Metacognition: Thinking About
Lecture 4: SOCIAL EMBEDDEDNESS
Adam Blatner, M.D.
This is the fourth in a
Draft October 21, 2013 (For other lectures, go back
to Papers and Look under Meta-cognition.)
for the Fall, 2013 program of the Senior University Georgetown
People are "herd
animals," generally not loners, but yet with far more
individuality than bees. One of the major findings of
psychological research in the last 40 years is that humans are
exquisitely sensitive to social cues. They intuitively read
subtle gradations of status and who is in versus who is out. We
are profoundly socially embedded.
(I suspect there was no Adam and Eve, but rather
that we evolved over thousands of generations as tribes. We
gradually became capable of speech and symbolic thinking as well
Neurophysiologically, in the 1990s scientists discovered the "mirror
neurons"---clusters of cells that not only enabled us to
imitate, but to empathize. We unconsciously mirror what people
say and do and also feel it a little, so we have more of a sense
of what they're trying to say. These "mirror" neurons are a
major discovery that reinforce how socially bonded we are,
because we are intuitively aware of subtle non-verbal signals of
dominance, submission, and so forth.
(Ethology is the word for the study of the comparative behavior
of animals, how wolves live in packs, the pecking order of
chickens, why chimpanzees groom each other, and so forth. We may
well partake of these patterns a little, and while it is unwise
to overstate the case, neither should we dismiss these clues to
our instinctual heritage.)
Alas, I've discovered that advances in psychology have far
outstripped my ability to present them in any but the most
rudimentary fashion. These facets exist and are worth looking
at. Perhaps in another series I'll go into them.
Social Class: One is the power of social class,
the unspoken privileges that people expect due to their status.
Paul was a Roman Citizen and as such enjoyed certain rights and
privileges not given to other people who lived in the Roman
Empire---i.e. the right to not be arbitrarily bound or beaten.
So class and other categories entitle people and they expect
those entitlements. The theme of what people do and do not feel
entitled to is profound. Many other dynamics are also associated
with class and the psychology of oppression.
Non-Verbal Communication: Another related field is
the study of nonverbal communications---very rich, overlapping
with inter-cultural psychology, linguistics---but the point is
that people are very sensitive to slight nonverbal cues and much
of this is unconscious! That's the point here. We are much more
sensitive to nonverbal cues than we know. Non-lexical
communication has to do with voiced sounds---dialects, accents,
slang, jargon, how fast or slow someone speaks, how well they
pronounce the words and how understandable their talk is,
loudness, shrillness, intonation, and so forth. There are many
aspects. You can read about some of these variables elsewhere on
my website about "nonverbal
introduce something you may have heard of, or maybe not.
About twenty years ago some Italian neuroscientists noted
that when monkeys watched other monkeys do stuff parts of
their own motor cortex registered being stimulated. To cut
to the chase, we now recognize a very sensitve innate system
in primates and humans called the mirror neuron system. This
is the basis of imitative learning and empathy. When your
spouse bumps her toe, you say ďoooĒ and maybe you even feel
it a bit. Whatís with that?
People with autism donít have as many of these neurons, they
arenít naturally as empathic. My own hunch is that this
sensitivity varies as does every other talent, just about,
so that some folks are very sensitive, some folks hardly,
most folks in-between.
But this mirror neuron system just gives weight to the whole
business of subtle sensitivity, so letís go on.
Social Depth Psychology: Around
1935 Jacob Moreno developed a system for representing
interpersonal preferences on paper, a sort of social
microscopy. He called this method "sociometry." The field of
study it examines I call "social depth psychology." I've
written a number of papers on this on my website---about "tele"
depth psychology." a
method that approaches this rich dynamic realm of phenomena that
combines many aspects---social role, interpersonal preferences,
variables of character, attractiveness, reciprocity, and so
forth. It is a depth psychology insofar as people get quite
caught up in feeling good or bad depending on how they think
they are received by others. Often these perceptions are
accurate, but some are also not accurate. The method involves
making clear your preferences based on certain criteria---whom
you'd like to date, with whom you'd like to work on a math
problem, go to the mall, etc. This mixes several actions that
generally stay near the unconscious. When you can see on a piece
of paper that for x role you prefer a but not b, but for y role
you prefer b but not a!
