By adopting a research domain criteria approach, this scoping review of mainstream and grey literature aims to facilitate a more cogent understanding of the (relatively recent) concept of ‘wokeness’ from a psychological perspective.

What’s in a name..?

The term ‘woke’ can be traced back to pre-war African Americans responding to racist persecution. For example, in 1938, it was used by the folk singer-songwriter Huddie Ledbetter (aka Lead Belly- see above), to warn potential victims of racist violence that they ‘best stay woke, keep their eyes open’.

Toward defining wokeness, it should be noted that naming is a special linguistic process through which a psychosocially acceptable form is chosen that both reflects the cultural values of the speech community and has a semantic (descriptive, historic, and fictional) meaning. As one ontologist puts it:

Names are not, and have never been, value-neutral: they have an important role in the culture of their speakers(1.).

Thus, unsurprisingly, a high level of variation in psychosocial attribution was reflected in research for this article- the woke literature is sufficiently replete with neological offspring (wokery, wokewashing, wokies, wokeabulary, wokenut, woketopia, woke-o-meter, woke-bespoke, wokefishing, and wokerati, to list but a few) as to confound a definitive starting point for useful analysis.

Defining ‘wokeness’

From a label for public discourse (and the ‘rights’ movement it spawned) related to individual awareness of structural frailty (where an individual carries an increased risk of negative health events because they belong to a socioeconomically, culturally, normatively or politically disadvantaged group)(2.), ‘wokeness’ was co-opted and progressively corrupted by its critics until it became a word which, as Humpty Dumpty said: means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less(3.).

Indeed, the woke wellspring, having been so muddied by memeification through social media(4.) and rendered doubly feculent by publications such as the Daily Mail and Spiked (reframing it as something performative and sententious, and declaring it to be self-indulgently practised by privileged individuals), that this exordium perforce resorts to an nGram analysis for some factual undergirding:

PC distribution
woke person
woke adjective
woke to

Clearly, the concept of wokeness reached equilibrium with that of political correctness sometime around 2008, superseded it during the second decade of the new millennium (perhaps due to its perceived impuissance- being opined academic esotericism that failed to change the behaviour of individuals(5.)), and is currently in a state of gradual senescence.

Methodology

To counter the conceptual drift(6.) outlined above, a psychological Research domain Criteria (RDoC) framework has been adopted such that current psycho-physiological theory might best be brought to bear (notwithstanding the postmodern premise that):

physical reality is fundamentally a social and linguistic construct whereby scientific research is inherently theory-laden and self-referential and thus cannot assert a privileged epistemological status(7.)

or, to quote John Doyle (aka ‘’Rampaging’ Roy Slaven’)’s recently cited assertion:

Language- is a virus!

Anderson, L.P. “Laurie”. (1986). Eponymous, from album ‘Home of the Brave’. Warner Bros.

Four of the six domains of the RDoC matrix (Negative Valence Systems, Positive Valence Systems Cognitive Systems, and Systems for Social Processes) were found to be pertinent to this exposition.

1. Negative Valence (emotional value) Systems- two things to note:

Negative Valence Systems are primarily responsible for avoidant responses to aversive situations or contexts (e.g. fear, anxiety, and grief) and involve identifiable patterns of adaptive responses to conditioned or unconditioned threat stimuli (exteroceptive or interoceptive).

Two important principles may be surmised from this axiom:

Firstly, because fear (as opposed to anxiety-see below) can bypass internal representations and cognitive processing (see previous articles on amygdala hijack and polyvagal theory), the following premises pertaining to the psychology of wokeness may be cogently argued:

  • Repeated exposure to real threats does cause aversive conditioning (negative motivational salience), leading to hypervigilance, hyperarousal, intrusive thoughts, dissociation, and avoidant tendencies. Thus, discourse amongst individuals subject to structural frailty (as described above) is valid, and others’ opinions regarding it, spurious.
  • Neural processing and consolidation can, by Pavlovian instrument transfer, create unconditioned threat responses. Thus, wokeness is a valid descriptor of state (a), and others’ responses to it, artifactual.

Emerging from arousal theory in the 1960s, and abetted by a shift in focus toward the role of a major nerve-hormone pathway (the HPA) in linking the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to stress-response (‘fight or flight’) behaviour, was the Neurovisceral Integration Model still taught in schools and universities today.

Neurovisceral Integration Model

In concert with proposed refinements based on more recent neurobiological research, biobehavioural modelling has revivified René Spitz’s 1930s’ observations regarding marasmus (‘wasting away’) and death with unmothered infants, such that ‘threat’ is no longer seen as exclusively ‘physical’ (e.g. the archetypal ‘tiger in the bushes’), but as containing sub-categories including real and anticipatory (other subcategories, e.g. loss/deprivation, and frustrative non-reward are not considered here) which correspond functionally to fear and anxiety responses respectively.

In this sense, stimulus-hunger has the same relationship to survival of the human organism as food-hunger.

Berne, E. (1964). Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships. USA, Grove Press.

