Basic Psychological Needs


Many theories attempt to define the core psychological needs that underlie all human behavior. These theories risk oversimplifying a complex topic, and are often contested and debated, but are nevertheless interesting to use as a frame of reference for understanding human behavior. This is my attempt to survey some of the popular theories and draw parallels between them.

Common needs across leading theories include:

  • connecting with others and feeling accepted in a group
  • learning and growing from one’s experiences
  • having choice in one’s actions
  • seeking meaning through something larger than oneself

In Search of Human Nature

Mary E. Clark proposes there are three basic propensities that specifically constitute human nature, as distinct from the nature of animals in general. Most animals seek out food, water and mates, and so do humans, but for us these are subsumed by even more powerful needs that arise by virtue of our being wholly and imperatively social. The three propensities are for bonding, for autonomy, and for meaning.

Bonding: remaining attached to (and being accepted by) a group

  • One may shift from one group to another, but acceptance within some group is essential; evolutionarily, total exclusion is tantamount to a death sentence for human beings
  • Our utter dependence on others in infancy creates this lifelong need to belong, to be accepted and appreciated
  • Bonding by adults in stable communities is essential for the successful rearing of each new generation of helpless infants
  • Though it is common in many societies for males, in particular, to play down this need for attachment to others, such suppression leads to a whole host of potential pathologies
  • Rejection, or rupture of a bond, whether actual or threatened, is a profound cause of psychic distress
  • Cultural narratives differ greatly in how they meet this need for belonging; some provide for lifelong acceptance, others promote feelings of rejection or oppression, whose violent consequences within the society are suppressed by various forms of psychic and physical coercion

Autonomy: ability to behave independently and generate one’s own actions

  • The [evolutionary] increase in cognitive capacity of the primate brain that makes highly adaptive, intelligent group life possible also demands autonomy of individual behavior. Big, relatively unprogrammed, adaptive brains must learn through experience how to survive. And learning demands spontaneous engagement by the developing infant and juvenile with its world.
  • Every social relationship constrains individual action to some degree. One cannot be a member of a social community and not experience some restrictions on one’s behavior. The magic of “successful” cultural narratives is the balancing of social constraints with a sense of spontaneity of personal action. They possess two qualities: childrearing practices that generate secure self-identity and reciprocal trust in and respect for others; and a cultural meaning system that attracts spontaneous support from all its members.
  • Just as respect creates equality, so trust generates spontaneous prosocial activity, without need for threat or coercion. … the natural propensities to belong and to be independent, if carefully nurtured, create in the developing person a strong urge to help the whole group by whom one feels accepted; to contribute to the good of the whole.
  • How a culture perceives human nature determines the way its people behave! In general, the narratives of [egalitarian] societies promote equal respect for all contributions, and a balancing of the satisfaction of belonging with the needs for autonomy and independence. This seemingly paradoxical result occurs when a cultural story possesses those two qualities mentioned above: (1) an appreciation that the purpose of attentive nurturing is to develop not obedience, but self-reliance and autonomy (the “trust concept”); and (2) a sacred aspect to the shared social purpose that is embedded in the narrative and lends identity to each individual life and a desire to contribute to the success of the whole. These two together ensure that the uncoerced, autonomous behavior of the individual is naturally directed to the benefit of the whole society.

Meaning: internal perceptions of the significance of experience (which can be communicated with others and valued by a group); a set of beliefs about the purpose of existence; tells how bonding and autonomy (and hence, a secure sense of “self”) are to be met

