"Pendulum" Explains Why Society Predictably Goes Crazy

Authors Propose 40-Year Swing Between Cultural Extremes of "Me" and "We"

Cover art from Pendulum by Roy H. Williams and Richard Drew

In "Pendulum," author and marketing legend Roy H. Williams, better known as "The Wizard of Ads" describes how the dominant trend of culture predictably cycles between an individualist "Me" mentality and a collectivist "We" one.

The book begins with an intriguing question: "You've seen the public redefine what is acceptable and what is not. But by what process do we choose the new rules?" Certainly in the last few years, we have all seen "new rules" come into play. What once would have been considered absurd - for example, that we should eat bugs because of climate change - is now regularly treated as a sound and reasonable idea.

How did our attitudes shift so drastically? According to Williams and his co-author, Michael R. Drew, mainstream culture follows a predictable pattern, which they call the pendulum cycle; when the pendulum reaches a tipping point, old ideas are rejected and new ones are embraced.

The "Me" Cycle

After reviewing 3,000 years of history, Williams and Drew concluded that not only is this cycle highly predictable, the attitudes that it encompasses remain constant as well. According to them, "a society becomes a completely different people every forty years." They describe this as the shift from "Me" to "We." "Individuality and freedom of expression are paramount in a 'Me,'" they explain, "whereas working together for the common good is paramount in a 'We.'"

The first part of the "Me" cycle is associated with personal needs and desires:

  • Freedom
  • Individual expression
  • Personal achievement

As it progresses, we inevitably "take a good thing too far," and devolve into:

  • Phoniness
  • Self-centeredness
  • Depravity

The "We" Cycle

In response to this extreme, society rejects the selfishness of "Me" and embraces the togetherness of "We," which is focused on relationships and connections. The first part of this cycle is associated with:

  • Responsibility
  • Authenticity
  • Conformity

According to Williams and Drew, the most recent tipping point from "Me" into "We" happened in 2003. This means that we are approaching the halfway point of the cycle, where things turn sour. "Responsibility, carried too far, becomes slavery," observe the authors. Historically, the "We" cycle degenerates into:

  • Intolerance
  • Self-righteousness
  • Oppression

"The focus of every 'We,' is to identify problems, catalog them, assign blame, and elevate regret," write the authors. The witch trials started in a We cycle, as did the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. And, although "Pendulum" was written in 2012, well before the world had ever heard of COVID-19, it would be difficult to write a more accurate summary of the trends that swept that globe in 2020 and 2021 than this one: ""It is a time of duty, obligation, and sacrifice. Regimentation has replaced inspiration, process smothers innovation, and policy precludes personal judgment."

The Outlook

Unfortunately, according to the pendulum theory, the next two decades are going to be even worse. "The ten years from 2023 to 2033 will see the rise of "deeply-entrenched ideologues ... These leaders create insular groups who believe everyone else is wrong. The popular thing will be to assign blame. It is a time of finger pointing." After this, the ten years from 2033 to 2043 will find society becoming exhausted with the "blame shifting and fear," and starting to rebel against it. Around 2083, the "alpha voices" that will lead culture into the next "Me" cycle will begin to be heard.

Williams and Drew acknowledge that these trends are just that: trends. "The Pendulum predicts only the momentum and direction of the majority in a society," they write, "most of the people, most of the time. Certainly not everyone. Certainly not always." Thus, there are always a minority of people - voices crying in the wilderness - who warn of the coming excesses, and condemn them when they occur. Sadly, history suggests that they will be ignored until the time comes for the masses to once again decide that, as Einstein observed, "the answers have changed."

Reading "Pendulum" with post-COVID-era eyes, it is bittersweet to see what the authors had hoped for 2023: "If enough of us are aware of this trend toward judgmental self-righteousness, perhaps we can resist demonizing those who disagree with us and avoid the societal polarization that results from it." Of course, it appears that the opportunity for that has passed.

It is slightly shocking how accurate "Pendulum" turned out to be, and although it does contain some advice, its primary attitude is one of resignation. Society does what it does. All we can do is prepare for the transition that comes when the pendulum reaches its next milestone.

Perhaps because the authors realize how important and prescient their work was, they have made the book available as a free download. It is an easy read, and well worth the time.