Why do some things never change

Politics & Communication

What does power do to us humans? Why is she so attracted to us? Has the process of civilization satisfied our wild thirst for power or at least steered it into civilized channels? Political thought leaders from Machiavelli to Foucault have given classic apologetic answers to these questions.

However, a well-founded answer can only be found if we not only trace back the past twelve thousand years of human culture and civilization, but also include the millions of years of the origins of today's man - i.e. his natural history - in our analysis. Our ancestors dealt very successfully with their environment and gained a special survival advantage and reproductive success from it. It is therefore worth asking: Is there something in us humans like an affective-motivational core of being, which could develop over time under natural, pre-civilizational environmental conditions and which still has a significant influence on our actions today? From a bio-psychological point of view, the answer is clear: yes. But which behaviors were then particularly expedient and advantageous under those environmental conditions? How can such a core have been preserved to this day? How much has it developed or differentiated under the environmental conditions of civilization?

We humans are social beings. We are more so than the rest of the primates. For almost three million years, not only Homo sapiens but also their early human ancestors have roamed nature in search of food in small groups of familiar, security-giving and closely cooperating social partners. In order to answer the questions raised, we must therefore differentiate between the behavior of individuals within their group and that between the groups and examine them more closely.

The social perception

Let us first look at behavior in the group. The anthropological formula of the zoon politikon and Animal sociale was recently empirically proven and further developed by the working group around Michael Tomasello at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology Leipzig in animal-human comparative studies. An anatomical detail that is unique among primates - the whites of the human eye - is an evolutionary expression of this essential social orientation. It optimizes our ability to follow the social partner's gaze and recognize what he is seeing or intending. In this way we can optimally coordinate our individual intentions with those of our social partners. So the survival advantage exists where groups cooperate closely.

Humans have a natural talent at discovering and interpreting communicative body signals. We can recognize faces and empathize with the feelings and intentions that are expressed. If we perceive joy, anger, friendliness or hostility in the facial expression or in the gestures and posture of our social partners, activation patterns can be measured in our brain that are similar to those when we experience, express or act out the feeling ourselves. Expressions of feeling are as contagious as sporting, dancing or musical performances. This shows how closely our social perception is linked to our inner experience, our ideas, feelings and motivation to act.

Social perceptions also decisively promote learning progress in children. Child learning is essentially learning based on the social model. In contrast to our animal relatives, the brain of the human child also matures outside of the womb until adolescence, so that it initially uncritically takes on the guiding ideas and prejudices of its parents and those around them. This peculiarity forms an essential basis of our constitutional openness to our closer socio-cultural environment, for our inclination towards conformity, yes, towards conformity, and for our ambivalent attitude towards foreign social partners.

Let us turn our gaze to the natural history of human behavior. When our ancestors came into contact with strangers, the quick identification of friend and foe by means of external characteristics and emotional facial expressions was likely to have been of vital importance. When people from different groups met, they were hardly guided by a welcoming culture, but tried to assert themselves in the battle for resources. It turned out to be violent, as studies on the type of death in men from Stone Age cultures and peoples living close to nature show - around half of them were probably killed.

The way of life that prevailed over long periods of time in associations of cooperating individuals who, as members of different groups, tended to compete and encounter each other in a hostile and aggressive manner, has not only left genetic traces in our anatomy and internal company organization. It has also created the genetic basis for essential drives and willingness to act in the area of ​​cooperation, empathy, enterprising, competition, power, hostility and violence, relaxation and excitement, familiarity and alienation within and between groups. We are by nature social beings with a high need for bonding, but at the same time have an extremely enterprising, defensive side with a pronounced urge for individual, autonomous development and a substantial potential for aggression.

Various anthropological designs agree that we, as adult individuals, are guided by a basic need: We want to live in a world that conforms to our own desires. We don't want to be patronized, but to be able to develop freely. Philosophical anthropologists, economic, political and social theorists - such as Adam Smith (1776), Søren Kierkegaard (1849), Peter Bieri (2001) or Hermann Lübbe (2011) - have repeatedly discussed freedom as an existential challenge for modern humans. For Norbert Bischof (2008), the human desire for free development as a claim to autonomy becomes the central guide in his motivation theory. Bischof shows how the claim to autonomy increases massively in puberty and adolescence, in line with sexual and caring motivation. The sense of autonomy associated with one's target state represents an extremely positive, desirable emotional state.

Desires for autonomy as a basic problem

In connection with our initial question about the attraction of power for the socially living human being, we encounter a basic problem: How can we manage our individual wishes for autonomy as cooperating group members today? And how could the early Stone Age hunters and gatherers of an early human group coordinate their wishes for autonomy, individual needs, perspectives and goals for action with as little conflict as possible?

Basically, two principles can be identified: On the one hand, the group can follow the currently strongest motive or need, regardless of which individual expresses this need. This principle of synchronization can be observed above all in egalitarian social structures, for example in a flock of birds, a herd of animals or in people who, in a large, anonymous crowd, are caught in a panic reaction to a scare call from an individual. For our question about the attraction of power, however, a second principle is more relevant. It is referred to as dominance in behavioral research: groups of people consist of individuals with different claims to autonomy, skills, needs and willingness to act. A group structure therefore preferably develops in which the group behavior does not follow the currently strongest motive, regardless of who expresses it first, but rather the physically or psychologically strongest, dominant individual who succeeds in bringing the group behavior under his control.