  • Most important of the three, as cultural narratives have generated institutions for prescribing bonding patterns and for limiting autonomy
  • Bonding and autonomy are propensities humans share with other primates; it is our further propensity or need for meaning that makes us unique
  • [After developing the ability to communicate] It is but a short step to valuing choices about what to do, to providing reasons for those choices, and to justifying them with causal explanations. For the first time, internal perceptions of the significance of experience can be communicated with others and valued by a group. Conceptual meanings come into existence, are shared, and ultimately become the structural basis of culture. The resulting cultural meaning or cultural narrative becomes what connects the individual with the group she or he depends on for survival.
  • An “interpreter” region in the human brain’s left hemisphere automatically creates meaning out of experience. A satisfying meaning system both explains our function in the universe and tells us how to fulfill that function: what things an individual and a whole society ought to do. It justifies a society’s social institutions. Hence, an entire group shares the same (or very similar) beliefs. Shared meanings inspire loyalty; they coordinate social activity.
  • The evolutionarily adaptive function of such a shared meaning system is obvious. It ensures effective group behavior vis-à-vis the common environment. Not surprisingly, most cultural narratives incorporate an authoritative source for their explanations: an originating spirit, ancient ancestors, one or more powerful deities. They also include rituals of sacrifice to the unseen powers to make sure the sun comes up and the plants and animals flourish, and the universe continues as it should. (These, of course, have the important effect of synchronizing human activities with the local environment …).
  • All these critical functions are embedded somewhere within the shared cultural stories of every coherent society. And since time immemorial, because successful social life depended on loyalty to the group narrative, it has been defended vigorously. This extreme defense of belief systems … has often proved problematic throughout history. It may inhibit the changes needed to meet altered contexts, leading to “cultural traps”; and it has been the cause of enormously bloody conflicts between disparate systems. Both of these can be avoided by consciously incorporating into the narrative story processes for modifying the belief system over time, and for recognizing that different beliefs held by others are not necessarily threatening to one’s own.

General notes:

All three [propensities] persist throughout life and are defended by powerful emotions. We seek bonds and resist their rupture. Broken bonds may lead to anger or to grief. We strive for independence and resist constraint, especially physical coercion. And we seek meaning, not only as individuals within a group, but especially collectively, as whole groups. Threats either to our individual identity within the group or to the integrity and the identity of the entire group are powerfully resisted. And all of these emotional responses are the result of the importance, during our evolutionary history, of each of these propensities for our successful survival.

Societies promote prosocial and antisocial behaviors in very different ratios, often having to correct coercively the consequences of their own unsuspected misreadings of human nature. I dismiss the notion that violence and aggression are behaviors forced on us by “selfish genes.” Rather, they are the extreme forms of communication that humans use when social conditions necessary for their individual or collective survival are not being fulfilled. When violent and senseless behaviors happen it is because there are virtually always either personal or cultural causes in the life experiences of those who commit them. Not all cultures are equally adaptive; not all meaning systems accommodate equally well the needs human nature demands. None is “ideal,” but some really do succeed in satisfying all our human inner propensities better than others. It behooves all peoples to try to learn from each other what “works” and why.

Self-Determination Theory

The Basic Psychological Needs Theory (within the broader Self-Determination Theory) defines three basic needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which are similar but slightly different than Clark’s three propensities:

  • Autonomy: experience of volition and willingness; one’s actions, thoughts, and feelings are self-endorsed and authentic
  • Competence: the experience of effectiveness and mastery; becomes satisfied as one capably engages in activities and experiences opportunities for using and extending skills and expertise
  • Relatedness: experience of warmth, bonding, and care; satisfied by connecting to and feeling significant to others

The identification of these needs allows scholars to grapple with the fundamental question of what our human nature looks like. The introduction of these psychological needs is congruent with the meta-theoretical assumption of a growth-oriented nature, while also recognizing that we have a vulnerable nature. While need satisfaction energizes pro-active, prosocial and growth-oriented inclinations, need frustration awakens our vulnerabilities for passivity, self-centeredness, and defensiveness.

A review by Van den Broeck et al. notes how SDT differs from other theories of psychological needs:

SDT characterizes basic psychological needs in two ways that render it unique in comparison to other need theories: needs are viewed as innate, and needs must promote psychological growth, internalization, and well-being. … each need is thought to be present in everyone, and none of the needs are thought to be relatively more important than the others. SDT thus regards each of the three needs as essential, with thwarting of any one need causing disruptions to psychological growth, internalization, and well-being. This contrasts with other need theories that argue for a hierarchy of needs—the most famous being that of Maslow (1943), who argued that needs higher in his hierarchy become more activated when needs at the bottom of the hierarchy are satisfied.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s model differs in that needs are hierarchical, and individuals’ most basic needs must be met before they’re motivated to achieve needs at the next level (though research suggests that levels continuously overlap each other). It defines eight levels of needs (ordered below from bottom to top within the hierarchy):

  • Physiological: biological component for human survival
  • Safety: physical, economic, and emotional security, health
  • Belonging and love: being comfortable with and connection to others that results from receiving acceptance, respect, and love
    • This need for belonging may overcome the physiological and security needs, depending on the strength of the peer pressure
    • In contrast, for some individuals, the need for self-esteem is more important than the need for belonging; and for others, the need for creative fulfillment may supersede even the most basic needs
  • Esteem: the respect and admiration of a person, but also “… self-respect and respect from others”
  • Cognitive: creativity, foresight, curiosity, and meaning
  • Aesthetic: ability to appreciate the beauty within the world
  • Self-actualization: the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be
  • Transcendence: giving oneself to something beyond oneself

Criticisms of the theory include its lack of supporting evidence, diverse study participants, or differentiation between individualistic and collectivist societies.

