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Our ideology is shaped by how we learn to respond to affects

Silvan Tomkins’ investigation into affect and emotion, as ambitious as it was, was only one aspect of his expansive mind. He developed a robust theory of ideology, examining how and why it forms and how through western history people have been drawn to opposite ideological poles. He noted that there has always been a left and right in western culture, and he conducted research to show how a polarized belief about one thing reliably predicts polarized beliefs about many other things in many different domains.

Tomkins liked to tell the story of a game he used to play on his graduate students. At one of the first meetings of each new crop of grad students, he would note the tight mouth and narrow eyes of a “Skinnerian” student. And then he would find the wide-eyed, bright smile of a particularly idealistic student, and he would assert that he could predict which of these pairs of seemingly unrelated statements each would agree with:

The mind is like a lamp illuminating the world. vs. The mind is like a mirror reflecting the world.

Math was invented. vs. Math was discovered.

To see an adult cry is distressing. vs. To see an adult cry is disgusting.

Man is basically good. vs. Man is basically evil.


To the amazement of the class and the students themselves, he was astonishingly correct. But Tomkins was not satisfied to do parlor tricks with this knowledge; he developed a polarity scale to measure and test these assumptions, and published papers in hopes of engendering more and better research on the topic.

What is ideology?

To understand what Tomkins had to say about ideology, let’s look at what ideology is. If we are to live ordered lives, it is essential that we have working theories about justice, child rearing, science, knowledge and so on. These big questions might sound like,

  • “What is the purpose of science?”

  • “How do we know if justice has been done?”

  • “What is the best way to raise a child?”

  • “How do we know whether something is true?”


What all of these questions have in common is that there is no unambiguous evidence that would allow us to form certain, definitive answers to them. So we answer them as best we can. But Tomkins observed that these answers are rooted in even deeper, unexamined and unprovable assumptions such as:

  • “What is the value of human life?”

  • “What is the worth of a person’s inner life?”

  • “Is the goal of life perfection or happiness?”


And for all this, these beliefs are often not believed to be beliefs. Our ideologies are very passionately held as if true and very elaborately articulated, which brings us to Tomkins’ definition of an ideology:

By ideology I will mean any organized set of ideas about which human beings are at once most articulate and most passionate, and for which there is no evidence and about which they are least certain.When something has been proven or disproven, like the sun revolving around the earth, it ceases to be an ideology. Says Tomkins, “Yesterday’s ideology is today’s fact or fiction.”



It is this uncertainty that leads to polarization of ideology.

What is lacking in evidence is filled by passion and faith, and hatred and scorn for disbelievers . . . ideology, in its purest form, appears in controversies which are centuries old, never ceasing to find true believers who become polarized, over and over, generation after generation.

Here are some examples Tomkins gave of how this polarization has played out in some of the biggest controversies throughout history:

Source of Ideology

The source of polarization, in fact the source of all ideological thinking, is rooted in the affects, more specifically, how people are socialized to handle their affective lives. Tomkins proposed that the way that parents respond to a child’s emotional life leads to fundamental beliefs about the worth of human life, which lead to beliefs that cluster around the humanistic and normative poles of ideology.

At the humanistic pole, the parent identifies with the child in play and shared delight, and is revitalized by the child’s zest for life, joy in simple human interaction, driving curiosity, and attempts to control his own body. Such a parent bestows on the child the feeling that he is an end in himself and that shared human interaction is a deeply satisfying experience. The child discovers a world that presents itself with endless opportunities for positive affect, joy, excitement, love of people, places, activities and things. He becomes adept at creating this inner satisfaction for himself and for others.

At the normative pole, the parent invests in molding the child to some norm, be it moral or behavioral. The parent bestows on the child the sense that positive satisfaction is not an internally felt experience as much as it is a result of effort, struggle and the renunciation of the child’s own wishes. Rewarded for renouncing and devaluing his wishes and his very self, the child expects the outer world of rules and objective reality to provide the rewards of life.

At this juncture, it is worth noting that Tomkins was writing this in 1991, as the explosion in new information about the brain emerged as a result of new technology. Before that explosion, few scientists would have claimed that there is any other source for your relationship to your own affects other than how you were raised. Over the past several decades, fMRI and other methods have revealed significant differences in brain structure and function in various conditions, such as schizophrenia and autism. Given this, it is worth noting that there might be innate tendencies toward recognizing and valuing affective inner life. Ideological polarity might be due in part to biological differences, not just socialization.

In either case, the fundamental principle of his theory is logically sound, that a person who experiences affect as manageable and mostly positive is more likely to consider human life an end in itself, while a person who experiences affect as an obstacle to achieving normative success is more likely to find meaning, relevance and safety in an objectively verified and sanctioned reality.

