For the Views of Human Nature category

Human Nature and The Way Societies are Organise

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Humans have evolved both to cooperate and to compete, to do things on behalf of others and for themselves. Both can contribute to a sense of self-worth. Experiments involving games around sharing money between pairs (proposer and responder) show that concern about how others are treated is high.

Relationships have been described in terms of two dimensions that reflect the needs for inclusion and affiliation on the one hand, and control and autonomy on the other – see Lorna Benjamin’s revision of earlier versions in her structural analysis of social behaviour:

(1) hostility at one extreme to friendliness on the other, and

(2) control and dependency at one end to autonomy and freedom on the other

And for human social needs, see for example the work of Bill Schultz

Societies of both human and non-human primates are found to be primarily organised either around affiliation, egalitarian reciprocity and co-operation or around power and dominance, and competition for it (and primates have ways of resolving such competition).This varies with cultural differences and historical periodsThe more egalitarian harks back to the core values of the French revolution in 1789: Equality, Fraternity and Liberty.

People need to learn to survive in both types of society, to be able both to establish trust and make friends and to be self-reliant, assertive and handle conflict. In societies organized more around dominance people learn how to attain and express status, and discriminate between status conflicts that they can win and those they cannot. With an aversion to low status some people can seek to be superior in status to more vulnerable people or groups If they feel downtrodden – or avoid being looked down on as a group by segregating and living in their own area.

These two ways of organizing society of course co-exist in varying amounts in different parts of a society (as in different states in the USA as studied by Wilkinson) and they vary also according to the sphere of life, type of organisation and the individual. Studies of cultural differences over the last 60 or so years have identified a number of bi-polar dimensions on which country cultures differ. A useful summary is provided by the Romanian authors Sergiu Balani and Lucia Ovidia Vreja

Many of the same dimensions appear in most of these studies. Three are relevant here: (1) power distance (the degree of equality, or inequality between people in society, reflecting the way the social structure is organised); (2) individualism vs. collectivism (the degree to which people of a society understand themselves as individuals, as apart from the group to which they primarily belong, governing the relationship between the individual and the group); (3) mastery versus harmony (concerning peoples’ relations to natural and social environment).

Some societies with developed economies have ways of countering dominance in their culture, and maintaining an optimum level of equality (the highest 20% in income being 3.7 – 4 times higher the lowest 20% in this study), just as hunter-gather groups did with food sharing, gifts etc. Fairness is needed for social cohesion, and a sense of indebtedness encourages reciprocity.

Inequality grew first as agriculture developed, and there was more division of labour. Different countries have different histories and paths to greater or less equality.


Social and Psychological Effects of Income Inequality

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Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett see these as the link in the causal chain between income inequality, ill health, reduced life expectancy and social problems.

What we think about our material and social circumstances rather than just those circumstances alone, have a profound affect on our physical and mental health and on our life expectancy, and create social problems. It is not the average income of a society but the differences in income within a society that affects physical and mental health, once material needs are sufficiently met. Then relative income and relative deprivation have more powerful effects than absolute income. In most of the richer countries in which there is a large difference in status and income, there is a more hierarchical social structure and a more divided society.

Humans have evolved both to cooperate and to compete, to do things on behalf of others and for themselves. Societies of both human and non-human primates are found to be primarily organised either around affiliation, egalitarian reciprocity and co-operation or around power and dominance. People need to learn to survive in both types of society, organisation or group. Where the balance is skewed towards larger income differences the quality of life is affected for all.

Those lower down in the hierarchy experience more stress and anxiety. People compare themselves with others and can feel in a subordinate position or looked down on, and controlled or excluded from a better life. They can feel they have less autonomy and control over their lives, and so less able to pursue opportunities to achieve, feel competent, and improve their circumstances. The chances of upward mobility decrease. All this means that key social, emotional and self-esteem needs are not met: to be valued, noticed and heard (rather than ignored), to be respected and seen to be competent (rather than humiliated), to have enough freedom to get on with their lives, to be included, accepted and liked (rather than rejected). Individuals differ in how strong these needs are, and whether they express and act on these needs or not, but they are common to us all. (See for example the work of Bill Schultz ).

