Understanding Long-Scale (Geologic Time) Evolution of Empathy

Aegean Sea Harbor

Nea Artaki, on the island of Evia, Greece  October 2018

I’ve been having discussion with folks about empathy, and why I’ve chosen the model I have to pin my work on.  Obviously, my understanding has increased as I’ve read more, and thought more about this, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on how things have transpired.

First off, as with most of my work, I strive for a functional/constructivist/evolutionary perspective.  What does that mean?

  1.  I read a ton of other people’s work.  Folks have been pondering a lot of these questions for a long time, and it surely helps to understand others’ thoughts.
  2. When reading, I look for work that tells me something about the base biological function of connection, and then theorizes from there.  I love Stephen Porges (the Polyvagal Theory) Franz de Waal (The Age of Empathy) Daniel Siegel (the Neurobiology of We) and attempt to make myself aware of other great researchers and thinkers who also tie their work to biology (Carl Rogers, Anthony Damasio, V.S. Ramachandran.)
  3. That said, I don’t ‘tow the party line’ about anything.  These people are all awesome, but at some level they also are somewhat unaware that the knowledge they generate is intrinsically tied to the social structure they come from.  They lack that key insight, which (I think) would cause them to publish larger systemic interpretations like I do.  I’d love to get them in a room and have a freewheeling discussion.
  4. I take my knowledge of system construction (I’m a design prof in engineering), how a given function has to work, and what might be an evolutionary design path would have to be if I had sensors, and processors in more of a mechatronic perspective, as well as an Minimum Viable Product (MVP) perspective, and think about how these things progress over time.  This is, as far as I can tell, a completely foreign mode for really thinking about this stuff in the empathy researcher community, who are largely tied to empiricism, observations and experiments because of their own academic practice.
  5. The short version is that I am constantly asking two questions:  “How would that work,” and “How would I evolve a product that would do that?”  These turn out to be powerful questions that really cut through the bullshit.

So we know that we have the Empathy Pyramid below, and, as sentient (or semi-sentient) beings, which really includes almost all multicellular living creatures, intra-organism communication matters.  Even if it’s only for reproductive purposes, animals have to do some coordination.  I’m not going to pick nits at the bottom of the scale (how sentient ARE sponges?) but if you want to argue at the dinner table, have at it!  I’d actually love to listen!

OK — here’s the pyramid for your reference.

Empathy-Social Behavior Pyramid English

If one were evolving an empathetic system, the first sensor level one has is ON/OFF. As I’ve said earlier, this likely first showed up in a pronounced form in the Silurian Period, which was where bony fishes showed up.  Heck, it may have even happened in the Cambrian (500 million years ago!) with trilobites.  Maybe I’m just being vertebrate-ist!  But we do know that bony fishes swam in schools, and one can start to produce that layer of mirroring empathy with an on/off sensor.  If the fish in front of you can be seen by you, that little sensor goes off, and you head toward it.  Couple that with a couple of food sensors, and you now have a collective organism that can move in concert.

Short version — one now has the beginnings/evolutionary seeds/MVP of mirroring empathy.  Evolution and natural selection can now take off and make this more sophisticated.  The basic action is laid in.

Next up is what I call State Behavior.  If you have a sensor that first can determine ON/OFF, the next natural progression is to fine-tune that sensor’s ability to distinguish between a statistically accurate reading (in hypothesis testing, we call this a ‘correct detection’) vs. one where the sensor goes off, but no little fishy is swimming in front of you.  (In the world of hypothesis testing, we call this a ‘false alarm’.)  There is a balance between these two, where you hone your threshold.  Modern radar systems do this — this is called a Classic Detection Problem, and the curve that characterizes our little fishy’s detector is called an ROC curve.  For those with engineering interest, you can look all this up!  Believe it or not, it all started with a Presbyterian minister back in the 18th Century called Thomas Bayes, though I’d be remiss to not point you to the work of Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener.

An interesting turn now takes place on the evolutionary path.  Better discrimination hones first those beginning seeds of mirroring behavior.  On/Off gets better and better.  At the same time, in order to determine a better On/Off, we also have to evolve a better signal estimator.  Now emergence starts playing a role.  That On/Off detector leads to a better estimator, and that estimator starts to evolutionarily seek advantage of its own.  Fish that feel compelled to stay in a school have an evolutionary advantage over fish that do not feel compelled.  The level of compulsion also likely leads to tightness in formation, or even looseness, as there is now a dynamic balance between size of the fish, and tightness of the school.  We start to see the advantage to different states- like anger, fear, passivity, and so on.

