by Lt Col Dave “Sugar” Lyle, USAF. This article is part of the Personal Theories of Power series, a joint Bridge-CIMSEC project which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.
Complementary mental models hold the social world together. It’s not the lines painted on the road that keep us from careening into each other on the highway, as we sadly find out too often. Paper money has no intrinsic value on its own, unless you like the pictures and holograms, are trying to start a fire, need a bookmark, or have just run out of toilet paper. Online credit purchases do not even require the plastic card anymore, and only work because we collectively believe that strings of ones and zeros — stored electronically in computers that we’ll never see — equal our right to receive services and things from other people, and keep them. In all of these cases, it’s not about the symbolic artifact. Our agreements about what those artifacts represent, and our willingness to act on those beliefs, are what keep the wheels of society turning.
Our brains are hard wired to socialize; to find personal meaning in the groups we belong to and the groups we interact with. If there’s a group, we instinctively figure out if we belong to it and what our place is in the pecking order. We usually try to maintain or improve our position in the hierarchy, even if it’s only within a subgroup we identify with. And to do so, we simultaneously cooperate and compete with others, usually both at the same time.
If it’s true that the plot of every story in the world can be reduced to trying to answer the question “Who am I?”, then it speaks volumes about the importance of identity to human beings. In fact, our brains process things that we associate with our own identity in different ways than we process things that we see as being “other”. We have a very hard time rationally questioning anything that becomes part of who or what we imagine ourselves to be. But how do we know what is “us”, and who or what is “other”?
We make up stories to set the boundaries. We love stories, and literally can’t live socially without them. The basis of our shared mental models, we encode our stories in metaphors, in ceremonial rituals, in songs, in books and films, and in various physical artifacts that help us to remember and communicate both the stories and their meaning. We use the stories as guides for social interaction, and we rewrite them over time to incorporate new experiences. Stories help us understand where we’ve been, and set the direction for collective effort in the future. They are our guideposts for understanding and negotiating ever changing social landscapes, and for accepting our roles within them. Because we have stories, we have identity, we learn to specialize, and we learn to work together for mutual benefit, creating far better lives together than we could ever possibly experience separately.
And here’s the real kicker. We only think we’re in charge of what we believe, and that we deliberately control our own decisions through conscious, rational thought. What really happens is that a multitude of mental submodels — most of which we’re not even aware of — compete for control of our conscious attention, and the domination of our decisions. The idea of unconscious thought influencing the conscious is nothing new — the Greeks were talking about it thousands of years ago. But what is new, as we learn more about the neurobiological foundations of our cognitive processes, is how little control we actually have over our own thoughts most of the time. “Gut feel” intuition usually trumps the pure, unbiased processes of reason that we like to credit ourselves for, but seldom employ in practice — but that’s not always a bad thing. So how does this work inside the mind itself?
Heuristics — the “rules of thumb” built in our brains through combinations of conscious and unconscious encoding — are really combinations of associated and connected mental submodels that are called up in specific contexts. Formed from the bottom up over time, ideas and memory literally emerge from countless physical structures in our brain building and interacting through electrochemical processes. With billions of neurons in our brains, the combinatory possibilities of brain processes are even greater than the known numbers of stars in the universe. To add to the complexity, nature and nurture combine as co-creative forces, ensuring that no two brains are ever alike, even if the basic structures are similar. The true “Great Unknown” can be found in the space between our ears.
But the human mind isn’t completely unknowable either. As Joseph Campbell observed, the same myths are constantly reinvented over the millennia because basic human nature — and the basic cognitive heuristics that form it — is universal across ages and cultures. An intuitive understanding of this has been the key to success for generations of generals, politicians, illusionists, and con artists, giving them the power to predict and shape human behavior. But now, through neuroscience and neurobiology, we’re finally starting to better understand the underlying biochemical processes that were at work the whole time.
Imagine all of those competing mental submodels as if they were Lotto balls, tumbling around in the hopper of our brains, competing to be selected as the winning ball at the top of conscious attention. Now imagine that all of those balls are connected to the other balls in various ways by small, invisible strings, with different degrees of connection and strength. If you could grab specific balls and strings, in specific sequences, you’d have a better chance of influencing which balls make it to the top of the hopper to be selected. You may not know exactly which one will be the winner, but your odds of predicting it are much better if you know something about how those balls are connected together, and how they interact. It works the same way with interconnected memories, ideas, and feelings: “cognitive priming” activates specific mental heuristics at specific times, for better or for worse. The knowledge of identity stories — and the history of how they came to be — is crucial to building your own mental model of other people’s mental models. It’s this “Theory of Mind” we use every day to negotiate and modify the heuristic driven social landscape, as we seek to shape it in ways that favor us.
Except it’s not always that easy. Sometimes the stories don’t match up. Sometimes we disagree about who is in our group, who gets to have what, who gets to tell others what to do, and what should happen if we disagree on these things. We try to define the boundaries with artifacts that evoke the stories. We write laws and codes. We wear uniforms, and issue IDs and badges. We buy power ties, $50,000 wristwatches, and $500,000 cars to cement our place in the social strata. Then we use these stories and artifacts to reinforce our place and our “rights” within the social system. We plead. We cajole. We flatter. We threaten. And finally, we fight.
We fight when our primitive brain senses that something is threatening our physical survival. We fight when something threatens our identity or place in the pecking order, and occasionally we fight over things peripheral to survival and identity that do not threaten the first two. We fight over fear, honor, and interest, as Thucydides observed, and we usually do it in that order. And when we fight, we often equate the ability to maim and kill as having power.
But killing really isn’t the point when it comes to power. While it’s true that killing someone else is a way to exercise power, and a way to prevent someone else from exerting power over you, power is much more about influencing their mental models of the people who you don’t kill, in order to drive the continuing social interaction in directions that you favor. As Thomas Schelling once said, it’s usually much more useful to have the ability to kill someone than it is to actually do it. And as he also said, it’s the loser who determines when the fighting stops, not the winner.
So how does the loser accept the new reality? They rewrite their story in ways that rescue their personal and social identity. A temporary stability can be maintained under the threat of future sanction and violence, but when peace follows war, it happens because the stories of the victor and vanquished have become complementary enough that the loser can not only answer the “What am I?” question with honor, but perhaps more importantly, “What can I become?” favorably under the new status quo.
Using knowledge of the basic human cognitive processes, and the stories that define people’s identity — to take actions that convince others to change their stories, identities, and actions in ways that accommodate yours, accepting your story as their own in the ultimate exercise — is called POWER.
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The Bridge is a blog dedicated to strategy and military affairs. It was formed in 2013 to bring together forward-thinking junior to mid-grade officers and practitioners from a variety of fields to analyze and write about current and future national security challenges.