Crippling effects of the Bureaucratic Mind virus | HBR Talk 103

One of the oldest memes on the web is an abstract mental game that makes use of a psychological tendency described in Daniel M. Wegner’s article, “Ironic Processes of Mental Control.” The article was published in Psychological Review 1994, Vol. 101. No. 1, pages 34-52. The gist of the phenomenon described is that if you try to control your thoughts you have to monitor them in a way that alerts you if you fail. That monitoring process itself, can, as Wegner describes, “act subtly yet consistently in a direction precisely opposite the intended control.” When anything undermines your efforts at control, the monitoring process itself, by dedicating your attention to noticing your failure to control, will overwhelm your intent to control and cause the opposite of what you were trying to do. That result is the underlying challenge used in the dead meme I’m about to exhume for this discussion.

When I was first exposed to it, I learned three rules. As far as I can confirm, its origin is undocumented, and there are various versions of it that may have other stipulations, but nearly everyone who didn’t just fall off the apple cart knows at least those three rules. They are:

1) Once you know about the game, you’ve been sucked into it. There’s no quitting, no exemptions, no timeouts.

2) If you think about the game, you lose the game. You continue to lose the game until you stop thinking about the game. If you stop thinking about the game, you stop losing, but you lose again the next time you think about it.

3) Every you lose the game, you have to tell people you have lost.

Granted, most folks who have exited the mature end of adolescence cease, after a month or so of knowing about the game, to care about rule 1, or to follow rule 3 (except when it might annoy their kids.) Because it spreads through the announcements mandated by the 3rd rule, The Game has been referred to as a mind virus. In a way, it is, because it triggers that monitoring system and in doing so limits the ability of the infected mind to ignore connections between incoming information and the rules of the game. In other words, it takes over your head, much the way a computer virus can take over your computer. Even if you choose to ignore rules 1 and 3, now that you’ve heard this description, every time something reminds you of the game, you’ll think about it, remember rule two, and know you lost.

The reason I’ve inflicted this most annoying dead meme on all of you is that I want to discuss another, more insidious mind virus that acts as a contributing factor in men’s issues: The Bureaucratic mind virus.

As a mind virus, The Game is an intrusive thought generator, which undermines the infected mind’s natural ability to control the focus of attention by using its own tools for the job against it.

The Bureaucratic Mind virus is an adaptability inhibitor, which undermines a key element of the infected mind’s problem-solving apparatus. 

This phenomenon is created by the very nature of bureaucracy. Any organization made up of many departments and divisions that are administered by lots of people is going to rely on standardization of job processes for a lot of reasons. Among other things, standard policies simplify training of new workers in such a system, so that they can be quickly taught to handle the tasks that will most commonly be required of them, or so that they will all be given the same framework for handling the variety of considerations they will most commonly be expected to address. This is generally intended to make the lower levels of the bureaucracy able to function without constant monitoring and advisement by its upper administrative levels. 

It’s often achieved by creating a set of rules that operates a lot like one of those shape-sorting toys for infants. You know, the ones that have holes in standard shapes (square, circle, triangle, rectangle) and blocks that are cut to fit through those holes. The consumer-end bureaucrat’s job mainly involves identifying the “shape” of information that is brought to him, and plugging it into the correct hole. In practical application this takes the form of things like documentation requirements that use multiple-choice and other communication templates filled with professional jargon, and presuppositions. The bureaucracy ends up being like a program with cascading levels of if-then commands to be executed as they are entered into the system. Should you submit a piece of information for which no “if” can be applied under the bureaucracy’s policy programming, it can’t come up with a “then” with which to complete it.

This kind of system doesn’t allow room for worker units to handle individual human circumstances, actions, and intentions if they create a shape that is outside the existing template. It cripples the bureaucrat's ability to consider unusual information, especially if it cannot easily be accurately described in his paperwork, or by his professional jargon, or it contradicts the existing template. 

