Constructed Reality and The Cog-Wheel Hypothesis

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Last week Greg Smith wrote an op-ed for the New York Times lambasting his former employer Goldman Sachs for the deterioration of the firm’s culture during his twelve years tenure.

The next day Forbes ran a column asking - Did Greg Smith Commit Career Suicide?  It is one of the most unintentionally divisive bits of journalism you will ever find, completely dismissing Smith’s intentions and analyzing his decision in utilitarian terms.

The majority of commenters reflexively side with Smith, arguing that Forbes writer Susan Adams completely lost the plot.  A few seem to have adopted Smith as a kind of populist folk hero.  A separate minority defends the article, playing the role of sober realist.

The whole debate reminds me a quote from our friend Sebastien Paquet:

The worst career faux pas you can make as a mainstreamer is to tell the truth.

Seb’s insight points to a truth underlying both sides of the debate.  The crux of the issue is a tension so pervasive that we rarely take notice of it.  It is the tension between the individual perception of reality on the one hand, and socially constructed reality on the other.  Greg Smith vs Goldman Sachs is ultimately a case of individual truth vs social institution.

The Extremes

Some people struggle with this tension more than others.  It is the people at the extremes who (counter-intuitively) struggle least.  At one extreme we find people who are regularly in discord with social constructions.  Such individuals do recognize this discordance but they have become numb to it, trusting their own perceptions by default.  The archetype here is the the eccentric artist who expresses little regard for social convention.

At the other extreme we find people whose individual experience confirms the reality of social constructs.  These are people we might call socially-oriented.  They avoid psychic tension by adopting the social fabric as their reality.  This is not to say that such people are incapable of independent thought, but their brand of independent thinking tends to build upon social constructs that are taken for granted.

The Conflicted Middle

In order to make sense of the Greg Smith/Goldman debate we must turn our attention to the middle of the spectrum.

The people in the middle are those who actively shift between opposing constructs.  They must constantly balance questions like:

What world am I in now?
Which perceptions should I be filtering out/in?
Is it safe to reveal what is going on in my head at this moment?
Should I translate these thoughts into something more politically correct?

Most of this deliberation goes on below the level of conscious awareness.  Internal percepts are constantly weighed against external social cues.  When behavioral biases are rewarded (internally or externally) they are thereby reinforced and eventually become habitualized facets of personality.

The most obvious example of this tension is in the notion of work-life balance.

Psychic Partitions

For decades corporate culture maintained sturdy partitions that facilitated the necessary context switching.  To borrow one of Venkat Rao’s preferred archetypes, the organization man literally changed uniforms when moving between these two realities.  Every morning the organization man donned a business suit and entered the socially constructed world.  In the evening he changed into casual attire in preparation for reentry into individuated reality.

It has been clear for some time that the work-life balance paradigm is slowly disintegrating.  That is not news.  The anxiety produced by this ongoing transition is also well documented.  Less attention is given to the underlying cause of this anxiety.

It is not a matter of only balancing competing interests.  That much we accomplish with aplomb.  Deep anxiety is produced by competing interests imposed via incompatible worlds.  It is impossible to balance such interests when the opposed contexts apply incompatible standards.

One standard set of standards must dominate the other.  That is, once partitions are destroyed the organization (as psychic prison) not only bleeds into personal life but also invalidates personal life.

Greg Smith’s dilemma points to a further locus of psychic tension.  In addition to actively navigating between two worlds,  the modern organization man must also actively balance the trade-offs between them.  Investments in one domain naturally invalidate any assets accrued in the other.

If you have no other options, you make the best of your situation.  Twenty years ago Greg Smith would have kept his mouth shut, adopting Goldman’s perception of reality as necessary to get by.  But the existence of options amplifies an uncomfortable tension into an almost unbearable state of self-denial.

The Costs of Honesty

I experienced this first hand when I first acknowledged the possibility of quitting my job.  At first it was only a pipe dream with little impact on my day to day experience.  But over time the idea percolated.  I explored other options, and bit by bit the pipe dream gained realism.  In inverse proportion, every asinine policy and pointless bureaucratic process slowly became more offensive to my sense of self.

When I finally pulled the trigger, years of investments into social constructs crashed instantaneously.  I would be exaggerating if I said those investments became worthless – I’m sure at least a few readers are comforted knowing that I have attained some formal education – but those investments easily entered penny-stock territory.

