Heylighen, F., Lenartowicz, M., Kingsbury, K., Beigi, S., Harmsen, T. . Social Systems Programming I: neural and behavioral control mechanisms
‘Social systems can be defined as autopoietic networks of distinctions and rules that specify which actions should be performed under which conditions. Social systems have an enormous power over human individuals, as they can “program” them, ..’ [draft p 1]. DPB: I like the summary ‘distinctions and rules’, but I’m not sure why (maybe it is the definitiveness of this very small list). I also like the phrase ‘which actions .. under which conditions’: this is interesting because social systems are ‘made of’ communication, which in turn is ‘made of’ signals, which in turns are built up from selections of utterances &c., understandings and information. The meaning is that information depends on its frame, namely its environment. And so this phrase above makes the link between the communication, rule-based systems and the assigning of meaning by (in) a system. Lastly these social mechanisms hold a strong influence over humans, even up to the point of damaging themselves. This paper is about the basic neural and behavioral mechanisms used for programming in social systems. This should be important for my landscape of the mind, and familiarization.
Humans experience a large influence from many different social systems on a daily basis: ‘Our beliefs, thoughts and emotions are to an important extent determined by the norms, culture and morals that we acquired via processes of education, socialization and communication’ [p 1]. DPB: this resonates with me, because of the choice of the words ‘beliefs’ and ‘thoughts’: these must nicely match the same words in my text, where I explain how these mechanisms operate. In addition I like this phrase because of the concept of acquisition, although I doubt that the word ‘communication’ above is used in the sense of Luhmann. This is not easy to critique or even to realize that these processes are ‘social construction’ and difficult to understand them to be so (the one making a distinction cannot talk about it). Also what is reality in this sense: is it what would have been without the behavior based on these socialized rules or the behavior as-is (the latter I guess)? ‘Social systems can be defined as autopoietic networks of distinctions and rules that govern the interactions between individuals’ (I preferred this one from the abstract: which actions should be performed under which conditions, DPB). The distinctions structure reality into a number of socially sanctioned categories of conditions, while ignoring phenomena that fall outside these categories. The rules specify how the individuals should act under the thus specified conditions. Thus, a social system can be modeled as a network of condition-action rules that directs the behavior of individuals agents. These rules have evolved through the repeated reinforcement of certain types of social actions’ [p 2]. DPB: this is a nice summary of how I also believe things work: rule- based systems – distinctions (social categories) – conditions per distinction – behavior as per the condition-action rules – rules evolve through repeated reinforcement of social actions. ‘Such a system of rules tends to self-organize towards a self-perpetuating configuration. This means that the actions or communications abiding by these rules engender other actions that abide by these same general rules. In other words, the network of social actions or communications perpetually reproduces itself. It is closed in the sense that it does not generate actions of a type that are not already part of the system; it is self-maintaining in the sense that all the actions that deifne parts of the system are eventually produced again (Dittrich & Winter, 2008). This autopoiesis turns the social system into an autonomous, organism-like agent, with its own ideintity that separates it from its environment. This identity or “self” is preserved by the processes taking place inside the system, aand therefore actively defended against outside or “non-self” influences that may endanger it’ [p 2]. DPB: this almost literally explains how cultural evolution takes place. This might be a good quote to include and cut a lot of grass in one go! Social systems wield a powerful influence over people, up to the point of acting against their own health. The workings of social systems is likened to parasites such as the rabies virus which ‘motivates’ its host to become aggressive and bite others such as to spread the virus. ‘We examine the simple neural reinforcement mechanism that is the basis for the process of conditioning whilst also ensuring self-organization of social systems’ (emphasis by the author) [p 3]. DPB: very important: this is at the pivot where the human mind is conditioned such that it incites (motivates) it to act in a specific way and where the self-organization of the social system occurs. This is how my bubbles / situations / jobs work! An element of this process is familiarization: the neural reinforcement mechanism.
