Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Real Roots of Social Behavior

This entry is in response to what I used to encounter all the time in magazines, newspapers, and on television: overly simple explanations of social behavior. You've probably heard or used variations of some of them. Prominent examples of overly simple explanations include the famous "follow the money" explanation of why politicians and corporate executives do what they do. Another explanations boils everything down to reproduction. Take a few minutes to consider some other explanations for why people do what they do.

Mass Media Influence:

Television, newspapers, radio, magazines, and the World Wide Web condition our perceptions of ourselves and of what's good/bad/problematic in the world. Television and magazines are especially powerful influences on our images of beauty, success, and fitness. This aspect of the media has been so heavily, and accurately, covered by others that I'll not spend any more time on it here.

Peer Pressure:

Why do kids joing gangs? Are they crazy? Stupid? On drugs? Why do kids pester their working class parents for $150 sneakers? In both cases, they are being encouraged by their peers, plus, joining a gang can make sense in a place with lots of broken families and gang violence. A kid gets some protection and some sense of belonging. Gangs satisfy two of the psychological drives that shape our behavior: safety and group affiliation.

Psychological Drives and Impulses:

Here's a bad joke, paraphrased - "Why did the chicken cross the road?" "Because the experiences that had pervaded his sensorium compelled him to act in that way at that time, even while he experienced his crossing of the road as an act of free will." That's supposedly what psychologist B.F. Skinner would have said to answer that really lame riddle. Emotions, errors in perception or reasoning, and drives for such things as group affiliation, safetly, reprodution, and affection exert strong influences on our behavior. Maybe it's fair to say that people have some free will, but this is bounded or constrained by individual psychological makeup (not to mention culture and economic circumstances, but those are topics for another time.) So, maybe we shouldn't say that people do things because they want to do them. Things seem to be a bit more complicated than that. Not convinced? Keep reading.

Self-help advocates take note: The whole concept of self-help is predicated on the modern, Western idea that people can exert their will to make changes in their own minds or in their material circumstances. This perspective is nearly unique in human history, and may not reflect the cold realities of culture, biology, and psychology.

Biology and Genetics:

Here we are, talking about sex again. But sex, or the urge to reproduce to be more specific, is hardly the only factor that belongs under the heading of biology and genetics. Random biological variations in our brains can influence our personalities, perceptions, and cognitive ability. Some of these variations are reversible with drugs or surgery, but many are beyond the capability of modern medical science to do anything about.

The moral: If you are a genius don't be too full of yourself because you really didn't do much to get that way.

The Generalized Other:

If I remember correctly, this term comes from George Herbert Meade. Hew refers to the collection of expectations, standards, and rules that we perceive to be relevant to our behavior. All of our decisions are conditioned by our own ideas of what people will think is sensible, ethical, daring, or whatever criteria seem relevant at the time.


This is the process of learning about language, good bahevior, bad behavior, "proper" goals and aspirations, and other cultural information that we need to get along in society. Note well that socialization does not proceed in the same way for people of every race, religion, ethnic background, or social class. All of these things influence what we learn. In all cases, socialization is the source for that "generalized other" that I just discussed. In no case does socialization have a beginning and ending like puberty, or a number of marriages. Religion, the family, and the school are agents of socialization, in addition to peer groups and the mass media.

Homework Assignment: Listen to a talk radio show or TV show on current events and pay close attention to how they explain human behavior. Do the hosts and guests seem to be aware of the factors I explain here? Or, do they attribute everything to individual choices?


Blogger Chip Nelson said...

Then again, you could spend some time inside of a prison. I am a Sergeant at one. It's one thing to diagnose the problem, it's quite another to have to deal with it. Whose to blame for the human condition? God or man? Environment or genetics? I think the answer is in the mirror.

12:16 PM  

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