffered by income differentials, as well as fundamentally different modes of living. That is already happening.
The list of miseries goes on. Whose jobs are most likely to be replaced by robots? Ones where human agency matters, or ones where it does not?
And here’s the real kicker. What does it say about the empathy level of a society for leaders who are willing to leave a huge chunk of the population behind? And, by extension, what does it say about that leadership cohort’s decision-making ability, their understanding of complex issues, as well as their ability to synergize solutions using all available data? There will always be a spread of abilities and personalities in any society. But any society expecting to move forward into the future has to adopt a strategy that the leaders themselves must be evolved. As well as having a core belief that no one is left behind.
Let’s understand this model in the context of our contemporary United States of America. Right now, we’re experiencing an increasing Authoritarian drift, on both the Right and the Left. The primary circumstance driving this? Over-work, poor health, and the increasing income gap. People are increasingly sorted into silos. Connection and empathy, as well as our ability to develop this, are inherently shortchanged. Connecting to people takes time and energy. And Americans increasingly don’t have it.
Consider the current battle over building an extension of the wall (a low v-Meme solution as any) to solve the problem of illegal immigration. President Trump is declaring a national emergency over this, inviting a conflict between branches of government, with the intent of demonstrating supremacy over the others. That’s as authoritarian as it gets.
But how did Trump get there in the first place? When one considers this is terms of our democratic ideals, this all seems upside down. Why would a country elect someone like Trump? And yes — we understand the vagaries of the Electoral College and the actual mechanisms that elected him. But a better question would be how such an individual collect 46% of the vote in the first place? What does that say about both the choices offered, as well as the evolution of the voting populace? What does that say about Birds of a Feather? And our nation’s brain wiring? The point is Trump is a symptom of a lack of empathy, and worse, a lack of development of empathy in the American v-Meme that is a long time in coming. And it doesn’t bode well for our population navigating an increasingly complex global landscape.
Understanding the ‘Why’ of the Empathy Development Pathway
If we’re going to climb out of this hole, our survival demands that we prioritize empathy and connection to evolve us up the v-Meme ladder. The problems we face now are called wicked problems, meaning they have multiple modes of interconnection that defy easy fixes. Push on one side of the problem, another unexpected consequence pops out far from the original fix that was well-intended. Only people who are connected to each other, with profound, reliable channels of knowledge can share inputs on what they’re doing to create change. And as important, those people will naturally be tuned to receive feedback from others, perhaps far away, that affect the solutions proposed.
Take a problem like global warming. Global warming is a problem that must be tackled on a number of scales — local, regional and national. Any one law passed at the federal level, outside generalized targets (outlaw production of CO2 anyone?) is going to prove impossible to implement. And the chaos generated could potentially delay solving the problem, with all the negative consequences that will come with upside-down temperatures and rising seas.
That means we need an emergent social network, with people who are focused on solving the problem on a number of scales. Some folks have to be interested in implementing roof-top solar panels in Georgia, while others are going to come up with other methods for producing wind energy. Others have to be interested in a national, or at a minimum, regional smart grid. There will be trade-offs and implications that have to be actively discussed and shared, agreed upon, and synergized. That will require profound, developed empathy.
The fact that the problem — global warming — is a wicked problem is no reason that we can’t attempt to fix it, or we shouldn’t try. But we need to go into the circumstance with our eyes wide open, looking for shared understanding and connection.
Here’s the takeaway. Our ability to handle complexity will directly index to our level of developed empathy. And by examining the v-Memes actively at play, we can gain a window into whether we’re capable of dealing with enough complex knowledge to make optimal decisions, especially in a time of extreme societal challenge. With 7 billion people on the planet, there really is only one real survival strategy – understanding how we are connected, and developing our ability to be more connected. That’s why v-Memes matter.
Let’s wrap this up with a definition, and some specific actions and benefits for you:
V-Memes are groups of critical behaviors and knowledge that form the map and perspectives that individuals and societies use to see the world around them. Their structure and complexity will be dependent on the level of development of empathy of individuals in that society. A v-Meme will dictate how a society conducts itself, as well as how it approaches a given challenge. The higher the v-Meme, the greater the complexity and timescale of the approach.
As Einstein pointed out, the level of thinking that created the problem will not allow us to solve the problem. To solve the problems created in the 20th century, we are going to need work at a higher V-meme level, as a society, than we did when we created the problems in the first place. Whether we evolve following the Europeans into social democracy or simply correct free-market issues like the growing gap between middle and upper class and CO2 pollution, these alone will not be enough — but they will be a start.
But this will only happen in the US if we understand how to communicate to three main levels of v-memes currently running our thinking in the US (Authoritarian, Legalistic, and Performance.) For all us, this means working to expand our current level of empathy, or as we sometimes call it, your empathy bubble; in time and space. This is most easily done by broadening the types of people you communicate and actually connect with. If you don’t practice, conflict between the v-Memes is the natural consequence.
This means listening and understanding their positions and working to identify their dominant v-meme. Once you understand that v-meme, it is easier to notice that these people relate differently because their brains are wired differently.
For the most part, people with different v-Memes are not inherently the problem. The real problem is the lack of understanding and empathy. Once you speak to them in solutions they can understand, you can work towards shared understanding and forward progress. The dominant v-meme of the 20th century for the US was a performance-centric and an “I” centric approach. It is no longer enough. We are going to need to work as a collective in the 21st century to keep the planet habitable for us and all our children. Unlike the 20th century’s social inequity practices of redlining, or the environmental degradation of excess CO2 in the atmosphere, we cannot leave a group of people, or the environment behind this time!
For more on this topic, please read our previous post on: Creating a We for an Evolving World — A Journey to an Empathetic, Sustainable Society.