Note: this section is under constant revision!
[OK, before you dismiss this as being so much 'Pop Psychology', let me beat you to the punch by admitting that, yes, this a layman's view of human social behavior. On the other hand, I have to point out that since the scientists in the field of human behavior have not had quite the success as, say, the physicists have had in explaining the behavior of our solar system, the field invites contributions by those of us who are yet "un-licensed"!
Still, if there are errors and misunderstandings here, I would appreciate knowing about them and if I agree with you, I will correct them.]
Maxim #1: Individuals tend to do the things they are rewarded for doing and tend to avoid the things they are punished for doing.
Before you discard this simple maxim as being too simple to be of any use, let me explain just a bit. For a given situation, this maxim puts you one step closer and in the right direction to understanding why people behave as they do. Let us try it on a simple example: Why do government employees waste money? If you want to know the answer to this then see if you can determine how government employees are rewarded and punished. You will then have the answer to your questions and you will find that government employees are just acting according to this maxim -- just as we would do if we were in their place.
Our responses to the environment[Note 0] and activities around us are determined by our current psychological and physiological makeup. While much could be said scientifically about this makeup, for convenience in this essay, I will classify these forces into two categories of controlling sources: "genes" and "memes". Genes are physical "blue prints" that determine our physical and mental make up. "Memes" is a word coined by Dr. Dawkins[Note 1] that I will use to represent the learned portion of the forces that guide our behavior. An analogy is most appropriate from the computer world: genes correspond to the hardware or the "ROM" - memes correspond to the software or the "programs". Genes and memes will be discussed briefly further on in this article but pointers to more detailed information are in the Common Sense section.
[At this point, I strongly recommend that you take a look at a supporting essay online here, called "Thoughts about the Thinking Process". It provides an in depth analysis of the workings of the mind that will help in understanding other concepts discussed here.]
"Accept your fate as the stream accepts the stream bed. The bed forms the stream; the stream forms the bed." William Markiewicz, in Extracts of ExistenceFollowing are a set of characteristics of humans that seem to be the major components that determine the way we (and other animals, more or less) behave.
While an individual's genetic preferences can't be changed, they can be ignored. The best example of that is probably the genetic sexual drives, many of which have been suppressed by memes.
Our internal programming reacts with our environment, in the same way a computer's program reacts with input, to determine what action we will take next.
An important difference in our makeup and the computer's makeup should be noted at this point. While the computer has no choice but to do exactly what it is told to do, we (and most other living things) have buffer zone between the external stimuli and our action. We don't automatically refill ourselves with food when our stomach runs near empty, but instead we are simply given an uncomfortable feeling. Our brain takes that "uncomfortable feeling", i.e., the hungry feeling, and combines it with a lot of other data and then decides whether we should eat or postpone it for something more important. The same goes for our other bodily functions, including having babies. For my take on this rather complex subject, see my essay, "Thoughts about the Thinking Process".
Memes and genes do change with time and the situation. Genes change, of course (by the process of evolution), but it takes centuries and many generations, whereas memes can change daily in response to changing circumstances. For example we may harbor the meme that humans will always act kindly to someone in distress until one day we actually see a human brutalize a person in distress. For most people, this particular meme will be discarded or at least modified.
Genes have been evolving for millions of years. They change very slowly. We are struggling today with emotions that evolved for the caveman.
Genes cause problems because they provide psychological directions for a particular situation that may no longer be appropriate.
A serious shortcoming of genes is that the controls and influences that they provide are simplistic. Our genes drive us to eat and store fat when doing so is likely to do more harm than good for many in today's world. The genetic drive to have sexual intercourse, so as to have more offspring, continues to function when having more children is likely to endanger the health of those already born, due to lack of food and resources.
Unfortunately, memes generate psychological forces and emotions that are just as powerful as genetic forces. Sexual and political mores best illustrate the power of memes -- both of which are the basis for a lot of grief for humans.
"Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish." Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
Generally, the actions we take, as we struggle through each day, are driven by self-interest. Much of our self-interest can be satisfied by direct individual action, but other self interest can only be satisfied by group collective action. An example of the first would be something like raising my own garden and an example of the second would be the provision of public roads. While the connection between reward and effort is straightforward with direct individual action, it is extremely confused and complex when it is achieved by collective action.
