It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.
It is tempting to assume that perception and reasoning solely entail physiological and psychological processes. If that be the case, the appropriate methodology for understanding and predicting another's behavior would involve entering that person's reality--metaphorically approaching that individual as an information processing system. This is psychology's imprint on Americans' understanding of the human condition: if one can understand how the world is perceived and experienced by another person, then one can predict that person's behavior. In the movie The Silence of Lambs a novice FBI investigator employs the worldview of one serial killer to capture another. In the 1994 jury selection process for the O.J. Simpson trial, scientific methodology was employed to predict who would comprise the most sympathetic jury.
Elsewhere we examined several great tensions shaping the human condition: the role of nature versus nurture in shaping humans' social fates and the tensions between the needs of individuals' and the needs of their social systems. The relative importance of these tensions--and relative potency of one force versus the other--has produced great divides in social psychological theories. Another issue generating a major schism involves the workings of the human psyche, whether individuals' decision-makings are more-or-less rational (or, perhaps are determined by some universally uniform neural brain design) or whether they are shaped by uncontrollable sociocultural (external) or emotional (internal) forces. If the later is the case, if, for instance, people see what they expect to see and society is the source of these expectations, or if life is but of a series of freely selected behavioral choices which, in turn, are socially-shaped action sequences, then we indeed have the social component of a social psychology.
Here, the intent is to stress the socio-cultural component of consciousness and thought. (See Erica Goode's New York Times article [Aug. 8, 2000] "How Culture Molds Habits of Thought" and Kurt & Gladys Lang's "Off the Bandwagon: Some Reflections on the Influence of Perceived Public Opinion.") This is not to deny the roles played by our hardwiring (e.g., the neural circuitry of our sensory organs and brain) and personal factors (e.g., personality types, cognitive maturity, emotional status and social experiences) in shaping perception and decision-making. But the argument here holds that it is also our social environment that largely determines what we perceive (and what we ignore) and which channels the ways in which we cognitively process that information. Shaping perceptions is, as will be seen, the key to social power. People see what they expect (and want) to see, and the source of these expectations derive as much from what they learn from interacting with each other as they do from direct personal experiences. Culture, for instance, gives us a rank-ordering of the primacy of sensory data. In American society, for example, the visual is deemed most important, and we're generally take to be less important matters of touch (consider the paucity of touch-distinctions in our language). And given that different groups have differing templates for perception and thought, the methodological unit for study and comparison are these groups and their members' socially-shared cognitions. (See Folk Psychology vs. Mental Stimulation: How Minds Understand Minds for how "people understand, predict, and explain one another's actions, thoughts, and motivations.")
The idea that "true" reality is never truly graspable by humans' sensory and cognitive equipment goes back at least to the works of Plato. There is, for instance, the distinction between appearances and reality. Show a three-year-old a red ball beneath a green filter and he will typically say that the ball is black, even though he had previously been given the ball to examine. Understanding of this appearance-reality distinction seems so necessary to everyday life that it is hard to imagine a society in which normal people would not acquire it. But the lesson is relatively new historically, such as the lesson of perspective in painting, or the intentional designing of optical illusions (such as the Ponzo illusion), or in the differing testimonies of eye-witnesses of the same event. The fact is that we all do not perceive the same things alike.
From gestalt theory (see also Psych.Com's definition) we learn of the mind's active role in perceiving wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts, as in a pointillist painting. But how do different people come to agree (or, better, assume that they agree) that they are seeing "pieces of the same puzzle"? Enter what Eviatar Zerubavel (The Fine Line: Making Distinctions in Everyday Life, 1991, The Free Press) calls the "fine lines" whose boundaries give us order and meaningfulness. As Zerubavel observes, "The very first act of the Creation was one of dividing. It was through being separated from one another that entities began to emerge. ...Like most cosmogonies, the biblical story of the Creation is an allegorical account of the process through which we normally create order out of chaos. ... [The resulting distinctions] are at the basis of any orderliness." (p.1) Individuals and social orders can be of two ideal-type minds: the rigid and the fuzzy. The rigid abhors the ambiguous and chaotic and cherishes clear distinctions, purity, and order. It is the mindset characterizing authoritarians and, in its extreme, the closure-seeking agoraphobics who "dread all forms of open-endedness" (p. 49) and the sufferers of anorexia and bulimia, who are obsessed "with maintaining a rigidly bounded self" (p. 51). The fuzzy mind, on the other hand, feels aversion toward all boundaries, mocks and plays with conventional (and arbitrary) distinctions, and gravitates toward ambiguities, novel syntheses, and experiences of communion where one blends in with one's social surroundings. Its mental fluidity characterizes the worlds of the very young, mystics (who "renounce the very idea of `classifying and dissecting,' promoting instead a holistic view of reality whereby everything flows into everything" (p. 84), and the psychotic. Quests to offset experiences of separateness and tyranny of order leads the author to explore sleep, play, humor, and the arts.
