Published on December 18, 2021

2 - Coping and Co-creation as two manifestations of core cognition

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Section 2 - Coping and co-creation

This section addresses the quite different and complementary features of coping and co-creation. We need both, because successful coping maximizes time for co-creation. The complementarity of the two modes, as two separate ontologies that disagree on many aspects, might be the root of life’s resilience. Where resilience is defined as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks” (Walker et al., 2004). We originate resilience in the agent’s ability to anticipate and predict.

Anticipation and Predictability

Coping and co-creation are abilities – in psychology, skills and tacit knowledge (Patterson et al., 2010) – expressed as behavior in response and appropriate to how the agent appraises its habitat context. Of course, agent-initiated actions change the habitat state to which other agents may respond, which, in turn, changes the habitat state. Since the habitat may change even without direct agentic influences, agents exist in an evolving world in which they must position themselves to protect and enhance self and habitat viability. To exist in such an environment, the agent needs anticipatory models (Vernon, 2010) of the state of self and the habitat. It must update these actively, and choose its behavior to realize benefits to self and the habitat. In this open environment, even the best agent generated model leads only to partial predictability. Coping and co-creation strategies increase partial predictability, but use different strategies and complementary logics.


Coping makes the world more predictable by reducing its complexity and creating systems (of agents or objects) with more predictable behavior that bring threats-to-self under control – which requires energy, resources, and continual maintenance – and promote security. The coping mode’s goal is to end perceived viability threats, and coping success entails the discontinued need for its activation. Hence, it is goal-oriented (like problem-solving and task execution) and endowed with a sense of urgency to avoid (further) viability deterioration that justifies the exploitation of previously created viability. Any deviation from manageable order – unfamiliar events or deviant agent behavior – is seen as an unwanted intrusion to be counteracted. Hence, coping leads to an effortfully controlled environment that minimizes unpredictability and diversity. If the threat level – i.e., the expected negative viability impact – increases, so does the drive to suppress diversity.

Since coping is goal-oriented and intends to reduce complexity, it favors shared rules (in general shared knowledge) and behavioral mimicry. The more agents follow the same rules with great precision, the more predictable agents and the habitat become. Coping promotes the spread and precise execution of a single set of behavioral rules. And it endorses an urge to correct or suppress any unwanted diversity. This is a form of social mimicry (Chartrand and van Baaren, 2009) that might not only lead to the spread of effective behavior, but also to lead to a “degree of entanglement” (Combs & Kribner 2008, pp. 264), emergent collective behavior (via mimicry or rules), and a group level perspective.

In human societies, bureaucracy, the military, large corporations, and strict manifestations of religions and ideologies are examples of the coping logic. Technology, from very primitive to complex like computers, depict the best of coping by producing precise outputs as long as the physical environment (the tool and its necessary resources) and the user operate within very tight constraints; this entails trained behaviors.

Coordinated agentic behavior, as social mimicry, is endorsed by agents who expect benefits from more sameness and oneness. Agents with similar needs share similar coordination benefits, but that is unlikely for agents with different needs or those with other (even potentially better) strategies. In fact, imposed external coordination might be detrimental. Differences in expected benefits lead to a separation in in-groups and out-groups. An in-group is a group of agents who express a degree of oneness and sameness through social mimicry and hence share adequacy limits, perceptions of what is beneficial, how to realize these benefits, and what endangers realizing these benefits. Out-groups do not share these limits, either because they have other limits or because they are less limited. By violating sameness and oneness, out-groups frustrate coordinated coping in the eyes of in-groups. Note that out-groups might not even know they are assigned to the out-group and might not raise their defenses.

In-groups (as manifestation of coping) see the risk of frustrated coordinated behavior as an existential threat which justifies exploiting or suppressing out-groups and the habitat alike. Habitat and out-group exploitation may activate out-group resistance that makes goal achievement more difficult. So, the better the in-group is able to control out-groups and habitat, the more likely they are to realize intended results. Due to its problem-solving nature, coping manifests “the ability to realize intended outcomes”. Which is Bertrand Russell’s (1938) definition of power. Hence coping behaviors are a manifestation of power generalized to generic agents.

The coping mode’s manifestation of authority is typically power based in the sense that it sets-up habitat conditions for reduced diversity, increased predictability of agent behavior to facilitate intended outcomes, and to bring viability threats-to-self under control (security) . This is known as coercive authority (as opposed to legitimate authority, Hofman et al., 2017). Coercive power, generally (but not necessarily) leads to benefits for the in-group at the detriment to out-groups and the wider habitat: the zero-sum game that in humanity is associated with manifestations of authoritarianism (Stenner, 2005) and the tragedy of the commons (Hardin, 1968).


Co-creation does not reduce complexity, instead it makes the world more predictable by promoting unconstrained natural behavior and easy need satisfaction through promoting and communicating efforts that facilitate and maintain habitat viability. This creates a safe environment where safety is defined as “a situation or state with positive indicators of the absence of viability threats” (van den Bosch et al., 2018). This communicated absence of threats is a logical necessity since an absence can otherwise not be established. The positive indicators of safety – signs of unforced agentic behavior – allow agents in the habitat to co-create without having to be alert for (unexpected) danger. This allows the uninterrupted functioning of a self-organizing network of interacting agents that satisfy needs most naturally, while minimizing negative impacts and promoting coexistence and even collaboration. Human friendships depend on this logic and they have, like all co-creation processes, no stable outcome or goal other than providing a safe context for growth and flourishing.

