Social and Psychological Complexity

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

July, 2017

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This video discusses the relative importance of rational analysis and emotional thought processes in decision making and conflict engagement, and explains that both have an important role to play. It goes on to explain the evolutionary advantage to having both conservative (George Lakoff's "strict father") and liberal (Lakoff's "nurturing parent") personality types, but shows how these tend to clash in emotionally and value-driven conflicts.  As a result, both sides have used an understanding of psychological complexity to help people see things "their way," though often this is done to pursue "power over," rather than "power with," approaches to social problems.  The video ends with a call to figure out ways to appeal to both rationality and emotions to further a "power-with" approach to conflict resolution and problem solving.  

Full Transcript:

Edited for readability

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This is Guy Burgess. For this post I would like to talk about the meaning of social and psychological complexity.

Probably the best place to start is by looking at what might be called the standard model of conflict resolution or rational decision-making. If you ask the general public (the folks going through Grand Central Station, for example) how people really make (or should make) decisions, you would probably get an answer that follows the rational model. I should be clear that my description of the rational model is something of a "strawman" argument. A lot of decision-makers and conflict resolvers are much smarter than this. In fact, they incorporate a lot of complexity-oriented thinking into their work. Still, I think that the rational model is the way many folks tend to think about human decision-making and conflict resolution. What I want to try to explain is how this way of thinking can get you into trouble. 

First, let's talk a bit about what this model actually means. It's all built around this notion of a "rational man" (or rational "women"). As I see it, this model imagines that we all have a spreadsheet running around in our heads.  Every time we identify an interest or a goal that we would like to pursue, we assemble a list of options for advancing that particular goal or interest. We then we assess the costs and benefits of each option. We might also make some adjustments for risk and uncertainty. (There might be, for example, an option that is really great, but we don't think the chances of making it happen are actually very high. So we rank it lower.) Then we go ahead and select the most desirable option. 

When you hear people talking about how to improve this process, you will hear them talking about strategies for controlling emotions (so people can think rationally). You will also hear about the need for more expertise. Indeed, more sophisticated analyses by people with more advanced degrees can get you a better list of options and a better set of assessments of the costs and benefits of each option.

All of this gets scaled up in negotiation processes which are basically multiparty versions of the rational choice model. Here you would, perhaps with the help of a mediator, sit down at a table and identify everyone's interest and goals along with options for achieving them. You try to identify and agree to the option that is as mutually beneficial as possible for all parties.  This is also what you do in very large-scale negotiations such as the Iranian nuclear deal.

Negotiations also occur in the context of everybody's BATNA or "best alternative to a negotiation negotiated agreement."  Nobody is going to accept a negotiated agreement if they think that they can get a better deal by going through the legal system, the political system, the electoral system, the military system or by using any of the other options that they might have for advancing their interests.

In theory, the way you scale this up to handle large-scale societal conflicts is by using interest groups who select and then send representatives to the negotiating table. The votesmart website includes an interesting catalog of all the different interest groups in the United States. These are large groups of people who often send representatives to negotiating processes of various types. (They also engage in legal, political, electoral, and other power contests.) 

This is what we are talking about when we talk about the democratic ideal (of small "d" democracy) – "government of the people, by the people, and for the people."

There are, obviously, many problems with this model. One of the most serious problems,(and something that we have known about for a very long time) is something that you might call the Machiavelli problem. People will try to game the system by negotiating in "bad faith" and trying to exploit the other party's willingness to compromise. 

You also often run into people using "divide and conquer" strategies that pre-date Julius Caesar. Here the idea is not the pursuit of some type of mutually beneficial agreement. Instead, people with "power-over" ambitions try to get the larger society fighting amongst itself. The goal is to prevent the general public from putting together a coalition with a power base big enough to challenge efforts of those who are trying to gain power over everyone else.  

Another, and perhaps even more important, part of the reason why the rational model doesn't stand up in the real world is that men and women are, in many important respects, irrational. One might be tempted to say or think, "if they would just be rational, then everything would be fine."  But there's more to it than that.

Throughout the seminar series we have been trying to think about the social system as a complex adaptive ecosystem. These ideas apply here too.

