The Psychology of Loyalty

Loyalty is widely considered a virtue. And psychology generally falls into line behind widely accepted virtues as a measure of mental health.

Is loyalty actually healthy, wise and good? Subconsciously, most people probably equate loyalty with integrity. Integrity refers to consistency between your ideas/principles (assuming you have any), and your actions.

Loyalty is an extension of this principle. It applies to upholding your ideals, but — more specifically and concretely — loyalty concerns the people in your life who are important to you.

Here’s where it gets complicated for many: Most of us choose friends and romantic partners based on vague or unidentified feelings alone. When it comes time to be loyal — or disloyal — to friends or associates, we’re unclear on what we’re actually being loyal to. As a result we’re left with nothing else but feelings.

If someone annoys you for a trivial reason, you’ll reject or back away from them without really knowing why, and you might later come to regret it. If someone betrays you for a very big reason, you’re lost without a set of conscious convictions to guide you; so you might hang around longer than you should, because your feelings tell you, “This person has been in my life, and I shouldn’t change that now.”

If you live your life consciously, by a set of conscious convictions and principles, then you deliberately select your friends and loved ones accordingly. If you value integrity and honesty, for example, then you not only seek to practice it, but to  find people who do the same. Ditto for any other virtue you consciously hold near and dear to your heart and mind: intelligence, intellectual honesty, productivity, and rationality.

If you value your ideals consciously, and you seek to uphold them in daily life, then your friends and spouse will be very important to you. They’re important to you because they embody and actualize — in your eyes, and hopefully in reality — your most cherished values. Loyalty in that context is “easy,” in that betraying people who embody what’s important to you would go against everything  you think and most deeply feel.

Most people are not consciously principled. They’re not deliberately bad or evil, either, not in most cases. Most people are pragmatists. By “pragmatist” I don’t mean practical or rational; I mean somebody who doesn’t particularly hold any fixed set of convictions about anything. Such a person, either by philosophical choice or (much more likely) by psychological default, goes through life making choices — including choices about work, friendship, even romance or marriage — based on “what feels right” or “what works.” Without explicit ideas, principles or a philosophy of some kind, there’s nothing else to guide you.

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with a choice that feels right or works, it takes more to build a strong case for a particular choice, especially in a significant area of life.

As a result, such people — in the majority — kind of go through life without a strong set of convictions about why they’re making the choices they’re making. As a further result, it’s difficult to practice integrity in the realm of ideas — since a pragmatist holds no fixed ideas; and it’s difficult to practice loyalty in the realm of friendship and marriage — since a pragmatist has nothing consciously powerful, or deep, to which to be loyal.

It’s generally considered more cool, normal or socially acceptable not to hold any conscious convictions — or, if you do hold them, not to hold them “too strongly.” Or, if you must hold deep, intense or conscious convictions, then at least don’t let anybody know it.

Not only is this boring and shallow; it makes something most of us do consider virtuous — loyalty — impossible. I suspect this is one reason why so many get attached to their dogs (or cats). These animals possess a consistency and integrity (on a nonconceptual level) of which humans are more brilliantly capable, but rarely display.

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