4.1 Two attitudes towards a complex world

This section is based on section 3.1 of “Learning Autonomy in Two or Three Steps: Linking Motivation, Authority, and Agency, with Open-ended Development”

In the previous subsections (in particular Authoritarians versus libertarians) we saw the opposition of two modes of being in the world that are opposites in many respects: especially the fearful authoritarian and the libertarian are polar opposites in their morals. As a result these two groups can easily aim for diametrically opposed goals. In this subsection the root cause of these differences is sought in to attitudes towards a complex world.

Complexity research has shown [Capra 1997] [Kauffman 1995] that all life and therefore all human activity seems to occur in the transition region between order and disorder or structure and chaos [Mora 2011]. Too much structure precludes diversity and development. Too much disorder precludes stability and predictability. Put differently: moderately increasing disorder allows for more diversity and development but allows less control. In moderation, disorder may lead to novelty, in excess it leads to chaos. In contrast, increasing order fosters uniformity, predictability, and control, but in excess it leads to stagnation and lifelessness. Note that the moment a novel structure has been discovered in a previously disordered or chaotic state, some order (and meaning) is imposed on it and the complex system becomes a little more tractable and accessible to agent influence. With this discovery the “edge of chaos” has been pushed towards higher complexity.

This process may push development along the [open-ended development spiral] in accordance with Vygotskii’s [1978] zone of proximal development.

Two modes of cognition

We can call the form of cognition that allows us to discover novel structure ‘cognition for disorder’, ‘cognition for possibilities’, or ‘explorative cognition’. Whatever it is called, its essential nature is participatory: structures in (apparent) chaos are only discovered through some form of participation in the system. During exploration and play, the properties of these structures are revealed and the structures of interest become gradually more familiar and predictable. This allows their properties to be generalized, abstracted, and integrated with existing knowledge and in doing so made useful for in the widest possible range of environments and (individual) challenges.

In situations where errors are costly (or even deadly) we need a complementary form of cognition: a form that more aptly is called ‘cognition for order’, ‘cognition for certainty’, or ‘control cognition’. Both are essential forms of cognition and together they allow for a gradual proven and reliable extension of the limits of agent capability towards ever more complex situations and ever-larger temporal and spatial scopes. This continual progression of exploration, consolidation, and testing is another formulation of open-ended development.

Recall that the reaction to an increasing complex world is the key difference between authoritarians and libertarians (see Cognitive (in)capacity). This suggests that the complexity of our (living) world is a deciding factor in determining whether someone is (behaves as) authoritarian or libertarian. Authoritarians tend to abhor a complex world and feel an urge to reduce its complexity, while libertarians can deal comfortably with some additional complexity. The authoritarian reaction to increased complexity is with fear and intolerance of diversity (reducing complexity), while the libertarian reacts with increased interest and sharper cognition (mastering complexity). This suggests that explorative cognition and control cognition, in particular with authoritarians, are activated depending on whether the environment is appraised as safe or unsafe.


The depiction in the figure called Liberation visualizes these two cognitive responses. The backdrop is Escher’s 1955 tessellation “Liberation” that reflects a progression from lifeless, predictive structure towards living free dynamics and endless possibilities. Here we assume that an agent’s coping capacity allows it to deal with some intermediate level of complexity half way this progression. Depending on whether the overall situation is perceived as safe or unsafe, an agent might be motivated to explore dynamic diversity and novelty — the interest bias — or be motivated to reduce the complexity of the environment by helping to reduce the complexity through curtailing diversity and dynamics — the fear bias. The higher the life-fraction spent with an interest bias, the more one explored and the more one learned to master complexity.

It is therefore not surprising that the personality trait ‘openness to experience’ correlates positively with libertarianism [Stenner 2005]. According to McCrea [2010] “highly open people are thus seen as imaginative, sensitive to art and beauty, emotionally differentiated, behaviorally flexible, intellectually curious, and liberal in values. Closed people are down-to-earth, uninterested in art, shallow in affect, set in their ways, lacking curiosity, and traditional in values.” This contrast reads as a preference for a interesting versus an ordered world. In addition “open people admire openness, closed people despise it [McCrae 2010].” Associated with a closed attitude is ‘the need for closure’ [Malhotra 2008] [Kruglanski 1996], the desire for definite and final answers. People prone to seizing on the first idea offered and then freezing on this solution are in general uninterested in exploring alternative possibilities, keeping their views simple and uncluttered.


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  • Kauffman, Stuart. 1995. At Home in the Universe. Oxford University Press.

  • Mora, Thierry, and William Bialek. 2011. “Are Biological Systems Poised at Criticality?.” Journal of Statistical Physics 144 (2): 268–302.

  • Vygotskiĭ, L Lev Semenovich. 1978. Mind in Society. Edited by M Cole, V John-Steiner, S Scribner, and E Souberman. London: Harvard University Press.

  • Stenner, Karen. 2005. The Authoritarian Dynamic. First Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  • McCrae, Robert R, and AR Sutin. 2010. “Openness to Experience.” In M. R. Leary and R. H. Hoyle (Eds.), Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior. New York: Guilford.: 257–273.

  • Malhotra, Yogesh, Dennis F Galletta, and Laurie J Kirsch. 2008. “How Endogenous Motivations Influence User Intentions: Beyond the Dichotomy of Extrinsic and Intrinsic User Motivations.” Journal of Management Information Systems 25 (1): 267–300.

  • Kruglanski, Arie W, and Donna M Webster. 1996. “Motivated Closing of the Mind: “Seizing” and ‘Freezing’.” Psychological Review 103 (2): 263–283.