Tele is the original word for a kind of mutually reciprocal
feeling. I sometimes use the word "rapport," though it should be
noted that with some folks you don't like, they don't like you
either. Sometimes they pick up your dislike, and sometimes
without meaning to, or occasionally with your conscious intent,
you bug them.
The point is that it's important to become explicitly aware of
these often awkward feelings and talk about them. It's hard
because a number of deep dynamics get stirred up, such as:
- You can't make yourself warm up to someone just
because you think you should, that mother wants you to, or
they're popular, etc.
- You can't be popular with everyone. In fact, you
can't be popular with lots of folks with whom you don't have a
lot of rapport. Some folks seem popular, but not infrequently
you will not really be inspired or turn on to what "everyone"
things is great.
Many Levels of Mind
The mind operates at many levels simultaneously. It is too
complex to be fully grasped. Itís frustrating to those who want
to know whatís really going on, but there it is. Itís too
complex. Nor does reductionism helpóthatís the belief that if we
can understand one aspect then we can apply what weíve learned
to other aspectsóbut the problem is that the way the other
aspects work is different enough so the model for the first
aspect doesnít apply.
The first level to be mentioned is in some ways the most basic,
having to do with brain mind and basic instincts. This is the bio-psychic
level, which includes temperament and ability. It may
include interests to varying degree. It includes any physical
strengths or weaknesses. Alfred Adler made a point of noting way
back around Freudís time that significant weaknesses in any way
significantly affect personality.
The second level is what most psychoanalytic psychology deals
with----the relationships of the various parts of the mind to
each otheróespecially the motives and anxieties about the
motives. There is a great deal of complexity here, the
You donít just have a you, however you construct and
re-construct it; you have many parts, an internalized mother,
father, siblings, close others, influential others like teachers
or preachers. Theyíre all in there, often repeating the kinds of
things they said and you took to heart. Maybe even more than you
realized! Encouragement and scolding, these ďinjunctionsĒ
made a deep imprint. Sorting this stuff out is part of what
psychoanalysis and most psychologies that led to psychotherapy
had in common.
But also there is the realm of interpersonal
relations. You and others, both how they are, how
they change, how they feed into and reinforce or influence your
Now things get complicated even more: Small group and medium
group dynamics: Do you tend to placate, dominate, mediate?
Factors of innate social intelligence operate more vibrantly
here, as well as innate cluelessness. Some of this alertness
also emerges from the nature of the reinforcementódoes it pay
off to attend to others or to shut them out? All sorts of
triangular dynamics come up, and weíll talk about this realm of
social depth psychology in a minute.
I want to give a nod to larger
We should never underestimate the degree hat dynamics at greater
levels of complexity, plots of television shows, political
controversies, and so forth affect individuals. Sometimes,
hardly; sometimes a bit; often a whole lot.
Finally, there are dynamics also that are shared with all life
on earth, and some that are shared just with primates. The point
is that the mind is infinitely complex, and two minds in
relationship, or many minds, is that infinity times that number.
But we need not grasp it all, every nuance, in order to allow
for many levels of subtlety.
The point to make is that on occasion, such as in wartime,
demands of roles related to national or religious themes become
more compelling than the needs of relationships or of parts of
Over the last few decades our social embedded-ness has been
brought to the fore. Psychology in the mid-century was
mainly viewed as intra-psychicówhat was going on in the mind of
the individual. There were a few people who noted the
inter-personal and even fewer group mind. But gradually these
latter dynamics have been getting more attention, and so to cut
to the chase, a great deal of thinking significantly
involves a good deal of social input, perception, and proper
interpretatoon. Weíll be talking about that interface today.
