Sunday, February 13, 2011

Two Social Psychology Observations

Cognitive Dissonance: A long time I wrote that I thought that cognitive dissonance was an evolutionary adaptation that made people in groups more predctable and trustworthy and ultimately facilitated the use of narrative as a social heuristic. I still think this is true, but I also think its function is important on an individual level; in order to explain, I'll point out an observation by the computer scientist and cultural theorist Phoebe Sengers:

In listening to Julie, it was often as though one were doing group psychotherapy with the one patient. Thus I was confronted with a babble or jumble of quite disparate attitudes, feelings, expressions of impulse. The patient's intonations, gestures, mannerisms, changed their character from moment to moment. ...It seemed therefore that one was in the presence of various fragments, or incomplete elements of different 'personalities' in operation at the one time. Her 'word-salad' seemed to be the result of a number of quasi-autonomous partial systems striving to give expression to themselves.
out of the same mouth at the same time.
(Laing 1960, 195-196; quoted in Phoebe Sengers' "Schizophrenia and Narrative")

Sengers uses this example to make a point about how current methods in artificial intelligence (AI) operate: an optimal behavior is selected on the basis of some utility metric without any regard for what was done in the past. This disregard for consistency is optimal for any agent within a game-theoretic model (classical economics, chess, etc.), but if a person were to operate this way, their identity would be completely inconsistent, every action acting completely out of context with any other one. In more simple terms, acting in this manner requires completely throwing out one's identity.

To a theoretical economist, this might be great news; after all, it was once said that consistency is the hobgoblin of all minds; but we shouldn't dismiss the importance of a consistent identity so fast. Reading through Antonio Damasio's Self Comes to Mind, I took note of his explanation of consciousness (synonymous with subjectivity, and in this blogger's humble opinion, narrative) as a more evolutionarily advanced mechanism for self-regulation, the process by which all life forms, from prokaryotes to mammals, fight off external chaos and maintain internal order. Self-regulation is the essence of all life, and consciousness is the most advanced tool for doing so by allowing us to make complex plans and coordinate seamlessly with large groups; but more than that, consciousness regulates itself in the same manner that life-forms do—it is a consistent narrative that maintains itself and in doing so endows us with identity. Without a cohesive narrative, we cannot have a subjective identity; and without a subjective identity, our consciousness, that most crucial of means of human survival, quickly disintegrates. If you don't believe me, read the passage above one more time.

Cognitive dissonance is a way for us to fight external entropy, no different than the regulation of our body temperatures or our immune system's constant attack on what's foreign to the body.

2) Protagonists: On a much shorter note, it occurred to me that the presence of protagonists in stories is possibly a symptom-of/appeal-to our own universally shared narcissism.

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