While self interest is the primary drive of the higher animals, including humans, it should be noted that humans also sometime take actions to help others without any apparent thought of personal reward. However, a case could be made that even these so called altruistic acts are ultimately selfish in that the acts tend to give the person doing the action a good feeling. Not only a direct individual action, but also a group collective action, an action for the "common good", can be classified as being selfish or altruistic. A particular collective activity, such as the sandbagging of a levee that is in danger of breaking, could be selfish for some (their own house is endangered) or altruistic for some (other people's houses or lives are endangered).
In summary, individual actions can be classified first as being selfish or altruistic and second as being a direct individual action or a group action. It is important to note that an action made in support of the group can be either selfish or altruistic.[Note 2]
According to the social scientists, while our genes would have us always looking after our own self interest, we can be taught to look after the interests of the group we belong to. For the most part, members of the animal kingdom are always acting selfishly. But there are exceptions. The ants, wasps and bees - the "social insects" seem to act for the group's best interest rather than the individual's interests. In particular, soldier ants routinely sacrifice their lives to save the colony. (Even this action can be explained in terms of pure selfishness -- selfishness of the genes. See Dawkins' book).
What about humans? Do we humans generally act to promote individual interest or do we act to promote the interest of the group (like the social insects)? The answer has to be "both", since we do not just follow our instincts but also are motivated by what we have learned.
While we are instinctively selfish, we can be taught to think and act altruistically. Selfish instincts are driven by our genes while altruistic activities are generally "meme" driven. Acting through the group for selfish reasons may also have some genetic motivation but is more likely driven by memetic forces.
In summary then, humans are always or nearly always acting selfishly. Accepting this fact of life will help you to put in proper perspective the actions of the government, the press, your fellow workers, and yourself. In particular -- as I will discuss in more detail in my essay on "Motivation" -- essentially all of the activities that the individuals in the government, the press, the universities, etc. are involved in, are being done for their own benefit -- not yours. That you may also benefit from their actions is of secondary importance to them.
"There is no absurdity so palpable but that it may be firmly planted in the human head if only you begin to inculcate it before the age of five, by constantly repeating it with an air of great solemnity."From the time we are born, we start learning how to deal with the world around us. We learn what is acceptable behavior and what is not. At first, we may be puzzled by some rules, but after a while we tend to just accept them and not worry about it. What we do know is there are rewards and punishments associated with doing things the way the family wants them done.
- Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
I quote from my friendly encyclopedia:
"Socialization is perhaps the most basic and important function of the family because it teaches its members the rules and expectations for behavior within a given society. Although families perform many functions, nurturant socialization is universal. This involves the care, protection, and nurturing of infants. It is doubtful whether infants could survive much less develop into mentally, physically, and socially healthy human beings outside the intimate network of the family.
The family not only is more permanent than other social institutions but also usually provides the care and love best suited to teaching children the skills, values, and norms of the society and subculture. Regardless of the excellence of hospitals, child-care centers, and nursery and elementary schools, they cannot perform the socialization and learning functions as satisfactorily as the well-adjusted family.
Excerpted from Comptonís Interactive Encyclopedia
Copyright © 1994, 1995 Comptonís NewMedia, Inc."
My own experience has confirmed to me that it is extremely important to be up front and honest with your children. It often results in tragedy when children can observe that their parents lead lives that are bogus and insincere. Children really need to have respect for others, especially their parents. It somehow helps their own character develop in a positive way.
The parents, quite typically, are themselves blindly following memes that result in the destruction of the family environment. They do what they have been told to do and thinking wasn't part of it!
Such is life at the dawn of the twenty first century.
Maxim #2: The actions of a group are simply the accumulated actions of the individuals making up the group.
Of course this is obvious: the secret is to use it when you are wondering why some groups act in ways you think are strange. If you want to know why "Congress" continues to spend us into oblivion, then examine the motivations to the individual congressman. You will have your answer and it will not be so complicated. The point is that it is pointless to worry about congress: instead determine what motivates congresspersons. Congress will follow.
Group behavior, then, is determined by the individuals in the group. [Note 3] The individuals in the group are influenced primarily by laws, propaganda (memes), economics and persuasion. Each of these methods will now be examined in detail.
"To live outside the law you must be honest." - Bob DylanLaws and the legal system that attempts to implement them have a major influence on our behavior. Most humans do not attach any ethical significance to laws. Rather, laws are often a codification of accepted ethics. In any case, we generally have no moral qualms about drinking liquor in an area in which it may be legally forbidden - we just concern ourselves with the possibility of being caught.
