Society is operant conditioning

(I mean this in the sense of a definition, like when I say Christianity is any belief system which contains the Gospel as a subset.)

Generally, when we talk about society we’re thinking about groups of humans. But great apes can be social and often are, as are a number of other animals. What makes them “social” rather than an incidental mass of individuals is the consistent use of behaviors meant to induce emotional states in other individuals. This is distinct from culture or civilization in that the transmission of information is not necessary. You can be social without having any culture (more on culture another time). Cooperation is also unnecessary (ants cooperate but they aren’t social), although it is common in order to enjoy the economic benefits of specialization.

Operant conditioning comes in two fundamental forms, reward and punishment. Rewards are forms of anxiety relief, where anxieties are prioritized by their position on Maslow’s hierarchy. Relief of these anxieties (I have food! I feel warm! People like me! etc.) is accompanied by the heady feeling of a dopamine injection, which strengthens recently used neural circuits and thus reinforces recent behaviors. Punishment works by applying stress to a person (cognitive dissonance in the brain) at an intolerable level. When they take action to avoid this stress in the future, this reduces anxiety and provokes the same dopamine reward circuit, thus reinforcing these avoidant behaviors. Removal of a stressor is experienced as a reward, and removal of a anxiety-relieving reward is experienced as a punishment.

Most small societies are organized as well-ordered hierarchies, or “pecking orders”. This is explained here as dominance, although the article only refers to punishment. Dominant individuals apply operant conditioning to submissive individuals in order to produce desired behaviors. Submissive individuals aren’t supposed to use operant conditioning on dominant individuals, but they usually do in sneaky, plausibly deniable ways like crying loudly in public.

Some people, like women, children, clever sillies, Ashkenazi Jews, or those who attend public schools, are more responsive to operant conditioning than others. In Aeolitalk this is called impressionability (low latent inhibition in classical conditioning), and it can be thought of as a scalar multiplier on a person’s receptivity to new associations. Disregarding other sorts of intelligence for a moment, let X be a random variable describing the number of repetitions necessary to teach a person some behavior through operant conditioning. Then the expectation value for an individual with impressionability k would be <X>/k.

This isn’t the whole story, because impressionability is dependent on who is applying the operant conditioning to whom. A compliment from a stranger feels good, whereas a compliment from a perceived authority figure or someone we esteem feels great. This is because we feel close to these people, with a sensation similar to proximity in space. Henceforth this psychological attribute shall be described as “closeness” (it depends only on who, whom, and time). Generally operant conditioning causes impressionability to increase over time (hence the use of compliance tests, behaviorisms, and public schooling), although this is not always the case (example exceptions: negative affectivity, major depression).

So my definition of “society” is therefore “two or more people participating in iterated conditioning”. A “good” or “healthy” society is one in which submissive people are conditioned to perform good and healthy behaviors. A “bad” or “unhealthy” society is one in which submissive people are conditioned to perform bad and unhealthy behaviors. And so on. An “asocial” or “autistic” person is someone who is formally included in a group, but does not participate in society. An “antisocial” person is someone who is formally included and participates, but their behaviors are in significant opposition to the system of punishments and rewards.

Edit: I just wanted to congratulate myself for this post. Damn good synthesis, pretty good writing too.


About Aeoli Pera

Maybe do this later?
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6 Responses to Society is operant conditioning

  1. Jdc says:

    So how is a male thal supposed to behave? Operant conditioning could easily be described as manipulation/shaming/deviancy. A thal knows these things are wrong, doesn’t participate in them and therefore becomes ostracised from a group. Or a male thal won’t play “game” he could possibly but sees this as socially and ethically beneath him. So what then? Is game necessary for operant conditioning or any kind of social status? Is the social status worth the loss of integrity?

  2. Koanic says:

    Making m0 comprehensible ist verboten!

  3. Jdc says:

    Good post though. It makes you think about the plausibility of morality.

  4. “I just wanted to congratulate myself for this post. Damn good synthesis, pretty good writing too.”

    Aye, I do concur. Good microzen wattage these days.

  5. Pingback: Scientific description of guilt vs. shame | Aeoli Pera

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