The Power of Social Systems
In the hunter gatherer period, humans lived in small groups and individuals could come and go as they wanted to join or form a new group [p 3]. DPB: I question whether free choice was involved in those decisions to stay or leave – or whether they were rather kicked out – and if it was a smooth transfer to other bands – or whether they lost standing and had to settle for a lower rank in a new group. ‘These first human groupings were “social” in the sense of forming a cooperative, caring community, but they were not yet consolidated into autopoietic systems governed by formal rules, and defined by clear boundaries’ [p 4]. DPB: I have some doubts because it sounds too idealistic / normal; however, if taken for face value then this is a great argument to illustrate the developing positions of Kev and Gav against. In sharp contrast are the agricultural communities: they set themselves apart from nature and other social systems, everything outside of their domain fair game for exploitation, hierarchically organized, upheld with symbolic order: authorities, divinities paid homage to with offerings, rituals, prescriptions and taboos. In the latter society it is dangerous to not live by the rules: ‘Thus, social systems acquired a physical power over life and death. As they evolved and refined their network of rules, this physical power engendered a more indirect moral or symbolic power that could make people obey the norms with increasingly less need for physical coercion’ [p 4]. DPB: I always miss the concept of ‘autopolicing’ in the ECCO texts. Individuation of a social system: 1. a contour forms from first utterances in a context (mbwa!) 2. these are mutually understood and get repeated 3. when outside the distinction (norm) there will be a remark 4. autopolicing. Our capacity to cognize depend on the words our society offer to describe what we perceive: ‘More fundamentally, what we think and understand is largely dependent on the concepts and categories provided y the social systems, and by the rules that say which category is associated with which other category of expectations or actions’ [p 5]. DPB: this adds to my theory the idea that not only the rules for decision making and for action depend on the belief systems, namely the memeplexes, but also people’s ‘powers of perception’.
How Social Systems Impede Self-actualization
Social rules govern the whole of our worldview, namely our picture of reality and our role within it (emphasis DPB re definition worldview): ‘They tell us which are the major categories of existence (e.g. mind vs. body, duty vs. desire), what properties these categories have (e.g. mind is insubstantial, the body is inert and solid, duty is real and desire is phantasmagoric), and what our attitudes and behaviors towards each of these categories should be (e.g. the body is to be ignored and despised, desire is to be suppressed)’ [p 5]. DPB: I like this because it gives some background to motivations; however, I believe they are more varied than this and that they do not only reflect the major categories but everything one can know (or rather believe). They are just-so in the sense that they can be (seen or perceived as) useful for something like human well-being or limiting for it. They are generally tacit and believed to be universal and so it is difficult to know which of the above they are. ‘.. these rules have self-organized out of distributed social interactions. Therefore, there is no individual or authority that has the power to change them or announce them obsolete. This means that in practice we are enslaved by the autopoietic social system: we are programmed to obey its rules without questioning’ [ p6]. DPB: I agree, there is no other valid option than that from a variety of just-so stories a few are selected that are more fitting with the existing ones. For people it may now appear that these are the more useful ones, but the used arguments serve a mere narrative that explains why people do stuff, lest they appear to do stuff without knowing why. And as a consequence the motivation to do things only if they serve a purpose is itself meme that tells us to act in this way especially vis a vis others, namely to construct a narrative such that this behavior is explained. The rules driving behavior can be interpreted more or less strictly: ‘Moreover, some rules (like covering the feet) tend to be enforced much less strictly than others (like covering the genitals)‘ [p 6]. DPB: hahaa: Fokke & Sukke. Some of the rules that govern a society are allowed some margin of interpretation and so a variety of them exist; others are assumed to be generally valid, and hence they are more strictly interpreted, exhibiting less variety, leaving people unaware that they are in fact obeying a rule at all. As a consequence of a particular rule being part of a much larger system they cannot be easily changed, especially because the behavior of the person herself is – perhaps unknowingly – steered by that rule or system of rules. In this sense it can be said to hinder or impede people’s self-actualization. ‘The obstruction of societal change and self-actualization is not a mere side effect of the rigidity of social systems; it is an essential part of their identity. An autopoietic system aims at self-maintenance. Therefore, it will counteract any processes that threaten to perturb its organization (Maturana& Varela, 1980, Mingers, 1994). In particular, it will suppress anything that would put into question the rules that define it. This includes self-actualization, which is a condition generally characterized by openness to new ideas, autonomy, and enduring exploration (Heylighen, 1992; Maslow, 1970). Therefore, if we wish to promote self-actualization, we will need to better understand how these mechanisms of suppression used by social systems function’ [p 7]. DPB: I fully agree with the mechanism and I honestly wonder if it is at all possible to know one’s state of mind (what one has been familiarized with in one’s life experience so far, framed in the current environment), and hence if it is possible to self-actualize in a different way from what the actual state of mind (known or not) rules.
