Dating Apps and Arrested Development

What college and fuck dolls have in common

There’s been a lot of talk these past few years about some kind of crisis unfolding in American higher education. Lukianoff and Haidt argue in The Coddling of the American Mind that American colleges are nurturing three “great untruths” that interfere with social, emotional, and intellectual development. Those untruths are: (1) “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”; (2) “always trust your feelings”; and (3) “life is a battle between good people and evil people”. Without going too deeply into this, Lukianoff and Haidt’s book is an obvious clin d’oeil to the 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind which bemoaned the deleterious effects of postmodern philosophy, a book so unexpectedly popular that even a random kid in Belgium (me) read it sometime in the 2000s. Whether the coddling diagnosis is the ultimate triumph of what Allan Bloom forebode in 1987, mixed with the perverse incentives of students-as-customers, I don’t pretend to settle.

The Coddling book came to my mind recently when I read an essay by David Chapman on cognitive development. In it, he says: “Institutions are also, increasingly, accommodating and even validating stage 3 behavior in young adults. (This is a point of current controversy in universities particularly.) Although done with the best of intentions, institutions’ failure to challenge the communal mode may be detrimental to both individuals and society in the longer run. I am concerned that our culture may increasingly be actively impeding personal growth into systematicity — and providing less of the necessary support for it. More people are getting stuck in an earlier developmental stage. This may become disastrous.” Chapman and Lukianoff & Haidt are talking about the same thing. These authors put their finger on a societal phenomenon that they believe can lead to a state of arrested development, precisely at a time where societal demand for a complex sense-making apparatus has never been greater. Higher education culture, they argue, is having a cognitive impact on young adults.

Another trend people have been writing about for a while now is the effect of the Internet and of the goddam minicomputers in everyone’s pockets on how people think. Nicholas Carr in The Shallows eloquently discussed how tech changes human nature, and not inevitably for the better. And if you’re about to retort that people in Ancient Greece used to foolishly fulminate against books for inducing sloth and undermining memory, please hold that thought. Because those angry Greeks may not actually have been totally wrong, merely shortsighted. Technology is not value-neutral; it correlates with ethics, influences epistemology, favors one way of “being” over another. In particular, Carr was concerned that the internet is favoring an epistemology of “multi-tasking, fast processing of great quantities of information, skilled use of search engines, and proficient hyperlink hopping”. Technology is a meme, and just as we are mere flesh vessels to our selfish genes, we are also hijacked by selfish memes, our possessions possess us, and we should question what possesses us.

Bimboubermensch and Alex Kaschuta discussed not too long ago on Twitter the effects of the advent of fuck dolls on male epistemology. Bimboubermensch: “It’s an entrepreneurial pursuit to ignore natural human anxieties. Instead of setting us free, they help us live with the conditions that are trapping us in the first place. They depoliticize them, obscure and bypass them. They’re giving us reasons not to know ourselves better. […] This new choice architecture does irrevocable damage to the socialization and reward structure for the vast majority of the population”. Alex Kaschuta to add: “Sex robots will take a small subset of weirdos and turn them into an expanding category of weirdos. Supernormal stimuli + marketing + social decay is a self-reinforcing system that feeds off of your alienation.” Just like the coddling happening in college, fuck dolls impact our epistemology, aka how we make sense of the world. In one case, it’s the institutional arrangement that affects our epistemology; in the other, it’s technological development.

So how do we judge the memes amongst us? We need to look at what self-actualization means to us, and whether those memes are barriers or catalyzers; mutualistic or parasitic to our goals. Do they trap us in our natural anxieties or elevate us? Do they help or hinder reaching our potential? Are they conducive to peak experiences? To Nicholas Carr, an important trait of the self-actualized individual is creativity, which he perceived to be generated through the workings and connections between long-term, well-processed memories, itself a product of top-down control of one’s attention, which he saw as flourishing in a book culture but undermined in the Internet culture. Was Carr the modern-day equivalent of Athenians complaining about books? Who knows? But the fear of looking like foolish ancient Athenians shouldn’t stop us from questioning our tools and how they affect our epistemology.

Our many births

What did Chapman mean by “stage 3 behavior”? This was a reference to Robert Kegan’s theory of epistemological development, a theory grounded in a long tradition in psychology, kickstarted by Jean Piaget in the first half of the 20th century. According to Kegan, people over the course of their life break through successive orders of consciousness, corresponding to new ways of making sense of the world. This is a useful framework to think about the impact of institutions and technology on our self-actualization: if our cognitive development goes through clearly delineated phases, we can evaluate what hinders or promotes that development.