These fine lines carry both cognitive and cultural weight and have a moral dimension as well. Seeking to eliminate barriers between individuals, the fluid mind is attracted to Marxism, cosmopolitanism, and universalism. Detesting the categorically impure and liminal, the rigid mind, objects to miscegenation, homosexuality, drugs, and melting pots. Further, social lenses amplify the cognitive tendencies to either create or blur the gaps between mental entities carved out of social reality. A cultural predominance of one mind over another is reflected in architecture, art, intermarriages, food (the eclectic cuisines of the fuzzies and the segregated steak and potatoes of the rigids), games and puzzles (the rigids being exceptionally good at "Find the Faces in the Tree"), gender distinctions (e.g., the fluid fuzzies more likely being androgynous), and privacy needs.
But what are the cultural and sociological implications of a society predominately comprised of fluid- or rigid-minded personality types? Consider, for instance, John Leo's "A no-fault Holocaust", wherein it is argued that "multiculturalism" has led to moral relativism and nonjudgmentalism in American schools. To explore this issue, let's consider the correlates of the following variable from the 1988 NORC General Social Survey, where individuals were asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement:
Right and wrong are not usually a matter of black and white. There are many shades of gray (NORC variable BLKWHITE).
We find that 41% of Americans agreed strongly with this statement, 44 agreed somewhat, and the remaining 15% disagreed either somewhat or strongly. This certainly can be taken as evidence of the moral ambiguities of our time, as well as the possible consequences of cultural urbanization, secularization, and individualism (indeed, nearly three-quarters of Americans agreed with the statement "Morality is a personal matter and society should not force everyone to follow one standard.") Among the correlates of variable BLKWHITE:
In sum, rigid and fuzzy mindedness underlie group memberships and individuals' positions toward some of the moral issues of our times.
These fine lines which allow the perception of entities and categories (and thereby giving order and meaning to the chaotic experiences of everyday life) are largely social in origin. They create the boundaries between what's mine and yours, between "us" and "them," what's sacred and profane, and what's "real" and "unreal." One avenue of potential research can focus on the social construction of such lines of discrimination.
Consider the social construction of sensory distinctions.
For instance, take the case of the bottled-water industry. Observed Trish Hall:
Manufacturers are doing everything they can to convince drinkers that the
distinctions among substances formerly considered uniform are worth noting--and paying for.
...[One] company is trying to teach waiters the differences among waters, just as vintners have
had to illustrate the distinctions between chardonnay and Riesling ("You Had the Coffee and
Water? That'll Be $19.95." New York Times, Feb. 24, 1993).
Here we get into the power of those who can train a population's perceptual frameworks, the
contrast masters who produce major distinctions among previously uniform
essences. In marketing, for instance, there is "positioning"--the attempts to differentiate one's
own product from all related others. Once such boundaries are in place and categories made,
there is the tendency of individuals to see greater similarity between things within the same
category than may, in fact, be the case, and to likewise see greater differences between items in
different categories. Thus, as Zerubavel notes in the case of animal classifications, we see
greater similarity between a Great Dane and a Pekinese than between a Great Dane and a
Case studies in the creation of cognitive boundaries, in the social construction of conceptions of sameness and difference, could include:
When we observe nature we see what we want to see, according to what we believe we know about it at the time. Nature is disordered, powerful and chaotic, and through fear of the chaos we impose system on it. We abhor complexity, and seek to simplify things whenever we can be whatever means we have at hand
--James Burke, The Day the Universe Changed, p. 11
Envision a theoretical model where we take all social actors being, in effect, social theorists. Indeed, when you think about it, much of our everyday chatter deals with our theories and their predictiveness: "I told you that you would find that difficult course;" "Didn't you think she would know better than to date him?" Each of us has our personal operating theories about types of people, types of settings, and types of events. These cognitive schemas link otherwise diverse phenomena; our ideas do shape our experiences. And to the extent that individuals' personal theories are similar their behavior should be similar as well.