I want to start to explain that by thinking about what, over the long term, have been the advantages that have enabled the human race to flourish. Certainly it is not physical strength.  Rather, it is the multi-generational ability to live and work together in ever larger groups that continually adapt to changing environmental conditions and refine, what one of my professors called, the "recipe for survival" (or the recipe for success).  So, it is the ability to work together over the long term as a group that is human society's key evolutionary advantage.

This has huge implications.  It means that decision-making, at least for the groups that succeed, is a group-oriented, not an individually-oriented process. This means for a group to succeed, it has to be able to work together. Using a football analogy, for the play to succeed, everyone has to understand it and be able to do their part.

At the societal level, this gets translated into whole notion of the division-of-labor that, as a sociologist, I learned that Emile Durkheim came up with in the mid-1800s (though the idea probably goes back a lot further than that). So, think about what it takes to make the division-of-labor actually work. Obviously, you've got to get everybody on the same page and working together.

Over the long term, societies and humans have evolved and developed a wide range of mechanisms that help hold the group together as a functioning unit. Some of these are in the realm of "nature" and involve genetic changes that lead people to act in ways that increase group cohesion. This is further reinforced in the realm of "nurture" where there are a variety of social dynamics that reinforce and strengthen within-group social relationships. 

One part of this is what I call "circles of trust," which lead folks to trust those within their group and distrust outsiders. Associated with this are a wide range of mechanisms to ensure that group members act in trustworthy ways. Not surprisingly, outsiders (and, especially, those from competing groups) are distrusted because it is assumed that their allegiances lie with others. It's also not surprising that mutual distrust tends to be a reinforcing behavior, since people who distrust one another tend not to act in trustworthy ways towards each other. All of this reinforces group identity and group priorities -- and intergroup hostility.

You have probably heard you heard the phrase, "looking at the world with rose-colored glasses," to refer to those who frame their worldview in overly optimistic ways. The same basic idea applies to group identity.  Conservatives have, for example, a worldview that tints way they look at the world in ways that are consistent with the views of their group. Conversely, liberals tend to view everything with a blue tint. 

One way of looking at the difference between liberal and conservative worldviews is outlined by George Lakoff in Moral Politics. He talks about a traditional, "strict father," conservative worldview and a contrasting liberal, "nurturing parent" worldview. These two worldviews are reflected in different personality types that exist, in varying proportions, within society. If you think about it, there are a lot of good evolutionary reasons why a society could benefit from having both personality types. 

One group, the "strict father" traditionalists, tends to be composed of people who are much more observant of and willing to abide by religious and cultural traditions regarding individual behavior. They believe that the "recipe for survival" is handed down from generation to generation through these traditions and hencem tradition is very important to their own well-being and the well-being of their children. Not surprisingly, they have created and enthusiastically participate in a whole range of institutions that are designed to reinforce traditional behaviors.

By contrast, you have groups dominated by a liberal, "nurturing parent" philosophy. This use of the term, liberal, applies to people who see themselves as free to break with tradition and try new ideas.  This is sometimes really valuable to a group and a source of much needed innovation. It allows people to say that the way that the group has been doing things traditionally is wrong (or at least doesn't work anymore) and society would be better if it did things differently. Martin Luther King is an example of such a positive call for change. 

While liberals can play an important role in encouraging the adaptation process, not all liberals who don't want to follow traditions are trying to make society better. As a child of the 60s and 70s, I know something about indulgent liberals. I grew up at a time when the motto was, "if it feels good, do it." The desire was to have a good time with little concern about the consequences to the larger society. This is why traditionalists often see liberals as a lot more indulgent and a lot less interested in social progress than they may claim. 

And, liberals shouldn't feel too smug about not having traditions and being, therefore, creative free thinkers. The truth is there is a lot of "politically correct" orthodoxy (i.e. traditions) on the liberal side of the political equation.

There are other ways in which groups are structured in order to increase group cohesion.  One is a formal authority structure like, for example, the rigid hierarchical structure of the Department of Defense. Many elements of society have clear authority structures and if you violate the commands of the authority then a wide range of sanctions can come into play. 

There are also an informal authority structures, that I think are even more important. If you do something that your group disapproves of, you will quickly find yourself looked down upon by your friends and associates. If you persist, you are likely to find yourself ostracized or worse. 