Kegan argues that there are different stages of epistemological development, each leading to a greater perspective on life and self. The level of cognitive development we reach depends on the demands of the culture we are embedded in. The more demanding a culture, the greater epistemological development it will promote. At a high level, a low-demand culture is a culture in which a lot of decisions are made for you, be it via the church or a simple economic life; whereas a high-demand culture is a culture where you as an individual need to chart your own course and navigate many different relationships and responsibilities. Therefore, as a society becomes more economically complex and morally secular, the more demands it makes on our sense-making apparatus.

The early stages of development take place within the familial context, while the later stages take place in the broader world of the community and/or economic system. Each transition between stages is uncomfortable, and typically requires a graceful combination of holding on (confirmation) and letting go (contradiction) on the part of the “holding environment”. The holding environment is whatever one’s current order of consciousness is embedded in. For an infant, that holding environment is the maternal embrace, holding on is literal holding, letting go is weaning, encouraging mobility, etc., and the epistemological change induced is a move from identifying with one’s reflexes (I am what I see and feel) to coordinating reflexes in response to impulses and perceptions (I am reacting to an “other”).

This movement of holding on and letting go, literal in infancy, persists throughout life in a metaphorical way. For a child, the holding-on corresponds to cultivating magical thinking (Santa), the letting-go consists in enforcing boundaries to the impulses (“you cannot come into our bed whenever you feel like it”), and the associated epistemological change is a move away from impulsivity toward enduring dispositions (needs, wishes, etc.).

Early adolescence is what Kegan refers to interchangeably as “second-order consciousness” or “imperial stage”. He describes it as a stage of “self-involved independence”, characterized by a fundamental egocentrism and a tendency to see others as instruments. At that stage, socialization is the goal, and support consists in acknowledging the early teen in his or her self-sufficiency and competence, while the letting-go takes the form of demanding reciprocity, trustworthiness, and generally to take other people’s welfare into account. You graduate into third-order consciousness by acquiring this ability to take someone else’s perspective, value it, and tie it to your own well-being.

The fourth order, in turn, is unlocked when you start relating to your relationships, sitting separate from them, instead of being steeped in them and therefore at their mercy; when you start thinking of yourself as a self with goals, convictions, and standards that in turn relationships serve or do not serve. This transition to fourth-order consciousness, according to Kegan, is the key transition to ensure you’re a well-adjusted person in the demanding curriculum of the modern world. This is the transition David Chapman is concerned college has stopped preparing us for. This is the transition many are complaining technology might be subtly undermining too, whether it’s through fuck dolls or incel chatrooms.

A key point in all this is that you cannot really reason your way through orders of consciousness; it is a deep, visceral, tectonic change in sense-making, a repeated birth trauma à la Otto Rank, a hero’s journey à la Campbell, in which you abandon an old self to find a new one, thanks to a delicate balance of holding on and letting go on the part of the environment. At each stage, the higher order of consciousness is what you don’t know you don’t know, until you know it.

Frankly, I don’t really know what to think of this theory. (By the way, there is a fifth order of consciousness, but let’s leave that for another time.) Parts of it definitely speak to me, but other parts feel a bit too neat, and too patronizing, or flattering (since the reader will automatically assume to be at the top of the “pyramid”). In particular, the theory presupposes the whole self kind of evolves “in block” from one stage to the next. I personally feel a bit more scattered, and that my order of consciousness may depend on the context. I feel like my epistemic engagement with the different curricula life throws at me can be pretty varied. One can be an effective leader in the boardroom, yet an adolescent in the bedroom; navigate conflicting loyalties in the office, yet be alarmingly paralyzed in one’s romantic feelings. I would’ve thought that the amount of exposure to, and practice in, a specific context would matter, yet Kegan argues that researchers have tested this “consistency hypothesis” (whether the self truly evolves “in block”) and that they’ve come away with the conclusion that people tend indeed to be consistent in the “order of consciousness” they exhibit across contexts.

Orbiting one’s own center

The socialization of third-order consciousness is a crucial step that allows one to take someone else’s perspective into account and identify with them. Until not too long ago, the average person didn’t really need to go much beyond that. Whatever higher-order sense-making we needed was often outsourced to the strong community in which one was embedded. For a majority of people, economic life was fairly routine and practical, and social and family life was filled with rituals orchestrated by institutions such as the church. But as the curriculum of modern life became more complex and secular, there were more demands on our individual sense-making abilities. For instance, choosing one’s mate was for the longest time barely a choice, and divorce was unthinkable. The modern couple, in contrast, continuously chooses itself. A similar evolution in the realm of work has happened: while in most of history work was not a matter of choice, it has now become a big part of our identity. With community shrinking, higher expectations are placed on both the couple we are a part of and the work we do. In a way, we’ve been progressively asked to hold a community inside our own head.