Middle of the Road

Tomkins also writes briefly about the “middle of the road” which he proposes is even more radical than even the extremes of either pole.

Indeed, one might defend the thesis that the middle of the road represents the most radical ideology rather than a compromise position. This is so because the tension between the right and the left wing in ideology has been perennial, and a creative synthesis evokes some resonance from each side.

Unfortunately, Tomkins did not elaborate much on this idea, perhaps because the task at hand was to demonstrate, first, that there is a perennial ideological polarity. He did, however, present Kant’s moral imperative as an elegant synthesis of the two poles. Kant resolved the pull toward either pole by proposing a moral compass that includes both. He said, “Act only in such a way as can be made universal.” Don’t do anything that, if everyone else did it, would be harmful. If you litter, and if everyone litters, we will all live in a garbage heap. If you yell at your subordinates, and everyone yells at their subordinates that means you will be yelled at along with everyone else. Tomkins remarked that this formulation resolves the conflict between the subjective and objective.

Be yourself, find morality within, but let it be possible that your morality is capable of serving as a norm for humankind.

Contrasting Assumptions

Tomkins explores the dimensions of this polarity even further by contrasting ten defining assumptions. These assumptions stem from an individual’s basic tendency to idealize himself or derogate himself, which, according to Tomkins, are the most pressing concerns a person can have. “No question with which man confronts himself engages him more than the question of his own worth.” How he understands his worth is based on how he has come to experience his affective life, and the impact of that evaluation cascades over all manner of beliefs and assumptions. Here are the ten assumptions in a simplified form.

10 Contrasting Assumptions of the Ideological Polarity

Presented as left-leaning ideology vs. right-leaning ideology

  1. Man is an end in himself, value is subjective, man should be loved vs. The object of life is outside man, what is valuable is objective, man should be loved if he is worthy

  2. What is real and valuable is man. vs. What is real and valuable is the ideal.

  3. Values are what man wishes vs. Values exist independent of man

  4. Man should satisfy and maximize drives and affects vs. Man should be governed by norms which limit his drives and affects

  5. Man should minimize negative affect and unsatisfied drives vs. Man should maximize norm conformity

  6. Affect inhibition should be minimized vs. Affects should be controlled by norms

  7. Power should be used to maximize positive affect and minimize negative vs. Power should be used to maximize norm compliance and achievement

  8. Pluralism – conflict between individuals and within the affects of individuals should be minimized vs. Hierarchy – no attempt to minimize conflict per se, as wishes should be ordered according to the norm

  9. Selection criteria are based on maximizing positive and minimizing negative affect vs. Selection criteria are based on a normative hierarchy of needs

  10. Weakness is tolerated and worked on vs. Weakness is not tolerated and is punished


Polarity Scale

To test this theory Tomkins and colleagues developed a 57-item scale with the hypothesis that humanistic answers with correlate with other humanistic answers, while normative answers will correlate with other normative answers. When tested on 500 people, this hypothesis was supported in 97% of the all possible intercorrelations. Furthermore, the average positive intercorrelation was +.30. Even more impressive, if a person agrees with “human beings are basically good” and disagrees with “human beings are basically evil” he or she will agree with 80% of all other items keyed humanistic, at a correlation of +.30 or better. If the person agrees with the reverse, he or she will agree with 80% of all other items keyed normative, at a correlation of +.30 or better.

Let’s look at some examples of the most striking correlations:


Ideology and the face

This last correlation, which gets at a tendency toward disgust versus dissmell, lent credence to the hypothesis that contempt is more dominant in normatively-oriented people than in humanistically-oriented people. Tomkins went on to explore this hypothesis in a study of people’s cognitive preference for smiles versus contempt. To test this he showed 37 participants two faces simultaneously: one smiling, one contemptuous, alternating each between the left or right eye. Then he showed one of the two faces and asked the participant if this was the one he had seen. The correlation of the dominance of the humanistic orientation with the smiling face was .42, while the correlation of the normative orientation with the contemptuous face was .60.

Lastly, in another study, Tomkins found that humanistic orientation correlated with a higher likelihood of smiling at the experimenter asking questions than did the normative correlation.


The implications for Tomkins’ observations about ideology are wide-ranging. Politics, leadership, marriage, education, child rearing, and clinical psychology are only a few of the domains where an understanding of humanistic versus normative assumption sets could enable better collaboration, productivity, negotiation, and satisfaction. While more research is needed, if these findings hold, any area of understanding that benefits from emotional intelligence could be enhanced by Tomkins’ take on how a person’s affective life impacts his or her belief system.

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