This was made possible by first solving (with evolution) the beginnings of collective movement.  But as with all acts of emergent sentience, it ends up having purposes beyond the original evolutionary adaptation.  The evolutionary winners find new uses for their new hardware/software combo.  The evolutionary seed is sown for emotions in the state differentiation and estimation problem.

Here is a key takeaway — evolution does not follow a pre-planned route to increased evolution, or sophistication.  Cockroaches have been in their same form for 140 million years!  Yet when you create a composite organism (schools of fish, as well as bands of humans!) where some level of sentience and shared information processing plays a major factor in their survival, we see how our more evolved displays of root-biological empathy (attachment behavior, prosody, development of the vagus nerve) come to the fore.  Think of it this way — it’s hardware that’s evolved, that’s just waiting to be used!

OK.  Now we have the basis for both mirroring behavior (ON/OFF) and emotional empathy (STATE processing.) What happens as we refine state processing?  Well, let’s think about how state processing would have to work.

In order to evaluate and make a decision on a particular state, we would need to evolve a probabilistic detector/estimator combo that would take in data, and then guess at a given state AFTER a certain amount of data is received.  That means State estimation grows out of time-based averaging/dichotomous decision making back in original problem — whether we can see another fishy or not.

Now our State estimator grows in sophistication.  It reads and crunches more and more specific data, now gives several different State recognitions, and pops out a decision.  It may do this more quickly, but over time, quick decisions might not pay off, especially as task complexity increases.

And maybe, as time scales lengthen/increase, averaging for STATE estimation starts yielding NO evolutionary benefit.  Things change around the organism, and so some level of temporal windowing starts playing a role in evolution.  Taking in the data, and matching it to your own experiences, which inherently takes a larger processor and is hugely computationally expensive (you’re matching more details, over different scenes!), and more time, starts yielding some degree of evolutionary advantage.

And it may turn out that the state information also starts confusing your estimation of what’s happening with the individual you’re attempting to coordinate with.  If you’re angry/sad/etc., you’re mixing up the signals that are preventing you from making a good decision, for you specifically, or the collective!  Now we can start seeing for an animal navigating a ton of different environments (remember that humans are spread across the globe!) becoming data-driven makes more and more sense.  Rational empathy starts becoming emergent and an advantage.

AND… finally, we end up where we want to consciously improve our own ability to estimate different changing circumstances, with different changing individuals.  And we realize maybe that WE’RE getting in the way.  So we evolve more profound, differentiated ‘being’ inside the collective.  As well as the ability to watch ourself.  Now we have the seeds of larger self-awareness.  Which leads to more emergent behavior.

What’s the bottom line?  The Empathy Pyramid makes sense.  It generates itself, and takes us far away from the warm Silurian seas our ancestors swam in so long ago.

There’s a couple of points I’d like to leave you with.

  1.  None of this is tied explicitly to a triune brain.  Any systems person can tell you that if you have one computer, and you have to hack a system together, you can do it with a number of different processor architectures.
  2. That said, one can see the advantages in optimality IN a triune brain structure.  Different parts work together, as well as differentiate function along the lines of instantaneous action, state, and experiential data.

So don’t tell me crows can’t love, or be smart.  Or that octopi can’t coordinate.  But you can also see the evolutionary advantages of having a triune brain as far as accelerating evolution and sophistication.

There’s also a relatively clear moral lesson that comes out of this.  We got better, and more sophisticated and evolved, because we took care of each other, in groups with increasing size and diversity.  We might remember this during this particularly mean political season.  We all get to cross the finish line together.

I’m Not the Only Person Interested in Conway’s Law

Chad and Conor

The older intellectual — and the younger one.  They might have been talking about Nietzsche.  Or Rajasthani taxi cab drivers.  Sept. 2018

In the process of discussing Microsoft’s stack ranking system, that certainly led to massive productivity loss at Microsoft, and maybe even to the collapse of several market dominance technologies, my co-conspirator Ryan Martens sent me the picture below, from Tomasz Tunguz’ blogconways_law_cornet

(Credit Tomasz Tunguz — Venture Capitalist at RedPoint)

tagged to an article about Conway’s Law that so much of my work is constructed around. Tomasz’ interpretation of Conway’s Law is considerably less nuanced than my own, and not as well-developed.  Still, I learned a couple of things, most notably that the Harvard Business Review turned down Melvin Conway’s attempt to publish his theory in 1967.  Conway went on to get his Ph.D. from my B.S. alma mater, Case Western Reserve University.