There are two factors involved in the decision to comply with a law: the probability of being successfully prosecuted and the punishment. A state may pass a law with significant punishment but with little chance of any prosecutions. An example would be a law against drinking in your own home on Sunday. Not much chance of a person getting caught and therefore would be ignored by most people. On the other hand the law against the writing of bad checks may have a relatively trivial punishment but you are most certain to get caught. So most people don't do it.
It is difficult to analyze the legal system because it is such a mess. Because there are so many laws - many of which are in conflict - it is difficult to know what the applicable laws are. Furthermore, the legal process is so messy that just getting involved in it is a rather severe punishment in itself. This results in much injustice since many people will violate their principles and avoid a confrontation even when they are right, to simply avoid the legal process. "Winning" the case could still result in an expenditure of a lot of money and time - some of which could even be spent in jail! The best examples of this kind of legal confusion and fraud are the cases brought against the citizens based on the so-called "asset forfeiture" laws.
Laws and their prosecution vary a great deal between nations and even between different areas of the United States.
We, the public, employ thousands of people (the entire legislative arm of the government) to just create laws. In a rational world you would have to conclude that we have somehow decided that our present laws are not adequate and they are so bad that we need thousands of full time employees working constantly trying to create better laws. Where did that concept come from? Will we ever get enough laws? Is there a possibility that more laws will only make things worse. Do we know that these people are better qualified to make laws than the last crew we had?
Unfortunately, this is not a rational world and we actually have never made those decisions. All those people in congress are there because they want to be. And we don't have a clue as to what we can do about it - if anything. (See my "Helpless" essay.)
But the problem is that laws are created by people! Anytime you have people involved you're going to have corruption. It is unavoidable.
The fact that laws are often stupid and do not solve the problem is a serious issue that will be explored further in another part of this essay. What I would like to point out here is that there is a cost for every law and that cost often exceeds the benefit. The reason this is so is that the law and the associated sacrifice applies to all citizens while the crime the law is supposed to prevent only affects a few citizens.
Let me give you a simple example. A common solution applied by a frustrated leader is to punish the whole group for the crime of an individual when apparently the individual will remain unknown. We all know examples of this from the military, schools, and government. A teacher might warn the class that the next time a dirty word is found written on the wall, the whole class will stay 5 hours after school. The good is that the perpetrator is punished; the bad is that the punishment received by the whole class far exceeds that good.
Our lawmakers do the same thing. They pass laws to punish the drug dealer but which end up frustrating everyone's constitutional rights. The cost of the law is the loss to each individual multiplied by the number of individuals. The gain is the punishment to the drug dealers multiplied by the number of drug dealers. The cost exceeds the benefit by monstrous proportions!
Another example: Suppose that the government passes a law that says that an accused wife abuser can be immediately thrown in jail without due process (it has happened!) The fact that all of us now have this threat over our heads that can be used by any unscrupulous person to make serious trouble for us far exceeds the value gained in getting a timely punishment for the real wife-beater.
An excellent example is the Forfeiture laws that were invoked supposedly to help in the drug war have cost all of us dearly in the loss of what we thought were constitutionally guaranteed rights. It will be difficult to regain these rights.
Laws vary considerably as you move from state to state. What is to be made of that? Could there possibly be a rational reason why the sale of intoxicating liquors is ok in one place but not in another? In some states, the situation varies from county to county. Is there something in the terrain, or the residents of one county to require a different law than another county?
Well, no. And therefore, we can only conclude that laws are arbitrary and not necessarily rational. At best they are the codification of the "morals" of the people in a particular area with no particular universal application.
The web page, "Bibliography of Theoretical Criminology" is a very comprehensive listing of material on this subject, both in printed form and internet accessable.
There is an interesting flow chart available from the US Department of Justice that shows the general process of "criminal justice", at least at the federal level. You can download a version from their site or order a paper copy. Another version that is interactive "html" is at the Justice Reseach Association.
Yet another page sponsored by DOJ, provides the above chart in interactive form with text supporting each block, explaining its function.
Going to the other extreme, there is a page explaining justice at the county level at the Cheshire County Administration (New Hampshire) page. Look for the section called "Corrections Master Plan".
The classic on crimes and punishments, "ON CRIMES AND PUNISHMENTS", by CESARE BECCARIA, written 1764, online at http://www.crimetheory.com/Archive/Beccaria/, is about as good of explanation of the connection between uncertainty and crime as you will find.
See also an excellent summary of the theory of criminal justice in the online paper, "Thinking About Crime" by James Q. Wilson at the Atlantic site.