At a physical level when feeling excluded, inferior, controlled or restricted, unjustly treated, or rejected the pain centres of the brain are activated; when feeling respected and accepted by others, and connected and cooperating with them, the pleasure centres are activated. People low in status, with less control over their circumstances and more socially isolated are more prone to stress and physical and mental illness. In humans stress responses and emotional and mental processes become tuned and programmed to the environment.

Rates of mental illness were found by Wilkinson and Pickett to be five times higher in more unequal societies. Adversity suffered by parents on low income can create relationships at home that increase stress as it is, but infant mortality is lower in more equal societies. The benefits of smaller income differences spread across all income groups.

Social inequality heightens people’s sensitivity to, and anxieties about, social status as this becomes a more important indicator of self-worth and is seen as a key aspect of identity. Anxieties around how they are seen by others can make people inwardly more vulnerable and insecure. This can lead to “conspicuous consumption” (Veblen 1899) and wanting the same as others, and with credit cards, a debt-laden society suffering from hyper-consumerism. Or in extreme cases where people feel humiliated it can lead to rage and violent crime, as studies have shown. In more equal societies people have more opportunity to experience self-worth from meeting each other’s needs – feeling valued and included – alongside sufficient self-reliance, rather than from being higher in a status hierarchy.

The quality of social relations deteriorates as a society becomes more unequal and hierarchical. Fewer people can trust others or feel safe, there is more hostility, conflict and violence. There is less social cohesion; people choose friends from near equals. Empathy between status levels is less common where there is less similarity in material living standards (as de Toqueville found in the early 19th century). There is also more discrimination over gender, age, ethnic or social background, race, sexual orientation. This not only affects the quality of life but also creates more social problems (such as crime, drug abuse, teenage pregnancies, poorer educational attainment), costly to society and the taxpayer. When the quality of possessions becomes the marker of status and identity then striving to keep up with others in material goods also feeds into the excesses of consumerism.

Inequalities have grown in many of the rich countries over the last 25 years of last century and accompanying this there has been the longer transition from local community life to mass society with high geographical mobility over the last 50 years. People used to know and be known by people who remained part of a local community most of their life. Friends and a supportive social network that provides protection are all the more crucial where there are social inequalities and less sense of a local community.








Hard-wiring of selfish and co-operative behaviour

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Selfish and Co-operative Behaviour Hard-wired or acquired?