Tunguz’ org. charts for product development are, as followers of this blog know, incomplete, because they don’t account for:

a.) the directionality of those little arrows — what’s the direction of information flow?

b.) the information coherence embodied by those little arrows – how much are people paying attention on either side of any given node to what is being said, and how are their v-Memes interpreting this?

c.) the flexibility of re-direction — how much does the org. chart discriminate from people going outside the org. chart to form their own relationships?

Every organization has an org. chart that kinda looks like one of the above (I love the Microsoft one with the little guns!) that is produced by the C-suite.  But every organization also has an actual org. chart, that will dictate the real structure of product design.  Such real org. charts are also time-dependent.  There may be a time when everything in a smallish organization may get reviewed by, say, a master mechanical designer for conformance, as well as an overview of unnoticed synergies, and that doesn’t show up on ‘who reports to whom.’  The expanded version of Conway’s Law we talk about is really a thing, and a fundamental law of the universe.

I did love (well, maybe found stimulating) the fact that the HBR turned down Conway’s paper.  It really helps my argument that lower v-Meme publications, no matter how sophisticated, are gonna shoot down more evolved thinking with regularity.

On another note, Tomasz is obviously an ‘ahead of the curve’ thinker, and I’m going to recommend reading his blog.  He’s also a venture capitalist, and an author himself.  His latest book is Winning with Data: Transform Your Culture, Empower Your People, and Shape the Future (Wiley). Might have to pick it up and give it a look.  I’ve also written Tomasz and will see if he writes back.  He’s got questions.  We’ve got answers.

Oh — and if you need a Sunday Reading, I highly recommend the obvious short post referenced in this blog, as well as the Vanity Fair article at the beginning of this piece.  This whole notion of competition uber alles as the path to success is effectively destroyed in this excellent piece.  Jack Welch’s (former CEO of General Electric) philosophies, that are really the roots of all this, carried to extreme have really wrecked American business, and created the mess with shareholder capitalism that’s currently destroying our country.

And you might review this as well on the Intermediate Corollary, which puts that Knowledge thing in the middle of Social and Design structure.  Not having an independent article on the Intermediate Corollary is a deep flaw of the blog.  I think I’ve written about it a ton in all my academic papers (that no one reads, BTW) that I’d forgotten about being more explicit here, where people actually come.  As of this writing, I’m up to about 33K views…

Quickie Post — What does being a full professor really mean?

Acropolis South View

The Acropolis, Athens, Greece — it’s a zoo, but such a lovely zoo.  October, 2018

This little piece of v-Meme conflict popped up in my news feed today — titled

For Some Scholars, a Full Professorship Calls for ‘a Lot of Paperwork’ That ‘Doesn’t Mean Anything’

it comes on the heels of Donna Strickland’s being one of the awardees of the Nobel Prize for Physics.

For those not “in the know” regarding academic ranking, the typical academic hierarchy consists of assistant, associate and full professor.  Assistant professor is a provisional rank, usually for five or six years, when a decision is made whether to give tenure, which is one of those things that sounds like lifetime employment, but is actually a mixed bag.  Associate is what one becomes after one is tenured.  Full professorship is supposed to be similar to making Senior Partner in a law firm, but that’s kind of an anachronistic definition.  In today’s world of academia, it doesn’t mean much.  Prof. Strickland is only an Associate Professor.  From the article:

“Strickland, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, told the Waterloo Region Record that climbing the career ladder didn’t seem worth the effort when her job wasn’t at stake and a pay raise wasn’t a given.

“It’s all on me. I think people are thinking it’s because I’m a woman, I’m being held back,” said Strickland, who has been an associate professor at Waterloo since 2002, according to the Optical Society website. “I’m just a lazy person. I do what I want to do, and that wasn’t worth doing.”

That’s about as good an example of Performance-based v-Meme thinking (no money, so why bother?), likely coupled with a little good old-fashioned egocentric Authoritarian following-her-own-muse thinking as possible.  Mix in some Second Tier reflection and you end up with her situation!

