map[Overview of Core CognitionAuthors:<nil>]
Florence Denham
Dr Tjeerd Andringa

4 - Two routes to general wellbeing

This section addresses two routes to social well-being. There are many routes to prospective well-being; in fact, all self-help literature and political, economic, or religious ideologies propose them. We have selected the “ontological security” framework and a recent formulation of “psychological safety” to represent very clear, actionable, and precisely-worded coping and co-creation alternative approaches to general well-being.

This section addresses two routes to social well-being. There are many routes to prospective well-being; in fact, all self-help literature and political, economic, or religious ideologies propose them. We have selected the “ontological security” framework and a recent formulation of “psychological safety” to represent very clear, actionable, and precisely-worded coping and co-creation alternative approaches to general well-being. In this section we will apply our core cognition framework as a metatheoretical lens to inspect the “theories” described below. This requires us to focus on the mindsets that spawned the theories behind either the coping or co-creation ontology.

Ontological security and psychological safety refer to seemingly similar, but essentially different, concepts of avoiding danger. We address that first.

Safety versus Security

Safety is a situation or state with positive indicators of the absence of viability threats. It is a precondition for co-creation and for achieving and maintaining the higher levels of well-being. Adequately co-creating agents self-organize a shared habitat while minimizing tension and conflict and maximizing natural unconstrained behavior. Their co-creation adequacy prevents danger, harm, or injury because it allows agents to focus on restoration and growth.

In humans, the role of this absence of threats is exemplified by the difference between calm and boring sonic environments, i.e., the presence or absence of audible safety (Andringa & Lanser, 2013; Van den Bosch et al., 2013; van den Bosch et al., 2018). Similarly, squirrels infer safety from bird chatter (Lilly, Lucore, & Tarvin, 2019). In addition, recent studies on how to improve the well-being of people with dementia (where reduced higher cognition opens a window to more basic processing) show marked reduction in problematic behavior by just reducing the prevalence of (unpleasant) sounds which are indicative of unsafety (Koster et al., submitted 2021).

While safety is a precondition for co-creation, security is the objective of coping. The Concise Oxford dictionary defines security as “the state of being free from danger or threat.” Here we sharpen this definition to “a state where viability-threats-to-self have been brought under control,” to stress its deliberate manifestation in coping. In our modern societies, increased coping prevalence is manifested by the changing role of the (national) security state from a sole focus on international war, to include policing domestic and foreign populations (Andreas, 2001; Raskin, 1976). It is no longer other states that are the problem, but our own domestic population represents a security threat to be controlled (Zedner, 2003). Similarly, organizations can both trust or distrust worker autonomy. Distrust of worker autonomy promotes coercive formalization of work as bureaucracy (Adler & Borys, 1996; Andringa, 2015). These examples suggest that “greater security” does not necessarily signify “more safety.” It just indicates more coordinated behaviors and stricter control of potential (even imagined) threats.

“Security” and “safety” play central roles in the two attitudes towards the creation of well-being that we will discuss. Security provides actively maintained short-term sanctuary by controlling threats to viability and through enhancing control over diversity and complexity to promote oneness and sameness. It is a manifestation of coping, associated with the foreclosed identity status, and the normative identity style. In contrast, safety provides and creates environmental conditions conducive to long-term well-being through avoiding problems, actively signaling the absence of threats, and maintaining an environment for restoration, growth, and, in general, co-creation. It is associated with the achieved identity status and its informational identity style.

Ontological security

The Origins of Ontological Security

Creating “security” is associated with reducing fear by excluding “the unknown” and controlling whatever activates feelings of inadequacy. An in-group, as a defining feature, shares common adequacy limits and aims to control the environment to make it more orderly, stable, structured, predictable, and therefore, less threatening to the in-group by imposing limits on agency via routines, norms, and rules. This method of creating well-being is defined by theorists in Sociology and International Relations as “ontological security,” and we interpret it here as a perfectly formulated attempt by individuals in the coping mode to improve their well-being. However, since it has the coping mode’s limitations, it can only improve low well-being to a situation of no symptoms. It cannot bring about the higher levels of well-being achievable by co-creation.

The concept of Ontological Security was popularized by Anthony Giddens who described it as the secure feeling an individual derives from attaining “on the level of the unconscious and practical consciousness, ‘answers’ to fundamental existential questions [i.e., problems] which all human life in some way addresses” (1991, p. 47). However, the origins of ontological security can be found in Laing’s The Divided Self (1960). For Laing, psychoanalysis is about helping the patient reconstruct his identity, or “way of being himself in his world,” so as to show no overt symptoms (Laing, 2010, p. 25). Laing states that individuals who have a “partial or almost complete absence” of this “person-in-the-world” theory are more likely to develop psychosis and schizophrenia (1960, p. 39). He describes such individuals thus:

His identity and autonomy are always in question. He may lack the experience of his own temporal continuity. He may not possess an overriding sense of personal consistency or cohesiveness. He may feel more insubstantial than substantial, and unable to assume that the stuff he is made of is genuine, good, valuable (Laing, 1960, p. 42).