To thrive in a modern relationship and a modern workplace, we need to develop our own ability to arbitrate morally ambiguous situations and to regulate the claims others have on us. We can no longer outsource that. The world has become too complex to just run on autopilot.

At work, it means to develop a sense of professionalism. While the term “profession” is usually associated to occupations like lawyer or physician, and carries this notion that the worker has a duty or loyalty to something higher than their employer, it should be a mindset for any occupation. A professional always owns their work, regardless of their hierarchical subordination. A cleaning lady can be more professional than a lawyer, if the former communicates a list of detergents she expects will be provided, and the latter is groveling to a partner and compromising their integrity in the process. Professionalism is about understanding that work is owned and that professional roles are on a different plane than personal ones, and we don’t let the latter co-opt the former. It’s about self-initiation, self-evaluation, and self-correction, not conformity to expectations. In a word, as Kegan puts it, a professional is psychologically self-employed, if not actually.

In personal relationships, it means to not be at the mercy of others’ claims on ourselves. To take an example from Kegan’s book In Over Our Heads, if my wife and I have finally managed to carve out a much-needed vacation for ourselves, and arranged for the kids to be taken care of, I cannot later unilaterally invite my parents on the trip if I suddenly feel they’re down and depressed, which makes me feel compelled to immediately do something about it. Not only do I need to be able to recognize that such a commitment would be infringing on the first one, I also need to have developed a good sense of the nature of the different relationships I’m in. Does this claim coming from a given relationship fall within the nature of the relationship I’m committed to? Does my relationship to my parents entail inviting them over to my getaway with my wife?

If you don’t develop such internal evaluation of claims coming from the relationships you’re involved in with respect to your concept of those relationships, you run the risk of just reacting to those claims. The claims of others end up regulating you, instead of you regulating them. You’ll tend to be paralyzed by conflicting values, loyalties, expectations, or convictions, and will find it hard to fulfill one without disappointing another.

You, me, and our respective experiences

The key epistemological insight here, according to Kegan, consists in understanding that there is a difference between you and what you experience, between you and what the other experiences, and between the other and their own experience. This is in fact not too dissimilar from what mindfulness teaches. A central tenet of mindfulness is that you are not your thoughts, you merely have them, or they happen to you. It’s easy to get lost in them, identify with them; but with enough practice, we learn to watch them come and go without becoming entangled in them. A painful thought can evaporate with the right internal attitude.

Without this kind of detachment, you’re more likely to react quasi-mechanically to either your own experience or the other’s experience, and succumb to either defensiveness (react against the other) or fear or guilt (react against oneself). Without this detachment, you will tend to expect others to feel your experience and expect them to automatically respond to it in the way that will relieve you, in effect acting as if you believed in telepathy. Similarly, you’ll be driven by the other’s experience, like a satellite gravitating around another instead of orbiting around its own center. If you let yourself be made up by your own experience or the other’s experience, you will tend to find yourself more often than you’d like in other-directed mental states such as angry defensiveness, remorseful guilt, emotional fusion, or cold turkeying, instead of more productive mental states.

This space, this in-between, is also what enables compassion, as opposed to empathy, which is more fusional. This space is what enables us to get as close as we want to the other’s experience without reacting mechanically to it, even when that experience is a negative judgement of us. We can decide to remain close to the other or to distance ourselves from them. Empathy, unlike compassion, cannot hold someone’s experience, someone’s anger, sadness, or frustration; it identifies with it. This is especially productive when relating to people with mental health problems: it enables one to distinguish between the other’s experience and their bigger self that is having that experience, and to choose to relate to the latter. As Kegan puts it in The Evolving Self, what is needed is “the ability to remain present for another when he is anxious, to recognize and accept his anxiety, without ourselves becoming too anxious or immediately trying to relieve the anxiety.”

If we find ourselves in a frustrating situation, we should be able to recognize our frustration, detach ourselves from it (you are bigger than that feeling), and understand that we can always escape from the situation. There are always “other options than that of being the aggrieved victim”. In almost all situations, no matter how frustrating, hurtful, or otherwise, we have a hand in how it’s constructed, and we can therefore decide to exit it or reframe it, reset it in our own terms. When we find ourselves blaming another for our unhappiness, we are in some way abdicating a responsibility to ourselves. Often one is mad at someone when one is actually just not living up to one’s values, and letting oneself be in a bad situation. At the end of the day, we’re responsible for our own happiness. That’s what it boils down to. Too often we assign that responsibility to others, or we take on responsibility for someone else’s happiness. We need to learn to express our needs without finding that unromantic; set boundaries without hardening our heart; care without identifying; hear I-statements without automatically translating them into you-statements. And we have to do away with the specious notion that love is “not having to ask”.

