Nature vs. nurture – set 5
Goal: bring the three organs together
I’m faced with a challenging task — how can I paint a complete, yet easy to understand, picture of the three systems involved in the human personality development working together to make YOU the persona you are — at the same time very different than ME in many aspects, but still similar enough in many others?!
It is challenging because my goal is to reach to the casual reader who have some understanding how evolution works and is curios enough to learn the brain’s role in our behavior. And I think I somewhat failed at this task in my previous articles explaining the Relationship, Social and Status organ! I’ve got some feedback from few people that would fit my target profile that following my line of thinking was challenging for them at times because it was too technical or hard to understand without previously having read books like The Nurture Assumption, How The Mind Works, etc.
While I still want to bring an engineering angle and discuss feedback loops and data storage, retrieval and matching processes, I decided to take a different approach in this article and tell a story instead of drawing diagrams and discussing how could certain traits like group identification or differentiation come about through evolution! Let me start by introducing you to my three key actors in the story — Maven, Connector and Salesman.
If you who have read the The Tipping Point from Malcolm Gladwell, you’ll recognize I am using the names he introduced in his Law of the Few, the first of the three rules of epidemics. Let’s just say that I have some strange feeling that the rules of epidemics are not too unlike the rules in our brain that shape our personality and leave at that for now. It’s an avenue I want to explore a bit later.
Almost fifty now, Maven was diagnosed with Asperger’s when he was 6. Since he remembers about himself, he’s been fascinated with many things and always had an indescribable urge to document every single detail about his object of attention. By the age of 16 his room was so full of notes, scrapbooks, drawings and all sorts of papers with scribbled stuff that his parents finally conceded and bought him a computer (a little fortune at the time) to file as much information as he wants and avoid more “trash” to spread around the house. Nowadays you can see him wander around with two pairs of looking glasses, with different strengths so he can choose the best one when studying something of interest, and an already worn out iPhone (though only six months old) which seems to be constantly in his hand with the mic on so Maven can record his observations. Some people say that Maven has amassed more information about the world than Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica and the World Book Encyclopedia altogether.
Connector is the opposite from Maven in almost every respect. Socializing with other people is her main goal and she’s been doing great in acquiring lots of friends and spending time in various social circles. Though nearing fifty now, she’s still a very attractive woman and is usually the center of attention in most parties. One curiosity is that a big majority of Connector’s friends are married, while she remained single all this time. When asking many of her couple friends how did they get to know each other, almost in unison, they would answer that Connector introduced them. Another interesting thing about Connector is that she has great memory and can always point you to the right person that could help you with any problem you may have. Recently she started using Twitter and she’s already a serious contended for the top twitterholic throne. When asked what she thinks about the globalization and the impact of social networking sites, she simply answers — “if you heard about the idea that everyone on this planet is connected with everyone else through six degrees of mutual friends forget about, it’s one degree for me!”
Salesman is well, a sales man — and the best you can find at that! As a student, in the eighties, he once convinced his dad to buy shares from a little known software company from Seattle. The company later turned into a software giant, so now his parents spend their days on a yacht somewhere in the middle of the Pacific. When asked about the share story, they would just shrug their shoulders and say that Salesman often made weird choices and was annoyingly persistent, so they figured it’d be easier if they just listened! Though he didn’t have to work as his parents had more money than they could possibly spend, Salesman could not settle for the life under the sun. He always felt the need to uncover new areas to explore and then get someone else do all the dirty work for him. Nowadays he’s constantly on the go, helping several start-ups at the same time to make their first sales, visiting customers almost daily, even getting involved in some charity organization to help them bring medical supplies to kids in Africa. Finding a niche in this ever shrinking world of global communications, outsourcing and similar is getting pretty hard, he says, but he’s always optimistic that a new opportunity may lie around the corner.
Maven and Connector grew up in the same neighborhood, but never spent any time together as Connector thought that Maven was crazy and didn’t fit the profile of her friends. That was until one day in senior high school she was looking for her lost cat. After bumping into Maven when trying to peek over the fence surrounding his house in search of the cat, he told her exactly where to find the cat as he recorded in his notes seeing her earlier on a tree at the end of the street while he was exploring a bird nest there. Connector took interest in the notes that seemed to stick out of every pocket from Maven’s clothes and decided she can make use of his knowledge to help other people and further expand her network of friends. This was a turning point for Maven, who became somewhat of a celebrity in the city as everyone was asking him for advice — a stark change from the previous largely solitary fact-finding mission he was on.