The studies below show how the reward and attachment systems within the brain are activated when people manifest competitive or co-operative and generous behaviour. But also  they show how individuals differ in how often and in what context they show one or both. This seems to be linked to what we learn and acquire from experience with others in socio-cultural contexts, which may also involve neo-cortical or pre-frontal areas of the brain. These can be activated with or without awareness, but are a higher level and a later stage in the hierarchy of brain processes.   Clearly some societies bring out and reinforce the competitive or self-protective side of human nature more than the co-operative leading to a bigger difference between the have’s and have not’s and a break down in community and increase in suffering of the deprived and associated social costs (see Richard Wilkinson’s work on income inequality and the prevalence of physical and mental disease and low score’s on the UN index of healthy society – and his recent, co-authored book Spirit Level). Rampant capitalism and the continuous drive to more growth (partly to pay off debt) has led to hyper-consumerism and hyper-individualism and the destruction of habitat and societies.      The National Institutes of Health (in the US) conducted a series of brain scan experiments to see if co-operative behaviour was hard-wired (in the sense of being accompanied by activity in a different brain area). 19 people were asked to choose between donating $128 to charity or pocketing it for themselves. When people took the money the parts of the brain normally associated with pleasures such as eating and sex lit up; while with those who gave it away the areas of the brain associated with bonding and attachment also lit up. These findings indicate that donating to societal causes recruited two types of reward systems: the VTA–striatum mesolimbic network, which also was involved in pure monetary rewards, and the subgenual area, which was specific for donations and plays key roles in social attachment and affiliative reward mechanisms in humans and other animals. (Jorge Moll et al “Human Fronto-Mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103 (2006) ). Also quoted in Raj Patel The Value of Nothing: How to reshape market economy and redefine democracy (Picador 2009) p32. This seems to link to the distinction between the lust hormones and those of bonding and trust building (Oxytocin). I have read also that C. Jung the psychoanalyst thought of the Oedipal conflict of Freud in terms of learning to distinguish between affection and bonding on the one hand and sexual attraction on the other (possibly around age 5 and then again during puberty) – and then how to integrate the two in a single relationship as appropriate. It also links in my mind to the debate about selfish and co-operative genes. Bonding of course is part of Bowlby’s attachment theory drawn from the literature on studies of animals and his own work on the separation experienced by infants and children during the evacuation from London in WW2; he contrasts this with Freud’s reduction of human instinctive behaviours to sex and aggression. The co-operative parts of the brain and the hormones supporting these also seem linked to the natural pre-disposition towards reciprocity in normally developed people as part of the survival of our own (and to varying extents other) species through the group (Darwin).  Reciprocity means giving with the expectation that it will not be lost, and is reflected in the warm feeling often associated with giving as the behavioural economists describe it. “Reciproco” in Latin means moving back and forth (re as back and pro as forward) as if in a dance. Reciprocal exchange, together with family or tribal connections, are the basis of early human societies before the emergence of the state and the rule of law (and associated national identity) and the institutional basis of social co-ordination they provide (see F. Fukayama’s new book on the Origins of Political Order). The market place is another form of co-ordination. Social networks, and innovation or learning networks, nowadays enabled by the internet, are based on reciprocal exchange as well. Recently the market has been given more emphasis as a means of social co-ordination often to the partial exclusion of the others, such as morality and the co-ordinating functions of social norms and beliefs (see 2010 Reith lectures supported by the BBC). The question is how far norms and institutions bring out the best in people and reduce the need for drastic self-protective measures. The use of the internet as a platform for reciprocal exchange and for forming local groups for this has challenged the classic theory of economic man as a rational selfish person who strives for maximum profit.  A. Maslow said that many of the institutions of today meet only basic human needs rather than those that bring out the best qualites.                             The well known experiment in behavioural economics, (the “ultimate game”) repeated the world over shows how empathy combines with a sense of fairness in proposing and responding with acceptance. One person is asked to divide a sum of moneybetween another person and themselves with the basic rule that if the offer is not accepted then neither gets any money. While the degree of co-opeation varies, 50% of proposers make an offer the other is likely to accept as fair and most responders reject an unfair offer. A n0rm of “as you treat me so I will treat you” is generally what is communicated by offers and responses. (see Bart Wilson ) Over time this builds reciprocity, and reduces uncertainty in human exchanges. e-Bay operates on this basis, and the minimum amount of agreed rules and infrastructure needed varies with the type of transaction ( for borrowing and lending money between peers or a mutual credit clearing association may need more).                                                  Clearly people and species differ in the degree of co-operative behaviour. With humans this is probably due more to what is acquired and learnt through interaction with others in different contexts than individual differences in genetic predisposition. We and other primates need to learn how to relate to survive, and acquire different strategies on the way, including how to deal with the dilemma between competition and co-operation. This has been shown in studies of the social groups of primates and how this links to the neo-cortex (reflection, planning and regulation of emotion) rather than to lower level hard wiring. Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes  by Frans de de Waal   and The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society   and The Primate Mind: Built to Connect with Other Minds  and Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton Science Library) All available on Amazon. Robin Dunbar found that there was a correlation between the size of the neo-cortex in primatess and the size of their social groups or networks in which they could maintain  stable relationships (for humans around 150). Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist and a specialist in primate behaviour. He is currently Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and the Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology of the University of Oxford and the Co-director of the British Academy Centenary Research Project.                                                                         For studies of infant humans learning all this see V. Reddy’s book How Infants know Minds Harvard University Press. Also Victoria Talwar and her colleagues at McGill universtiy in their studies of children around the world have shown how lying is used and learnt more for protection in schools where punishment is oppressive or physically abusive rather than based on more undersatndable and acceptable consequences. What is acquired from experience is very significant with humans. (see )                   In traditional spiritual practices generosity without the feel good factor and love without attachment are known to give us different capacities and an inner freedom, the effects of which can be shared with others. (see the writings of the current Dalai Lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition – HH Dalai Lama & H.C.Cutler The Art of Happiness Hodder & Stoughton 1998 – and the teaching material for our times collected in the publications of the late Idries Shah in the Sufi tradition ( ). Paradoxically of course if one seeks any kind of result from generosity of this kind it does not bring out the capacity in people to love in a way that is free of any such expectation.

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