Reinforcement: reward and punishment
Conditioning, or reinforcement learning, is a way to induce a particular behavior. Behavior rewarded with a pleasant stimulus tends to be repeated, while behavior punished by an unpleasant stimulus tends to be suppressed. The more often a combination of the above occurs, the more will the relation be internalized, such that it can take the shape of a condition-action (stimulus-response) rule. This differential or selective reinforcement occurs in a process of socialization; the affirmation need to be a material reward, a simple acknowledgement and confirmation suffices (smile, thumbs up, like!); these signals suffice for the release of dopamine in the brain. ‘Social interaction is a nearly ubiquitous source of such reinforcing stimuli. Therefore, it has a wide-ranging power in shaping our categorizations, associations and behavior. Maintaining this dopamine-releasing and therefore rewarding stimulation requires continuing participation in the social system. That means acting according to the system’s rules. Thus, social systems program individuals in part through the same neural mechanisms that create conditioning and addiction. This ensures not only that these individuals automatically and uncritically follow the rules, but that they would feel unhappy if somehow prevented from participating in this on-going social reinforcement game. Immediate reward and punishment are only the simplest mechanisms of reinforcement and conditioning. Reinforcement can also be achieved through rewards or penalties that are anticipated, but that may never occur in reality’ (emphasis by the author) [ p 8].
The power of narratives
People are capable of symbolic cognition and they can conceive of situations that have never occurred (to them): ‘These imagined situations can function as “virtual” (but therefore not less effective) rewards that reinforce behavior’ [p 8]. Narratives (for instance tales) feature tales where the characters are punished or rewarded for their specific behavior. Social systems exploit people’s capacity of symbolic cognition using narratives, and hence build on the anticipatory powers of people to maintain and spread. ‘Such narratives have the advantage that they are easy to grasp, remember and communicate, because they embed abstract norms, rules and values into sequences of concrete events experienced by concrete individuals with whom the audience can easily empathize (Bruner, 1991; Heylighen, 2009; Oatley, 2002). In this way, virtual rewards that in practice are unreachably remote (like becoming a superstar, president of the USA, or billionaire) become easy to imagine as realities’ (emphasis by the author) [p 9]. Narratives can become more believable when communicated via media, celebrities, scripture deemed holy, &c.
Reinforcement is more effective when it is repeated more often. Given that social systems are self-reproducing networks of communications (Luhmann, 1995), the information they contain will be heard time and again. Conformist transmission means that you are more liable to adopt an idea, behavior or a narrative if you are communicated it by more other individuals; once adopted you are more likely to convert others to it and to confirm it when others express it. DPB: I agree and I never thought of this in this way: once familiarized with it, then not only can one become more convinced of an idea, but also can one become more evangelical about it. In that way an idea spreads quicker if it is more familiar to more people who then talk about it simultaneously. Now it can become a common opinion; and at that point it becomes more difficult to retain other ideas, up to the point that direct observation can be overruled. Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet exist!
Cognitive dissonance and institutionalized action
People have a preference for coherence in thought and action: ‘When an individual has mutually inconsistent beliefs, this creates an unpleasant tension, known as cognitive dissonance; this can be remedied by rejecting or ignoring some of these thoughts, so that the remaining ones are consistent. This can be used by the social systems to suppress non-conformist ideas by having a person act in accordance with the rules of the social system but conflicting with the person’s rules: the conformist actions cannot be denied and now the person must cull the non-conformist ideas to release tensions [p 10]. ‘This mechanism becomes more effective when the actions that confirm the social norms are formalized, ritualized or institutionalized, so that they are repeatedly and unambiguously reinforced’ [p 10]. DPB: an illustration is given from [Zizek 2010]: by performing the rituals one becomes religious, because the rituals are the religion. This is an example of a meme: an expression of the core idea; conversely by repeating the expression one repeats the core idea also, and thereby familiarizes oneself with that idea as it becomes reinforced in one’s mind. But that reminds me of the idea of the pencil between the lips making a person happier (left to right) or unhappy (sticking forward). And to top it off: ‘Indeed, the undeniable act of praying to God can only be safeguarded from cognitive dissonance by denying any doubts you may have about the existence of God. This creates a coherence between inner beliefs and socially sanctioned actions, which now come to mutually reinforce each other in an autopoietic closure’ [p 10]. DPB: this is the role of dogma in any belief system: the questions that cannot be asked, the nogo areas, &c.