We live in a logocentric culture, a big word that means that
words and their technical meanings are what counts, and how they
are to be weighedói.e., mainly. But ordinary folks in most
cultures weigh the other factors, context, non-verbal
communications, cues, tone, facial expression, context, etc.óall
are taken into consideration. These variables are not taught
much in our culture and are marginalizedóforced to the margins,
so to speak.
But there have been many books and papers written on this topic,
some in our georgetown library.
Sorting Yourself Out
That which is mentionable becomes manageableóso said Fred Rogers
of Mister Rogersí neighborhood, speaking to young children and
their parents of the many confusions that little kids and not so
little ones, adults even, struggle with.
Freud mentioned sex as the big taboo and for him and back then
it was, and for him and back then it was courageous to talk
about. Now, still a bit, not so much.
But Freud didnít notice a number of psychological problems. I
donít fault him. That would like be like faulting Ben Franklin
for not having discovered radio. I do want to bring yíall up to
date, though: We continue to discover new aspects of mind and
thinking, and one of those has to do with how do we sort
Have you noticed that when youíre with a group in which the
rapport is good it gets more done and often is more flexible and
congenial than other groups in which the rapport is, shall we
say, sticky? There are a lot of reasons for what makes an
interpersonal relationship sticky, awkward, and they are not
always the fault of one person. Sometimes people who donít click
with one group click fine in another group. Thatís the story of
the ugly duckling.
The point here is to pursue that obvious lead. But itís almost
taboo, repressed, shoved into the category of unmentionable,
which makes it unmanageable.
Who prefers whom and why? Now letís not get anyoneís feelings
hurt, now, shall we? Letís all tiptoe around these elephants in
the room, swept under the carpet, all those mixed metaphors.
Weíre all friends here, right?. Everyone is equal, right? The
answer isnít wrong so much as somewhere in between! Thatís part
of the problem, getting away from black and white either-or
thinking. Some of the people in my community are not experienced
by me as the friends Iíd prefer to hang out with. Horrors! I
admit it. Hey, I notice that some folks donít necessarily prefer
me as their first choice for a game of golf. Maybe itís because
I canít play golf at all.
In fact, 90% of people donít particularly like me. 50% or more
tolerate me okay, and it turns out thatís okay with me, itís
true for me too. But as a little kid I wanted everyone to like
me, and even as a teen I hadnít worked it out and wanted to be
popular, not knowing then that most of the popular kids might
not be really the folks Iíd prefer, knowing what I know now.
Weíre talking about sorting ourselves out, finding the kinds of
folks with whom we naturally feel a positive rapport. And
we feel rapport sort of along the lines of distribution of a
bell-shaped curveóa few strongly positive, some moderatly
positive, most neutral, a few sort of negative. This nobody told
me. I was told not to take it personally, but I had no idea what
that meant. Of course I took it personally. Why, after all, did
people like you? Personality. Personable. Nice. These qualities
are obviousóbut in fact they account for maybe only half of why
people like you.
We like each other more based on whether we have anything in
common, any interests, background, do you show youíre interested
in me, do I have anything to offer you, do we share certain
causes, are we against the same things? These set the stage.
Then thereís whether we click, and thatís mysterious. Sometimes
I like you because we started off on the right foot and you like
me even though and perhaps even because other folks donít like
you. Itís a funny and complex business. What it is not is the
way I thought it was back when I was learning what was what
So sorting yourself out is a very important challenge, but can
we do it without hurting your feelings or mine. Letís avoid the
whole thing and not mention it. Itís very deep, itís part of
family, itís part of childhood, and the whole thing revolves
around feeling hurt, when in fact you donít really know or care
about those who hurt you. It has to do with reciprocity and the
painónot overwhelming, but painóat not being given back at about
the same level that you gave. Variations include the otherís not
disclosing a secret or at the same level that you disclosed.
Iím sorry this is so complex but thatís what adds to its
unmentionability. Few folks talk about all this mess and itís
disguised in many many ways.
book on empahty
the bond, social intelligence, etc.
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suggestions for revision or additions, email me: email@example.com