Other theories

Cognitive Dissonance Is an Essential Cultural Feature


Cultures are full of contradictions in beliefs, norms, and values. Cognitive dissonance – here referring to our perception of contradictory information, and sometimes the conflict or discomfort that follows – is essential for cultures to function in light of these contradictions. Our ability to overlook these contradictions allows us to avoid analysis paralysis and get along with one another, and eventually trying to reconcile them drives change.


From Sapiens:

During the first half of the twentieth century, scholars taught that every culture was complete and harmonious, possessing an unchanging essence that defined it for all time. Each human group had its own world view and system of social, legal and political arrangements that ran as smoothly as the planets going around the sun. In this view, cultures left to their own devices did not change. They just kept going at the same pace and in the same direction. Only a force applied from outside could change them. Anthropologists, historians and politicians thus referred to ‘Samoan Culture’ or ‘Tasmanian Culture’ as if the same beliefs, norms and values had characterised Samoans and Tasmanians from time immemorial.

Today, most scholars of culture have concluded that the opposite is true. Every culture has its typical beliefs, norms and values, but these are in constant flux. The culture may transform itself in response to changes in its environment or through interaction with neighbouring cultures. But cultures also undergo transitions due to their own internal dynamics. Even a completely isolated culture existing in an ecologically stable environment cannot avoid change. Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.

… medieval culture did not manage to square chivalry with Christianity …. But this is no defect. Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species. Just as when two clashing musical notes played together force a piece of music forward, so discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, reevaluate and criticise. Consistency is the playground of dull minds.

If tensions, conflicts and irresolvable dilemmas are the spice of every culture, a human being who belongs to any particular culture must hold contradictory beliefs and be riven by incompatible values. It’s such an essential feature of any culture that it even has a name: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.

Look at the Disagreements to Understand a Topic

From Sapiens:

If, say, a Christian really wants to understand the Muslims who attend that mosque down the street, he shouldn’t look for a pristine set of values that every Muslim holds dear. Rather, he should enquire into the catch-22s of Muslim culture, those places where rules are at war and standards scuffle. It’s at the very spot where the Muslims teeter between two imperatives that you’ll understand them best.

This is also a good way to understand the limits of (e.g. academic) understanding of a particular topic within its field: look how far the consensus goes, and at what points do debates take place.

There Is No Justice in History


Social hierarchies enable large-scale societies to efficiently cooperate and interact, but are also used to maintain oppressive power structures and create lasting socioeconomic injustices. No specific form of social hierarchy is natural, because each is rooted in imagined orders created by humans and is thus a cultural choice – but some form of oppressive social hierarchy has existed in every complex society. Though not all forms of hierarchy are necessarily oppressive, e.g. among family members, citizens, states, humans and animals, and humans and machines.


From Sapiens:

Understanding human history in the millennia following the Agricultural Revolution boils down to a single question: how did humans organise themselves in mass-cooperation networks, when they lacked the biological instincts necessary to sustain such networks? The short answer is that humans created imagined orders and devised scripts [writing]. These two inventions filled the gaps left by our biological inheritance.

However, the appearance of these networks was, for many, a dubious blessing. The imagined orders sustaining these networks were neither neutral nor fair. They divided people into make-believe groups, arranged in a hierarchy. The upper levels enjoyed privileges and power, while the lower ones suffered from discrimination and oppression.

… [these] distinctions – between free persons and slaves, between whites and blacks, between rich and poor – are rooted in fictions. [There are many theories behind the hierarchy of men and women – some biological but not very convincing.] Yet it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable. For instance, many people who have viewed the hierarchy of free persons and slaves as natural and correct have argued that slavery is not a human invention. Hammurabi saw it as ordained by the gods. Aristotle argued that slaves have a ‘slavish nature’ whereas free people have a ‘free nature’. Their status in society is merely a reflection of their innate nature.

