The Drama Review (June 30, 2017)

Dear what-were-you-thinking drama participants,

When I was half way through graduate school, I had to pick a research topic for my dissertation. I remember this sage-like graduate putting his hands on my shoulders, looking me in the eye, and saying, “Word to the wise, don’t pick a topic you like.  Because when you’re through with your dissertation, you’ll hate the topic.”

That was probably sound advice but it didn’t actually work out that way for me.  To this day, I find my selected topic to be interesting, useful, and relevant.  Perhaps more relevant than ever in today’s cultural climate.  That’s the topic I’ll talk about in this letter.

An old friend of mine uses the term “psycho-freako” as a descriptor for my chosen line of work.  It’s not quite as snarky as it sounds—he actually has great respect for what I do.  At any rate, the tone of this letter will be a little more psycho-freako than most. I need to walk you through a rather tedious conceptual jungle and then connect together some things we’ve been saying about drama people, so bear with me.

Erik Erikson—not to be confused with political commentator, Erick Erickson—was a German-born developmental psychologist who spent his career studying the process of human growth and development. All humans, Erikson noted, pass through predictable stages of development between birth and death.  Each psychosocial stage is defined by a certain developmental task which must be successfully accomplished in order to take on the task of the next phase. Failure to do so results in arrested development.  That is, adults who grow up chronologically but not developmentally; grown-ups who are trying to meet the demands of adult life with personality aspects that are less grown up than they need to be.

Between the ages of 12 and 22—there are differing opinions about the exact age parameters–is the stage of development called adolescence. The chief task being worked on during adolescence is identity.  Who am I? Who am I not? What kind of person do I want to be? What are my strengths and weaknesses? What are my interests? What do I want to do with my life? What kind of people do I want to hang with? etc., etc., etc.

But how exactly does one acquire an identity?  It doesn’t just suddenly appear at age 22; it has to develop, to grow, to emerge. Numerous researchers have studied this question. My dissertation was based on the answer proposed by James Marcia (pronounced Mar-cee-ah, not Marcia as in Marcia Brady), a developmental psychologist from British Columbia.

Marcia held that identity develops in four stages: diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium, and achievement. During each of these phases, two things either happen or don’t happen: evaluation and commitment. Full-disclosure, “evaluation” is my substitute for his word “crisis” because it communicates more clearly, in my opinion. Evaluation means the adolescent is examining ideas, thinking things through, and weighing options. Commitment means the adolescent is saying, “That’s where I land, that’s what I hold to, that’s what I believe.”

Are you still awake? Just checking.  Maybe grab some Red Bull or something. This will all lead to a point, I promise.

In the earliest phase, diffusion, neither of these has occurred.  But in the next phase, foreclosure, the kid commits himself to certain ideas, opinions and values. But the problem is that he’s not evaluated those things for himself. The ideas to which he commits himself don’t belong to him, he’s simply borrowed them from someone else. Like wearing a team jersey without actually being on the team, he now espouses ideas, opinions, and values he doesn’t personally possess. That’s why foreclosure ideas are sometimes referred to “second-hand beliefs.”  Someone else drew conclusions that the kid now adopts uncritically. Someone else chews the food up. He just swallows it.

The “someone else” from whom he borrows these ideas are authority figures.  The first figures that come to mind are parents obviously but they could also be teachers, pastors, coaches, scout leaders, neighbors, or relatives. They could be gang leaders. They could be the “cool kids” at school who set the pace for everyone else. They could be athletes or celebrities. They could be virtually anyone to whom he’s granted the power to do his thinking for him. The thing to remember about the stance of the foreclosure adolescent is: since you believe it, so do I.

In the next phase, moratorium, the exact opposite occurs.  The ideas which were uncritically evaluated in foreclosure are subject to critical evaluation in moratorium.  In effect, the moratorium-stage kid says, “Why is that true? How do I know that’s true? Who says that’s true? Why should I believe it? He suspends the dogmatic commitments of foreclosure in favor of evaluating those ideas in moratorium.  He doesn’t necessarily abandon his ideas but he does call them into question.

The central question of foreclosure is What? The central question of moratorium is Why?

These are the mileposts that must be passed in order to arrive at the last phase of identity development, achievement.  At this point, the kid—now a young adult—has done both.  He commits himself to certain ideas, opinions, and values which he’s now evaluated for himself.  The “second-hand ideas” of foreclosure have been replaced by the “first-hand convictions” of achievement.  Interestingly, he may believe all the same things he dogmatically held to back in foreclosure.  The difference is, they’re now his.  His values are personally owned and have his fingerprints all over them.

Well, you’ve stayed with me as we’ve hacked our way through the jungle and made it to the clearing.  So, what was the point of this trip?

I love this stuff, which is why my friend calls me “psycho-freako,” and there are so many things we could talk about here. Like,

How foreclosure beliefs are fragile but achievement beliefs are resilient

How people stuck in foreclosure become threatened by opposing ideas while achievement-level people don’t

What happens when people stuck in moratorium become adults

How reasonable discussions require achievement-level maturity

I will likely discuss some of those things in future letters but for now, I’d like to make three applications that relate to our dealings with drama people.

  1. Some kids get stuck in foreclosure and grow into adulthood lacking the ability to think for themselves. As such, they look to others to do their thinking for them.


  1. On an individual level, drama people exploit this weakness of critical evaluation.  “Tell me what to think” becomes wedded to “I’ll tell you what to think” and they give birth to drama.

Let’s say a woman is married to a my-way-or-the-highway husband.The unspoken drama arrangement is: “My role is to be in charge; your role is to do what I need you to do and be who I need you to be. As long as we both stay inside of our drama roles, we’ll get along.” An achievement-level adult would find ways to resist the requirement but the foreclosure-stuck adult might unwittingly play her designated role. Not only does she do what he demands but thinks what he thinks.

  1. On a collective level, masses can get manipulated into groupthink echo chambers in which they stop thinking for themselves and give Machiavellian leaders the power to do their thinking for them.

In The Drama Review of May 19th, I quoted Werner Pusch, a member of the German government during the time of Hitler’s rise to power. It bears repeating here in our current context.

“For the first few minutes, he wasn’t a good speaker; he was just warming up and finding the words. But then, he turned out to be a terribly good speaker. And the whole atmosphere grew more and more hysterical. He was interrupted after nearly every phrase by big applause and women began screaming. It was like a mass religious ceremony. And I listened to his speech and I feel the more and more excited atmosphere in the hall. For some seconds, again and again, I had a feeling of what a pity I can’t share that belief of all those thousands of people—that I am alone and contrary to all that. It was funny, I felt that he was talking all the nonsense that I know, the nonsense he always talked. But still, I feel that it must be wonderful to just jump into that bubbling pot and be a member of all those who are believers.”

There have always been—and always will be—leaders who are empowered to manipulate when immature others forfeit their right to independent thinking.  They acquire power, not through the persuasion of ideas, but through the exploitation of uncritical thinking.

When people can’t think for themselves, they’re easy prey for drama predators. That’s why it’s so important for grown-ups to finish growing up.

Coming soon! Types of dramas, the drama-enticing methods of manipulators, the crazy-making effects of manipulation, ways to avoid drama enticement, and much, much more.