THE PSYCHOLOGY OF HUMAN SURVIVAL
With ROGER WALSH, M.D.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Today we're going to be talking about an extremely profound topic, the psychology of human survival -- and in fact, explicitly, the psychology of the survival of the human race. My guest, Dr. Roger Walsh, is a psychiatrist and a professor at the University of California, and also the author of a very interesting book called Staying Alive: The Psychology of Human Survival. Roger, welcome.
ROGER WALSH, M.D.: Thank you very much.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here. In your book you look at the big problems facing humanity -- global nuclear war, pollution, overpopulation -- and you come to a very interesting conclusion. You suggest that all of these problems are man-made; they reflect our minds, our psyches, and that certainly one angle for dealing with these problems has to be psychological. What got you involved in these issues? So many people really don't want to face the big problems.
WALSH: That's true, and it's really quite understandable. If you look at the magnitude and urgency and complexity of the problems we're up against, it's really no surprise that most of us feel pretty uncomfortable when we look at them. And yet when we're brought face to face with them, it's really hard to keep the veils of denial and repression up. For me the veils were torn away when I went to Asia. I spent a couple of months there studying and doing research. Although I thought I knew about the state of the world, it was really quite a shock to me to find out firsthand just how most of the people in the world live, and to live with these people, and from day to day see the conditions which they were surviving under.
MISHLOVE: I had the experience myself this year. I've been to the Orient several times, and I can remember being in Shanghai, a city of some fourteen million people -- crowded. It's like the Bay-to-Breakers Race all the time.
WALSH: Yes, it's hard to imagine.
MISHLOVE: The per-capita income is something like less than the equivalent of two hundred and fifty dollars a year.
For an intelligent, well-bred individual, it's horrifying in some ways.
WALSH: That's true, and in fact one billion people live on an annual income of less that two hundred dollars a year on the planet at the moment.
MISHLOVE: It's hard for us to appreciate, when we consider less than five thousand a year is poverty. I heard somebody say recently, "If you're not making at least a hundred thousand dollars a year, you're living in poverty."
WALSH: Well, that's a very generous definition of poverty, and not something which most of the world's population would understand.
MISHLOVE: Not at all. So you were moved by your personal experience of seeing this?
WALSH: I was very moved by that. It really made me rethink; it made me realize I'd really been asleep about the state of the world. Then when I came back to the States I started reading, and it didn't take more than a few days of reading about the global situation for me to appreciate that I just had not understood what we were up against, and to let some of those facts in was mind boggling. Then I saw the film that the Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Nobel-Prize-winning group, put out, called The Last Epidemic, on the medical consequences of nuclear war, and that was another eye opener. Again I realized I'd just been ignoring the greatest issues of our time. And then it was very hard to stay asleep.
MISHLOVE: You know, there are some optimists, perhaps people in the current administration, who would argue that what's really going on in the world now is a redistribution of wealth because of the forces of the free market, which is why we're buying Japanese and Korean automobiles -- so that those workers there, because of their poverty, can compete more effectively in the workplace and the labor market.
WALSH: Well, to some slight extent that's true. There is some redistribution going on in that way. But unfortunately the facts are very clear, and that is that the gap between the wealthy nations, the haves of the world, and the have-nots, is growing, so that the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer to some extent. In part that reflects many of the other problems we're facing, such as population explosion -- most of the population explosion is occurring in Third World countries, which can ill afford it. Starvation of course is occurring in these countries; we lose twenty million people a year of starvation, fifty thousand a day. That's extraordinary. And so this idea that things are kind of correcting themselves is not true. It can be corrected; I think that we have to appreciate that we do have the power, we have the technology, the resources, the information, to correct the problem, to handle the global threats. But it's a question of whether we are willing to really make that our priority.
MISHLOVE: I think the most striking statistic -- and in your book you cite many statistics -- the one that really got to me the most was the notion that we spend worldwide, I think you said some six hundred and sixty billion dollars on armaments and the arms race and the military. And maybe one percent of that would be sufficient to end world starvation.
