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Trigger Spirals vs Wisdom Spirals

The Timeless Battle for Our Lives, Our Loves, and our Democracies

WATCH the video above, or read below. Images are clearer in the text!

The image below is a fractal. I love fractals. They're beautiful. They're self-similar patterns that replicate at levels of scale. It’s also broccoli. And much of our natural and biological world is organized in fractal patterns.

And so I think it is with our democracies, and what's been happening to us over the past several years. It hasn't been just happening at the level of democracy. It's been happening in our homes, our communities, our social groups, our workplaces.

Have you felt this to be true? The disruption, the polarization, the rancour? I think that it's possible that this was intended, and that one of the few actors that may have intended all this to happen was the Kremlin. And it's not that I say it's all about Russia or anything like that. But I think it's interesting to study what was intended.

There are three quotations that have echoed through my mind over the past few years. The first one was from a Kremlin political advisor. He said:

“They think we’re messing with their democracies. We are messing with their minds”

And it recalled for me another quotation I I read a long time ago from Adolf Hitler as he sat in jail writing his book, which is:

“The science of politics is psychology.”

When we think about psychology in this quotation, I think it's helpful to focus on emotions and attitudes. It's about how some things feel, what  psychologists call “affective attitudes.”.

One of the most depressing things from my disinformation research is that once you come to understand that a piece of negative information about a target you read was false, once you know it was disinformation, A ‘belief echo’ remains. A smell, a bad taste in your mouth, that’s associated with that target.

And the last quotation I'll throw at you was also from a Russian political advisor who was tasked with dispiriting Russian citizens about the internet. When it first came, citizens were using it to collaborate, to coordinate, to organize, and that was a threat to Putin’s regime.

He said: “You have to fill it with shit. You have to make it stink.”

That's an emotional play. And I think that part of what's been happening to us over the last several years is certain forces and actors and strategies have been moving house to house, workplace to workplace, community to community, issue to issue, institution to institution, and making it all stink. Everything we might otherwise trust or treasure.

So before I depress you further with all of this, let me talk about where I come from. I started in this activism 20 years ago. I started something called Avaaz, which was a global civic platform. It was beautiful and inspiring to me. I was thrilled with it. We were genuinely crowdsourced - all of our final decisions were made by our members, and we were 100% crowdsource funded. Part of why this was inspiring to me was that I believed in the wisdom of crowds passionately.

This is a famous image of murmuration, by which you can have up to three quarters of a million birds moving in harmony together, in whole and in part, changing in flux and never colliding with each other. But throughout that period, I've also witnessed and been aware of another side, the madness of crowds.

This is a picture of the aftermath of a stampede in Cambodia that killed almost 500 people. What's been clear to me in witnessing the wisdom and madness of crowds is that there's a playbook for each of these things.

And those playbooks are fundamentally cultural. Culture is the operating system of human beings because it operates at every level of that fractal reality. And I think what we've been witnessing is a series of cultural playbooks at work on us. And it's the battle of the playbooks, I think, that will determine the future of our democracies.

I want to talk first about the playbook for what I see as the madness of crowds. And I call it the trigger spiral.


Choose Blame 

Catastrophize and Demonize 


Enter a Reality Loop 

Commit Roadkill 


It begins with some kind of adversity, some kind of hardship. Life hurts. What cognitive behavioral psychologists tell us is that when you experience adversity, you have an immediate branching in your psychology based on whether you choose or feel hurt, anger and blame, or whether you choose or feel curiosity and understanding.

It all flows from there. Now, understandably, a lot of us, when we experience adversity, feel hurt and choose anger and blame. And that  moves us to the next stage of the trigger spiral.

I should say that none of this is “bad”.  This is human, this is the way we are. It's how we're built. It's just life.

But if we choose hurt and blame, life moves us to the next stage of the trigger spiral, which I call catastrophize and demonize. When your brain is flooded with anger or fear or other strong negative emotions, it unleashes a cornucopia of cognitive distortions.

We massively exaggerate how bad things will get and the likelihood that they'll get there. We start to see each other and ourselves sometimes solely by our most negative characteristics.