At the same time, the virus confers a sense of unquestionable authority upon the bureaucrat. Policy is law, and must be obeyed by all. The bureaucrat is the administrator of policy. When the bureaucrat's mental processing comes to a conclusion, according to the bureaucratic mentality, it is always correct, regardless of its impact on the citizen, and must be implemented without question. 

This causes problems when there are dramatic policy changes. Past bureaucratic conclusions cannot be wrong, because policy is law and the bureaucrat, being its administrator, is always right. New policy is also law, and therefore the same rule applies to its administration. It is law and must be obeyed by all, and in administering it as such, the bureaucrat still cannot be wrong. 

When there is a policy reversal, it’s impossible to meet both of those conditions, so how does the mind virus deal with that? By using mental gymnastics, of course! No matter what new policy the bureaucrat encounters, it is going to be twisted and spun into what fits the bureaucrat’s existing programming. It does not matter if it comes out resembling nothing the policymaker had in mind. All that matters to the bureaucrat is that he can fill out his paperwork at the end of the day without contradicting any of his past decisions, while still covering his butt against possible accusations of failing to follow protocol.  

The citizen’s interaction with the bureaucracy is, to the bureaucratic mind, a unit of data. This leads backward to the conclusion that the citizen must exist to create tasks that fit into the bureaucracy’s existing perimeters, in order to keep the program employed. That creates the expectation that the citizen must comply with policy by presenting only standard circumstances. Nonstandard circumstances will activate the program’s defenses, resulting in one of two directions that harken back to the days of infancy and toys with holes of standard shapes, and matching blocks to put through them: The bureaucrat will either try to stuff the citizen through the the hole whose shape is the closest approximation to his circumstances, no matter how badly he fits, or, finding no standard procedure for this instance, retaliate against the citizen as one would against an attack. In practical application to the cases of men and boys, the latter comes out as overzealous imposition of restrictions and penalties, while the former tends to be an attempt to sort male-shaped problems into female-shaped categories. Anything that doesn’t fit must be wrong, and has to be folded, crushed, or removed.

You cannot have “preferred learning style: Kinetic/Discovery” as part of your educational needs, because the curriculum with which your school is programmed doesn’t take that possibility into account. Your boyhood must be an attack on the public education system. 

You cannot be presumed equally beneficial to your child under family law, because historical procedures relied on presuming female nurturing more valuable, and conclusions drawn on past policy cannot have been wrong. Your paternal interests must be an attack on the authority of the court.

You cannot have “Jobs not available due to nationwide recession” as the reason why you have not complied with your case worker’s use of imputed income to determine your child support obligation, because her programming has no protocol for that factor. Your misfortune must be an attack on the child support system.

You cannot be an abuse victim if you’re the wrong sex, because all language acknowledging that possibility has been eliminated from federal law, but the discrimination inherent in that doesn’t have to be acknowledged because there’s a non-discrimination clause in it that any bureaucrat worth her salt can show you. Your vulnerability must be an attack on the victim’s advocacy system.

Do you see the pattern? The bureaucracy’s programming and documentation system limits who its workers are able to recognize. People in need of the services of the bureaucracy have to be women. Men have a different role… one that doesn’t allow a guy to be human and engaged in any interaction with the bureaucracy. For the crime of being a guy, especially one with individual circumstances, you are hereby sentenced to unnecessary drugging, public shaming, denial of services, severance from your family, recurring fines, and possibly long-term imprisonment. Welcome to the borg. Please register your privilege at the desk, and leave your masculinity at the door. It’ll only be a hindrance to you here.

In a gynocentric world of nations with governments full of administrators and civil servants who are infected with the Bureaucratic mind virus, what does real policy reform look like? Can existing law and policy that is causing discrimination against men and boys be updated without setting off the program’s defenses?

If it can’t be… then what can we do? Have we lost the game, or is it maybe just time for us to change the rules?

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