The rest of the article profiles the increase in service work that often accompanies being a full professor.  Relatively true.  Needless to say, if Prof. Strickland wants to seek a full professorship elsewhere, she’s unlikely to have much difficulty finding one!

Social Coherence and V-Memes

Kitty Hoodoos large view

The first middle-age Taiwanese psychologist to see the Kelly Creek Hoodoos, Clearwater NF, Idaho, August, 2018

One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is empathy, its various stages, and larger social coherence.  It’s easy to state something like “empathy is the key thing that creates social coherence.”  But the truth is more complex, and in the end, the connecting dynamic of empathy and how it actually manifests is really just what it is — an understructure for assuming that everyone in the larger collective is operating on the same v-Meme page.  Societies are like any other living thing.  They attempt to maintain homeostasis through the various means, memes and dynamics available to them.  Low empathy societies can have broad scale social coherence — there’s something like 1.2 billion people in China, and few would argue that it is still, after 2000 years of change and progression, an Authoritarian culture, with Legalistic intentions.

Yet Chinese people get things done in groups.  One of my favorite stories from the ’90s, before the incredible technical/social surge in China, came from a friend of mine who was, at the time, working for a large petrochemical concern in northwest Washington State.  A process engineer, he was tasked with going to China to figure out a deal between his company and the Chinese state for them to co-own and supervise that oil refinery.

The first thing that hit him was the total employment at the refinery — around 15,000 people.  This for a refinery that produced about half the output (I think — memory fades here a bit) of their super-connected facility stateside.  What did all those people do?  If you needed a big hole dug, the supervisor would issue the order — to 1000 people with shovels.  They would run over to the place where the hole needed to be dug, and people would start digging.

For such a hole to be dug stateside, my friend would schedule one of the front end loaders on the sheet, the operator would go out there perhaps with a surveyor and a supervisor, and the hole would be dug.  When he asked his plant engineer cohort why they hadn’t bought a large piece of earthmoving equipment (this is the 1990s, not the 1890s!) he said “well, what would all those people do if they couldn’t dig that hole?”  My friend’s company did not end up buying the refinery.

Needless to say, there is large-scale social coherence needed to have 1000 people dig a hole at once, and perhaps there are lessons to be learned as well.  How can we understand this?  Societies are seldom static, and at some level, many of the cultures that exist in the world today have lots of stuff to teach any person.  But at the same time, the information must be contextualized in order to be understood.  Do we really need to understand how to get 1000 people to dig a hole in this day and age?

Let’s start with one of my favorite pictures — the Evolution vs. Sophistication map, that shows a 2-d landscape for understanding complexity of knowledge.  See below:

Evolution vs Sophistication

Something like the 1000 people digging a hole at once requires a fair amount of sophistication, but assumes lots of homogeneity in the folks digging the hole.  China is one of the least diverse countries, considering its gross population, on the planet — some 95% of the population is Han Chinese.  So we can assume that there is very little differentiation among the individual workers digging the hole.  They need short spatial scales, and short temporal scales in order to coordinate the digging.  All you really need to know is the direction you’re supposed to be going, and how to dig so you don’t hit your neighbor’s shovel.  Not a lot of agency is required, and in fact, would be punished.  Someone doing something radically different would likely mess up the larger group coordination.

Energetics of individual nodes/workers are pretty much the same.  There might be a couple of high-flyers out there digging ahead of the rest of the crew, but they’re fed the same egg-and-rice caloric input everyone else is fed.  You’re supposed to watch the leader (who, being Han Chinese as well) looks like you, and in case you, dear reader, have never dug a ditch, trust me that there’s not a lot of brain power required.  But in a world of work scarcity, everyone is assured their place.  They’re out of the Survival v-Meme.

If you had to locate the whole operation on the graph above, you’d map out from the Authoritarian v-Meme (workers are told where to dig) about 25%.  It’s a simple task, and the knowledge structures are authority-driven fragments (Dig here!  Start digging!  Stop digging!  Time for lunch!) There is likely higher level coordination up a couple of levels.  Someone has to decide that the hole needs to be dug.  But even that position has to be relatively low empathy.  You can’t really be worried about 1000 workers with shovels, other than to make sure they’re directed, and fed.