For someone like Greg Smith, straddling the middle of the curve, the investments sacrificed are that much more costly.  I gave up a comfortable job at a public company, but I was never in the same income universe as a twelve year veteran at Goldman Sachs.  Smith’s decision to honor his own individual reality annihilated that mountain of accrued social capital.

Some will say that he should have resisted the temptation to go public…that he should have resigned quietly.  The Forbes article defers on this point to career coach Roy Cohen:

Cohen says that the kind of disillusionment with ethical standards that Smith expressed is common on Wall Street, but that it was “naïve” for Smith to blame his employers for his personal feelings. “It’s a problem in every financial institution,” says Cohen. Wise employees keep their sentiments to themselves, he says, and resign if they are unhappy.

Would a quiet resignation have been more appropriate?

We can only speculate as to Smith’s motives.  Perhaps he really is a belligerent fool just itching for a fight.  Or perhaps Smith’s sense of self was so diminished that he needed the affirmation.

It is worth noting the precise wording of the quote above…the casual dismissal of “personal feelings“…the assertion that “wise employees keep their sentiments to themselves“.

Cohen is asserting a particular perception of reality drawn from his own experience…and Cohen’s perception, being nearly synonymous with social constructs, denies Greg Smith’s individuality.  Cohen confirms this interpretation in the following passage:

Roy Cohen…says that Smith’s Times piece “raises questions about this fellow’s integrity and loyalty.” An even bigger issue, says Cohen: When Smith detailed how Goldman employees “callously … talk about ripping their clients off,” he put the livelihoods of the 30,000 people employed by the firm at risk.

In this context we can understand Smith’s decision to go out guns blazing.  He would tell you that remaining at Goldman would have raised questions about his integrity.  In his op-ed Smith states:

I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.

The contrast in tone is striking.

Earning Salvation

it appears that man’s whole business is to prove that he is a man and not a cog-wheel“.
- Fyodor Dostoevsky (via The Outsider by Colin Wilson)

The unavoidable tension between the spheres of the individual and the social explains why the notion of “fuck-you money” resonates so strongly with the modern organization man.  The euphemism is somewhat misleading; it is not about being able to pick petty fights.  The appeal derives from the earned right to embrace one’s own reality.

It is the level of accomplishment at which the modern organization man transcends his dualistic world.  He has earned the right to honor himself without running afoul of social standards.  He can leverage enough resources to remold a small corner of the social world in his own image.

This is very important.  For the life-long achiever, opting out would be a failure.  That is the stuff of mid-life crises.  When someone has maintained this balance for so long, the only satisfactory exit is the one that justifies all the prior years of struggle.

Fuck-you money is an earned ticket out of the clueless zone.  It is the only mode of escape that allows someone to persist in the belief that he was never clueless in the first place.

Fuck-you money is the capitalist equivalent of biblical salvation.  The organization man is born impure, torn between two worlds.  Through capitalist virtue he absolves himself of original sin and gains access to paradise where no such conflicts exist.

The Fight or Flight Response

If you are unconvinced by all this talk of incompatible realities, I would ask you briefly to consider your own behavior.  Try to recall a situation in which someone’s bizarre (but harmless) behavior made you excessively uncomfortable.  Common examples would include:

  • an otherwise normal person talking nonsense to himself without any inhibition
  • someone unselfconsciously picking his nose in public (particularly in tight quarters)
  • someone loudly talking on a cell phone about personal matters
  • a parent allowing a young child to behave too childishly (crawling all over the floor and such)

My personal example: there is a kid in my apartment complex, probably in his twenties, who must have OCD or some similar disorder.  He spends hours in a small courtyard outside my window – walking in circles, talking to himself, and clapping at random intervals.

Why is this sort of behavior be so irritating?

It cannot be the distractions themselves.  We regularly tune-out far worse annoyances.

It is perceived attack on our personal sovereignty that drives us nuts.  These sorts of behaviors remind us that the reality we take for granted really cannot be taken for granted.

When we witness nutty behaviors our mirror neurons adopt the perspectives of the “nutty” people enacting them…and those alien perspectives are viscerally repellent.  (The reaction is all the more violent when these people are smarter than us, better looking, more successful or otherwise better off.)

We can be sure that such frustration are primarily psychological in nature because they evaporate once explained.  They become known phenomenon…not new information calling on empathy for interpretation.