What you know and how you know

As I write this, of course I cannot escape doing some introspection. I’ve always considered myself fairly well-adjusted, but everyone has baggage, and I’m no exception. We all carry in ourselves stuff that will subtly undermine our professionalism or collapse our healthy boundaries.

For example, I’ve always had a deep aversion to ambiguity in myself (the reason for that is a bit too personal for this post). And this aversion sometimes puts my boundaries at risk in that I will tend to react strongly to ambiguity in others. I once had a manager that was always ambiguous about almost everything all the time. I used to lament that he lived in “fuzzy land”. A colleague of mine used to describe it as “garden-path thinking”, in reference to garden-path sentences, sentences which, when you start reading them, you think you understand them, but as you keep going, you realize you lost the meaning. Garden-path thinking is this art of saying something that seems meaningful at first but actually your thought is just lost and you never knew where you were going in the first place. When you’re confused, you need to have your cake and eat it too, and the solution is to be vague enough that you don’t commit to anything. In any case, I was confident about my assessment of my manager’s pervasive vagueness and shaky technical knowledge, but I was always surprised by the fact that I seemed to react much more strongly to it than anyone else on the team. I was, in fact, projecting my deep aversion to ambiguity, collapsing my boundaries and allowing myself to be other-directed.

Another way in which I sometimes fail to uphold my boundaries is that I tend to exaggerate the effect my negative feedback will have on the person I give the feedback to. As such, I was always reluctant to give explicit feedback to my manager about his management style, because I thought, if I was truly open about it, I would hurt him deeply, he would have to conclude he sucks at his job. As a result, I don’t grant the other the responsibility of their own feelings; somehow I think that they will be made up by my experience, that their self-worth will be affected by a negative judgement from me. In a way, I inflate beyond measure the power of my feedback.

These behavioral patterns are deep-seated. We’re all forged in the family drama we inherit growing up. Our longing for love from the gods of our childhood, our parents who can take or give life, created devotional bonds that shape up our character arcs. If those traits are unhelpful, it’s hard to just think your way out of them. The only way to break through them is to act against oneself, as if your own self was letting go of itself, to use Kegan’s imagery. The only way to find out if you indeed have the power to determine someone’s self-worth is to actually give them the feedback you want to give them and see how they react. You’d be surprised how wrong your finely-tuned predictions of what’s going to happen are. As my therapist would say, if she had taken it personally every time someone did not express the desire to continue therapy with her after their first meeting, she would have stopped a long time ago.

A couple of years ago, I had a partner who suffered from anxiety and depression. Ever curious, I informed myself thoroughly: I read the top textbook on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), multiple self-help books on depression, even a psychological biography of Abraham Lincoln (who is known to have suffered from “melancholy”, which is what depression was called at the time). I had a pretty good grasp of the subject. I could’ve recited on demand the ten or so typical distortionary thoughts depressed people tend to have. And yet all that cognitive understanding did not help one iota in alleviating my frustration at my girlfriend’s behavior. It did not make me a better partner in that situation. You may have cognitively absorbed what CBT is, and yet it may change zilch to how you make sense of the world, how you construct meaning from experience. I still couldn’t help but feel that my girlfriend was being unreasonable, still couldn’t help but blame her for all the sleeping, the drinking, the helplessness. Even worse: I was kind of proud of the research I did, and I think that, in a weird way, I was expecting brownie points from my depressed girlfriend for the efforts I put in 🤦‍♂️. I could articulate what depression is, but I wasn’t really getting it, at some deep level.

To this day, whenever I gain insights into how people (including myself) behave and why they behave the way that they do, I’m not entirely sure how much I actually adjust how I relate to their behavior (or my own behavior). Whether or not you can make productive use of psychological insights is not a matter of smarts. What you know does little to how you know. You cannot think your way into new behavior, you can only act your way into new behavior.

Freedom from tradition

We’ve seen that key skills of fourth-order consciousness include: (1) developing a sense of psychological self-employment at work; (2) creating a space between you, your experience, the other’s experience, and the other’s self; and (3) developing an ability to subordinate conflicting values, loyalties, expectations, or convictions to a supervening principle, system, or “ideology” that regulates our relationships, thereby creating a relationship to our relationships instead of being steeped in them.