Life couldn’t have been better for Maven and Connector as they entered University — he quickly becoming the main person students could go for any kind of advice and she rapidly earning a name as a party leader and the best person to befriend if you want to be accepted by other students — if Salesman didn’t appear and change all that. Though couple years younger than them and still a freshman, Salesman abruptly crashed into their lives as he saw an opportunity for business with them after hearing from others about their celebrity status on the campus. He started harassing them to start selling their services to other students and seemed to come up with an inexhaustible list of ways how to do that.
Maven, who was easier to influence of the pair, got very excited about the idea. Money didn’t matter to him, so he started to go around the campus and offer free advice to people without waiting for them to ask him for one. It would’ve all ended fine if he didn’t start to offer advice to his professors about their lectures so they got fed up and expelled him. That event unfortunately ended his relationship with Connector and brought him back into a life of solitude, though Salesman often paid him a visit, always battering him with endless suggestions about which new areas to explore in his fact-finding missions and how to turn them into successful business endeavors.
Connector, too, got affected by Salesman’s persistence, but in a different way. Before, she was looking at all of her friends (and she had a lot by then) as one cohesive group, so her main interest was to expand the group with more and more people. On Salesman’s insistence, though, she started seeing some people in a different light than others and came to a realization that she shared specific interests with some of them, but not with others. This made her unhappy and being angry at Salesman she set out to get those people who didn’t seem to share a specific interest to do so, but instead of achieving that, it caused bigger gaps between the interests of various people, inevitably leading to them segregating into groups with shared interests which didn’t overlap between those groups.
Always ready to socialize with people and expand her network, Connector learned to accept the new situation and expend most of her energy in keeping her relationships with all of the different groups, without trying to bridge the gaps and bring the people from two groups together. She did still keep her dream of a single coherent happy group of all of her friends, though, and from time to time she managed to get people join different groups or even merge two groups together, but Salesman seemingly constant presence in her life made it impossible to go beyond few intermittent successes. Oh, how she hated him for spoiling her idyllic world, but at the same time she couldn’t fight her internal urge to be friends with everyone, so she had to put up with his constant barrage of ideas how to take advantage of the lack of unity between the groups.
Let’s look at the characters and the story a little bit closer from the perspective of the three systems involved in the human personality development.
Clearly I used Maven as a metaphor for the Relationship organ, which is carrying the role of identifying the unique individuals in our life using an almost inexhaustible list of cues, or in other words is fascinated with individuals and our relationship to them — similar to the Maven’s fascination with almost everything in the world around him and the urge to explore them. Another similarity is the information filing inside the Relationship organ filling loads of memory inside the brain, just like Maven’s stacks of paper or data stored in computer or other devices. If the Relationship organ could come into its own individual existence as a person, it would indeed likely be diagnosed with Asperger’s or similar condition.
What would the world look like if we only had the Relationship organ to deal with our personality and social/outward behavior? Likely not too different than Maven’s solitary life filing everything into notes that no one except himself used before meeting Connector. We would probably be rather individualistic animals that would be way too different for any social interaction to emerge beyond satisfying sexual desires and ensuring survival! This would be a picture not too different from the life of many species on our planet I guess.
And this brings me to Connector, i.e. my metaphor for the Social organ. Like Connector, the Social organ carries the role of a “glue” between the different individuals, i.e. uncovers those characteristics that they share with us and uses that knowledge to bond us with other individuals in a group. By pairing Maven and Connector in the story, the world becomes rather idyllic for them. Connector uses Maven’s knowledge about everything (and everyone) to get more friends, while Maven get’s a chance to interact with more people, which is food for his compulsive information filing urge. I think similar symbiotic relationship exists between the Relationship and Social organ. The Relationship organ’s virtually inexhaustible capacity for storing data about individuals would go largely unused if not for the social interactions made possible by the Social organ.
Left alone, the Social organ would tirelessly work to make the group bond stronger by gluing more and more shared characteristics together, or rather impacting our personality and behavior to adopt the characteristics of the majority, ultimately ironing our the last difference between us and making us all in one big happy family. This is not too unlike Connector’s wish to be connected to everyone in the world. Maybe this is what is going on in those species of social insects like the termites which seem to behave like a single super-organism?! Maybe the other social animals, including us don’t behave like super-organisms because we own a Relationship organ to help us identify individuals?!
Ok, I said so far that if we possess only the Relationship organ, we would likely be like most non-social animals and if we possess only the Social organ, we would be part of a super-organism like the termites. Why would having both be different than just having the Social organ? Because of the predecessor to the Status organ! If you read my previous article you would remember discussing the impact of the status order in social animals. Given that social hierarchies have been identified in almost all social animals, it is likely that the urge to compete for the place in that hierarchy comes from older parts of the brain and is carried on unconsciously. Being able to recognize and remember unique individuals paired with a competitive behavior within the species would put a break on the process by which the Social organ would make everyone alike!