As we’ve discussed earlier in this blog, just because a society is low-empathy doesn’t mean it doesn’t continue to aggregate knowledge in the knowledge structures that are available to it.  The Chinese have been doing this for literally thousands of years, and in many ways, when it comes to sophistication of managing social coherence, are way ahead of us.  I’ve written here about The 36 Stratagems, which are how one deals with one’s competitors, as well as here about Chengyu, which are often ways one deals with the empathy-disordered in the midst.  Over a couple thousand years, it does no good to deny that there are psychopaths in your midst.  If you want larger social coherence, you have to provide mechanisms for people to acknowledge the validity of one’s authority.  And it has to be in the knowledge structure that people can use.  Hence, the 4 and 8 character chengyu, narrative tags for larger stories, that number in the thousands and pull deeper Tribal v-Meme knowledge up that allow people to accept the reality of living with various, controlling assholes and not losing their minds.  If one were to plot that on the graph above, I think it’s safe to say we’re out around 95% from the Authoritarian v-Meme.  Considering the difficulty we’re having in dealing with the empathy-disordered, or even acknowledging their existence, across politics, corporate leadership, or even in our own backyard, we sure could use some social coherence learned from the Chinese about now.

It’s fun to talk about the lower v-Memes with regards to social coherence, because the short timescales are something we can relate to.  In fully Tribal v-Meme societies, the way social coherence is maintained is, too often, killing someone who’s causing problems, or coming up with an appropriate compensation strategy for the victim.  Jared Diamond talks extensively about this in Guns, Germs and Steel.  When someone is giving you a hard time you didn’t deserve at work, certain brief strategies have to cross your mind!

As one moves up the Evolution axis, it simply makes sense that as agency increases, developed empathy has to also increase.  We’ve got to consider someone’s emotions, as well as outcomes they might want to achieve, in order to reach social coherence.  For the Legalistic v-Meme, this gets embodied in everyone following the same regulations, or even standards and codes, if you want to think like an engineer.  When you screw a nut onto a bolt, you expect it to be manufactured within a specification so you can spin it tight.

But all this requires more information, structured appropriately.  A general use bolt comes with implied characteristics, and maybe the only thing that matters is the thread size, bolt length, and such.  But move out much of the Sophistication axis, for varying applications (like high temperature, corrosive environments, etc.) and you’re into some serious algorithmic process restriction.

Up the Spiral, to Performance v-Meme behavior, shared goals, scaffolded from below, provide coherence.  On up into Communitarian v-Meme behavior, the example that comes to mind that sounds trivial, but in reality is quite complex, might be the ritual of the Potluck dinner.  Everyone in the community has to have data on each other’s masterful dish, and when those independent nodes communicate, the group can show up in one place with a memorable feast.  Trust and empathy naturally come into it — one has very little leverage except the value of the independently generated relationship.  And you’ve got to know if Susie or Hans is lying about buying that new super-duper deep fat fryer.  The proof will be in the fried chicken.  Imagine an Authoritarian potluck, with no sophistication.  One person tells all the members what to bring, regardless of their capability.  Feedback comes back only after the experience itself.  Not so great for everyone having a savory time.

In the end, social coherence, or the homeostasis that marks its existence, is maintained in any social circumstance through that integral feedback loop of knowledge structure, social structure, empathetic development, and independent agency.  It’s an interminable chicken-and-egg process. Change one, and it does feed back to the others — but not necessarily the way one thinks.  Give complex, sequenced commands to a bunch of Authoritarians, through yelling at them (or standing up in front of a classroom) well, don’t expect too much. If the chaos is high enough, and the social coherence a priori is weak, you can expect a little Tribal v-Meme In-group/Out-group dynamic.  Don’t be surprised when you’re the one driven into the wilderness.

But once you understand its need, the one thing that almost always will yield positive benefits is growing your people empathetically.  It’s always easy to reach down and get in the ditch.  Not so easy to reach upward in an immediate circumstance.


Quickie Post — the Lighter Side of Authoritarianism, demonstrated by Goby Fish

Conor Williams Peak Summit

Conor, in the Clearwater backcountry, July, 2018

Frans de Waal, the empathy pioneer who studies mostly animal empathy, posts interesting animal behavior from time to time on his FB page.  I thought this particular video captured better than anything the pointlessness of arguing with a true, egocentric Authoritarian.

