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Cultural Psychology | curated by Kevin Goodman

Demarcating Social Class as Subcultures


India’s well-known Varna caste system may, according to some scholars, be a colonial exaggeration. In Indian society, Brahmins are the highest caste—a born priestly caste—below which there are three other castes (noble warriors, tradesmen, and merchants) alongside the casteless untouchables. In reality, there are thousands of Jāti—clans and tribes—to which the English, and later colonial Indians, interpretively superimposed upon them the broad Varna caste system. Thus, many tribes or clans might be described as Brahmin (e.g. Nambudiri Brahmins) but such distinctions may be rather arbitrary and adamantly debated amongst the tribes they describe. The Jāti—I have read—don’t necessarily consider supposedly higher classed Jāti as superior but often do consider their own clan superior. I imagine it as something of the classic latent virtue proposition of one’s own social role; for instance, a mason might insist that working with the hands is honest work—a proposition that presupposes that otherwise is more likely immoral or corruptible.

The Indian caste system has evolved through cultural conventions but statuses and status groups seem inherent to the human social condition, at least in regards to societies possessing any type of economic surplus on which to organize a community. Economic statuses are eventually legitimized through symbolic means, which gives rise to cultural capital and which inadvertently can stand outside of economic capital after elitist cultural conventions become entrenched in a given society. The classification of Jāti as caste divisions is an example of cultural capital to those groups that symbolically gain from such classification. But even without the Varna caste division, Jāti, which regularly interact with one another have developed specific and complex statuses amongst one another organically and independent of the broader Varna caste conventions. Such seems the natural nature of intergroup societies. Such a proposition isn’t new, it’s understood within the scheme of social identity theory, which proposes that an individual’s self-esteem is achieved by perceived and salient social classifications against downward comparisons.

But it serves well to demarcate the fact that there is no such thing as a unified upper class or unified class of any sort. There are social cliques that may have an upper or middle class feel by nature of their dominance or influence over other classes but in reality might be quite different from other cliques that fall within the same broad class division. For instance, it’s possible to find old middle-class WASP families which carry the virtue and memory of Anglo-Saxon Americana and as such possess influence and cultural capital as to be comparable in influence to an upper class but are yet distinct from an intellectually inclined upper class that supports different values and aesthetics, “progress,” for example. Significant aesthetic differences might mark such groups; for instance, a preference for classic art vs. contemporary art. I reference such groups as generic models, presupposing there are many other “cliques” that fall along subcultural divisions and contradict the values and conventions of other social-economic peer groups as to stand on their own but deserve, nonetheless, designation as belonging to an “upper class” or “upper-middle class,” by virtue of their social and or economic influence.

Defining class in terms of economic capital is elusive. Though Marxist theorists might insist the upper class—the bourgeoisie—hold the only effective power in capitalistic culture (until the proletariat become organized), there remain many groups that exercise effective power by means other than economics—culturalists, artists, ideologues, traditional elites, and intellectuals are such examples and even public servants sometimes wield tremendous political and military influence while possessing modest personal economic means. It might be arguable that all such class divisions serve the grand bourgeoisie scheme of things but such broad sweeping claims seems to detract from the possible insights that might be gleamed from studying “status groups” as specific cultural entities nested in complex intergroup/intersubcultural societies as opposed to broad class divisions.

In short, I believe it would be much more insightful to study actual “cliques” “subcultures” or “groups” and carry out-network analysis, working out detailed descriptions of relationships and dynamics rather than to broadly sweep all affluent cliques into a single grand classification or two. For instance, earlier, I used the example of middle-class WASP that retain upper-class cultural capital but such distinction may STILL be rather arbitrary as even WASP values are a matter of historical interpretation. And though history should serve analysis, it would be more useful (on an empirical scheme) to find an actual group—The Social Register, a Country Club, Executive’s Club, or the affluent of a small town—then begin tracing networks, describing relationships, dynamics, and subcultural distinctions, intergroup communications and significations. In doing so I suspect we’ll find that broad classifications are somewhat artificial, while actual cliques are real, distinct, and specific.