And that's the tip of the iceberg of the distortions that are unleashed. When our brains sit mired in fear and anger, we move to a state of exhaustion, anxiety. It's a very disempowering, depressive state.

And when we are in that state, we seek comfort. The comfort of others, the comfort of like-minded people who will confirm us in our views and protect us from the “other” that we feel threatened by.

And that's where I think you get the next stage in the trigger spiral, where we tribalize. And that in turn unleashes another cornucopia of cognitive distortions such as social conformity bias, where our brains precognitively try to anticipate what our tribe thinks so that we can believe it, so that we can be consistent with them.

Ideology is a way in which we signal to each other a safety, that we all have the same ideas. We just signal yes, we're on the same page, we're safe. We're not gonna have the pain of encountering different perspectives, different points of view. And that then drives what is maybe our strongest cognitive bias, which is confirmation bias.

Our beliefs shape our perceptions, which shape our beliefs, which shape our perceptions. And all of this drives the phenomenon of group polarization. Where like-minded groups tend to travel together over time into more and more extreme views that are further and further from reality. What I call the reality loop.

And the power of this reality loop is that you come to be able to justify increasingly extreme action. One psychologist, Robert Gass, calls it “roadkill” - triggered action.

When you take an action that harms someone, based on a trigger or bad information, you would normally be ashamed of that action. But it's because you're confirmed by the emotions, the perceptions, the tribe that you have, that it feels justified, that it feels like you're defending justice and democracy, defending all that is right and true in this world.

And what's powerful about that stage in the trigger spiral is it makes shame the ally of the spiral. Because if you were wrong, if you weren't actually basing it on good information or an accurate understanding of the world, you would be ashamed of yourself.

So the shame becomes a disciplining factor that keeps you adherent to your beliefs, your ideology, your tribe. And over time, I think what that does is it tracks you into an identity where the war, the treatment of the other comes to define fundamentally who and what you are, what you think you're on this earth to do.

And at that point, changing a view or truly connecting to the other can involve a destruction of yourself. That becomes the most intransigent stage of the trigger spiral.

So again, all of this is normal. All of this is just us. No judgment, in a way. This is happening to us, it's as old as the hills.

And what's actually most dangerous about this is not one trigger spiral, but two.

If there's one term I hope you'll take away from all this, it's “Cumulative Extremism”. That is the process by which two trigger spirals interacting

with each other can create dynamics that form a kind of system, a conflict system.

The  term cumulative extremism was coined by Roger Eatwell at the University of Bath. It was picked up by Anne Applebaum and other scholars to apply to our democracies more broadly, and what's happening to us.

It describes the process by which radicals can feed off and magnify each other, creating the raison d’etre for each other's existence.

Eatwell was studying white nationalists and jihadist radicals in England  and the way in which they help to radicalize the center.

These dynamics take the endless pluralism, the give and take, the compromise of democracy, the complexity, the nuance of it, and turn it into a zero sum knife fight for ideological supremacy.

That's when democracy and justice and truth and values become secondary to the war. And this is largely how our democracies die.

This is a picture below of a revolt in Germany.

But it wasn't the fascists. This was the Spartacist revolt in 1919 by the communists who sought to overthrow the German government.

Many of the early fascists cut their teeth in street battles with the communists. And it was the conflict system formed between the fascists and the communists that in many countries created totalitarian regimes out of democracies.

The history of democracy's ability to counter cumulative extremism is not good. We're going to have to come up with something new to be able to stop this process. And in this task of coming up with something new, I take hope from the fact that those trigger spirals are fractal, and happening to us in every aspect of our lives, down to the individual level.

We're constantly experiencing them and we have evolved a technology for how to deal with them. And maybe if we understand that technology, we can manifest it at the level of democracy. I call it the wisdom spiral:




Accept and Welcome 

Choose Connection 

Escape Your Echo Chamber 

Follow Your Inner Voice 

Unfold Into Who You Really Are

It begins with mindfulness. And I think it's important that I'm beginning the wisdom spiral in the trigger. Because I think these things are both valuable.

