Nature vs. nurture – set 4
Goal: describe the Status organ
In this set I’d like to discuss the following question: “If the Social organ makes us more alike, how come we’re still so different?” After all, I personally suggested that even identical twins turn out to be very different people with distinct characteristics and desires — see the introduction about Laleh and Ladan in set 1.
When discussing the Social organ in set 3 I didn’t mention one intriguing side-effect to our behavior caused by the drive to conform to the groups norms and customs. That is the drive to be different from people belonging to other groups. Not only that, but to often feel certain level of repulse for the behavior of those people or even get downright competitive, or worse, aggressive towards them — with the Vancouver 2010 Olympics behind us one just has to think of the sport fans supporting different teams, though other examples are abundant around us, including religious, racial, gender and similar intolerance.
I mentioned that symbols play a powerful role in the group identification, but our own behavior is the ultimate signaling to the other members of our group that we belong to or identify with the same group. The side-effect of using the behavior as a signal for group identification is that for it to be successful as a group passport, it needs to be distinctive enough so that members of other groups don’t mistake it as a passport for another group. Therefore, the behavior between any two different groups — when exposed to each other through e.g. shared social interactions — enters some kind of arms race that ultimately leads to group differentiation, causing each group to adopt behavioral norms that are very different from the other group — even if the groups are artificially created using a superficial criteria like choosing different names as in the famous Robbers Cave Experiment.
While the process of group differentiation leads to between-group differences and can explain come of the differences in behavior between individuals, it can’t explain the differences between two individuals that belong to the same group. To answer that, we have to look at the third organ (Status) which works together with the Relationship and Social organs to form our behavior.
As discussed so far, the Relationship organ acts as a vast storage of data about all individuals we meet in our life (including those we read about, see in movies, etc.) and it runs a highly sensitive recognition process that provides us with a capability to uniquely identify individuals from a pack. The Social organ, on the other hand, extends the storage with some virtual/model definitions that are blends of the individuals in the main Relationship storage and uses those in driving two specific processes: group identification and group differentiation. Group identification leads to the in-group behavior conformity, while the group differentiation is responsible for the between-group dissimilarities.
What is the Status organ, then? It’s probably easiest to understand this organ by looking at the emergence of social hierarchies within most species where social behavior and grouping go beyond the closest family circle. We have all heard about the term alpha-male and are familiar that many social animals organize themselves in groups with usually the biggest of them all acting as a lead. While the process of social stratification or pecking order that occurs among almost all social animals (including us humans) is likely not directly driven by the Status organ — I’d go so far and suggest humans may be the only ones with brain modules organized in such an organ — the social hierarchies are useful in painting a picture about what happens when groups of individuals come together.
If we put social insects aside, most of the remaining social animals expose hierarchical structure which quite often have several leader-subordinate relationships which can be dynamically affected when individuals at a certain level grow weaker and can’t hold their position, or few individuals come together and over power the leader. While this form of social status is common among most social species and is likely unconscious, the human evolution endowed us with new structures, maybe even built on top of the old ones or extended from them, that brought the social status behavior in the conscious mind.
The Status organ is able to employ a lot more tricks than the unconscious counterpart driving the social dominance. The unconscious modules were likely mainly shaped by the biological evolution — the dominant individuals with genes to make them bigger, faster, etc. tended to have more offspring, so the striving to dominate a group have spread among the species. Of course, brakes were applied on the opposite end as those individuals that made mistakes in measuring their strength when challenging the ones higher up didn’t get a chance to leave any offspring, thus those that could realistically weigh the odds of winning a battle for dominance left some genes around. The Status organ, compared to its unconscious predecessor, has access to much more powerful resources than innate ability to weigh strength or size, like the Relationship and Social organ, and, most importantly, the theory of mind.