–a purely theoretical note on methodology–

I do not deny the dynamics of a general human nature but rather insist on discovery from the bottom up, after which theoretical classification can be made by broad and careful comparisons.  In other words, I place greater scientific stature on social theory developed by careful analysis of specific phenomenon (e.g. intergroup status negotiations) than on theory developed by historical introspection of society as a sum.  Focusing on specific phenomenon allows for the recognition of specific behaviors that may be inherent to the general human condition; only once the evolutionarily dispositions of Homo sapiens are known can the emergent properties of human social nature be reasonably ascertained. Though social properties are not reducible to individual or psychological properties, such properties make social phenomena possible; without knowing the nature of the individual it’s impossible to know the adaptive purpose of any social phenomena as it bears on the individual or the propagation of the individual’s genetics (and from the perspective of the Darwinian social-cultural psychologist, the propagation of culture, which is presumably in the service of biology).

A Gene-Culture Coevolutionary and Sociological Defense of Terror Management


Terror management theory is an influential theory of human motivation in social psychology. The theory posits that symbolic thought processes give rise to a foresight of death–previously nonexistent in the animal kingdom on a reflective level–and that this awareness of mortality brings with it an existential anxiety (both explicit and implicit), which was, and is, felt so greatly that it requires buffering for the sake of psychological functionality. Culture is the buffer. The theory is rooted in the propositions of the late anthropologist, Enest Becker. Social psychologists Tom Psszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg adopted and adapted Becker’s hypotheses in an attempt to understand why humans have a need for self-esteem. According to terror management, humans acquire self-esteem by investing in worldviews and excelling in some aspect of their culture; an impulse motivated by existential anxiety.

While Ernest Becker’s work was theoretical, social psychology brought an experimental paradigm to the study of existential anxiety. The typical terror management experiment makes mortality salient to an experimental group against a control group and then forces participants to make judgments about other people who have similar or dissimilar worldviews. When mortality is salient, participants show a stronger preference for individuals who share similar worldviews and make harsher judgments against those who hold different worldviews. The implication is that mortality salience motivates cultural investment. Terror management researchers now claim over three thousand experiments in support of their hypotheses.

Evolutionary theorists have challenged terror management theory over the theory’s emphasis on preservation over genetic propagation. The originators of terror management theory typically respond to criticism by pointing out the strength of their experimental evidence and by arguing that competing explanations don’t offer as parsimonious an explanation of that evidence.

Here I offer a casual but extended theoretical defense of terror management theory on the auspice that it explains a potential mechanism for altruism and cultural propagation.

Extending Cognition

Psszczynski, Solomon, and Greenberg claim in their book, In The Wake of 9/11, that the symbolic self—a cultural construct—is existentially threatened by any differing worldview as an individual’s sense of self is derived from their worldview beliefs. This is an implicit recognition that humans internalize external objects that are significant to them—whether it is other persons, artifacts, or shared beliefs—to the extent that important objects are felt as an extension of self.

The implication here is that the human sense of self extends beyond biology. The symbolic self often takes priority because the culturally situated symbolic self is the source of much needed self-esteem. Terror management theory is not inconsistent with the fact that people sometimes—arguably often–sacrifice their lives altruistically, and not so altruistically, for ideology.

Given an extended-self interpretation of terror management theory, the impulse for survival, though motivated by an implicit understanding of mortality, is projected on a symbolic-self that is situated in culture. This interpretation of terror management theory is conducive to multi-level selection. Reframed: terror management theory isn’t hindered in terms of evolutionary theory by its focus on self-preservation (over genetic propagation); in fact, terror management theory provides motive for cultural propagation, which is likely in the service of genetic propagation at the group level.

Cultural Evolution

The importance of culture in human evolution is self-evident; yet, it is easy to forget that culture is emergent of biology but not significantly restricted by it.  Evolutionary neuroscientist Merlin Donald even denies symbolic culture’s innateness to the individual neurosystem.