WALSH: You know, those figures are extraordinary. And the tragedy is, Jeff, that those figures are a couple of years out of date now. This year for the first time the world will spend over a trillion dollars on weapons -- one trillion dollars. That's three billion dollars a day. You know, if you spent a million dollars a day since the birth of Christ, you wouldn't have gotten through more than about two-thirds of a trillion dollars. That's how much it is. If you compare that with the amount needed to eradicate world starvation, which has been estimated by the Presidential Commission on World Hunger at about six billion dollars a year, that's a lot of money, but it's less than one percent, as you said, of the world's arms expenditures. So one year of the world's arms expenditure would eradicate starvation for a hundred and fifty years.
MISHLOVE: Somehow it makes me angry at us when I hear you say that. It's like there's something in our minds, collectively, where we have agreed that, as I think you put it in the book, we can't afford to feed the starving, and we can't afford not to build up these arms. Honestly, Roger, it makes me angry to think that this is what we collectively believe.
WALSH: Well, that's probably a very healthy response, because the state of the world is almost one of insanity, and we have to really appreciate that before we can start working effectively. Because, as you pointed out in the introduction, for the first time in human history each and every one of the threats we're facing to human survival -- whether it be nuclear weapons or overpopulation or starvation or degradation of our environment -- each and every one of these is human-caused, which means it stems from our behavior, from our ways of thinking and acting and perceiving, and is ultimately traceable to the psychological forces within us and between us. What that means is that what we've called our global problems are actually symptoms; they're symptoms of the distorted ways we look and perceive and think and believe and act. And unless we appreciate that we're only going to treat symptoms, and the way most of us have treated or tried to treat global situations is with the military, economically, or politically, and it hasn't gotten us too far. Of course those are absolutely essential. But unless we recognize that the state of the world is a reflection of the state of our minds, and try to heal our perception -- to see more clearly, to reduce our fear and paranoia, and to correct our beliefs to get correct information -- we're not going to get it handled.
MISHLOVE: You know, I had a discussion with a spiritual teacher, Idries Shah, the Sufi master, about this issue over ten years ago. I said to him, "You know, at this point we have to wake up. We have to become enlightened. We have to change. It's a matter of survival." And he said, "Yes, that's absolutely true, but if you put it to people that way it won't work. That's not the reason that people are going to wake up."
WALSH: What was his suggestion as to why people would?
MISHLOVE: Well, listen to Sufi stories? I don't know quite what he had in mind.
WALSH: I'm a little more pragmatic.
MISHLOVE: You're putting it more directly, aren't you?
WALSH: Well, I think it's very possible that the situation might evoke from us more mature responses. There are two things that could happen out of this, because these threats have really strong effects on us. We can deny and repress all we want, but there's no way we can escape completely the effects of the fact that our lives hang by a thread and we have no guarantee that any of us, or our culture, or our friends, or our loved ones, are going to be here tomorrow. That has major effect. What that means is we could go two ways. On the one hand, the very threats we've created could exacerbate the fear and paranoia and defensiveness that got us here in the first place; or on the other hand, if a sufficient number of us are really willing to face these honestly and act appropriately, then we might be able to reverse the situation and even perhaps learn and grow in the process. Because it's going to take more than we've had before. It's going to take new levels of individual and collective responsibility and maturity and growth and collective action. So it's just possible that the very threats we've created might act as catalysts to pull us out of the situation. That's a hope, I think.
MISHLOVE: That's the optimistic view of things.
WALSH: That's the optimistic view.
MISHLOVE: As in a Shakespearean tragedy, it will bring out the noblest.
WALSH: Of course the reality is, we don't know. We don't know that we're going to survive. We have no guarantees whatsoever, but it doesn't seem to make sense to do anything except work like hell to ensure that we do.
MISHLOVE: What you have done -- and I certainly want to go into this in some detail -- is you've analyzed the situation psychologically, using the various schools of psychology and what they can offer, from behaviorism all the way to transpersonal and the spiritual aspects of psychology. Yet there are those who suggest that the problem isn't really psychological, quite. They suggest that what we really have to come to terms with is the problem of evil itself. How do you address that?
WALSH: Well, I think we need to take a real close look at what we mean by evil. You can look at unskillful behavior, behavior which causes incredible suffering to people, either in terms of evil and malevolence, or you can look at it terms of it being an expression of people's mistaken beliefs and fears and paranoia. And it's very interesting -- what comes up for you when you hear the word evil?