Here Laing describes the diffusive identity status; inadequate, unskilled, with an underdeveloped self-theory, and with an inadequate behavior repertoire that is often ineffective, and potentially or progressively disconnected from the inner (self) and outer reality. He does not describe the other identity statuses because, as a mental health practitioner, his concern is with removing the symptoms of schizophrenia and psychosis. In the absence of a diagnosis, he has no tools to promote optimal mental health, or maximize human potential or self-actualization (Maslow, 1954). Hence, the concept of ontological security emerges exclusively from the logic of the coping mode, as its formulation and conceptualization are ignorant of co-creation.

Giddens (1991) provides a sociological interpretation of Laing’s insights, arguing that our identity and autonomy, and by extension our ontological security, depend on our ability to trust in social narratives and routines in which we are contextually embedded, and through which our identity is constituted. Adhering to norms and routines means individuals are not “obsessively preoccupied with their contingent, and fragile nature” (Rossdale, 2017, p. 371).

For Giddens the aim of gaining security is not to “accept” reality, or broaden and deepen adequacy by developing a richer self-theory through exploration of self and the world. Instead, its purpose is “to create ontological reference points” which simplify reality so that inadequate agents can deal with “the contexts of day-to-day life” (1991, p. 48) without learning and growth towards full self-actualization. In the terms laid out in Figure 2 in Part 1, the aim is to make the behavioral repertoire more effective through social mimicry via the adoption of behaviors of (authoritative) others. It does not promote broadening the scope of behaviors. Hence it promotes both the normative identity style as much as it promotes authoritarianism.

Normative Threats to Ontological Security

According to Giddens, norms and routines which coordinate behavior, provide us a “cognitive and emotional anchor” from which (inadequate) individuals derive the “trust” (Giddens, 1991, p. 36) that continuity and stability will prevail in everyday relations, so that they are not confronted with their own inadequacy. Routines rely heavily on a complex body of shared knowledge, constituting a societal status quo that can be mimicked wholesale: taken-for-granted local practices, cultural narratives, institutional structures, and “common” knowledge (Berger & Luckmann, 1991, p. 35). In other words, the status quo is the “anchor” from which security is derived. Ontological security is associated with (normative) individuals who have acquired a narrow but conditionally effective skill set for coping; they lack the behavioral breadth to deal with a world that is not under control of their in-group, and they feel an existential threat when so confronted.

This is a direct reference to Stenner’s book The Authoritarian Dynamic (2005) that we addressed in Section 3 on the foreclosed identity status, which predicts authoritarianism. Individuals with a foreclosed identity status respond with intolerance to diversity when confronted with normative threats, and hence they promote common authority (oneness) and shared values (sameness). The most threatening conditions to oneness and sameness “are questioned or questionable authorities and values, for example, disrespect for leaders or leaders unworthy of respect, and lack of conformity with or consensus in group norms and beliefs” (Stenner, 2009, p. 143).

Here, the normative “threat” to oneness and sameness concerns the condition of the self, more than of the perceived disturbance: “the self is unsure what to expect of the new: the exact boundary and inclusion or exclusion of the newcomer are not clear” (Chernobrov, 2016, p. 586). In general, the unfamiliar “new” exposes the individual’s inadequacy; uncertainties regarding the unfamiliar “hamper calculation and increase risk, jeopardize perceived or actual security, or signal indeterminacy and lack of meaning” (Chernobrov, 2016, p. 582). Consequently, security is concerned with maintaining one’s relationship with the environment as it is, via purging it of sources of uncertainty. This makes sense since inadequate agents are not equipped with the skills to understand or deal with the unknown outside of in-group-controlled environments. (See Part 1, Section 2 “Coping,” and the subsection on the foreclosed identity style)

Attempting Well-being via Ontological Security

The process of gaining ontological security is the process of becoming partially adequate via adoption of normative strategies (the mimicking of status quo behaviors) to minimize viability threats. As Mitzen (2006, p. 342) puts it, “for theorists of ontological security, individual identity is formed and sustained through relationships” with significant others, as is expected of people with the foreclosed identity status and the associated normative identity style (Berzonsky, 2008), who express the coping mode structurally and preferentially.