If the members of a group arrange themselves according to this dominance principle, a ranking or hierarchy is created. Those who reach the top or alpha position are able to set goals for their group and claim priority for themselves when resources are limited. He has a high status and is particularly respected. This makes it easier for him to exercise his influence. Men with a higher social status also appear more erotically attractive to women. For the lower-ranking group members, this means that they have to withdraw their own claim to autonomy, which is often not so difficult for them, since the higher-ranking group can also give them security. So they develop a complementary, submissive behavior, show a reserved, less competitive, submissive attitude and an increased dependence on their social partners. This in turn promotes a socially acceptable and responsible attitude and a certain generosity towards them in the case of the higher-ranking.

In anthropogenesis there are developmental conditions that have led to the fact that men in particular like to organize and stabilize their claims to autonomy in robust hierarchies of dominance with relatively few conflicts, but expressively and through rituals. Various top male politicians, such as former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, serve as examples. Women strive more to balance their needs according to the synchronization principle in egalitarian social structures. This increases the potential for conflict in your needs management if at the same time wishes for individual development have to be taken into account.

We can speak of a power motive when someone strives and is ready to enforce his claim to autonomy and his dominance in the group even against the resistance of others. The more powerful experiences themselves as stronger and more self-confident than their opponents. He has a strong sense of autonomy and enjoys having asserted himself against competitors. No wonder power is particularly attractive to men.

The motive for validity in the group

However, we humans have already developed cognitively and motivationally in prehistoric times and are not dependent on forcing a dominant position in the group. We can also secure the attention of others, their respect, their attention and their applause by establishing ourselves as a particularly capable, popular or even just prominent group member. When someone tries to achieve a dominant position in a group casually in this way, we can speak of a validity motive.

A particularly widespread and relevant variant of the validity motive is the achievement motive. Achievement-motivated action is action in relation to a standard of quality or proficiency that allows me and others to evaluate the outcome of my action as a success or failure. We humans initially develop our self-esteem in the mirror of the judgments of our social partners and thus above all in dealing with a socially recognized standard of proficiency. With increasing life experience we can develop an inner model of what is important and valuable to us. This makes our self-esteem less dependent on recognition from others. An age-related "striving for self-worth" can arise (Lersch, 1956, Bischof, 2008), in which, unlike striving for validity, respect for oneself becomes the essential guideline and not applause from the public. The public appearances of former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and other elder statesmen offer good object lessons for a pronounced motive of intrinsic value.

If we now compare the widespread hierarchies of validity with hierarchies of power, we find that they are significantly less stable. The applause of society, the favor of the electorate or media prominence can be withdrawn from the capable politician in a democracy at any time. Thomas Hobbes wrote the following sentence: "It is not truth but power that decides what is right".

People in an application situation, such as politicians who want to be elected, cannot force the attention and applause of the people they vote for. A politician who tried to do this would lose votes instantly, especially among women. But he can easily secure the favor of the voters through socially acceptable and responsible behavior, generosity and efficiency. The combative, powerful demeanor of Renate Künast as opponent Klaus Wowereits in the election for the governing mayor of Berlin in 2011 probably contributed to a significant loss of votes, which - after initially great popularity - she had to accept, especially among female voters. Chancellor Angela Merkel offers a counterexample, who - in contrast to her male predecessor - realizes her political ideas in a moderating style similar to the synchronization principle and enjoys a consistently high level of approval from voters, although she repeatedly comes across the accusation in the media faces a lack of leadership.

Knowledge is power

Let us come back to our initial questions. If we relate the nearly three million years of our prehistoric development to the past twelve thousand years of our cultural and civilizational history, the latter appears to be an extremely short period of time. The genotype of the human being, who can only change in generation steps, and with it his affective-motivational core, the profile of his intuitive preferences and willingness to act, has hardly been able to develop decisively during this time and over a few hundred generations.

However, humans have started to transform their environment faster and faster. It has developed a tremendous dynamic of civilization: sedentariness, agriculture, cattle breeding, storage, invention of writing, urbanization and industrialization are keywords that characterize a dynamic that has also had an impact on the manifestations of man's readiness for power and violence.

From a sociological point of view, Norbert Elias (1939) examined the "process of civilization" in the period from around 800 to 1900 AD and pointed optimistically to a civilization of man and his institutions, away from all-round struggles towards greater self-control, towards development moral feelings and the state monopoly of force. However, he did not pay attention to ethnological studies of hunter and gatherer cultures living close to nature, nor to the natural history of humans as a whole, which decisively hinders a well-founded statement.

In sharp contrast to his thesis of civilization are contemporary statements such as those of the then Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan (1999): "The 20th century was the most murderous age in human history." In a commemorative speech in the Bundestag on May 8th at the end of the Second World War 70 years ago, historian Heinrich-August Winkler referred to the Charter of Paris, in which in 1990 the states of Europe and the Soviet Union respect principles of coexistence, such as non-violence of borders, democracy and peaceful conflict resolution.

All of this is at risk. In the core of Europe, conflicts of interest are no longer fought with weapons, but with political, economic and legal means. However, we are increasingly confronted with acts of war and violence in the immediate and wider environment, which are in no way inferior to earlier wars in terms of cruelty. We are in a situation in which we can test our cultural progress on the ability and willingness to transform our intuitive rejection of the foreign and our reluctance to change our living environment into a welcoming culture for refugees.

We have little reason to assume that humans have developed from wild animals to angels of peace in the process of civilization. In the course of cultural-historical and civilizational development, we test and live out different varieties of our behavioral dispositions and preferences and readiness, which our ancestors acquired and passed on to us, under the stimulus and pressure of a changing environment. But knowledge is also power and people are capable of learning. And so we can at least hope that knowledge, education, human experiences and memories of misdeeds help us to cultivate our nature after all.