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The Psychology of Communication


12.2 The Person In Society

Psychology is too often the study of the person as if the person is not a part of society. Sociology is too often the study of society as if it does not consist of people. When I went to graduate school, therefore, I decided to study social psychology - that is, the study of the person in society.2

Alas, I wrote a doctoral thesis on deductive reasoning and thus fell into the traditional trap of studying the brain as if it acted in isolation. Earlier, I spoke about tabula rasa, the assumption that the brain is empty and is filled in from the outside by culture. A second error in traditional psychology has been tabula isola, the assumption that the brain acts in isolation. Sociologists have been making the opposite error, that is, the assumption that society can be studied as if it wasn't composed of people. The study of genes alone considers the person as if not a member of society; the study of memes alone considers society as if not composed of persons; only the study of genes-and-memes captures the person in society.

The models of communication presented in Chapters 2, 3, and 4 evolve from the behavioristic model, involving only input information, to the humanistic model, involving input and stored information, to the interactionist model, involving input, stored, and fedback information. However, all three models are mechanistic. The TOTE unit of the interactionist is, after all, inspired by the computer. The gene-meme analogy provides an organismic model. This model describes a culture as a network of people who can communicate with one another, because they share a system of memes.

This group can vary in size from our species as a whole to the small, intimate society of the family. Genetic studies have demonstrated that we are all one family, which spread out throughout our planet from East Africa over the last 60,000 or so years. Each of us can find out where we fit in this family by sending our DNA to the Genographic Project, conducted by National Geographic [WELLS S]. Men can trace the route out of Africa through the Y chromosome, which is passed on unchanged from father to son, and women can trace their route through mitachondrial DNA, which is passed on unchanged from mother to daughter [SYKES]. Communion within a species which shares genes is a firm foundation for communication within a world culture through shared memes piggy-backed on those shared genes. The World-Wide Web holds out the prospect of a superorganism [STOCK] or a global brain [RUSSELL]. Such "memes" are moving out of fiction into science.

The small society of the family is where we learn how to behave within the various cultures we move on to share with larger groups. Society begins at home. For example, trust, which is essential among social animals like ourselves, is initially learned in the family. Breakdown of the family is contributing to the crisis of trust. John Burnside, the Scottish poet, tells a story of his father inviting him to jump from a table into his arms, stepping back and letting him fall, saying "Dinna trust naebody" [BURNSIDE]. His father was obviously unclear on the concept of establishing trust within the family! Trust is tarnished every time a father fails to turn up as promised for a baseball game because he is too busy at work, and severely damaged when a divorced parent disappears entirely from the life of a child.

This does not necessarily mean that you should trust your parents even when they prove to be trustworthy. They (usually) have our best interests at heart. However, they are not always objective. If your mother thinks you are a great artist and your father that you are a great scientist, you may want to get a third opinion. Do you trust business people, lawyers, doctors, mass media, news announcers? Recent examples of corruption in business, in media, and even in clergy may make us hesitate.

This issue of trust is important in the psychology of communication. Communication settings could be classified by considering that both source and destination can be many or one. Within the resultant matrix (see Figure 13-1), three of those settings are found within the university - one-to-many (lecture), many-to-many (seminar), and one-to-one (tutorial). The missing setting, many-to-one, is the real-life situation of the student. S/he is inundated with information, often contradictory, from parents and friends, teachers and class-mates, authors and announcers. From time to time, some one may alert you to the need for good bullshit detectors or bummer-meters or whatever. Little attention is given to how to identify bullshit or, at a loftier level, who should we trust. Which sources should be trusted?

As argued above, we are social animals and thus trust is very important. Without trust, society will fall apart. Recent cases of corruption in business, government, and even religion have created a crisis of trust. Science is one of the few institutions that has retained trust.3 The science meme differs from ideological memes in containing the seeds of its own destruction. Hypotheses are designed to be dis-proven. Beautiful big theories can be destroyed by ugly little facts. Theory is constantly tested against reality. The meme, like the gene, will not survive if it does not "fit" its environment. Science can be seen as a competitive struggle between rival hypotheses in which only the "fittest" (i.e. which best fit the facts) survive.

The post-modern critics who have infiltrated the academy are nibbling away at this trust from the inside. They argue, for example, that science is just an ideology which merits no more status than any other ideology. They even criticize the meme of reality. However, the reality of an objective world out there is a hypothesis which has so far not been dis-proven, despite many empirical tests from Bishop Berkeley kicking a stone and getting feedback from reality to NASA sending astronauts to the moon and bringing them back alive.

The emphasis in evolutionary psychology on the social animal does not imply that we are never anti-social. In Opening Skinner's Box, Lauren Slater surveys the great psychological experiments of the twentieth century [SLATER]. Among those experiments were those by Stanley Milgram [MILGRAM] on obedience and Philip Zimbardo [ZIMBARDO] on simulated prison. Those experiments reveal that our species is very obedient to authority and very brutal if put in a position of authority. Slater points out that controls on psychological research would not permit such experiments to be conducted today.

Such ethical constraints on research are very important. However, one can not help suspecting that we are once again seeing a reluctance to accept the dark side of human nature. The innocuous questionnaire studies now permitted on such issues of authority would reveal only our comforting illusions about ourselves. What is now applauded is studies which reveal that violence is caused by television - thus allowing us to use a scapegoat for our shortcomings. How did we manage to have two world wars without television? In presenting us as a social animal, we should, with our emphasis on "social", not forget the "animal" which continues to fight for survival.

When Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man, he was essentially gloating about the victory of capitalism over socialism, when the Soviet Empire crumbled [FUKUYAMA]. He failed to mention that it was a Pyrrhic victory. Capitalism is based on greed and envy, whereas socialism is based on sharing and empathy. It is a sad reflection on human nature, therefore, that capitalism triumphed over socialism. Socialism failed because it assumes a more benign concept of human nature or simply ignored human nature altogether. We resist allegiance to any group larger than the family or the tribe, which is essentially a much-extended family. "Nations" like Yugoslavia and Iraq, cobbled together by the Treaty of Versailles without any respect for tribal rivalries, fell apart as soon as a strong central authority was removed. We want to own property rather than share it.

The social nature of our species is well illustrated by our latest technological extension of the nervous system, the internet. E-mail is, by far, the most popular on-line activity. People flock to the Internet as a meeting-place. A project conducted at GAMMA with a primitive version of the Internet - the Canadian videotext system - was entitled Agora 2. The original Agora, in ancient Athens at the foot of the Acropolis, was a market-place which became a meeting-place for Socrates and his students. This modern Agora is a meeting-place which is becoming, to the dismay of many of its residents, a market-place. A fine summary of The Psychology of the Internet [WALLACE] is largely about the SOCIAL Psychology of the Internet.

Edward O. Wilson continues his campaign to integrate the sciences in his more recent book Consilience: The Unity of Science [WILSON 1998]. The big gap is between the natural sciences (biology) and the social sciences (sociology), with psychology walking a tightrope between the two. Pat Duffy Hutcheon attributes the difficulty to the dualistic tradition in Western philosophy. Thus a distinction between the body and the mind permits us to consider body as part of natural science and mind as beyond the scope of science in the domain of philosophy and religion [HUTCHEON]. She traces a parallel and under-heralded alternative tradition of monism. This tradition permits a smooth flow from natural to social science.

Wilson teamed up with Charles Lumsden to develop a theory of gene-culture co-evolution [LUMSDEN & WILSON]. They invented the concept of "culturgen" as the basic unit of inheritance in cultural evolution to emphasize that nothing is purely genetically determined or purely environmentally determined. However, they argued that "the genes hold culture on a leash". Susan Blackmore disagrees [BLACKMORE]. Once genes have provided an environment for memes - the human brain, memes pushed for a bigger brain. This is not necessarily a good thing for the gene - a big brain is dangerous (mother in danger of dying in childbirth), it is inconvenient (child must be born prematurely), and it is expensive to maintain. Memetic pressure helps explain why we have much more brain than we really need merely to survive. Memes invade a brain and turn it into a mind.

Titles like Virus of the Mind and Media Virus mentioned above, use the meme-as-germ metaphor. We infect one another with viruses and parasites and must boost our immune system or disinfect ourselves with vaccines.4 This medical metaphor is useful to puncture our pomposity as we realize that we are mere vehicles for the propagation of selfish genes and memes. As a teacher, however, I prefer not to think of my career as spreading epidemics, with any original idea I may have created being merely evidence that I have started an epidemic of my own. Though I resist the gene-as-virus metaphor, I find myself tempted to use it in a certain situation. The person who had most influence on my scholarly career was J. J. Gibson, although I never understood what he was talking about. However, he was very excited about something (whatever it was) and I wanted to share that excitement. You could say that his enthusiasm was infectious.

The passing of a meme from mind to mind is usually attributed to imitation. The Oxford English Dictionary defines meme as "an element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation". Indeed, in a hunter-gatherer society, imitation is the major mechanism. Boys went hunting with their fathers and girls went gathering with their mothers. By serving as apprentices to their parents, they acquired the skills or hunting and gathering. However, as we moved into the more complex agricultural, industrial, and information societies, imitation gave way to communication. The old consciously passed on their knowledge to the young through teaching rather than having the young unconsciously acquire their knowledge through imitation. It is teaching rather than learning that best distinguishes us from the other animals. Although there may be a residue of imitation, as in the case of the influence of J. J. Gibson on me, the transmission of memes is now largely by teaching or teaching oneself (that is, learning). Further memes must be created before they can be imitated. Thus, innovation as well as imitation must play a role in memetics.

2   The only social psychologist I knew was Wallace Lambert at McGill University. I asked him which were the best universities to study social psychology. He said "University of Minnesota, University of Illinois, and my brother is at Cornell." "I didn't know you had a brother." "Yes, William Lambert.". "My name is William Lambert Gardiner and I believe in omens." Four years later, after being quizzed for three hours by six prominent psychologists about my thesis, William Lambert said to William Lambert Gardiner "Here's your Ph. D. - now go out and learn something and don't embarrass me!"

3   Bullshit-detector alert - I am a member of this institution and not therefore objective on this issue.

4   This meme-as-germ metaphor sometimes goes a bit far. One reviewer of The Tipping Point [GLADWELL] describes the connectors, mavens, and salesmen who spread ideas throughout a culture, according to Malcolm Gladwell, as "good sneezers of ideas".