There is no evidence for their (human neural systems) having innate quasi-symbolic programming… Rather, the brain is filled with many parallel analog impression-forming networks, each of which has a high degree of redundancy in design… Symbols did not emerge in the brain, but rather in distributed networks of brains wired for analog communication.

                                                                                                Merlin Donald, Perspectives in Imitations (vol. 2)

Neuroscientist and anthropologist, Terrence Deacon has echoed this anti-innateness sentiment in arguing that symbols are akin to something of an infecting agent. However, one does not need to accept this hard-line stance against symbol-innateness to accept that culture possesses a high degree of plasticity in recognizing that it is continuously evolving independent of further biological adaptations. The difference between human neurosystems from a thousand years ago, fifty thousand years ago, and now, is culture.

If Homo sapiens’s success is its capacity for symbolic culture and if culture can evolve relatively unconstrained once that capacity is met then evolutionary theorists must consider this dimension in their analyses.

Terror management theory offers explanation for self-esteem striving and contends that much human behavior is motivated by existential anxiety– a variable situated in a system. It serves well to try to conceive how that variable affects the entirety of the system. Culture is presumably in the service of biology and it seems that the system dynamics of terror management may also serve biology (in terms of multilevel selection or altruism) in motivating cultural propagation, which it succeeds in by emphasizing survival of the symbolic over the physical.

Evolutionary criticisms of terror management theory attack a construal of the theory that emphasizes physical survival but terror management theorists see it broader than that; they see ‘sense of self’ as being projected into beliefs–into culture. Thus, an attack on one’s beliefs is an existential threat, which can motivate men (and women) to sacrifice their lives. This perspective, to me, is a more parsimonious solution to the problem of altruism than the mere desire to propagate genes as it suggests an explanation for why individuals will sacrifice their lives when there is no explicit threat to blood kin.

What I see failing in evolutionary psychology is the lack of consideration in the possibility that social dynamics possess emergent qualities that are irreducible to, and distinct from, the psychological mechanisms that give rise to them. The irreducibleness of the sociological from the psychological is a major topic in analytic social philosophy.  Evolutionary social psychology must find parsimony between the sociological and the biopsychological if there is to be validity between them.

Why it Pays to be Good: The Evolution of Morality


I mentioned in the last post that I was working on a presentation about the evolution of morality. Below are the key points.

1. Human beings are social creatures.

Human societies, both primitive and modern, depend of cooperation. Cooperation allowed for strategic hunting and a division of labor; groups reaped the benefits of individuals’ talents and specialties.

2. Without others, an individual’s chances for survival are reduced.

We can imagine that the prehistoric world was a harsh place. Through cooperation, humans successfully hunted large game and consumed meat. Hunting was a dangerous and time-consuming enterprise. Strangers posed a threat to a group’s safety and hard worked for resources. In groups, humans could defend against predators and other humans efficiently. Furthermore, groups discouraged ambushes and attacks. The lone individual lacks all these survival benefits, lacks opportunity to pass on genes, and risks assault by other humans because of the perceived threat he poses to them.

Not belonging to a group essentially reduces ones potential for survival and one’s quality of life. There is evidence that ostracism and exclusion is processed by the brain in the same way as physical pain. Another study has found that the active ingredient in Tylenol helps reduce emotional pain (further evidence that emotional pain is real pain). But pain serves a purpose, it is adaptive, for when our skin is burning, we know we need to get out of the flames or risk permanent injury or death. The pain associated with exclusion indicates that social ostracism is a real threat to an individual’s survival.

Numerous studies indicate the significance of belonging. Those who are interested are encouraged to look up Asch conformity, social identity theory, and terror management theory. Considerable other psychological phenomena also indicate the significance of the need to belong including peer pressure, bulimia, social anxiety, and violence resulting from discrimination, to name a few.