MISHLOVE: Well, one thinks of the religious mythologies and Satan, or the notion of absolute evil, embattled, locked like day and night.
WALSH: That's it. And when there's evil, then the automatic response is to attack and defend and feel very righteous about it. So what I'd suggest is that seeing people acting in terms of evil is very dangerous, because one of the sad facts of human nature is that we tend to become what we believe our enemies are, and to justify our actions in terms of theirs. So if we see them as evil, then we're likely to respond in the same way ourselves.
MISHLOVE: Well, the classical example of this would be the Inquisition, where the Church tortured and killed ten million people in the name of Jesus, because they were evil.
WALSH: For their own good. For the good of their souls.
MISHLOVE: And yet this notion of evil, which you seem to be challenging in a very intelligent fashion, is embodied in most of the major religious traditions today.
WALSH: It is, at some levels, and yet some of the more sophisticated religious teachings tend to see unskillful behavior more in terms of an expression of people's fear and defensiveness, and try to heal that rather than trying to attack and destroy the person who has it.
MISHLOVE: So one of the things that you're saying is that our tendency to label the problems that we're having as resulting from evil in the world, that in itself is an illustration of part of the problem, from a psychological perspective.
WALSH: Yes, and a very tricky one too, because we can feel so righteous when we're battling evil. We're on the side of light. It's always interesting, if you look over history, that everyone always thinks they're on the side of the light and angels, and no one's ever fighting for the devil.
MISHLOVE: Then of course there's the classic statement of Reagan. The focus of evil in the modern world becomes the Soviet Union, and it has this almost religious aura, like we're getting ready for a holy war here.
WALSH: Of course that's a real danger. Whenever throughout history people have seen the "enemy" as entirely evil, then there's been a tendency to engage in battle, to attack them.
MISHLOVE: And another level here, mythologically speaking, may be in the Bible itself, the myth of Armageddon -- we're moving towards this gigantic nuclear war, and it's God's will.
WALSH: Yes. That's a very tricky belief. I think you're pointing to something very important here. You're pointing to the beliefs that may be operating in the culture which may pull us towards mass suicide, particularly when those beliefs aren't recognized as only myths, or only beliefs. When we either don't recognize these myths are operating in us, or we just assume automatically that they're the truth, then they have power over us. So one of the crucial issues, I think, what's really facing us here, is firstly to recognize the power of myths and beliefs, and then to recognize the beliefs that we hold, and to recognize that they're just beliefs -- that they are statements about reality which we tend to take for reality.
MISHLOVE: You cite the statistics of young children today, schoolchildren -- what? eighty, ninety percent of whom anticipate a nuclear war now in their lifetime.
WALSH: There are a large percentage of kids who fear that.
MISHLOVE: I may have overstated it, but it's high.
WALSH: Yes, it's high, it's very high. And that's a very scary fact, because if these kids don't have any reason to think they're going to live out their life, then it leads to a sense of hopelessness, depression, despair, and quite possibly an exacerbation of feelings of aggression towards society and so forth. It's a very dangerous situation we're facing.
MISHLOVE: You see it reflected in the young countercultures now -- the punk movement, the new wave movement. They've changed from the days of the hippies, say.
WALSH: Well, the younger generation always keeps reacting against the older, so I'm not sure we can blame it entirely on the nuclear situation. But there's no question that the global threats have embedded themselves deep in the minds of all people, young and old, American and Soviet, and are having their impact. The question is whether we can face these facts, open ourselves to them, look at them honestly, and out of that honest looking allow ourselves to be touched by them. And to the extent we're touched by the enormity of preventable suffering in the world, and the possibility of this useless mass killing, to that extent we're likely to react with compassion and concern and contribution. The ancient wisdom was, "The truth will set you free," and that's not only good theology, it's very profound psychology as well. So one of the first things we have to do is just keep looking truthfully at the situation we've created.
MISHLOVE: And to start out with, I guess what you're saying is to recognize the severity of the problem.
WALSH: Recognize the severity of the problem, and also recognize the extent to which it's a creation of our own minds and our own beliefs and our own misperceptions, and then start working on those.
MISHLOVE: I suppose for the sake of clarification we might start with -- I think the big ones must be population, pollution, nuclear war, starvation.