The theory of mind is what enables us to “theorize” about the mind of others — what they believe, desire, etc. Not only that, it enables us to predict what they believe we believe, as well as what they believe we believe about them believing, etc. I won’t delve into the question if the theory of mind is unique ability in humans or other animals like the chimpanzee possess it too. It suffices to say that in humans this ability is developed to a level that allows us to introspect multiple levels of believes about believes and thus adjust our behavior accordingly, while in other animals, if it exists at all, it is likely confined to one level of inference — I know you’re looking at the same banana as me — or at most two levels — I know that you know I’m stronger than you. In humans this ability is innate, but it requires some time and experience as we grow from babies to fully develop somewhere around the age of 3 or 4.
While the theory of mind enables the sense of “self”, the Status organ makes it possible to gather all sorts of data about the “self” from the perspective of the people we interact with. Basically, the Status organ manages to add one more entry into the Individuals table managed by the Relationship organ to represent the “self” as a unique individual. Operating at a conscious level, it can use not only the theory of mind and predict what others believe about us, but also use the battery of all other available tools like language to get even more information about the view others have on us through the communication and interaction with other people.
And this is where things get really interesting! The Relationship organ is highly sensitive to differences between individuals and when the “self” enters the list, it’ll quickly sort our any differences from the other individuals in the list. Not only that, with the help of the feedback loops I’m suggesting operate at its level, it’ll ensure that even the tiniest differences surface up whenever the Individuals table grows as we meet more and more people.
Through the interaction with the Status organ and the extra feedback loops involving both, these differences are presented as repeated behavior to the people we socialize with, thus in turn leading to their Relationship organ updating the entry about us in their own Individuals table. This, furthermore, impacts the way they behave around us and thus, ultimately, in a final loopback, we learn what they think about us with the help of our Status organ through language, theory of mind or other means, further entrenching the behavior that initiated the cycle as representative of the “self”.
If this makes your head spin, I’ll try to move with a parallel metaphor from the process of biological evolution. Darwin have shown that given enough time and generally stable conditions (e.g. CO2, temperature, etc. fluctuates within some reasonable range) evolution, through the process of species differentiation, would fill in all ecological niches with life. This is especially true when the resources are limited and there’s high selection pressure over the species survival. Madagascar with its 99 species of Lemur (endemic to the island) and with an astonishing 75% of the total number of species living only there is a great example what can this process do!
The process of individual behavior differentiation driven by the Status organ is somewhat similar to the species differentiation, but it operates over the course of a human lifetime and its product is not new species of Homo sapiens, but rather a unique individual with distinct behavior from anyone else they have ever encountered in their life — think of it as the Zebra effect among humans 😉
Hopefully by now it is clear why the Status organ is so much different than the unconscious drive shared by many social animals that leads to orders of dominance. The Status organ can amplify any differences and find niche around which to shape the behavior for any individual — not just niches possible around social hierarchies, but niches available anywhere in the spectrum of human social behavior.
Now that we understand the profound impact the Status organ has on our behavior with its interaction with the Relationship organ, let’s look a bit deeper at the process of group differentiation I originally suggested is driven by the Social organ. If you look back at set 3 you will notice that I theorized that the Social organ is forked from the Relationship organ and maintains similar data structures internally, except the “individuals” it works with are models that define common behavior in a group context.
Why my theory about the Social organ being produced as an incorrect copy of the Relationship organ may not be proven as entirely true, I strongly believe that these two organs at least share the data structures in the background and furthermore, the Status organ can operate on both the real self represented as a unique individual as well as the group selfs represented as models for different groups and contexts.
While the process of group identification makes us adopt certain group behavior — switch our identity to the selected group “self” — the impact of the Status organ is to find a niche for that group “self” to differentiate itself from all f the other groups we don’t identify with. Therefore, I would suggest that the process of group differentiation is not driven by the Social organ alone, but rather by the Social and Status organ interacting in a positive feedback loop similar to the one between the Relationship and Status organ, which produces the individual differentiation as the ultimate reason for those 50+% of our behavior not impacted by neither nature nor nurture.