Yet, to the best of our understanding, these hierarchies are all the product of human imagination. Brahmins and Shudras were not really created by the gods from different body parts of a primeval being. Instead, the distinction between the two castes was created by laws and norms invented by humans in northern India about 3,000 years ago. Contrary to Aristotle, there is no known biological difference between slaves and free people. Human laws and norms have turned some people into slaves and others into masters. Between blacks and whites there are some objective biological differences, such as skin colour and hair type, but there is no evidence that the differences extend to intelligence or morality.

Most people claim that their social hierarchy is natural and just, while those of other societies are based on false and ridiculous criteria. Modern Westerners are taught to scoff at the idea of racial hierarchy. They are shocked by laws prohibiting blacks to live in white neighbourhoods, or to study in white schools, or to be treated in white hospitals. But the hierarchy of rich and poor – which mandates that rich people live in separate and more luxurious neighbourhoods, study in separate and more prestigious schools, and receive medical treatment in separate and better-equipped facilities – seems perfectly sensible to many Americans and Europeans. Yet it’s a proven fact that most rich people are rich for the simple reason that they were born into a rich family, while most poor people will remain poor throughout their lives simply because they were born into a poor family.

On the origin of hierarchies

In most cases the hierarchy originated as the result of a set of accidental historical circumstances and was then perpetuated and refined over many generations as different groups developed vested interests in it.

For instance, many scholars surmise that the Hindu caste system took shape when Indo-Aryan people invaded the Indian subcontinent about 3,000 years ago, subjugating the local population. The invaders established a stratified society, in which they – of course – occupied the leading positions (priests and warriors), leaving the natives to live as servants and slaves. The invaders, who were few in number, feared losing their privileged status and unique identity. To forestall this danger, they divided the population into castes, each of which was required to pursue a specific occupation or perform a specific role in society. Each had different legal status, privileges and duties. Mixing of castes – social interaction, marriage, even the sharing of meals – was prohibited. And the distinctions were not just legal – they became an inherent part of religious mythology and practice.

The rulers argued that the caste system reflected an eternal cosmic reality rather than a chance historical development. Concepts of purity and impurity were essential elements in Hindu religion, and they were harnessed to buttress the social pyramid. Pious Hindus were taught that contact with members of a different caste could pollute not only them personally, but society as a whole, and should therefore be abhorred. Such ideas are hardly unique to Hindus. Throughout history, and in almost all societies, concepts of pollution and purity have played a leading role in enforcing social and political divisions and have been exploited by numerous ruling classes to maintain their privileges. … If you want to keep any human group isolated … the best way to do it is convince everyone that these people are a source of pollution.

On their role

Hierarchies serve an important function. They enable complete strangers to know how to treat one another without wasting the time and energy needed to become personally acquainted.

Unfortunately, complex human societies seem to require imagined hierarchies and unjust discrimination. Of course not all hierarchies are morally identical, and some societies suffered from more extreme types of discrimination than others, yet scholars know of no large society that has been able to dispense with discrimination altogether. Time and again people have created order in their societies by classifying the population into imagined categories, such as superiors, commoners and slaves; whites and blacks; patricians and plebeians; Brahmins and Shudras; or rich and poor. These categories have regulated relations between millions of humans by making some people legally, politically or socially superior to others.

On their implications

Of course, differences in natural abilities also play a role in the formation of social distinctions. But such diversities of aptitudes and character are usually mediated through imagined hierarchies. This happens in two important ways. First and foremost, most abilities have to be nurtured and developed. Even if somebody is born with a particular talent, that talent will usually remain latent if it is not fostered, honed and exercised. Not all people get the same chance to cultivate and refine their abilities. Whether or not they have such an opportunity will usually depend on their place within their society’s imagined hierarchy.

Second, even if people belonging to different classes develop exactly the same abilities, they are unlikely to enjoy equal success because they will have to play the game by different rules. If, in British-ruled India, an Untouchable, a Brahmin, a Catholic Irishman and a Protestant Englishman had somehow developed exactly the same business acumen, they still would not have had the same chance of becoming rich. The economic game was rigged by legal restrictions and unofficial glass ceilings.

[These biased imagined orders create a vicious cycle for the oppressed tiers of the hierarchy, where they continue to be oppressed through additional biases created in the wake of the initial imagined order, even long after the initial order is officially abolished.]

Such vicious circles can go on for centuries and even millennia, perpetuating an imagined hierarchy that sprang from a chance historical occurrence. Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better, with time. Money comes to money, and poverty to poverty. Education comes to education, and ignorance to ignorance. Those once victimised by history are likely to be victimised yet again. And those whom history has privileged are more likely to be privileged again.