Berger and Luckmann (1991, p. 71) refer to the adoption of empowering routines and norms as “habitualization.” Habitualization is the consolidation of routines via reference to socially constructed symbols, myths, and heritage – shared knowledge – that sustain an in-group identity, which, in the words of Kinvall, provides “a guide for future actions” (2004, p. 756). Norms, rules, and routines impose in-group level limits on agency and reduce diversity (Rossdale, 2017), while increasing the probability of intended outcomes. All moves to achieve or retain ontological security enact limitations which restrain political critique and possibility, and securitizes subjectivity (Rossdale, 2017, p. 370). Interestingly, habitualization activates resistance in the form of the psychological phenomenon of reactance: the motivation to liberate oneself from limits on self-directed behaviors (Miron & Brehm, 2006).

Individuals don’t only ascribe meaning to their own normative experience but are able to “unite […] in a way that promotes order and predictability” (Gergen, 2001, p. 18 in Skey, 2010). The resulting less complex environment no longer confronts inadequate individuals with their inadequacy because it is, for them, more manageable and predictable, and hence it appears and is appraised as less threatening. However, this complexity reduction also stipulates that security is achieved via adherence to the status quo at the expense of personal freedom, options for self-directed contributions (implementing authoritarianism), and diminished congruence with the actual state of reality. Inevitably, the façade of a less complex environment needs continual and effortful maintenance so as not to crumble in the face of reality. The weaker the façade appears, the stronger the normative threat, and the more frantically the façade is defended and diversity suppressed.

Any out-group identity is constructed via **othering, ** “which denotes exclusionary and antagonistic differences” (Rossdale, 2017, p. 374; Kinvall, 2004). Inadequate co-creators are only familiar with and comfortable in their own in-group context, so they construct the unfamiliar individual’s identity comparatively to their own, with a focus on difference rather than similarity (Skey, 2010), and exclude everything, even things of great value, when they fall outside the knowledge base of the in-group. This results in the construction of identities and routines as “relative to other identity constructions’’ (Kinvall, 2004, p. 762), making each in-group seemingly incompatible and inherently separate. By viewing each other as stereotyped members of a group relegated to a foreign status (Skey, 2010), they create out-groups. As the foreign is threatening to inadequate co-creators, out-groups perceived as “different” are almost always seen as a problem (threat-to-self). This process of othering leads to polarization, which traps the in-group deeper in the coping ontology.

The resulting security is short term because it relies on exerting continual control through the suppression of unwanted diversity (which exposes one’s inadequacies). “The process of achieving (or seeking to achieve) ontological security frequently involves forms of exclusion and othering which may be both violent and counter-productive” (Rossdale, 2016, p. 370). As there is only coping, there is zero-gain; “Increasing ontological security for one person or group […] is thus likely to decrease security for those not included” (Kinvall, 2004, p. 763). Routines and rules are advantageous to the in-group, as they stipulate order and increased predictability. However, members of the out-group are disadvantaged by these rules and, in turn, are threatened and feel insecure. In-groups provide the out-group with grievances: exclusion, suppression, supervision, et cetera. Silke (2008, p. 112) asserts that if “marginalized groups are discriminated against or […] believe that there is discrimination, then there will always be sections within such communities who will be receptive to radical ideologies,” thereby jeopardizing the security of the environment. “Empirically and normatively [ontological security] push[es] us in the wrong direction” (Nesbitt-Larking, 2016, p. 13).

Searching for security by relying on in-group norms and routine also can distract from real-world threats, and actually make the group less safe and effective. When speaking of the failure of commercial organizations such as Radio Shack, Blockbuster, or Kodak, Clark (2020) stated: “These organizations were filled with large numbers of highly intelligent people, and yet they all fell prey to competitive threats that were hiding in plain sight. The countervailing strategies their competitors put in place were not mysterious. They were, in fact, obvious. What these organizations failed to do was challenge the status quo and disrupt themselves. […] They allowed the status quo to fossilize and would not allow themselves to change it.” In other words, protecting the status quo might actually degrade one’s situation in a changing world. This is the fate of individuals existing exclusively under the coping mode’s limitations: it may postpone death, but it provides no guarantee for being or becoming well.

Pathological normality as the coping mode’s ideal of well-being

What does the ideal of ontological security look like? It would be a symptomless perfect adaptation to a carefully controlled environment, protected from everything that might freak out the foreclosed personality. Aldous Huxley (1958), quoting Erich Fromm, noted that symptoms means conflict, which indicates

that the forces of life which strive for integration and happiness are still fighting. The really hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be most normal. “Many of them are normal because they are so well adjusted to our mode of existence, because their human voice has been silenced so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does.” They are normal not in what may be called the absolute sense of the word; they are normal only in relation to a profoundly abnormal society. Their perfect adjustment to that abnormal society is a measure of their mental sickness.

