06 May, 2014

The flagpole of entitlements and obligations

Since the last few years, I've been interested in how the web is affecting our lives and changing the way we think. While trying to understand this, I came across the question of how our sense of "entitlement" and "obligation" affect the way we think.

The reason I came across this dilemma itself is a different question. It had to do with the wide disparities I observed in the emphasis placed on different aspects of online privacy and security, by different people.

Nevertheless, this post is not about online privacy and security, but on our sense of entitlement and obligation. Here is a theory that I've developed:

The Flagpole Model

Imagine that inside each of us is a tall flagpole. A flagpole has some element of it over the ground and some element of it buried underground.

The part of the flagpole that is overground is our sense of entitlement. It is what we think the external world owes us.

The part of the flagpole that is underground is our sense of obligation. It is what we feel we owe to the external world.

The flagpole deeply affects our strategic disposition with which we approach the world. When we are predisposed with a sense of entitlement, we tend to be aggressive, obdurate, righteous, judgmental and assertive. When we are predisposed with a sense of obligation, we tend to be empathetic, compassionate, cooperative and accommodating.

Each of us are born with a certain ratio of the flagpole above ground and the rest underground. Our innate sense of entitlement versus obligation is visible approximately when we are two years old. Take a set of two year old kids and we will probably see that the distribution of pole-lengths above ground is a Gaussian bell curve. That is, there are a small number of kids who would have an innately high sense of entitlement, and a small number of kids who would have an innately high sense of obligation. Most of the kids would be somewhere in the middle, with an almost equal sense of entitlement and obligation. They are more or less, as selfish as they are friendly.

As we grow up, our culture and system of education gently adjusts our flagpole over the years.

In some cultures, the flagpole is pulled up as people are reminded about their rights and entitlements by their culture that celebrates gumption. In some other cultures that celebrates compliance, the flagpole is pushed in and people are reminded more about their duties and obligations, rather than rights and entitlements.

Stability of a system of flagpoles

Given a society where everybody has a flagpole inside themselves, there is often a clash of entitlements. This beings us to a concept of "stability" of the society.

A society is said to be stable if a sense of entitlement by someone can be matched with a sense of obligation or duty on the part of others. In other words, the total amount of flagpole lengths that is above ground should match the total amount of flagpole lengths that is underground, for the society to be stable.

If we see a society where some folks seem to have inordinately high levels of entitlement, and the society still seems to be stable without any upheavals, it means that their high sense of entitlement is matched by several others in the society living with an inordinately high sense of duty or obligation.

If a society comprises of all people with a high sense of entitlement, it will result in conflict and clashes, till a point when some of the flagpoles are forcibly pushed underground.

Alternatively, what happens to a society where everyone lives with a high sense of obligation? On the face of it, such a society will appear to be stable too, since a sense of obligation will not seek anything from others. But such a society is not evolutionarily stable in game theoretic parlance. It means that a small set of incumbent actors with a high sense of entitlement can easily overwhelm the society. In addition, such a society is prone to a variant of the tragedy of the commons that is also well known in game theory. Since everyone in the society has a high sense of duty, selflessness and service, there is a temptation for everyone to slowly increase their own sense of entitlement over time, as it can be easily matched by a sense of obligation on the part of someone or the other. A society with an inordinate sense of obligation is also not in Nash equilibrium. As long as everybody else remains in a state of heightened sense of duty, there is a rational incentive for any given actor to give up this state and adopt a heightened sense of entitlement instead. That is one of the sources of my skepticism about the widespread practices of "bhakti" and "devotion." A society comprising of all "bhakts" may be very peaceful and empathetic, but such a society is not likely to exist for long.

Phase transitions

The sense of entitlement and the sense of obligation are like Yin and Yang. If we try to increase one of them without limit, we end up with the other. As the saying goes: "If you go too far into the East, you end up in the West." Or the Andy Grove quote: "Every successful organization contains the seeds of its own downfall."

If as a society we emphasize too much on one of the above senses, there appears a point at which there is a "phase transition" and the flagpole goes in the opposite direction of the emphasis.

If our environment emphasizes too much on a sense of duty then there comes a point when our sense of entitlement becomes close to zero. A sense of entitlement is very important for survival. Once it becomes zero, there is no mechanism for our body to convince itself to even live. But then, nature does not allow us to reach a zero sense of entitlement, without putting up a good fight. When our sense of entitlement becomes too low, our primal survival instincts surface and starts a desperate push of the flagpole upwards, resulting in rebellion, defiance and revolt.

When our sense of entitlement becomes too much, there comes a point when we start feeling hollow from within. A sense of obligation is very important for our notion of self worth. Our sense of self worth is based on how much we are needed by others. When we have lived all our lives pursuing only our self interest, there comes a point when we start feeling "soulless" and superficial living only for ourselves. This starts a desperate push of the flagpole downwards, explaining why some very wealthy people suddenly turn spiritual or go off into depression and abdication.

The entire history of the world can be seen from the lens of how this flagpole has been manipulated within ourselves and over others. Much of leadership, governance and persuasion has been about fiddling with our and others' flagpoles.