Social Behavior

By Leon Felkins

(Written November, 1994)

(Last Revision on 1/8/10)

Hard at Work! 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.]

Why we act the way we do

There is a very simple reason why people act the way they do and it is given by the following maxim:

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.]

How we can Modify Our own Behavior

Assuming that you have taken stock of the way your life is going and you're not real happy with it, how might you change it? Of course, this subject could fill a book (something like Harry Browne's How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World!) I will just try to hit some of the highpoints here.


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.

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