The practice of science of these everyday social scientists, however, is bad. For instance, give yourself thirty seconds to count the number of "F's" in this passage. How many did you find? Most of my colleagues counted three but my six- year-old found six. What does this mean to you given what we've said?
A great deal of what is perceived is, in actuality, inferred. Instead of using data from our social world to modify and improve our everyday theories of social life, we only seek or remember that which supports our world views as we often go through life "on automatic." In addition to seeing the world through our concepts and language, our perceptions are also biased by:
Another test (and no cheating). How truly observant are we in everyday life and what do we really remember? To what degree to we operate on "automatic"? Which one of these pennies has the correct design? Did you get it right? Most have trouble with this exercise. What does this mean?
A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.
--William James (1842-1910)
For those who do not think, it is best at least to rearrange their prejudices once in a while.
--Luther Burbank (1849-1926)
The personal theories that individuals carry in their minds range from the single- trait models (give me some feature of another person, such as their weight or generation, and I'll tell you everything that you want to know about that person--hence studies of court decisions showing that defendants judged to be unattractive being more likely to be judged guilty and to receive prison sentence than attractive ones) to full-blown ideologies that give order to and link wide-ranging political, economic, religious, and cultural phenomena. These include attitudes, which are collectively shared predispositions, states of anticipation, and relatively enduring organizations of affect, and stereotypes, which are those attitudes we hold to about categories of people. The connection between personal attitudes and behavior is, however, far from direct. See Andreas Schneider's analysis of LaPiere's 1934 field experiment.
Why is prejudice so hard to break? Because many stereotypes seem to be helpful in organizing our perceptions of the world, and that people tend to seek and remember those situations that reinforcing their stereotypes while avoiding those that do not.
Entering our cognitive calculus for understanding why certain people do certain things is the matter of their perceived choice in acting as they do. With high personal choice and freedom to act, people cannot easily deny them or avoid feeling responsibility for their behaviors. When inferring dispositions from others' behaviors, when individuals are perceived to have low exogenous pressures to act in a certain way, personally relevant and motivating behavior understood to be correlated with the explicitness of their behavior: "Why did Tommy throw that tantrum in class? He's an unruly child. He's that way in every class." However, what if all of the children were throwing tantrums in the classroom? Or what if Tommy's tantrums were confined only to one class?
Is it not interesting how many people choose to believe that their fate is shaped not by free will but rather by external agencies, such as beliefs in astrology? A 1993 NORC random survey of American adults found some 10 percent saying "definitely true" and another 42 percent saying that it was "probably true" that astrology has some scientific truth. Click here to see Americans beliefs in astrology by age and education.
In The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport argues that prejudices are often based on one's in-group. He believes that individuals have a natural tendency to form prejudices due to their normal tendencies to form simplified concepts and generalizations. Prejudices come in two flavors: love-prejudice (over-generalizing the virtues of one's in-group) and hate-prejudice (over-generalizing the evil of out-groups). Love-prejudice comes first; one must have family and friendship bonds before one can define out-groups or enemies. Those who reject one out-group are highly likely to reject other out-groups as well.
Allport suggests that we act upon our prejudice by first talking about our prejudices. Next we separate ourselves from the outgroup. Then we discriminate against the outgroup. Then the outgroup is physically attacked. Finally, the outgroup must be eliminated, which is the highest level of prejudiced action.
It is for these reasons that conspiracy theories are so prevalent and potent. In our attempts to explain extreme disjunctures between outcome and intent, to make sense of a world in which no one has much control, one of the easiest--and perhaps most natural-- logics for accounting for such events as wars, depressions, civil unrest, and perhaps even the "greenhouse effect" is to place the blame on the evil intentions of some coterie of powerful individuals or interests. Even UFO-flying aliens become fair game.