WALSH: Indeed, those are the big ones we're facing.
MISHLOVE: The big four. Have I missed any?
WALSH: Well, that covers a lot. There are others, of course -- climate changes and carbon dioxide increase. But we don't have to list ad nauseam. The message is very simple. We've got lots of problems. And they're solvable, if enough of us are willing to take responsibility and start acting. One of the things that's really crucial here, I think, is for us to appreciate that these problems are solvable. Not only are they solvable, but each of us can make a useful contribution here. One of the problems that so many of us have is the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness: what the heck can I do, I don't have the facts, or I don't know enough, or I'm too this or I'm too that. There's a wonderful quote by Henry Ford, which I love. Henry Ford said, "Those who believe they can do something and those who believe they can't are both right." I think that's a pretty potent statement. It really is a message of hope and empowerment for all of us, to appreciate that if we believe that we can make a contribution, we can.
MISHLOVE: And that's exactly what you're doing.
WALSH: Well, that's exactly what we're trying to do now, and what many people watching will be doing as well.
MISHLOVE: Let's now begin to outline some of the major areas where you see a psychological dynamic that we can focus in on. For example, behaviorism is a school of psychology that seems to be saying quite a lot about these problems.
WALSH: Well, each school says quite a bit. Behaviorism, for example, emphasizes the role of rewards and reinforcers, and also the role of modeling -- that is, the people who are put up to us as role models. For example, if we want to look at the role of the media here, which is incredibly powerful, then who are the stars? What is presented to us on TV? We find that the heroes of Western television tend to be rewarded for being aggressive and highly consumptive, using a lot of raw materials and so forth -- exactly the things which are creating these problems.
MISHLOVE: You know, there's kind of a cycle there, because the major networks believe that they have to put this on in order to get market share; and so a lot of people must believe that that's what they want to see.
WALSH: Well, as long as those examples are provided to us of what's successful and what makes people happy, as long as the media keep fostering that illusion, then for sure that is what people will tend to watch. I think we really need a new generation of heroes. You know, John Wayne is not going to keep us on this planet.
MISHLOVE: But we do have Bill Cosby.
WALSH: We have Bill Cosby, right. There may be hope yet.
MISHLOVE: So what you're saying as regards behaviorism is that we need to provide positive models.
WALSH: Yes, we need positive models, particularly given the power of the media and the fact that an average kid spends more time in front of TV than in front of a teacher. So we really need this, and we need to be aware of what we're reinforcing people for. For example, we reinforce our politicians for supplying unlimited amounts of raw materials -- for example, gasoline -- right now, even though it may mean that our kids face a very drastic situation.
MISHLOVE: Nobody thinks in the long term. We think now about oil glut. Five years ago we were thinking otherwise.
And five years from now, who knows?
WALSH: Five years from now again, yes. We don't reward our politicians for that type of long-term thinking.
MISHLOVE: In fact just the opposite. The system seems to have short-term rewards built in. This is the teaching of the behaviorists -- that the closer the reinforcement or the reward follows the behavior, the more people recognize it. So built into the very nature of the human organism is shortsightedness.
WALSH: That's true, and so we need to do things to make us more aware of the long-term consequences. One example of that that's now institutionalized is the necessity of environmental impact reports, which make it clear to everyone what exactly the long-term impact of major institutional changes is going to be. That's one example of what can be done.
MISHLOVE: What in effect we're doing, as I see it, is we're kind of telescoping. We're taking a long-term impact, which might be a reinforcer of some kind, and we're saying okay, you've got to have this report ready next month. So we're making it into a short term, by requiring the environmental impact report be done.
WALSH: Well, we're making ourselves aware, right now.
MISHLOVE: Are you saying that awareness is enough, that if we're aware of the fact that we only look towards short-term reinforcements, that that will actually change?
WALSH: Well, awareness is healing, there's no question about that. I'm not sure it's enough by itself.
MISHLOVE: Behaviorists would probably not say so, I would take it.
WALSH: Right, exactly. Some other schools might. But I don't think anyone would argue with the idea that awareness is crucial to healing both the individual, the culture, and the planet.
MISHLOVE: And it may be our best point of leverage.