Of course politicians use the power of memes to keep us in line. Political memes are usually referred to as propaganda and is used by all governments. We are well educated as to how the 'bad' governments such as the Nazis and the Communists use memetic control but little is said about how the 'good', democratic, governments use such methods. It is reasonable that democratic governments actually have more need for memetic control than do the dictatorships.
This list is, by no means, complete.
The USA and many other of the highly developed democracies of the world have been very successful in establishing this meme.
There are a number of factors in explaining why humans, as a class, are often accused of being stupid:
What your genes haven't a clue on is even more frightening. Things like, television, explicit violence and sex -- visually and audibly presented by movies and television, slick preachers with a pitch precisely tuned to appeal to your most primitive senses, psychiatrists playing with your mental peculiarities, etc. etc. The genetically determined aspects of our personality are quite confused by all this so the memes must pick up the challenge. But memes have the potential of being a total disaster. As we discuss in other parts of this document, memes are used by self-appointed leaders to control humans to their way of doing things. Others, often in influential positions (teachers, reporters, bureaucrats, etc.) are infected by these memes and spread them further. When this happens, we have "the blind leading the blind".
Genes also are not going to help you in dealing with the rapid technological advancement. Genes are of little help in such problems as how to program your VCR. In itself, this is not such a big deal. The problem is that not being able to program our VCR makes us feel stupid. And when we have to call the repairman and he says that the problem is that your transvidicron has munged the vendatris and it is going to cost you $200, you haven't a clue as to what the hell he is talking about. You are totally at his mercy and you sure as hell ain't comfortable about that. No wonder there is so much frustration and feelings of inadequacy. It is not healthy.
The bad is that we are totally incapable of understanding how these things work and must depend on these whizzes to get by in everyday life. It is often said that we live in a technical or scientific age. Maybe so, but that doesn't mean all of us know what is going on. Most of us don't have a clue. Most of us are still in the stone age as far as what we know about what is going on.
Individuals tend to do the things they are rewarded for doing and tend to avoid the things they are punished for doing.
News media people are, like the rest of us, looking after their own agenda. The news media is a highly profitable operation and it is driven by profits - not idealism for the truth. The "anchor persons" you see on the evening news are actors selected by the managers of these huge corporation's to maximize the corporation profits. Does this affect the news you get? Well, of course.
Basically, we get what we want to hear. How else could it be in a free market? There does seem to be a liberal bias in the press, more than what can be justified by market forces, or so it seems.
So what do we of the ignorant masses want to hear and see? Garbage mostly. We want to be entertained more than educated. We could get a better ratio of information to entertainment if we would watch public television, which of course we stay away from in droves.
The television newscaster would not survive if she gave us straight factual reporting without embellishments. She must give us the sensational, the "feel goods" and the pleasant personality if she expects to keep her job.
Logical thinking is not going to give you an answer to every problem, by no means. What it will do, though, is tell you when there is no known answer. For example, logical analysis will not tell you how it is that radio waves can travel through a vacuum but instead, it will leave you with the conclusion that we just don't know.
You might want to avoid the mindless computer "action" games and instead play games that exercise your logical ability. Like chess, for instance. I'm not a big fan of computer games, but I would bet that there are several that would exercise your brain.
Learn to be skeptical. When the TV advertising person says, "You know our cold medicine is better because it has an awful taste!", think about it before you let it into your brain. What has taste got to do with how well a cold medicine can relieve symptoms? When the TV newspersons makes derogatory remarks about one political candidate and praises another, think about it. Why is she making subjective comments in the first place? She is suppose to only be reporting facts. Further, what qualifications does she have over you on such matters? She's just an actor.
Replace your meme driven actions with actions based on logic. Learn a little bit about the science of "Decision Making" -- it might help.
The Scientific Method is based on the use of logic. Logic provides the structure that allows comparison of competing ideas and rejection of those that do not fit a consistent and rigid structure. Science and knowledge advances when people can discuss and argue about concepts, using the framework of logic. Without that framework,we make little progress and may actually regress.
If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things. - Rene Descartes Principles of PhilosophyIf you are an adult (you decide what an adult is) then you need to take inventory of all your beliefs, call them up one by one, and subject them to a sanity test. You have nothing to lose by doing this, you know. I'm not saying that you should chunk your beliefs -- just take a look at them and see if they make sense. If then don't, trash them.
For example, maybe you have always believed that you should be a Republican. Your family are all Republicans and many of your friends. But you don't want to just be a Republican just on blind faith or custom. That's being dishonest -- mainly to yourself. If being a Republican is good, then it will survive a careful evaluation.