Triggers are often cues to what we need to pay attention to, to what we need to solve, problems that we should be fearful or careful about.

The question is how you respond to the emotions that bring up that thing.

So mindfulness allows you to say: “Well, I'm angry.” It's not some new age airy fairy thing. It's just basic emotional intelligence: “I’m angry. I know when I'm angry. I sometimes don't think the best, I sometimes don't do the right things.”

It allows you to own the trigger so it doesn't own you. And that lets you untrigger. There’s lots of methodologies for untriggering and we each develop what works best for us.  But the best steps I've seen for untriggering are also from Robert Gass:

  1. Name your trigger

  2. Withdraw from whatever's triggering you

  3. Change your state (by whatever technology you do that - go for a walk etc)

  4. Re-engage with the situation that triggered you.

The reengagement is really important because it takes you to the next step in the wisdom spiral.

When you reengage, it allows you to meet adversity in a way that accepts that it's happening. I've never seen good personal change or social change come from people who rail against the way things are.

You've got to say “OK, that's way things are. Now, let's change it.” And then acceptance allows you to go further, to “welcome”. And welcome does not mean validate or support or anything like that.

It means look for the gift. Look for the gift in the adversity. That's what often defines resilience. And people who have grit, who have zest to meet challenges, they're looking for the gift and the learning in them.

And that opportunity and the power of that takes you to the next stage in the wisdom spiral, which is you go searching for that learning. And as you search for the learning in the adversity, you choose connection.

When you’re tribalized, you're protecting yourself. You “other”, you distance, you demonize, you wall yourself off from the other.

When you choose connection, you choose to go listen. You choose to understand what's happening to you, and to others. And that's a very powerful thing because that starts to affect your information environment.

I think we are all only as good as the information we possess. The road to Hell is literally paved with good intentions and bad information.

What this wisdom spiral does is allows you to choose to listen and learn and expand your information environment and escape your echo chamber and your reality loop.

And that's where I feel like one of the most powerful parts of the spiral happens - when you are able to follow your inner guidance.

When you have better information, you can figure out what's more authentic for you. And following that inner voice helps with what I think a lot of us here are trying to do right now - figure out what we're actually meant to do in this world. What we're actually meant to leave, meant to create. And that's where good leadership comes from.

A flowering of that kind of leadership and visionary leadership is what will save us.

That then in turn manifests in a level of identity as you follow that journey to an identity, perhaps of who you authentically are.

I think identity comes at the end of these spirals because it really is at the bottom of human action and motivation. It's the most powerful driver.

And I notice that the identities we arrive at through trigger spirals are often quite jealous and controlling. They command us to be one thing and nothing else.

Whereas the wisdom spiral I find often takes you to a different place. We discover that we contain multitudes. We are an individual, a member of a family, of a community, a group or many groups, a culture or more than one culture, and of humanity and of all life.

And I think there's great power in that, including for the ecological movement, which I think is pushing a notion of humanity, a notion of a universal identity that can help save democracies.

Our wisdom spirals and trigger spirals have a natural balance to them, and we have been off it lately. Each of these play a role in our nature and our psychology. But the playbook for madness is to disrupt the balance. To have us constantly trigger spiralling and hardly ever wisdom spiralling.

Our challenge is to restore the balance.

I think we can do so through “culture campaigning” - a conscious effort to build a healthier culture. And I want to respond to the major objection to that approach, which is:

“Hey, if you think you’re going to defeat fear and anger and demonization and division with wisdom, you’re smoking something. The authoritarians are going to wipe the floor with you”.

And I respect that objection. A lot of people I work with in the political field think you need to hack fear, hack anger, hack polarization, hack tribalism - turn it to your purposes. That, they say, is the way to win. I have respect for that view. But I think it may be feeding the beast that is destroying us. And I want to offer a different way.