Additionally, this early survival instinct is not fully sublimated, but (as offspring become independent), there occurs a:

..partial transformation of the infantile stimulus-hunger into something which may be termed recognition-hunger.

(ibid)

Viewed through this lens, woke behaviour convokes archeopsychic responses including the smile response (which appears at around three months old in the presence of an unspecified person), and the anxiety response (choate at eight months in the presence of a stranger).

Although further conflated and attenuated (by multifarious historic, social, and environmental factors) in adults, these responses descry several woke resonances intimating:

The second important principle:

Creating less widespread/potent biobehavioural response patterns than fear, anxiety may be defined as activation of a brain system in which harm may potentially occur but is distant, ambiguous, or low/uncertain in probability, characterised by a pattern of responses such as enhanced risk assessment (hypervigilance).

Because anxiety arises solely from internal representations and cognitive processing, a fuller acquisition of insights from this domain necessitates interrogation of the common cognitive distortions (enumerated in 3. below) and enculturated biases pertaining to the subject matter, including:

Better than/less than (polarised) thinking.

Many manifestations of this pattern of distorted risk assessment, arguably modulated by weak ego states and and poor self-esteem, are expressed in woke literature as abstracted resentment, conspiracy, victimisation, band wagoning, shaming etc, where an individual imagines a threat to self.

Much anti-woke discourse is similarly informed by anxiety regarding anticipated revenge, such that woke negativity becomes laudable. One researcher(8.) quotes Nietzsche in support of this proposition:

Thus do I speak unto you in parable, ye who make the soul giddy, ye preachers of EQUALITY! Tarantulas are ye unto me, and secretly revengeful ones! But I will soon bring your hiding-places to the light: therefore, do I laugh in your face my laughter of the height. Therefore do I tear at your web, that your rage may lure you out of your den of lies, and that your revenge may leap forth from behind your word “justice.”

Thus Spake Zarathustra. (1883–1892). Germany: Ernst Schmeitzner

Moral outrage

Defined as anger provoked by the perception that a moral standard – usually a standard of fairness or justice – has been violated(9.), this may be considered a ‘woke’ response for the lived experiences of individuals eluded to in the definition above, whereas the corresponding ‘anti-woke’ response more resembles game-playing.

Group biases

Negative salience is biased toward ‘tribal outgroups’ via an ideological square(2.) (see diagram above) of explicit and implicit anxiety narratives and reward systems which favour the ingroup(10.). ‘According to stigma theory(11.), fear of the unknown powerfully conditions motivational aversion and mirrors the woke positioning described above.

As a determinant of both woke and anti-woke (alt-right) behaviour, pluralistic ignorance(12.) is a group bias which occurs when the majority of group members privately reject a social norm but go along with it on the assumption that other group members accept it. This negative bias is thus self-reinforcing.

Notably, multimodal (observe, recite, do-repeat) rituals, allegorised in with conventions and social norms, maximise the breadth of cognitive embodiment through bodily action of public affirmations, thus further cementing group biases(14.).

The Spiral of silence Theory

The Spiral of Silence Theory(13.) suggests that people who believe they have a minority opinion regarding a controversial issue are inclined to stay silent and conceal their opinion from the public.

2. Positive Valence Systems

Positive Valence Systems are primarily responsible for responses to positive motivational situations or contexts, such as reward seeking, consummatory behaviour, and reward/habit learning (i.e. approach behaviours).

Dopamine Pathways

The first construct of this domain, Reward Responsiveness (a function of hedonism), is readily exemplified in woke literature as Virtue Signalling(13.), which Merriam-Webster defines as “the act or practice of conspicuously displaying one’s awareness of and attentiveness to political issues, matters of social and racial justice, etc., especially instead of taking effective action”.

Some sources(14.) equate virtue signalling with moral grandstanding, defined as making a contribution to moral discourse that aims to convince others that one is ‘morally respectable’, however the implied slur achieves little in diminishing the salience-power of this reward and is arguably offset by shared recognition-hunger as alluded to above.

Notably, some researchers have demonstrated a valid correlation between virtue signalling (and indeed ‘victimhood’) and high personality trait scores for machiavellianism, narcissism, and other controlling psychopathologies(15.).

System Justification bias

A perspective more relevant to wokeness which focuses on group dominance/submission, System Justification Theory posits that people desire not only to hold favourable attitudes about themselves (ego-justification) and the groups to which they belong (group-justification), but also to hold positive attitudes about the overarching social structure in which they are entwined and find themselves obligated to (system-justification).

This system-justifying motive sometimes produces the phenomenon known as out-group favouritism, an acceptance of inferiority among low-status groups and a positive image of relatively higher status groups.

giving behaviour

Thus, the notion that individuals are simultaneously supporters and victims of the (wider) system-instilled norms is a central idea in system justification theory. Additionally, the passive ease of supporting the current structure, when compared to the potential price (material, social, psychological) of acting out against the status quo, leads to a shared environment in which the existing social, economic, and political arrangements tend to be preferred. Alternatives to the status quo tend to be disparaged, and inequality perpetuated.

