The Quest for Significance

We humans are on the lookout for significance

It’s in our species. Dogs notice new smells, cats are aware of movement and rustling. Our species has an interest in deep meaning.  We ascribe significance to the darndest things. This makes us both noble and quite suggestible.

In an ancient experiment

(whose reference is unavailable at the moment, but sometime in the 1960s), scientists rewarded pigeons at random. Independent of the pigeons’ behavior, the scientists fed them grain periodically. The pigeons began trying different behaviors to gain the reward. The birds would peck and scratch, sometimes in extraordinary ways, apparently appealing to some unseen force that might reward their behaviors. The scientists concluded that random rewards made pigeons “superstitious.”

Even casual observation will confirm that our species shares this tendency with pigeons and, in fact, left to our own devices, beat them all to hell. We are willing to believe the craziest things, engage in the zaniest behaviors, urge others to join in, and react with the most ill tempered attitude when they don’t, all in the name of the unseen and unverified, seemingly with a preference for the most far-fetched story someone is willing to serve up. Our superstitiousness seems to actually have a sweet tooth for the logically and physically impossible.

We aren’t satisfied with the moderate when it comes to superstitions.

Knights Templar.  The masonic signs on the dollar bill.  We like our deep meanings cloaked in dignified trappings.  Conspiracy theories pop up when an emotionally charged experience demands an explanation.  Not a simple, reasonable explanation.  A more complicated, mysterious explanation, weighed down with shadowy figures with complex motives.

Something about humans has wired them to seek out and accept deep meaning and significance.  It seems to be a means of bonding.  It is also a means for manipulation by shamans, witch doctors, politicians, soothsayers, and opportunists.

People are not going to change in this regard. We must accept this about people. The quest for significance is not negotiable.

3 thoughts on “The Quest for Significance”

  1. I agree we are wired to seek deep meaning and significance – we don’t like the idea of randomness (since we equate it with being insignificant). If what happens in the world is insignificant – then we must be insignificant. Yikes!

    We like the world to make sense. True enough, masses of people can become manipulated (bin Laden, Hitler, need I say more) but I also believe that some folks are willingly manipulated.

    We are needy, as humans and are capable of the most extreme belief systems . . partially in the name of being loved or accepted. It’s hard to find someone who has a healthy balance – actually, I look towards aliens now. (That’s YOU Astro G!)

    Stay well,
    My latest philosophical article:

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