top of page

Narrative Is Used To Override Healthy Human Self-Interest

Caitlin Johnstone

Mar 6, 2023

It’s very odd how humans can be manipulated into acting against their own self-interest to the benefit of their rulers in ways that animals would never tolerate, just by exploiting the fact that we experience thoughts in our heads that animals do not experience.

Take violence, for example. Predator animals survive by attacking and killing other animals for their own benefit, but as soon as a prey animal makes it clear that it’s not worth the effort, the predator will back off in its own self-interest. The predator understands instinctually that attacking a healthy bull elephant isn’t worth the risk to its own physical wellbeing, and even a wildebeest that proves stronger than expected will be backed off from. A broken bone or a nasty wound can mean the death of the predator, and even a prey animal that forces a predator to expend too much energy won’t be deemed worth the effort when there’s slower, weaker prey to be found.

With less advanced organisms that animal self-interest often isn’t there. Ants for example will charge into battle to their certain death against much larger foes who pose a threat to their nest, instinctually valuing the collective wellbeing of the colony above their own lives. Honeybees will sacrifice their own lives to land a good sting on a threat to the hive, their stingers evolved so that they rip out their own guts when they pierce the flesh of their target.

Humans, interestingly, fall somewhere between tiny-brained hive insects and the larger-brained mammals and birds in terms of self-preservation impulses involving violence, despite having the most advanced brains in the animal kingdom. We have the same instinctive aversions to putting ourselves at risk as those other animals, but that instinct can be overridden by putting a bunch of stories in our heads about how the enemy must be destroyed for this or that reason. A few false narratives about God and glory had humans marching off to fight and die in the Crusades like a bunch of mindless insects.

This is because the capacity for abstract thought that our recently evolved brains have given us can be exploited by clever humans with a predisposition toward manipulation. Because we’re often finding our way around in the world by thoughts and language rather than instinct, we can be manipulated into acting far more foolishly than a pigeon or a squirrel or a tiger ever would.

As humans have gotten better at sharing ideas and information with each other our awareness about what’s real and what’s false has expanded, so we don’t see as many manipulations involving God and glory anymore. Now more clever lies are required to get us charging off to war, like the need to spread freedom and democracy and protect our loved ones from terrorism.

And the same dynamic is used to get us acting against our own interests to the benefit of our rulers throughout every aspect of human civilization, not just with war and violence. Our mental soundtracks are manipulated by propaganda into consenting to extremely abusive systems where people will be deprived of basic human needs if they can’t shape themselves into useful cogs in the machine of industry. Where money can be used for political influence, which can in turn be used to funnel more money to those who have lots of it from those who have very little. Where privacy for the individual is continuously eroded while secrecy for the government is continually thickened.

Environmental destruction. Economic injustice and inequality. Rentier capitalism. Corruption. Steadily escalating police militarization. Soaring incarceration. Increasing internet censorship. And all while wealth and resources are taken from the people and poured toward global power agendas which do not benefit them, and which in fact impoverish them and endanger them as the empire’s “great power competition” against Russia and China rolls out economic warfare which empties their wallets and threatens their lives with nuclear brinkmanship.

These are all egregious assaults on our wellbeing which would not be tolerated except for our susceptibility to mass-scale psychological manipulation. We are propagandized into accepting a level of personal sacrifice more appropriate for bees and ants than for highly evolved mammals, all because our relationship with thought makes it hard for us to distinguish reality from narrative.

We’ve been manipulated into acting against our own self-interest to such an extent that we are now staring down the barrel of annihilation via nuclear war or environmental collapse. We are perilously close to becoming the first species on Earth to go extinct due to propaganda.

What this means is that in its short time on this planet our species has already reached the adapt-or-die juncture that every species eventually hits in a world of continually changing conditions. What makes our situation unique is that the changing conditions we’re encountering have been caused by us, and the adaptation we’re going to have to make is in our own minds.

Humans have the ability to dramatically alter their relationship with thought in a perceptual shift commonly referred to as spiritual enlightenment or awakening. The fact that this potential has been documented for thousands of years and exists within all of us is probably a clue as to what the invitation of this adapt-or-die juncture actually is. If humanity survives, it will be because something shifted in us which caused us to lose the sticky, entangled relationship with thought which made it so easy for ill-intentioned manipulators to drag us this way and that by our minds.

I actually believe we can make that jump, though I also suspect that we have the freedom to fail. If we make it, we can finally join our animal cousins in a way of living that isn’t dominated by mental narrative. And from there we can start building a world that benefits ourselves, and everyone else as well.

bottom of page