WALSH: It may indeed. One of the best things any of us can do, I think, is to educate ourselves, to educate other people, just to know the facts, because once we know the facts, that tends to evoke appropriate responses. So the first step is always education. H.G. Wells said it very well. He said, "Human history is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe." That's very true now, more true than when he said it.
MISHLOVE: If we were to look at education today in its optimal sense, what I think we'd be needing to do is to give people a whole perspective of what's really happening, in the largest possible sense.
WALSH: That's right. We really would need to be giving more courses about the global situation, the whole planet, the state of our world. There are very few courses like that in colleges or schools at the moment. But they're getting more, and that's very hopeful, that the education is beginning to shift. I see it in the University of California, where I work, and I feel encouraged by that.
MISHLOVE: As a psychiatrist, what about our understanding of the unconscious dynamics of the mind? Freud I think seemed rather hopeless about the human situation, because he saw all this muck -- aggression, libido, and so on -- going on in the unconscious. How do you deal with that?
WALSH: Well, Freud was a little bit of a pessimist about the human condition. I'm not sure I'd want to agree completely with that. I think the reality is that all of us have the potential for positive and negative, and we react according to circumstances -- environment, upbringing, etcetera -- so we're a lot more malleable, changeable, than perhaps Freud would have wanted to believe. So that gives me a little hope. But clearly unconscious factors play a large role. For example, the role of fear operates unconsciously, and we respond to our fears by what we call defense mechanisms, whereby, for example, we repress and deny our awareness of the situation, or we project onto other people those parts of ourselves and those motives we're unwilling to recognize and acknowledge in ourselves. So then, for example, we turn out to be lily white and they turn out to be evil and malevolent and bad and vicious and all the things that we're not.
MISHLOVE: How do we put a stop to that?
WALSH: Well, knowing about these processes is very helpful, first off. Once you know that all of us tend to project, all of us tend to repress and deny at bit, no one's perfect -- at least I haven't met any perfect human beings, and I've been looking for some time. So all of us do these, and once you know that, then it gets very hard to deny that these forces are operating between nations and between leaders as well as between you and me, for example.
MISHLOVE: In other words, when we label someone as enemy, we make them all bad, and we think of ourselves as all good. The truth of the matter, I suppose, is that our enemies aren't as bad as we think they are, and we're not as good as we think we are.
WALSH: Well, the truth often tends to be somewhere in the middle, yes. And the interesting thing, of course, is that we look out and we see our enemies -- for example, the Soviets -- as evil and bad and wicked, and they look at us and see us exactly the same way. So there's something very interesting going on there. There's this mirror image that we hold of each other.
MISHLOVE: What do we do about that?
WALSH: Well, again, I think you pointed to one of the things -- that's information, just letting in accurate information. You know, for a long time it wasn't even allowed to teach or talk about Communism openly in this country for a while. And of course the Soviets do a tremendous amount of censoring. So letting accurate information in is one thing. Getting people in contact is another, just allowing greater contract. One of the interesting developments is this movement of citizen summitry, with people going across to the Soviet Union, inviting the Soviets here, getting to know one another firsthand. That clearly breaks down some of the stereotypes.
MISHLOVE: What do the spiritual psychologies -- if you can tell us in about a minute -- have to say about these issues? Perhaps we could conclude on that note.
WALSH: Well, let's see. I think the spiritual psychologies, some of the Eastern psychologies, would point to the role, for example, of greed or addiction and hatred and anger, and of what they call delusion; that is, not seeing clearly -- the appreciation that our mistaken beliefs and defenses distort our perception of one another, and of other nations.
MISHLOVE: In other words, by not being in touch with our deepest, truest self, we're acting out of false values.
WALSH: That puts it very nicely. Yes, that's good, that's very good.
MISHLOVE: Well, Roger, the sense that I have from being with you is that just by being able to discuss these things, and maybe share them with other people as we're doing now, that that's a step in the right direction.
WALSH: I certainly hope so.
MISHLOVE: And that's something that everybody can do.
WALSH: Absolutely everyone, yes.
MISHLOVE: And perhaps it's something that will continue to grow and snowball.
WALSH: I hope so.
MISHLOVE: Roger, thank you very much for being with us.
WALSH: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.