4.3 In- and external authority

This section is based on section 3.3 of “Learning Autonomy in Two or Three Steps: Linking Motivation, Authority, and Agency, with Open-ended Development”

There is a key difference between the two hemispheres: they require quite different conditions to function optimally.

The right hemisphere assumes autonomous participation in an open, dynamic, and infinite world of nested dynamical systems that form dynamically stable and continually evolving entities. In this mode of being, truth is defined as accordance with reality and is to be tested by acting out in the world; right-hemispheric knowledge and experiences are essentially subjective. As such this mode of being is particularly effective in situations where new aspects of the dynamics of the world are to be investigated to expand the thought-action repertoire [Fredrickson 2005] and where novel and creative solutions are appropriate.

In contrast, the left hemisphere assumes a closed, static, and finite world in which entities are symbolic, discrete and abstract and in which one is an “objective” observer instead of a participant. In this mode of being, truth is defined as the result of consistent reasoning and consensually agreed on linguistically shared and presented facts. This mode of being is particularly effective in situations in which problems have to be solved or addressed in a detached, rational, standardized, and communicable way. Scientific communication is a typical example of this.

Because of this more narrow focus, left hemispheric strategies essentially depend on processes that create and maintain the required closed, static, and finite world: the normative order introduced earlier. We argue that authorities – defined as processes or agents that create, maintain, and influence the conditions in which agents exist – fulfill this role. Adequate left hemispheric strategies, we propose, are only possible if either an internal authority, i.e., the right hemisphere, or external authorities ensure that conditions are maintained in which left hemispheric strategies are effective.

In particular we propose that the authoritarian mode of being corresponds to a left hemispheric dominance in combination with a need for external authorities to create and maintain the conditions in which a dominant left hemisphere can function adequately. Libertarianism corresponds to a right hemispheric dominance that is able to provide the proper conditions for left hemispheric functioning. This entails that the authoritarian agent, as the name suggests, is essentially dependent on external authorities, while the libertarian agent, again as the name suggests, is free from external authorities because the agent is able to self-maintain the conditions in which both modes of cognition contribute adequately.

To put it bluntly, we argue that authoritarianism in adults is a sign of arrested development that limits individual autonomy growth to environments maintained by external authorities. This is visualized in the Development Spiral in which the solid part reflects development up to the level of authoritarianism and the dashed part libertarian development beyond this level. More on this in the section on personal development.

Autonomy in two or three steps

In terms of the Development Spiral, personal development can be described as an initial right hemisphere dominated inner-loop in which one learns to master the body through playful interaction with the world. The second loop is left hemisphere controlled because one learns from external authorities and through abstracted linguistically conveyed knowledge about the structures of the world. However the purpose of this phase is to learn how to make the mind a useful instrument. If this process succeeds, it allows one to effectively produce intended results in both culturally defined and natural worlds. As such it is a basis for confidence, further exploration, and gradually increasing autonomy through the ability to co-create ever more extended (both in place and in time) environments in which one can self-maintain the condition for adequate functioning. This describes the third (pre-conditioned) loop.

Authoritarians do not want to loose control

However, when an agent is unable to make the mind into a reliable instrument, the individual is frequently confronted with the inability to produce intended results. And because the left hemisphere is dominant in this phase, one responds in the complexity reducing control mode favored by authoritarians. It is interesting that ‘power’ is defined as “the ability to produce intended results {Russell:1938ta}”._ We summarized Sternberg’s [1998] definition of wisdom as ”the ability to produce broadly beneficial intended results while taking the full consequences of behavior into account.“ This suggests defining raw power as ”the ability to produce intended results without_ necessarily taking the full consequences of behavior into account." Its is therefore not at all surprising that typical centralized authoritarian organizations such as bureaucracies, governments, large corporations, and the military are always associated with ‘power’ and standardization.

Libertarians focus on pervasive optimization

True libertarians do not need the control over the environment provided by these centralist structures and they are, because they made their mind into a reliable tool, not obsessed with reaching intended results (they can do that more often than not). In contrast they are more interested in understanding the full consequences of behavior. This requires a participatory approach in which one learns to discover and predict the innate dynamics of the social, cultural, and natural world without necessarily controlling or curtailing its diversity. On the contrary, working with the inherent dynamics of the world is a way to stabilize it (or not to disturb it).


We refer to this creative process of moving with the dynamics of the social and natural world as ‘co-creation’: and the ability to co-create as a defining characteristic of success in open-ended development.


  • Fredrickson, Barbara L, and Christine Branigan. 2005. “Positive Emotions Broaden the Scope of Attention and Thought‐Action Repertoires.” Cognition & Emotion 19 (3) (March): 313–332. doi:10.1080/02699930441000238.

  • Sternberg, Robert J. 1998. “A Balance Theory of Wisdom..” Review of General Psychology 2 (4): 347–365.