These millions of abnormally normal people, living without fuss in a society to which, if they were fully human beings, they ought not to be adjusted, still cherish “the illusion of individuality,” but in fact they have been to a great extent de-individualized. Their conformity is developing into something like uniformity. But “uniformity and freedom are incompatible. Uniformity and mental health are incompatible too … Man is not made to be an automaton, and if he becomes one, the basis for mental health is destroyed.”

This corresponds with Maslow’s observations about the suppression of an essential human core, of which he says “even when its existence is denied, it never goes away, even in a sick person; and is constantly trying to get out. Discipline, deprivation, frustration, pain, and tragedy are necessary because these experiences foster and fulfill his inner nature” (Maslow, 1968, pp. 3-4). Maslow argued that “psychologically speaking, that which designates a normal human being is in reality a psychopathology of the average. It depicts a lifestyle that is so widespread and nondramatic that we don’t even notice it ordinarily. In general, this normal life is one of general phoniness, illusion, and fear; showing that it is a sickness that is widely spread.” (1968, p. 16).

Striving for ontological security then fosters a psychopathology of the average: a state of marginal well-being and psychological emptiness which is the best that coping can produce: it is pathological normality. Unfortunately, it is also what Hannah Arendt (1963) refers to as the “banality of evil” in her description of the normality of Eichmann who “would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do.”

The question then is how to promote and achieve higher levels of well-being.

Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is a term that was first derived in teamwork research where it helped to predict which teams would work well and which would not. Psychological safety promotes interpersonal risk taking (Edmondson, 1999) and signifies a change from a defensive and self-protective team member to being a fully collaborating member without any motivation to self-protect.

Feeling safe is conditioned on positive indicators of safety. Safety is an outcome of successful previous behaviors (both coping and co-creation), and signifies that all is well. Therefore, safety signifies high adequacy, pervasive optimization (wisdom), inclusion, and wu wei. In such an environment, changes are attended to before they become pressing problems because in an inherently safe environment enough individuals have adequate skills to approach and adapt to the (natural dynamic of the) unfamiliar, without feeling threatened and defensive.

Whereas ontological security has a focus on maximizing environmental mastery through minimizing habitat complexity, psychological safety has a focus on maximizing agentic contributions in ways that benefit the whole. Via anthropological fieldwork conducted on organizations “from every sector of society,” Clark (2020) described the concept this way: Psychological safety is a condition in which you feel 1) included; 2) safe to learn; 3) safe to contribute; and 4) safe to challenge the status quo — all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way. Step four exemplifies interpersonal risk-taking most clearly.

Clark (2020) argued that the progression toward psychological safety is derived from the natural sequence of human needs; the pre-conditions required for co-creation to occur. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943) has five stages (physiological, security, belongingness, esteem, and self-actualization) that correspond directly to Clark’s progression towards psychological safety. The most basic needs for Maslow are physiological: food, water, and shelter; these needs are not included in Clark’s psychological safety because it “is a postmaterialist need” (2020). Maslow’s next three stages (security, belongingness, and esteem) are the needs that Clark conceptualized as the three needs on which psychological safety depends. Psychological safety “is no less a human need than food or shelter,” since it is the manifestation of the need for agentic self-preservation, which has as much to do with “social and emotional needs as physical ones” (Clark, 2020). Once the basic needs of food, water, and shelter are met, psychological safety becomes a priority so that an individual’s maximum potential is unleashed; self-actualization and co-creation preconditions are satisfied.

Fours steps of psychological safety

The first step for psychological safety is inclusion. The concept of inclusion underpins the difference between safety and security. When creating well-being via security, in-group membership is always conditional. In-group members feel unthreatened because of sameness and oneness: security derived by the suppression of diversity. When creating well-being via safety, membership in the community is “based on the sole qualification that they possess flesh and blood” (Clark, 2020) (which is easily generalized to include all living agents).

For inclusion safety, agents must be equipped with the skills to negotiate the unfamiliar by extending both respect and permission. By respect, Clark means the average level of esteem agents afford to each other; how much agents value and appreciate the unfamiliar. By permission, Clark means the degree to which the group allows the unfamiliar to influence them; that all, including newcomers, are permitted to participate as members of the community. Permission and respect are important affordances that agents grant one another in order to create an environment that provides safe passage for maximizing agentic potential and cultivating confidence, resilience, and independence (Clark, 2020). All in all, unconditional membership allows full access to the co-creation side of Figures 2 and 3.