Other constructs in the positive valence domain, underpinned by Reward Prediction Error, Delay Discounting, and other organic biases are illustrative of woke effects including:

  • The Echo Chamber Effect, where repeating or reinforcing the ingroup opinions and behaviours of others garners ‘positive strokes’.
  • The Positive-Negative Asymmetry Phenomenon, where research has demonstrated that punishing the out-group benefits self-esteem less than rewarding the in-group.

3. Cognitive Systems

cognitive systems

Cognitive Systems are responsible for various executive control processes including attention (orientating response), perception, and decision/goal making.

Apposite to this exposition are the cognitive biases that override all domain constructs, including:

Negativity bias

The negativity bias, also known as the negativity effect, asserts that even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things.

Proposed as an evolved survival adaptation (vigilance toward danger is of primary importance to an organism’s survival), neurobiological differences indeed suggest that negative information processing receives a greater allocation of resources than does positive information processing, such that even in the absence of danger, people tend to think and reason more about negative events than positive events.

Notably, research(16.) supports, as a corollary of negativity bias, the notion that abjectivity is resourced preferentially over objectivity.

The Dunning–Kruger effect

As an offshoot of the Availability Heuristic (the tendency to overestimate the probability of a potential threat occurring due to the limits of attentional capacity necessitating ‘a mental shortcut’), the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that people with limited competence in a particular field tend to overestimate their abilities.

This effect, often misunderstood as a claim about general overconfidence of people with low intelligence instead of specific overconfidence of people unversed in a particular field, is evidenced in woke discourse by numerous examples of behaviour considered remarkably unsolicited, ‘nosey’, impolitic, or even plain discourteous.

Notably, the effect may produce a dual bias, where incompetence in some individuals includes being unable to tell the difference between competence and incompetence!

4. Systems for Social Processes

Systems for Social Processes mediate responses in interpersonal settings of various types, including perception and interpretation of others’ actions.

Perpending ‘wokeness’ within the primary constructs of this domain (affiliation and attachment, and perception and understanding of others) the literature is evocative of several psychological theorems including:

Depersonalisation and self-stereotyping

A part of Self-categorization Theory, depersonalisation describes a process of tribal self-stereotyping. This is where, under conditions of social category salience and consequent accentuation, people come to see themselves more as the interchangeable exemplars of a social category than as unique personalities defined by their differences from others.

The concept of depersonalisation is critical to a range of group phenomena including social influence, social stereotyping, in-group cohesiveness, ethnocentrism, intragroup cooperation, altruism, emotional empathy, and the emergence of social norms.

Inculcated in the training of armed forces personnel, conditioned reinforcement of the tendency of individuals to thus behave representatively, is arguably a cogent explanation underpinning the phenomenon of woke weaponisation.

Indeed the literature is replete with call to arms verbigeration such as:

.. the destructive, totalitarian, divisive, negative and anti-democratic ‘woke’ ideology can be defeated. It just needs us to have the courage to stand up and fight it.

Proactive & reactive aggression

aggression

Studies that assess underlying biological markers (e.g., genes, brain, psychophysiological, and hormonal) of reactive (fear response to real threat) and proactive (anxiety response to anticipated threat) aggression show that the two use different brain circuits(17.), with much functional overlap found with pathways controlling social and inter-personal behavioural awareness/interpretation, interactions and rewarding processes, as well as executive control functions including planning, decision-making, and orientating response(18.).

As an interesting sidenote, the researchers found a reduced or low parasympathetic activation in reactive aggression that supports polyvagal theory as discussed in a previous article.

Importantly, the two types of aggression have co-evolved, with primatologists surmising that proactive (i.e. planned) aggression was systematically wielded by teams of beta males in a way that reduced the need for (the more dangerous) reactive aggressive.

Whereas reactive aggression is characterised by negative affect (feeling/mood) and/or emotional lability (e.g., often called ‘hot-blooded’), which makes the person prone to impulsive reactions after provocation, proactive aggression tends to be driven by low emotional arousal (e.g., ‘cold-blooded’) and high levels of instrumentality to obtain benefits and/or rewards in the absence of provocation.

Evidently, proactive aggression is a driver of both woke and anti-woke campaigning behaviour.

Crossed transactions

Some utility in this discussion may yet be gained from seminal psychoanalytical frameworks including Transactional Analysis (TA), where ‘standoffs’ typifying woke discourse may be equated with ‘crossed transactions’, which are identified by their resultant: e.g. two speechless people glaring at each other(19.).

A more comprehensive understanding of TA being beyond the scope of this article, noted below diagrammatically is but one analytic exemplar of a complex (involving the activity of more than two ego states simultaneously), crossed (ulterior) transaction typology (angular and duplex) which may justifiably pique further interest in the TA approach:

Conclusion

Inherently ethereal, the literary ‘woke’ shadow was nonetheless found to be vulnerable to the illuminating implements of psychological theory. Admittedly far from comprehensive, this unapologetically sesquipedalian diatribe, which in no way reflects the views of Brisbane Counselling Centre, does however, hope to inspire further (more rigorous) propaedeutic domain criteria-based studies to better understand the wokeness phenomenon.

References

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