As I’ve noted in the past, different v-Memes are equipped with different conflict resolution modes.  Authoritarians, with chronic dichotomous thinking, always boil everything down to three modes — I win, you lose/You win, I lose/We both fall away exhausted.

Thanks for the fish teaching us this important v-Meme lesson!

Quickie Post — the Not-so-Hidden Cost of the Empathy-Disordered in Social Networks

Conor Kelly Creek Hoodoos

Dunedain training, Clearwater backcountry, north-central Idaho  August 2018 — in case you’re wondering what we emphasize, it’s cheerily stoic, steadfast performance, coupled with calm, relentless awareness.

Fellow chronic co-conspirator Ryan Martens sent a link regarding corporate gaslighting from a former colleague of his at Rally Software, Shannon Mason.  Shannon is the VP of Product Management at the recently absorbed Rally after it was bought by Computer Associates.  Addressing the issue of ‘gaslighting‘ in corporate environments, Shannon points out a mix of the personal effects of gaslighting on the individual — increased hypervigilance and workplace instability, as well as the broader systemic effects rippling across the system, where individuals check and re-check work because of the fear of being caught off-guard, with career-limiting consequences.  One of the great things about this piece is Shannon is one of the only people I’ve ever seen address some of the things I discuss in my work on the empathy-disordered, which is the system-level disruption that happens when the empathy-disordered work on relational disruption inside social networks.

I had never seriously contemplated Shannon’s ‘wasted energy’ argument.  It was revelatory for me. But it shows, once again, how you can run, but you can’t hide from the empathetic development, and its subsequent timescales it allows and encourages in your organization.  If you’ve got someone who’s using psychological distortion to manipulate the environment for their own, selfish gain, far too much energy is going to get dumped into short timescale thinking.

The implications are straightforward.  You’re so busy watching the fly on the end of your nose, you and your employees miss the large market changes that really determine the fate of your company.  And, of course, there’s also the very real consequence of talent flight that will occur if you allow this kind of behavior to continue.  Labor mobility of top talent is real.  And healthy, evolving people expect to come to work to do work — not play some weird game of gotcha.

Here’s a background post written by myself that gives more richness to this problem.

How Health Care Deprivation and the Consequences of Poor Diet is Feeding Contemporary Authoritarianism – The Trump ACA Debacle

Lochsa Amazement Chuck

Yours Truly, charging — uh, kinda.  Grim Reaper Rapid, Lochsa River, ID   Mike Beiser photo

One of the most distressing things occurring in the Trump administration is its destructive focus on dismantling the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, arguably the largest legacy of the Obama administration.  To start, this post is not about how wonderful the ACA is.  I’m not interested in that, otherwise known as Obamacare, because for one thing, I think it’s deeply flawed.  We should have a single payer insurance plan, like every other civilized country.   People regularly, across the world, pay about half what is paid in the U.S. for equivalent services.  (One of the perverse ancillary benefits, however, is that in the long run, what might get most Americans out of the country and perforate our continental bubble is health care tourism.  I already have had multiple friends travel to Mexico for dental care. But I digress.)

We have to have some modern health care safety net if we want to have a modern economy.  You simply can’t have the personal agency needed to drive job creation, as well as social mobility, without it.

There’s also a series of wicked feedback loops that are manifesting in contemporary healthcare that really didn’t even exist 20 years ago.  When you couple the skyrocketing cost of health care, with the absolute necessity of having health insurance, add in a population basically collapsing from metabolic syndrome, mix in the ability of companies to perform debt collection, and then add an increasingly authoritarian government into the mix, you have a recipe for societal control and real collapse — not just creative collapse.  Here’s a great piece with lots of numbers and little politics to give you perspective.  In 1960, 5% of our GDP was health care.  Now it’s almost 18%.

The upshot of those kinds of numbers is that you reach a nonlinear point where people can’t afford to not have a job, because the buried wage paid through employment with a large employing institution, once externalized, crosses the survival threshold for rent, food, and such.  And then an individual can’t move from their current position.  When you add to this increasing obesity, cancer, and general ill health from metabolic syndrome, as well as the slow creep of more catastrophic illnesses earlier in people’s lives (and away from the age-based safety net of Medicare) the chances of something bad happening increase — and people won’t take the risk.  Just how lucky do you feel, punk?