The next level of safety is learner safety. Learner safety implies that you feel safe to participate, engage with the discovery process, ask questions, and make mistakes. The transition to learner safety means the agent faces the anxiety of the unknown (all signs of in-groupiness) and is not limited by it.

As individuals feel increasingly safe in a nurturing environment that offers respect and permission, we enter the stage of contributor safety. This is the stage where the individual is invited to participate as a full-fledged member of the community, and his/her esteem needs are fulfilled (Maslow, 1943). The agent’s contributions are successful; he feels adequate, skilled, and valuable. Hence, he gains self-esteem and, in turn, is increasingly respected by the community. Contributor safety emerges when the individual has acquired skills and is able to apply them adequately to produce shared benefits. The community has to provide both encouragement and appropriate autonomy to the agent (Clark, 2020). If the individual is hampered by discrimination, prevailing norms, internal bias, a lack of empathy, or general aloofness, he or she is denied contributor safety.

The final and crucial stage of psychological safety is challenger safety; an individual feels free to challenge the status quo without fear of retribution or reprisal (Clark, 2020). Challenger safety enables individuals to overcome the pressure to conform and, hence, can enlist themselves in co-creative processes; improvement, innovation, development, and hence communal growth (the more-than-zero-sum feature of co-creation).

While allowing and promoting challenger safety is a defining feature of psychological safety, challenges to the status quo are exactly what is to be suppressed from an (ontological) security perspective. Here the in-group’s focus is on protecting and defending the rules, routines, and norms that define the ingroup by suppressing diversity. Since ingroups feel inadequate under normative threats (challenges to sameness and oneness), any challenge is interpreted as an assault on precisely what constitutes the normative and authoritarian identity. And that is why suppressing diversity is incompatible with psychological safety.

Psychological safety is achieved via maximizing member contributions so that 1) members are equipped with the skills to confidently negotiate the unknown and unfamiliar; and 2) new and current members feel free to join, learn, contribute, and criticize freely, and, therefore, never harbor the motivation to threaten the well-being of the community. The result is a community or habitat presenting a high concentration of safety indicators in the form of unscripted contributions to the community. The progression towards psychological safety and fulfilling the natural sequence of human needs provides a recipe for co-creative well-being and growth.

Metatheoretical considerations

The very formulation of the theory of ontological security shows that it is possible to formulate, with the best of intentions, a framework that is almost guaranteed to lead to a deeply pathological state of individual and societal non-development. Ideally this results in a situation of no symptoms, populated by individuals perfectly adapted to a world that is kept within the limits of their underdeveloped co-creation adequacy: pathological normality. Additionally, maintaining a world within tight constraints is arduous and wasteful compared with societal developing of the skills to deal with full real-world complexity, threats, and opportunities, as effective co-creation allows to be done.

Although this argument might be convincing for some, it is not acceptable for in-groups (i.e., authoritarians), especially not for those under normative threats, who simply assume that out-groups must either comply with their in-group rules or be dealt with otherwise (eliminated, removed, or made irrelevant). Due to the absence of self-exploration and the associated lack of broadening of the behavioral repertoire towards co-creation adequacy, this means that the coping worldview is simply not rich enough to adequately assess its own limitations, let alone understand full human potential. Possibly, this also characterizes the formulators of ontological security, since they seem unaware of the existence of co-creation. The formulation of psychological safety, on the other hand, expresses co-creation very clearly, but it is concurrently aware of coping and its limitations because it straddles co-creation and coping skills.


Figure 4. Well-being pyramid. The key transition is from conditional acceptance by ingroups to unconditional acceptance by a (diverse) community.

Clark’s (2020) description of the preconditions for psychological safety, in combination with the internal logic of the ontological security framework, inspired us to produce a metatheoretical summary (Figure 4) which builds on Maslow’s pyramid of needs (1943). The key transition in this well-being pyramid occurs between the lower level and access to self-directed growth towards self-actualization (Maslow, 1954). The transition occurs when coping strategies stop being dominant and co-creation takes over, while coping remains a valuable fallback to address pressing problems quickly and effectively. This corresponds to a change from in-groups that conditionally accept individuals – namely if and only if they accept the in-group worldview and, hence, direct and curtail their behaviors according to shared adequacy limits – to a community that offers unconditional acceptance to individuals and allows them to learn, contribute, and criticize. This makes the group diverse in its ability to solve problems and realize opportunities, and it offers ample context for individual and community growth. The transition also corresponds to a switch from “cognition for control, order, and certainty” (coping) to “cognition for exploration, disorder, and possibility” (co-creation) that we described in Figure 2 of Andringa et al. (2013b).