I’ve also tried to emphasize how difficult such skills are to master. Around the time of the publication of his book In Over our Heads (1994), Robert Kegan argued that “at any given moment, around one-half to two-thirds of the adult population appear not to have fully reached the fourth order of consciousness.” Have we made any progress since? Are we measuring up to this increasingly demanding curriculum of modern life? And to go back to our original question, are our tools and institutions helping us step out of third-order consciousness or are they holding us back?

At this point, I would like to go back to Bimboubermensch’s insight, that some tech can trap us in our anxieties. What I perceive in that insight is that tech can be an enabler tilting the balance too much toward “holding on”, and thereby literally holding us back; biased toward confirming our current self, rather than contradicting it. At some level, tech, by empowering us, risks impoverishing us, since the development of our consciousness requires contradiction, an external force that pushes us (“letting go”). It makes exit from struggle too easy, robbing us from the hard work, and may maintain us in the cocoon of fusion or imperialism.

Dating apps constitute the biggest incursion of tech in our romantic life, seemingly unavoidable nowadays, especially in pandemic times when most venues for leisure and entertainment seem closed off. A recent semi-serious study from a hedge fund analyst that went viral argues that about 60% of today’s couples met online, and that’s probably underestimating it.

I’ve personally dabbled with dating apps for a couple of years now, and, while they’ve enabled me to meet incredible people, whom I likely would never have met otherwise, and experience wonderful relationships, I have been wondering about the more subtle impact they may have. While there’s no question that dating apps bring value, we nonetheless need to remain wary that they turn into a trap. It sometimes makes me think of the rationale for being on Facebook: you’re on Facebook because all your friends are on there. But arguably, on a societal level, is Facebook good for us? Not clear. Classic multipolar trap: individual incentives yielding collective misery. Maybe we would all be better off without the apps, but because unilaterally logging off would be “suicidal”, no one does.

As we’ve seen, fourth-order consciousness has a perspective on itself, its wants and needs, and has enough of a distance to them that it is not a slave to them. In romantic relationships, instead of seeking something or someone that will meet our wants and needs instantly, we communicate them, teach the other how to meet them, and build a foundation around them. Fourth-order consciousness is less subject to magical romantic thinking around soulmates and thinks concretely, almost practically, about intellectual, emotional, sexual chemistry, and about value alignment. Is it possible dating apps undermine this healthy approach to relationships?

Again, I don’t think they are that bad, as I’ve personally drawn great value from them. But I do worry about their effect on our collective epistemology. Romantic prospects are flattened into a seemingly infinite supply. Swiping, when abused, can turn quasi-sociopathic, “swiping left” on someone for the most mundane of reasons. The endless stream of options weakens the incentives for commitment (or as a friend pithily put it to me recently, “day trading, no investing”). The frictionless experience of rejecting someone by swiping or neglecting to respond feeds an illusion of control that smacks of imperialist epistemology. We scour through faces with a feeling of anonymity and a tinge of voyeurism. We curate the self through a well-crafted profile, sometimes verging on “personality catfishing”, as someone recently described it to me. It’s easy to drift away from who you really are when you are in such total control of your image. The mediation of the screen turbocharges Stendhal’s process of crystallization by which we project onto the love prospect perfections it does not have. In the real world, you don’t control your image as much. There’s a vulnerability to reality.

All this fuels the well-documented winner-take-all phenomenon in the dating market, ushered in by the apps: a few people tend to get most of the attention, especially amongst men (power-law distribution of mating success). The frictionlessness enables greater market efficiency, and while it is the result of individuals following their incentives and “doing what’s right for them”, it may nevertheless make the collective more miserable. Hello again, multipolar trap! Maybe some level of inefficiency or “localism” (when your choice is limited by “real-life encounters”) would instead be societally more beneficial? And this is just assuming an inert tool. Most likely these apps are in some way actively adversarial. Although I know nothing about the underlying algorithms, I reckon great resources have been poured into designing them, and I would be surprised if those apps hadn’t deployed clever techniques to hijack our dopamine and maximize engagement, just like it happens on almost all social media platforms, raising questions of addiction, or overconsumption, and misallocation of mental bandwidth. This particular profile may be served at a strategic moment in your swiping journey, or your profile boosted at the most opportune time, all in the name of engagement.

So are the well-adjusted among us really immune to these fundamental forces? Are dating apps arresting development? I don’t know. Personally, they’ve probably been a net positive in my life. But questioning our tools is what we have to do. Tech disrupts tradition, and dating is no exception. The thing with traditional institutions, though, is that we live most of our lives not needing them, but when we do need them, we need them very badly. We may bask in the glory of newly unlocked freedoms, but we always run the risk of realizing that what we thought were our chains were, in fact, our supports.

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