3. The threat of ostracism is a significant deterrent against free-riding and other anti-social acts.

In the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (edited by Buss) Dennis Krebs writes in his chapter on morality that humans may have fine tuned abilities to detect deception in nonverbal behavior and that this discourages deception. Research on deception suggests that this is wrong; most people are no better than chance at detecting lies (you can read an overview of the literature in Persuasion, Social Influence, and Compliance Gaining by Gass and Seiter).

The deterrent is not the ability of others to detect lies but the stiff punishment of social retribution and ostracism if caught. As we have already discussed, ostracism is very detrimental to survival potential. While people might not be great at detecting deception, they are vigilant towards deception, and when foul play is suspected, there is an emotional need for justice. It’s only natural that the community takes an interest in protecting productive members of the group and punishing wrong doers.

4. The greater motive for pro-social behavior is not the threat of ostracism but the considerable survival advantage derived through cooperation.

The sociologist Pierre Bordieu established that not only is there economic capital but there is also cultural capital and social capital. Having good tastes, education, and manners are examples of cultural capital because they elevate a person’s social status based on cultural values. Social capital is the value you earn through your network of friends and associates. Knowing the right person and having a benevolent relationship with them can have considerable effect on your social status and your economic resources. (For our purposes, we’ll assume cultural capital emerges out of social capital). Social capital emerges out of reciprocation.

Chimpanzees (our closest genetic relative) offer an example of the primacy of social capital. Chimps live in complex stratified social hierarchies, dominated by an alpha male that often achieves his position by developing a coalition that is willing to challenge the current alpha and his allies. Primatologists have discovered that chimps who groom other chimps are more likely to have food resources distributed back to them by the chimp that they groomed. In addition, chimps who distribute meat from hunts can expect favorable behavior from the chimps they share with, including copulation opportunities, grooming offers, and coalition support when needed.

In short, cooperative behavior is reciprocated and this forms a significant basis for morality. There is experimental evidence suggesting that people ascribe more social status to those who are helpful to them. It appears then that we value cooperative behavior and reward those who demonstrate it.

Working cooperatively with others increases the chances that others will help us out when we are in need. Respecting others tacit rules and boundaries helps insure that others respect our own. Reciprocating others expectations helps insure our own expectations our met. The debt we feel we owe to our social groups propels us to sacrifice some our resources to the group and in return, we reap many benefits.

5. The persuasive quality of perceived morality (defined as helpfulness and trustworthiness) is innate.

Predeterminism, Freewill, Psychology, and Culture


The notion of freewill is something I struggle with, it is a commonsense concept but it defies basic scientific and mathematic epistemology and ontology. In a world where all change, all movement, stems from other causal forces, which themselves are certainly linked to others in an unbroken chain of prior occurrences and where we suppose that we could know the exact properties of all actors and actions of this interaction then we could predict the outcomes of the situation under study because all things follow a path predetermined by the axioms of physics.  This was Einstein’s view.

In social psychology, there is at times an illusion of a belief that if you knew everything about a person’s intrapsychic processes combined with an understanding of the social processes happening within their environment you would be able to predict their future behavior. I say it is an illusion of a belief mostly because it is implied and possibly not true, at least wholly. If we consider social concepts such as priming, cognitive biases, heuristics, and conditioning then there is clearly a belief in the predictability of behavior. Indeed, why should we assume that people act against the accumulation of all occurrences of the self in a particular social environment that is also the product of cumulative occurrences and pragmatic selection? This is, of course, assuming the self is constrained by the past.

These thoughts were crystallized by reading Darwinian Sociocultural Evolution by Marian Blute, of which I have only two more chapters to read.

Below is a quote by Marian Blute on the matter.

“The concept of free will has no scientific credibility. It is not a theory. Because it can explain everything, it can explain nothing and is in fact an excuse not to seek an explanation.”