As evidence of success of this way, there happen to be a lot of people on team wisdom:

A lot of our wisdom traditions and faith traditions are deeply rooted in this stuff. And you see Yoda as well - our popular culture is stuffed with hero’s journeys and coming of age journeys, stories that involve people moving from the trigger spiral to the wisdom spiral. This stuff is popular!

If we could recognize that, campaign from that, build movements from it… It’s been done before. It has saved us many times. It saves us all the time.

I’ve been doing successful, viral, online campaigning for 20 years. And I did it 8-10 years before Facebook introduced the like button and the algorithm. And I remember a time when the calls to action that called for unity and restraint and calm and measuredness and peace were more viral than the angry, demonizing and divisive messages. I think the architecture of human connection has been hacked and distorted by social media, and our media have all been chasing those algorithms as well because much of their traffic and revenue relies on them. That’s part of what afflicts us, and it all amounts to a giant culture campaign to emphasize the trigger spiral.

I think we can get back to a healthier place because we do have unmediated platforms that the algorithms aren’t governing, that we can work through. All that organizing I did in the that first 10 years was based on science, based on the idea that what we used to call “influentials” were people that spiked in what psychologists call agreeableness - pro-social, empathetic, reasonable folks. Our brains are wired to listen to those people much more than the angry, divisive loners. But social media flipped that ancient aspect of our wisdom on its head, flooding our feeds with the content of the ‘frequent posters’, letting them define our information environments.

I can see a culture campaign for wisdom working. Imagine an ‘echo chamber detox’ where we all spent 10 days just consuming information outside our echo chamber and posting to each other about what that felt like, what we learned, what we thought was good and what was BS. Imagine an “Undemonize” Deliberation Day where you find someone who thinks really differently from you, and refuse to demonize them, humanize them, and just listen to them. And maybe they then listen to you.

They have celebrations of democracy in many countries right now. Norway has the biggest of them, and they just celebrate one of the most important aspects of our diversity - perspectival diversity, our diversity of views. And they get 3% of the population to turn out to an offline event! It’s really possible to do this stuff in a way that’s popular.

If you think culture campaigning is never going to work, and these kinds of systems changes don’t happen, then the last argument I’ll offer is the inclusion revolution.

I would describe the last few decades as a cultural revolution in which we're struggling for each human being to just be who they want to be, who they feel they are without any of these tribal prejudices or strictures forcing them to conform.

Many of us have had an experience of the inclusion revolution that is very similar to what I'm talking about in the wisdom spiral. It's been about love and connection, inclusion, personal growth and maturity, social and emotional learning and, appreciation of human diversity.


Love and Connection

Humanism - Radical Inclusion 

Personal Growth and Maturity 

Social and Emotional Learning 

Appreciation of Human Diversity 

Democratic Pluralism and Freedom

But polls also show that in some countries, a large majority of people have had an experience of the inclusion revolution that's been the exact opposite of all of those things above. And that's part of why the authoritarians are using it as a bait in order to drive the process of cumulative extremism.

So I feel that there's a lot of promise in the inclusion revolution, but there's unfinished business to get it done right.

The last thing I’ll offer is these three beautiful cuties, whom I’m so keen to get home to:

From what I’ve seen the drive to be better, to be better humans, is one of the most powerful drives in human nature. Our consciences are strong, and the love for our kids and desire to make a better world for them is perhaps the strongest human motivator.

I think people are increasingly recognizing that we are not going a good job. And that there is a more vibrant, wiser, better world to build, and we need to do it for them.

And that makes me optimistic, that we’ll get there.


1 Comment

Courtney Stuart-Alban
Courtney Stuart-Alban
Jun 04

Important and compelling work. I share your sentiment and believe the effort to spread this message is imperative. I think the movement away from religion, at least in American society, has created a connection vacuum of sorts. I think people are starved for meaningful, human connection and they are grasping onto it wherever they can find it. I have imagined a "movement" for years: Stay Civil Society that would focus on the important work of civil dialog, civic engagement, and maintaining a civil (as a opposed to a religious theocratic) society. This extends far beyond partisan politics. I think we need organized group meetings that are like AA without the addiction component, maybe with mindfulness replacing the "higher power" a…


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