Most sociopolitical hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis – they are nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths. That is one good reason to study history. If the division into blacks and whites or Brahmins and Shudras was grounded in biological realities – that is, if Brahmins really had better brains than Shudras – biology would be sufficient for understanding human society. Since the biological distinctions between different groups of Homo sapiens are, in fact, negligible, biology can’t explain the intricacies of Indian society or American racial dynamics. We can only understand those phenomena by studying the events, circumstances, and power relations that transformed figments of imagination into cruel – and very real – social structures.

Imagined Order


Large-scale human societies depend on imagined orders (i.e. shared beliefs) to function, as they enable lots of people to cooperate effectively. These imagined orders can be maintained by coercion, but the most effective and efficient way is to make people truly believe in them, by institutionally embedding them into peoples’ lives. Changing or dismantling one of these beliefs requires an even more powerful belief to take its place.


All quotes are from Sapiens.

The population growth from the Agricultural Revolution required more depth and complexity of imagined orders:

The food surpluses [of the Agricultural Revolution] produced by peasants, coupled with new transportation technology, eventually enabled more and more people to cram together first into large villages, then into towns, and finally into cities, all of them joined together by new kingdoms and commercial networks. … Yet in order to take advantage of these new opportunities, food surpluses and improved transportation were not enough. The mere fact that one can feed a thousand people in the same town or a million people in the same kingdom does not guarantee that they can agree how to divide the land and water, how to settle disputes and conflicts, and how to act in times of drought or war. And if no agreement can be reached, strife spreads, even if the storehouses are bulging.

When the Agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links. While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other ever seen on earth. … All these cooperation networks – from the cities of ancient Mesopotamia to the Qin and Roman empires – were ‘imagined orders’. The social norms that sustained them were based neither on ingrained instincts nor on personal acquaintances, but rather on belief in shared myths.

Impressive, no doubt, but we mustn’t harbour rosy illusions about ‘mass cooperation networks’ operating in pharaonic Egypt or the Roman Empire. ‘Cooperation’ sounds very altruistic, but is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian. Most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation. The peasants paid for the burgeoning cooperation networks with their precious food surpluses, despairing when the tax collector wiped out an entire year of hard labour with a single stroke of his imperial pen. The famed Roman amphitheatres were often built by slaves so that wealthy and idle Romans could watch other slaves engage in vicious gladiatorial combat. Even prisons and concentration camps are cooperation networks, and can function only because thousands of strangers somehow manage to coordinate their actions.

Both the Code of Hammurabi and the American Declaration of Independence claim to outline universal and eternal principles of justice, but according to the Americans all people are equal, whereas according to the Babylonians people are decidedly unequal. The Americans would, of course, say that they are right, and that Hammurabi is wrong. Hammurabi, naturally, would retort that he is right, and that the Americans are wrong. In fact, they are both wrong. Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity.

It is easy for us to accept that the division of people into ‘superiors’ and commoners’ is a figment of the imagination. Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth. In what sense do all humans equal one another? Is there any objective reality, outside the human imagination, in which we are truly equal? Are all humans equal to one another biologically?

Advocates of equality and human rights may be outraged by this line of reasoning. Their response is likely to be, ‘We know that people are not equal biologically! But if we believe that we are all equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.’ I have no argument with that. This is exactly what I mean by ‘imagined order’. We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively. Bear in mind, though, that Hammurabi might have defended his principle of hierarchy using the same logic: ‘I know that superiors, commoners and slaves are not inherently different kinds of people. But if we believe that they are, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.’

Imagined orders can be maintained by coercion, but the most effective and efficient way is to make people truly believe in it:

If people realise that human rights exist only in the imagination, isn’t there a danger that our society will collapse? … Such fears are well justified. A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them. In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous and strenuous efforts are imperative. Some of these efforts take the shape of violence and coercion. Armies, police forces, courts and prisons are ceaselessly at work forcing people to act in accordance with the imagined order.

However, an imagined order cannot be sustained by violence alone. It requires some true believers as well. … A single priest often does the work of a hundred soldiers far more cheaply and effectively. Moreover, no matter how efficient bayonets are, somebody must wield them. Why should the soldiers, jailors, judges and police maintain an imagined order in which they do not believe? Of all human collective activities, the one most difficult to organise is violence. To say that a social order is maintained by military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military order? It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money.