There is also a sense in which individual thinking and decision-making has a kind of two-tier level to it with rational and non-rational / emotional components. A metaphor that often is often used to describe this is the rider and the elephant. When everything is in harmony (rational thought largely agrees with emotional thought) everything works pretty well and the rational rider is seen as effectively guiding the elephant. But, if the two ways of thinking are not in harmony, one will quickly discover that the elephant is much stronger and the rider is powerless. In this case, nonrational emotions tend to drive behavior. 

Psychologists have identified a wide range of cognitive biases that outline the many different ways in which people don't follow the rational model (Benson). If you look at these, a pretty high percentage involve situations in which deeply ingrained psychological biases privilege the group over the individual. If you look at social evolution from a group perspective, these biases start making a whole lot more sense. 

Over the course of the seminar we have spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of social adaptation. Unfortunately, based on the above discussion, it's clear that the group-focused, rather than the individual-focused, decision-making slows a group's ability to identify and make much-needed changes. While this may prevent the making of ill-advised changes, it also tends to slow the adaptation process by contributing to social and cultural lag.  This presents serious obstacles for those trying to help society make much-needed changes. 

At this point, you can be forgiven that thinking that the many problems associated with group-oriented adaptation and "power-with" social problem-solving make the situation hopeless.  This, fortunately, is a case where a corollary of Kenneth Boulding's "First Law"  comes into play: "if it exists, it must be possible." There are people who are very good at getting large and complex social groups to think the way that they want them to think. (For instance, effective politicians and adertisers are examples of this.)  Unfortunately, their model is sometimes a whole lot closer to the "power-over" vision of George Orwell and an updated version of 1984 than the sort of "power-with" social adaptation that we have been trying to promote. 

A key insight into the nature of the problem is raised by George Lakoff in an interesting interview.  I think that Lakoff is one of the most interesting people writing on the broad topic of nonrational thinking. In this interview, he asserts that Democrats who want to go into politics tend to study policy and think in terms of the rational model. Republicans who want to go into politics tend to specialize in marketing and related fields.  This focus, not on policy, but on the messy heart of selling of policy, gives them an enormous advantage in our complex, nonrational world. 

Over the course of the seminar we are going to spend a lot more time talking about the various propaganda (political advertising) techniques that have been developed for working in this environment. We will look at the ideas of George Lakoff and Harold Lasswell and lots of other folks to show how you can manipulate the psychological biases and group dynamics in ways that get people to act in desired ways. We just need to figure out how to do this in the service of efforts to promote "power-with"  democracy, rather than in the in the service of "dark side," "power-over" efforts. 

At this point, I want to offer a couple of very quick examples. "How Capitalism Created Cool" offers a window into how marketers get us to believe that a particular product or service is something "cool" that we just have to have. The truth is, it's the marketers who really know how to navigate the complex way in which large groups of people actually think. 

At the risk of putting something into this slideshow that may quickly become outdated, I'd like to highlight this article, explaining the cognitive bias the President Trump understands (and knows how to manipulate) better than Democrats. 

There is also this article from Time magazine that explains how Russia's social media-based efforts to influence the 2016 US election were able to place fake peer pressure on US voters by sending messages from fake Twitter accounts (representing people supposedly like them) and asking them (using subtle bias manipulation tactics) to think and act in ways that favored Trump.  If true, this is obviously a big political scandal. Even if it isn't true, somebody else, in the not very distant future, could certainly do something like this with devastating implications for democracy. 

This is all a bit of a wake-up call. Those who have figured out how to work in the realm of social and psychological complexity are taking society down the path toward a "power-over" future. If we want a "power-with" future, we've got to figure out how a social and psychological complexity-based strategy can be adapted to serve the common good!

Referenced Resources

Votesmart: Facts Matter.

George Lakoff Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.  2nd Ed. 2002, University of Chicago Press. 

Buster Enson.  "Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet. Because Thinking is Hard."

Daphne White, "Berkeley author George Lakoff says, 'Don't underestimate Trump." Berkelyside. May 2, 2017.'t-underestimate-trump/

Bourree Lam "How Capitalism Created 'Cool'" The Atlantic.  April 15, 2015.

Emily Dreyfuss "The Cognitve Bias President Trump Understands Better Than You" Wired. Feb 18, 2017.

Massimo Calabresi. "Inside Russia’s Social Media War on America" Time. May 18, 2017.

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