The New Retentives: Competitions, child rearing and rules…,

Childbirth and childrearing are both at once, the progenitor and handicap to wonderful new ways of living our lives….,

Freud’s retentive personality is a person for whom rules, procedures and structures seem to be dominant in their everyday. We all know these people, the person who focuses on the procedure rather than the potential outcomes, s/he will kill the good idea in the germination stage with a stake of process obsession.

Many of the key human experiences are lived through institutions which only exist because of rules, procedure and process (e.g. power allocation within political institutions, marriage in religious institutions, learning in educational institutions, most births, illness and some deaths in hospitals etc). We could even posit that love, desire and consumption are rule bound within rule bound institutions.

Play by the rules !” we are told, if you are to be a fair human being.

I loved Kate Fox’s anthropological study of English culture titled “Watching the English”, her description, and contravention, of the rules of queuing behaviour are hilarious.

Rules in competition are often at least as important as the competition itself: join an after-game discussion with football or cricket fans and most likely you will quickly be immersed in a detailed discussion of rule interpretation.

However, in evolutionary development adherence to the rules is at best maintenance of status quo, and at worst leads to decrement of outcomes. In the evolutionary competition playing outside of the rules can lead to the most dire of consequences, or the most successful.

Pulling back from biological evolution (for the moment), let’s consider the evolution of art. Celebrated modern artists such as Warhol, Hirst, Whiteread and Ofili have enjoyed enormous success by breaking the rules and ignoring convention (procedure). However, for every successful non-conventional artist there must be multiple thousands who have failed to be acknowledgd at a commercial and popular level. (A post about the purpose of art will be saved for another day).

In fact, when we turn our attention to most human endeavour we find that those who broke the conventions were successful, be it business, music, architecture, even science and maths – we find pioneers thinking beyond the accepted acceptable who rewrote the playbook, and possibly shifted paradigms.

Sometimes, playing outside of the rules is the only way to realise progress e.g Mandela went to prison, USA dropped the atomic bomb, Toussaint L’Oeverture wrote articles, Emily Wilding Davison threw herself under the King’s horse etc etc.

In all of these examples it was not just rule-rejection which led to success, but rule rejection at the right time, rule rejection at the point of change led to success. Change, in all contexts, is inevitable. Those that play outside the rules at the beginning of wider change not only enjoy success in the new context, but they also influenced the change, they shaped the new context.

At the levels of evolutionary Biology and Psychology playing outside of most rules is the only way to enjoy success as conditions change. The one rule which is constant is to achieve a relative advantage in reproductive success over others, for that is the outcome level of evolutionary biology.

Back to our retentive personality:

There s/he sits in his rule bound institution, the guardian of the correct rules and procedure. That institution will be influenced by wider social change (society a tendency to change, annoying though it may be to Mr/s Retentive). Principles of evolutionary change say ultimately adapt or die…,

Women in Europe & the Americas are now allowed to vote, slavery is illegal and children are no longer caned for misbehaviour in developed nations.

Surely, the start of the new context must be populated by mainly balanced and expulsive personalities ? Every new Brit-Art Graduate must wonder what the next cut-up shark, or displayed dishevelled bed is. Where are the retentive personalities in the new era ?

My belief is that the imperatives of childcare and filial success has a conservative tendency. Such are the risks of ‘failure’ at an evolutionary level that all socio-cognitive expressions(such as science, art and politics) are, for some people, subdued to the constraints of the agreed rules of the new context (for it will have some).

Yesterday’s expulsive ideas generator rears tomorrow’s procedure bound obsessive. Obviously, this does not apply to all people, many will raise children who are free, outcome focussed, divergent thinkers. However, these divergents may, very well, alsohave their new ideas killed at germination by the new retentives.



About danieltrump

breathing and sensing human. Learning to observe, learning to write, exploring ideas and thinking.

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