My argument is that the unconscious competition for social status is not enough to explain the differences we see between any two human beings. A conscious agent that can act convincingly to lead us to adopt one behavior over another is needed for that. That agent is likely what sets us apart from all of the other animals as with its “selling” skills it is able to convince us to adopt a behavioral niche, ultimately making us bring different skills to the table than the rest of the people we share a group with, thus making the group more successful than it would be if everyone shared the same behavior. It’s the secret ingredient that makes the whole bigger than the sum of its parts, though it comes at a cost!
What am I babbling about? What whole, which sum, where’s the cost?
Let’s look at my last character from the story, Salesman — my metaphor for the Status organ. Salesman, like the Status organ is a niche seeker. He’s interested in exploring novel areas for successful business opportunities. Similarly, the Status organ interacts with the Relationship organ to form a feedback loop that could go like this:
- We meet someone
- The relationship organ identifies that person and looks at the history of interaction with that person
- It chooses a behavior (it doesn’t matter how this is done for my story)
- The person responds to that behavior
- The status organ picks various clues using the theory of mind, facial expressions, gestures, spoken words, etc. and assesses if the outcome of the chosen behavior was e.g. positive or not
- If positive, it sends feedback to the Relationship organ to enforce the behavior in the future
- If negative, it seeks for a different behavioral niche to try and forces the Relationship organ to adopt it the next time
Before you go ballistic on me for trying to explain a complex behavior in a simplistic way and using distinct terms, let me say that the above is a metaphorical story of what the feedback loop might look like. The actual processes may be very different! I am only trying to convey what would the impact of the presence of the Status organ alongside the Relationship organ be when interacting with other people.
Of course, the Relationship and the Status organ are not alone, the Social organ will likely have a say in choosing the behavior (which is one reason why I suggested to ignore for now how the behavior is chosen). Furthermore, it will also impact the feedback sent to the Relationship organ about enforcing the chosen behavior or choosing another one if the first one is not deemed successful. I’ll try to spend more time to look into how could this type of interaction work and what would the feedback loops look like when all three organs are interacting in my next article, but for now I want to focus on how does adding the Status organ impact the picture.
Just like with the Salesman entering the lives of Maven and Connector their world changed drastically, I suggest that the appearance of the Status organ in our evolution had enormous impact to our behavior. Without the Status organ, we could only exercise already rehearsed (innate or learned) behaviors when interacting with someone. The Status organ adds an ability to seek for new behaviors. It is the type of characteristic you would expect to find in a highly successful species that took the planet on which they originated under their command. It is the novelty seeking device that enables us to invent whole new behaviors, leading ultimately to the invention of new tools and technologies. Sadly, it is also the device that provides new ways to define status between groups and leads to between-group differentiation and ultimately competition.
While competition between different groups of some ape species have already been observed, that could potentially be explained by invoking the unconscious competitive behavior I discussed earlier paired with the Social organ. What the Status organ paired with the Social organ did for us is the novel ways in which groups differ and compete. Though they may fight over food or territory (ultimately impacting their survival chances), I haven’t heard about groups of chimps fighting over their favorite hockey team during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver ;-)
It looks like only in us humans “The law of the Few” described by Gladwell in The Tipping Point have been truly satisfied for enabling an epidemic of a special kind — the one that enabled the evolution of culture, an evolution driven by memes as opposed to the biological one involving genes. The law of the Few requires three types of people, a Maven, a Connector and a Salesman. With the Social and Relationship organ the later two ingredients were already in place so the appearance of the Status organ adds the essential salesman ingredient that couldn’t be satisfied with the unconscious predecessor in the form of competition within the social hierarchy as that was a rather static system that could only choose from a palette of limited predefined behaviors when interacting with others. The Status organ is a truly dynamic system that can discover or even invent new behavioral niches and persuade the Maven and the Connector, like a true salesman, to adopt them!
I truly believe that our complex personalities and behavior can only be explained by a complex interplay of hereditary and environmental factors. I also believe that a complex system of organs inside our brain is responsible for driving ur behavior. The system of three organs discussed in this and my previous articles comes close to explaining the findings that only 40-50% of the behavioral similarities between identical twins can be attributed to direct or indirect gene impact, with 0% or close to 0% to the impact of the shared environment. I will try to put a systemic picture of the three organs working together to shape our personality in my next article, before I start discussing how could we benefit from our knowledge of the proposed system, hopefully along the way coming up with few testable predictions that one may try and confirm in the future.