When the gods dance...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012



It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.

--Bertrand Russell

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:

  • those with four or more years of college are more than 20 percentage points more likely to agree than those with no more education than a high school diploma;
  • those strongly religious are more than twice as likely to disagree (25%) than those less religious (11%) and more than four times as likely than those with no religious affiliation (5%);
  • Fundamentalist Protestants are more likely (23%) to disagree than are moderate Protestants (14%), liberal Protestants (13%), and Catholics (11%);
  • those who place themselves on the conservative end of the political spectrum are more than twice as likely (24%) as liberals (11%) and moderates (10%) to disagree with the statement;
  • those agreeing that "women should take care of running their homes and leave running the country up to men" are more than twice as likely to disagree than are those disagreeing that women should stay home;
  • those disapproving of the legalization of euthanasia are nearly three times more likely to disagree "there are many shades of grays" than are those approving of euthanasia;
  • and those disapproving of a woman's right to an abortion "for whatever reason" are nearly three times as likely to disagree than those approving of a woman's right to choose.

In sum, rigid and fuzzy mindedness underlie group memberships and individuals' positions toward some of the moral issues of our times.

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