An even more interesting question concerns those standing at the top of the social pyramid. Why should they wish to enforce an imagined order if they themselves don’t believe in it? It is quite common to argue that the elite may do so out of cynical greed. Yet a cynic who believes in nothing is unlikely to be greedy. It does not take much to provide the objective biological needs of Homo sapiens. After those needs are met, more money can be spent on building pyramids, taking holidays around the world, financing election campaigns, funding your favourite terrorist organisation, or investing in the stock market and making yet more money – all of which are activities that a true cynic would find utterly meaningless. Diogenes, the Greek philosopher who founded the Cynical school, lived in a barrel. When Alexander the Great once visited Diogenes as he was relaxing in the sun, and asked if there were anything he might do for him, the Cynic answered the all-powerful conqueror, ‘Yes, there is something you can do for me. Please move a little to the side. You are blocking the sunlight.’

This is why cynics don’t build empires and why an imagined order can be maintained only if large segments of the population – and in particular large segments of the elite and the security forces – truly believe in it. Christianity would not have lasted 2,000 years if the majority of bishops and priests failed to believe in Christ. American democracy would not have lasted 250 years if the majority of presidents and congressmen failed to believe in human rights. The modern economic system would not have lasted a single day if the majority of investors and bankers failed to believe in capitalism.

Imagined orders are built into peoples’ lives to get them to believe in it:

How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. … You also educate people thoroughly. From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything. They are incorporated into fairy tales, dramas, paintings, songs, etiquette, political propaganda, architecture, recipes and fashions.

The humanities and social sciences devote most of their energies to explaining exactly how the imagined order is woven into the tapestry of life. In the limited space at our disposal we can only scratch the surface. Three main factors prevent people from realising that the order organising their lives exists only in their imagination:

a. The imagined order is embedded in the material world. Though the imagined order exists only in our minds, it can be woven into the material reality around us, and even set in stone.

b. The imagined order shapes our desires. Most people do not wish to accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths. Our personal desires thereby become the imagined order’s most important defences.

c. The imagined order is inter-subjective. Even if by some superhuman effort I succeed in freeing my personal desires from the grip of the imagined order, I am just one person. In order to change the imagined order I must convince millions of strangers to cooperate with me. For the imagined order is not a subjective order existing in my own imagination – it is rather an inter-subjective order, existing in the shared imagination of thousands and millions of people.

In order to understand this, we need to understand the difference between ‘objective’, ‘subjective’, and ‘inter-subjective’.

An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs. Radioactivity, for example, is not a myth. Radioactive emissions occurred long before people discovered them, and they are dangerous even when people do not believe in them. Marie Curie, one of the discoverers of radioactivity, did not know, during her long years of studying radioactive materials, that they could harm her body. While she did not believe that radioactivity could kill her, she nevertheless died of aplastic anaemia, a disease caused by overexposure to radioactive materials.

The subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual. It disappears or changes if that particular individual changes his or her beliefs. Many a child believes in the existence of an imaginary friend who is invisible and inaudible to the rest of the world. The imaginary friend exists solely in the child’s subjective consciousness, and when the child grows up and ceases to believe in it, the imaginary friend fades away.

The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear. Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.

Changing or dismantling these beliefs requires an even more powerful belief:

Peugeot, for example, is not the imaginary friend of Peugeot’s CEO. The company exists in the shared imagination of millions of people. The CEO believes in the company’s existence because the board of directors also believes in it, as do the company’s lawyers, the secretaries in the nearby office, the tellers in the bank, the brokers on the stock exchange, and car dealers from France to Australia. If the CEO alone were suddenly to stop believing in Peugeot’s existence, he’d quickly land in the nearest mental hospital and someone else would occupy his office.

Similarly, the dollar, human rights and the United States of America exist in the shared imagination of billions, and no single individual can threaten their existence. If I alone were to stop believing in the dollar, in human rights, or in the United States, it wouldn’t much matter. These imagined orders are inter-subjective, so in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not easy. A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organisation, such as a political party, an ideological movement, or a religious cult. However, in order to establish such complex organisations, it’s necessary to convince many strangers to cooperate with one another. And this will happen only if these strangers believe in some shared myths. It follows that in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.

In order to dismantle Peugeot, for example, we need to imagine something more powerful, such as the French legal system. In order to dismantle the French legal system we need to imagine something even more powerful, such as the French state. And if we would like to dismantle that too, we will have to imagine something yet more powerful.

There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.