This is the complement of coordinating other agent’s behavior (which characterizes coping). Unconstrained natural behavior does not need guidance, since the agents do whatever comes naturally and return to this when constraints are lifted. This harmony between what is possible and what comes naturally stabilizes the habitat, leads to more communicated safety, and increases predictability through the reduction of interagent tension that otherwise might activate coping as fallback. Co-creating agents should become aware of the needs of others and what comes naturally to themselves, others with similar needs, others with different needs, and the wider habitat’s dynamics. They have to optimize all in the context of everything else and over all timescales (we referred to this as ‘pervasive optimization’, Andringa et al., 2015), which is a direct reference to Sternberg’s definition of wisdom:

The application of tacit knowledge towards the application of a common good through a balance among intra-, inter-, and extra- personal interests to achieve a balance among adaptation to existing environments, shaping of existing environments, and a selection of new environments, over the long term as well as the short term.
-– Sternberg (1998)

This definition is somewhat human-centered and can easily be generalized to all life, all agentic interests, all habitats, and all time-scales. And since tacit knowledge refers to skills, Sternberg’s definition can be generalized to “the balancing skills to contribute to the biosphere.” This is what we refer to as generalized wisdom.

Where the application of power generally (but not necessarily) produces benefits to an in-group at the detriment of out-groups, proper co-creation leads to broadly constructive benefits and is a more than zero-sum game. As we argued, this drove and arguably still drives biospheric growth. Note that many agents might still suffer; co-creation manifests broad net benefits, not the absence of harm or suffering. Typically co-creating agents form a community, a group of individuals that each freely and self-guidedly contribute whatever benefits their adequacy can bring.

Co-creating agents need to act on what comes naturally to agents and habitats. They must learn how to promote more natural behavior and prevent behavior leading to broadly detrimental consequences. The Daoist key term ‘Wu Wei,’ reflects this since it “means something like ‘act naturally,’ ‘effortless action,’ or ‘nonwillful action’” (Littlejohn, 2003). Characteristically, it completely misses the urgency of coping strategies and the effort associated with exercising power. Wu Wei is also a way to be authoritative:

… individuals emerge authoritative and powerful as part and parcel of an interconnected web of forces. Therefore, a crucial back-and-forth tug between the self and the various influences and authorities surrounding it is woven in the very fabric of what it means to be a fully attained and empowered individual.
-–(Brindley, 2010, pp. xxvii–xxviii).

Wu Wei is a quite different conception of authority since it does not pertain to realizing specific intended results, but instead is aimed at pervasive optimization (Andringa et al., 2015) and becoming “a fully attained and empowered individual” as “part and parcel of an interconnected web of forces”; what Maslow (1954) refers to as self-actualization. It is this growth process that drives identity development, as much as it promotes general well-being.

Co-creation expresses and relies on highly skilled behaviors of many responsible autonomous individuals who adapt to and use the possibilities of changing situations. As such it is not easy to maintain and somewhat fragile; the highest co-creative quality is difficult to maintain and generally transitory. This is quite different for coping that relies on more basic strategies like mimicry and rule-following and that can be both stable and stultifying.

Two ontologies

The complementary properties and behavioral logic of coping and co-creation lead often to opposing strategies. Both aim to increase habitat predictability. Coping does that via imposing behavioral constraints and habitat control to counteract adequacy limits. Co-creation instead promotes the creation of a never-stable network of behaviors that come naturally and unconstrained and that distribute the responsibility for habitat viability over all contributing agents. Implicitly this assumes that participants are willing and able to alleviate their adequacy limits and grow in their ability to co-create.

Coping and co-creation are both essential. But successful coping is short lasting and effective, it ends the cause for its activation and restores co-creation as behavioral default. Unsuccessful coping is ineffective, and hence prolonged. And since the causes for its activation remain valid, it precludes co-creation. This entails that individuals who predominantly cope or co-create develop quite different worldviews, strategies, values, and identities. Hence, they might not be able to understand one another or to collaborate effectively.

Table 2 shows the two separate ontologies of coping and co-creation. It organizes and relates the concepts within each ontology through matching them to complimentary concepts and/or roles in the other ontology. That we are able to do that on a consistent basis, suggests not only the structural differences between coping and co-creation, but also that we are uncovering some basic tenets of life and cognition.

We consider the selection, matching, and precise formulation of these concepts an ongoing process. Hence, its formulations will develop over time; the formulation in the table is our current best.

In part 2 of this paper we apply and extend the proposed framework to identity development and we apply it on a metatheoretical level to two approaches to general well-being. Ontological security as manifestation of coping and psychological safety as manifestation of co-creation. This leads to the extension of both tables and an improved definition of co-creation and the two ontologies that comprise it.