So, you study the policies and activities of Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and whatever. Maybe you decide that in the big picture, it really doesn't make much difference. So, you look at other things. Your family is Republican, your friends are Republicans, there's a nice Republican Social club nearby, etc. In view of these other factors, you might decide that being a Republican is still best for you. Fine, now you have made a rational choice instead of living with a choice that someone else made for you.
Continue on with this process until you have examined every belief that your community, your school, your family, and your friends have stuffed into your mind and decide on each whether they are worth keeping or not.
'The classical formula "I am me plus my circumstance" means that you can neither divorce yourself nor divorce your circumstances. You can only operate with whatever is within you and around you.' William Markiewicz in Extracts of Existence
"Take what you have gathered from coincidence." Bob Dylan in the song, "It's all Over now, Baby Blue"Each of us is a product of random selection. In spite of what you have heard all your life, the concept of "fairness" is unknown by nature or reality. The talents you received were pulled from a grab-bag by a blind man (see The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins). Consider the following experiment. Fill a large pail with an equal number of white and black marbles. Mix up thoroughly. Have several of your friends come up and draw 8 marbles without looking. Now examine what they each got. A few will get half and half (about 27%), others will get more or less than 50-50. Some might even get all black balls (about .4%). Call it luck or call it probability, what your friends will draw will certainly not be the same.
And such is life. What talents you have, what personality you have, where you were born and your ability to comprehend complex arguments will be determined by the luck of the draw. Given that, now we can understand why it is so terribly wrong to teach that we are "all created equal". What a terrible burden and guilt trip that concept puts on those who drew too many "black balls". It would be so much better if we taught our young to "make the best of the hand you were dealt".
Yes, continuing on with our allegory, life is much like a one shot stud poker game. We are each dealt a hand. No matter how much we would like for the hands to be equal the chance of that happening is very remote. In fact there will be good hands, bad hands, average hands, and even disastrous hands. Which leaves only one thing to do: play the hand you have been dealt to the best of your ability! To sit around and whine about your lousy hand is to play your hand badly. A skilled poker player can still win with a lousy hand. Really, you have no other choice.
This, of course, implies making rational choices about how you live your life. That is not necessarily a settled choice, it turns out. See my essay, "Rational: To be or not to be?" where I make the point that to decide to be rational first requires that you are rational enough to make such a decision!.
And that, my friend, leads us to a deep philosophical question that is rarely discussed. Which is, "How much control do we have over our lives? Any?" Bob Dylan's quotes suggests that at least much if not all we have in life comes from coincidence. Well it certainly does to some of us and a good argument to the contrary is very hard to find.
What we are having to confront here is the age-old philosophical and religious controversy; determinism vs. free will. Actually, we need not get into the full argument, but instead we are concerned with an issue sort of on the edge. That is, we are not going to say that a person does not have "free will"; instead our argument here is that every thing that we have to make those free will choices came to us by "coincidence" as Dylan so poetically claims.
A rather complete argument on exactly the claim I am making here was presented by Mark Twain a long time ago in the book, What is Man?. My own views on the subject are presented in the essay, "DETERMINISM, TIME, ETC.", online, which I encourage you to read and therefore it is not necessary to repeat here except for this quote:
The same problem in slightly different clothes is the puzzlement of our own personality and development. I have always maintained that we can take no pride in what or who we are as we basically have nothing to do with it. We are a product of the luck of the draw. The circumstances of our birth, it is my belief, completely determine our lives. Of course, I had nothing to do with determining the situation of my birth, but neither did I have anything to do with the rest of the environment that has been presented to me throughout my life.
Note 0: What I mean by environment is the external world -- which is everything except yourself, maybe even everything except your mind.
Note 1: The term "meme" was introduced in Chapter 11 of Dr. Richard Dawkins' book, The Selfish Gene. See my page, "Common Sense" for online and paper references.
Note 2: A good case can be made from the theory of evolution that altruism simply cannot survive in the company of selfish individuals. See the paper by Ilan Eshel, Larry Samuelson, and Avner Shaked, "Altruists Egoists and Hooligans in a Local Interaction Model". A very thorough treatment of this issues is contained in the book, The Origins of Virtue, by Matt Ridley.
Note 3: This should not be confused with the conclusion that acting in the individual's interest results in achieving the group's interest. In fact, just the opposite is likely to happen. That is, an individual rational choice may be an irrational choice for the group. See the section on Social Dilemmas for an explanation on why this usually does not happen.