The Spectrum Personified

Anyone who has ever been in a romantic relationship has experienced a similar phenomenon.  We effortlessly overlook undesirable behaviors when we want to like someone (beginning of a relationship), and we are pathologically unable to ignore the same behaviors when we feel threatened (end of a relationship).

These dynamics are the central focus of the movie The Edge of Love, a film tracking the lives of four characters…

Dylan, a poet, lives completely in his own world.  In the middle of WWII London he crosses paths with his childhood sweetheart Vera.  They were briefly lovers at the age of 15 and both have idealized their first time during the years apart.  Dylan immediately pronounces his undying love but fails to mention that he is now married.  Vera is a bit of an idealist herself but lives enough in the “real” world to take offense at Dylan’s omission when (wife) Caitlin appears on the scene shortly thereafter.

Caitlin is in love with the bits of performance art with which Dylan frequently regales her.  She is barely aware of the man beneath the performance.

An uneasy detente emerges.  The flirtation between Dylan and Vera continues and Caitlin immediately suspects their prior relationship.  Nevertheless, a fast friendship develops between the rival women.

The real fun begins when army officer William enters the picture, doggedly courting Vera.  Up to this point Dylan maintains the facade of attachment to wife Caitlin…but as Vera’s affections shift Dylan’s melancholy can no longer be contained.

The psychic prison that is Caitlin’s affection becomes clear.  In a revealing exchange, Dylan is up late composing verse lamenting the loss of Vera’s affections.  Caitlin wakes up and asks aggressively: “You don’t write poetry about me anymore?”

And a few moments later: “Bring that body back to me.”

Vera, for her part, understands these things somewhat better and resists William’s courtship as long as possible.  It is only when William is assigned to the battlefield that she reluctantly agrees to a rushed wedding.


The remainder of the plot follows predictable lines.  Tensions increase in William’s absence.  The relationship between Dylan and Caitlin shows increasing strain.  Dylan retreats into his private world while Caitlin desperately searches for external validation.  Dylan and Vera ultimately (and anti-climactically) succumb to temptation (just once), which sets the stage for the anticipated conflict when William returns from the battlefield shell-shocked, suspicious and jealous.

The climax is disappointing theatrically, but compelling philosophically.  William is put on trial for firing his rifle into Dylan and Caitlin’s home and then entering the living room with a (supposedly live) grenade.

The motive: After being insulted by Dylan’s elitist friends (and suspecting Dylan’s relations with Vera) William decides to scare the bejesus out of everyone to teach them a lesson about the gritty realities of war.

In the climactic scene, Dylan is called as a witness in William’s defense, to confirm (the truth) that William had only meant to scare them.  Instead Dylan testifies that William had intended to kill them.

This moment is quite telling.  Dylan is not merely actin in spite of a rival.  Dylan and William represent opposite ends of the spectrum.  William represents everything that Dylan abhors…everything that impinges on a poet’s individually constructed reality.  By falsifying his testimony, Dylan effectively denies William’s existence, and in so doing denies the reality that William represents, with all its weapons and wars and absurd obligations.

In a final plot twist, William is found not guilty despite Dylan’s perjury.  Again, the philosophical statement is clear.  William represents the socially constructed world.  The (faceless and nameless) jurors support the home team regardless of the evidence.

The Cog-Wheel Hypothesis

The entire film supports the same principle we find in all the examples above.  I am calling this the Cog-wheel hypothesis:

People will reflexively defend whatever constructs validate their experienced reality, regardless of any “objective” considerations.

Individuals who authentically present an air of objectivity have simply expanded the volume of their bubbles.  In the examples above:

  • Greg Smith asserts a particular moral position, destroying 12 years of accumulated social capital.
  • Roy Cohen unequivocally asserts the primacy of social constructs, regardless of the nasty behavior those constructs might obscure.
  • In our daily lives, we exhibit fight or flight towards others whose behaviors imply conflicting perceptions of reality.
  • The characters in The Edge of Love throw away long-standing relationships to defend the constructs underpinning their sense of self.

The final scene of The Edge of Love reinterprets the entire film as a story about the friendship between Vera and Caitlin.  While awkwardly exchanging final goodbyes, the two woman – who occupied adjacent positions in the middle of the spectrum – slowly soften towards each other and share a sentimental moment.  Despite their constant rivalry, they shared the same world…and that is all that ultimately mattered.


photo courtesy of greekadman

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