All this, viewed from a v-Meme lens, is terrifying.   As well as putting a damper on entrepreneurship.  You want to start a company?  You want to risk personal medical bankruptcy? Here’s a pretty good dissection of the possibilities on Snopes.

Into all this walks our current President, whom I’ve written about earlier regarding his predilections.  It’s easy to focus on Trump and his disordered empathy perspective, but the problem is larger.  He requires the submission of agencies under his control, as well as many other elected representatives, to derail that signature accomplishment of the Obama administration.  And since he is a chronic relational disruptor, part of the strategy is sowing fragmentation in the connected community, which interestingly enough involves the insurance companies.

It’s easy to argue that the insurance companies are a bunch of pirates, and if we didn’t have their influence in the electoral process through subversions of the public will like the Citizens United decision, we’d be far better off.  But interestingly, what really comes through in this piece on NPR in the conflict described here  is v-Meme conflict.  The insurance business is highly regulated, and pretty much a guaranteed profit business.  Insurance pricing runs heavily on data, which is combined into actuarial tables.  Companies then take those projected costs, add a fixed percentage as granted by law, and rake in the dough.  Naturally, they work hard to undermine the system through denying claims and such.  If you think the game is rigged in their favor for them (as long as they’re not cut out of the game, especially with health care) well, it is.

Why this is interesting is it means that the insurance companies are fundamentally solid Legalistic v-Meme occupiers.  They have a whole business built on stasis, and played by certain rules that guarantee profits.  They don’t like any change, of course, but they can tolerate change if it can be quantified in rules, with data, that allows them to continue to rake in the dough.

But the Trump administration doesn’t like Obamacare, whatever the rules are.  And it’s Trump’s authority uber alles.  He’s the Truth Decider.

So the latest thing Trump is doing is this:  because Trump hates Obamacare, in order to establish his authority, he has to disrupt it.  He’s done lots of different things, including working to get it repealed.  That’s historic.  The latest thing involves two legal cases regarding the formula to establish ‘risk adjustment’ payments across pools.  One judge found the calculation schedule ‘arbitrary and capricious’.  Another did not.  So, in classic v-Meme borrowing form, when a player (in this case the Trump administration) is motivated to assert their v-Meme, they ‘borrow’ from a higher v-Meme (in this case, Legalistic- there were two court cases) to assert their authority, and their direction.  They select the truth to act on, and (dependent on their v-Meme) assert their values.  Which in Trump’s case, is all about controlling the truth.

What this means is Trump is now ordering his folks to simply not pay certain “risk adjustment” payments, totaling $10.4B to the insurance companies for balancing risk pools between high- and low-risk health care subscribers.  Insurance only works as a distributed pool — and by doubling down on the fragmentation card (exactly what we would expect to see in any v-Meme devolution!) he’s causing relational disruption and chaos in the industry.  You want to mess with a bunch of rule followers, which is what the insurance industry is?  Just start arbitrarily and erratically changing the rules.

Here’s a pull quote from the NPR piece:

“Insurers hate uncertainty, and when faced with it tend to raise premiums to hedge their bets,” says Larry Levitt, Senior Vice President at the Kaiser Family Foundation. He says halting the risk adjustment program will disrupt the individual markets, and might even cause insurers not to participate next year.

That’s exactly what psychopaths do — create uncertainty, so others just go away.  Fewer players, communicating with each others less, allow the empathy-disordered to control the playing field.  In this case, it’s forcing the folks in the Out-group to get in an In-group where they’re controlled.  Or, essentially, die.  At some level, it’s boring, it’s so predictable.  But of course, this has a profound effect on people’s lives.

There’s a lot more to write here, but the short version as far as more generalizable insights is this:  narcissistic psychopaths will use whatever tool they can get a grip on in their toolkit to achieve their aims.  It doesn’t matter whether the behavior comes from a higher v-Meme or not.  It’s about their control.  And when it comes to the ACA, Trump won’t stop until he’s out of office.  He’s just gotta be better than Obama.  At least in his own head.

The even larger view, though, gets back to the title of the piece.  Without a large enough authority protecting you in U.S. society, in a world where everyone’s getting fatter and more unhealthy, you’re dead meat.  You don’t need a gun being held to your head to feel The Man’s boot on your neck.  You just need to eat another donut at the office.  Not very empathetic.