Marion also explains that evolution doesn’t just filter the past for the most successful traits but is also inductive because phenotypes are plastic and can have different expressions, environmental changes can induce certain traits that then become genetic. When this process is applied to sociocultural evolution, the defense is made for a constrained “social construction” of social reality. Homo sapiens as symbol user can envision the future and therefore make inductive choices. Taking the moderate stance, Marion promotes both a deductive and inductive version of sociocultural evolution. Culture is constrained by the past at the same time that it is freed by possibilities for the future.

Returning to the notion of freewill, it seems reasonable to suggest a freewill that is constrained by ecological, biological, cultural, social, and evolutionary factors—a limited freewill.

The Pharmacology of Social Status


Yesterday I was reading a chapter from the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology on dominance and status hierarchies. Interestingly a substantial part of this chapter is on hormones. There is considerable documentation of alpha primates having higher levels of serotonin, testosterone and androgens while having lower baseline levels of cortisol than their subordinates do. The same applies to humans.

Here is where it gets interesting. While changes in status affect hormones and serotonin levels, changes in hormones and serotonin levels affect status. In one study, participants were issued either a serotonin reuptake inhibitor or a placebo and their roommates later described changes in their behavior. Those who took the serotonin reuptake inhibitor were judged as less submissive. Those who took the serotonin reuptake inhibitor also “adopted a dominant pattern of eye contact when interacting with strangers.”

This so far has been a précis from a part of a chapter in the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, titled Dominance, Status, and Social Hierarchies by Robert Kurzban and Steven Neuberg.

What I’m curious about is whether supplements such as tryptophan and 5-HTP (known to increase serotonin levels) also increase social dominance. If you take these supplements, you might not notice the changes yourself. Kurzban and Neuberg suggest that hormones are part of a signaling system. Dominance displays such as eye contact may be intuited at a non-conscious level. It’s quite possible that dominant individuals don’t necessarily know when they’re being dominant. If certain hormones and serotonin levels affect subtle signaling (dominance or submissive) then it’s quite possible that the perceived effects of serotonin supplements are rather sublime but real nonetheless.

The next question is whether dominance hormonal therapy increases in serotonin or androgens leads to increased chances for success. It’s claimed that dominance is correlated to being better able to read non-verbal behavior and predict social situations. I actually heard just the opposite in a seminar with Eliot Smith at Indiana University—material he provided suggested that subordinates are better adapted to reading non-verbal expressions, presumably because their position as somewhat disadvantaged calls for extra-vigilance. The evolutionary literature suggests that dominant individuals must be extra-vigilant to uphold their position. What is certain is that it takes social competence to increase and maintain your position in the social hierarchy; the question is whether hormones increase that competence.

I’ll be taking tryptophan and 5-HTP before my next friendly poker game (not really). There’s no such thing as a friendly game of poker.

Anybody considering taking supplements or serotonin reuptake inhibitors should carefully consider potential side effects.

Critique on Multi-Level Selection Theory


I’m reading Brian Boyd’s On The Origin of Stories, which has been a good read so far. Boyd, however, uses multi-level selection theory to argue for the problem altruism in natural selection. I have faced multi-level selection theory many times now, and every time I read it, I cannot help but hear the critique for it in my head. My complaint (so far) is not in theory itself but in the claim that multi-level selection theory somehow provides the best solution for the problem of altruism in natural selection. Why can’t evolutionary solutions be negative rather than positive? Why does the solution have to be in the nature of “selecting for” as opposed to “selecting against?” In a social species, couldn’t the problem of altruism be as simple as antisocial behaviors being largely unsuccessful?

I recall an experiment in business ethics that tested whether consumers would purchase coffee at discounted price if they were aware of the brand’s trade and labor violations. The results of that experiment showed customers avoided the steeply discounted brand for more expensive brands. They effectively punished the antisocial brand. I’m sure this experiment has it’s confounds but it does offer anecdotal evidence for negative selection as opposed to positive selection in regards to the problem of altruism. There should be further experiments to consider the possibility.

Note: Boyd does describe what I would call negative selection in describing a possible solution to altruism.