Changing Beliefs

Group psychology looks at how the psyche (mind) of people is influenced by or influences the behaviour of the group and most theories rest on a few very basic and very old ideas:

  • true determinism: the idea that people’s lives are predetermined (usually by a deity or the stars) and that they have no self-determination
  • behaviourism: the idea that children are born blank slates and they are moulded into certain habitual behaviours by their environment ; the parents and teachers (the culture) forms the person
  • physical determinism: the idea that people’s inherited physical body (their DNA, their race, their gender or their brain) determines their behaviour, so that the nature of the parents predetermines a child’s development
  • complete free will: the idea that people are free to determine the cause of their lives, that every action is a choice, and that they can overcome learned behaviour, instincts, habits and emotions by will
  • combinations of any of the above:
  1. the most common current belief – which I have labelled “the brainstory theory” – is that people inherit their genes from their parents and that those determine how the brain works and the brain causes people to think and behave the way they do (their personality traits), but the environment can influence that brain with food, exercise, drugs (hormones) or lessons and so change the personality
  2. type theory; the idea that there are a limited number of psychological types of people (personalities). These type difference are inborn, a bit like gender differences, and they influence how people experience their environment (from the day they are born), but as these are tendencies and not specific traits we still have free will within our psychological limits – just like we can have free will within our physical limits: we have no wings, so we can’t fly, but that doesn’t stop us walking where we want

So the difference between the latter two is that the second believes that outward behaviour is not equivalent to the personality inside and that these inborn personality differences are not changeable by forces from outside.

So how does this relate to group psychology?

Well, these theories and beliefs are influenced by other beliefs. There was a time when everybody believed they were created by an omnipotent deity, so it was natural to accept determinism. The experts were trained by the church and they looked for (and consequently found) evidence of their belief in the people around them. But with The Enlightenment came the belief in a rational mind and free will, and as a result the belief about the cause of our behaviour changed to giving more power to the environment.

Thus, metaphysical beliefs – beliefs about existence itself, which give the members of a culture their reason to be alive and will therefore be defended at any cost – directly influence beliefs about what is considered true. This happens in all fields of knowledge, but the added problem with psychology is that those who make the theories about how people come to believe what they believe, are themselves immersed in the going metaphysical beliefs of their time – like how the determinists found evidence of God’s influence in what they observed, because that is what they expected.

Until the mid twentieth century, parents and teachers often had one acceptable standard of behaviour – schoolchildren wore uniforms, did not speak out of turn or get up from their seat unless told to – and if they didn’t abide by those rules they’d get chastised (in public). Pretty straight forward: the expectation was that people did not behave as individuals and that was enforced with moral rules, since moral rules are group rules about behaviour. The underlying belief may have been that such treatment would make them all identical on the inside as well – this was the time during which “behaviourism” as a theory was highly regarded – but nobody bothered to look; the focus was on what could be observed and not on inner personalities.

Things have changed in the last fifty years. There has been a social shift from behaviourism to believing in inner nature, a shift that resulted from the increasing popularity of evolution theories and DNA discoveries. The more science developed ways of looking inside a person, using brain scans and genetic research, the more everything a person did was attributed to their inherited genes.

This flourished with late twentieth century pshysicalism, but is today modified with the belief that the brain is pliable and that changing the external behaviour by will or the brain through hormones can change the personality inside – and this idea is spreading rapidly via mass media.

Today’s notion is that “we are all unique”, because we all inherit our special genetic make-up from our parents and we are all raised in different environments. Today  “individuality” is considered something to strive for instead of be ashamed of.

And yet, despite promoting this idea, there is the expectation that all people are identical in this need for individuality and that by looking into the brain of a person and comparing it to the brain of some others, the reason for different behaviour can be found and corrected.  Thus, there is discrepancy between the popular belief and the way the society expresses that, because it expects that all people are (or should be) identical; they still measure to one standard.

In the next post I will come back to the effect of this discrepancy on the children. The key here is to understand the reason for it: What is believed to be true changes all the time; knowledge isn’t permanent, ideas change and people look for evidence of what they already believe – science finds what it is looking for – and that happens unconsciously.

Of course, many viewpoints overlap at any one time – there are still plenty of people who believe in determinism (astrology is very popular) and most people will not yet accept that evolution isn’t as simple as survival of the fittest, which is becoming more evident with the study of epigenetics.

Every new idea takes time to grow. Most people won’t change their opinion until the public at large accepts an idea, which is usually brought about when the popular media keep repeating the messages, which reinforce each other and slowly more and more people accept them.

Because of this, popular ideas may seep into everyday life and education (which tells the children “what is true”) before being totally accepted, like when schools started teaching evolution theory instead of creationism in biology, but also held classes called “religious education”.

There are always going to be some people who are inclined to hold on what is and others who will jump on every new idea, so that what schools teach may be outdated in some aspects and the message they are sending in words (lessons) may not be congruent with the way the individual teachers behave (the subliminal expression of their moral beliefs and culture).

In short, moral and cultural beliefs are about people’s reason to be alive, so there is a tendency to try and make others accept those beliefs, because the alternative is doubt (about their very existence). This is why religions are so often the cause of war; they represent the need to defend an existential belief. At times, cultures totally isolate themselves and leave very little room for doubt in the individual members and at other times, cultures mix and there is more tolerance for different religions and rituals.

In Soup and Bread, the school is a public school in a time of cultural mixing (our current society), so it must teach evolution in its curriculum, but it has once a week classes called RE, during which those children who are not Christian (whether they are atheist or not) are allowed to stay out of class.

However, children are not allowed to skip physical education classes, because, as one character says, “Today everybody believes in physical exercise instead of in God.” – Our society has no tolerance for different beliefs about health, because the expectation is that what is good for one person is good for all of them, and sport is very much revered in western culture.

So despite using “individuality” and “tolerance” in its lesson about what values people should have, the school is selective in what it is tolerant about.

And this plays on a different scale in every group, because a group (a society, a culture, a club, a school) cannot exist unless its members have some things in common. Moral rules are one way of enforcing these common beliefs on the members of a group.

So, despite this slow changing of the “mass mind” being a good thing – it prevents eternal chaos or dogmatic inertia – it is where all social friction rests and this is why we have bullying. Some people will always believe that the individual should be subordinate to the group (despite fashions about individuality) and others will believe that any community that makes individuals subordinate, is dictatorial.

That, of course, brings me back to the theories about people’s behaviour and the currently popular “brainstory theory”, which claims on the one hand that every single person is unique and yet seeks all answers in the brain or hormones, comparing those to one ideal standard.

In my view, people are not psychological clones of each other – all the same in how we experience the world – but neither are we completely unique, because our inborn psychological processes are a result of how we deal with information, and there are only so many ways we can do that – the amount of information may be limitless, but the number of ways we can relate to it is not – which is why some people believe the individual should be subordinate and why some people are more traditional than others.

Sure, all people are unique in the sense of having had different experiences and a different upbringing. But fundamentally, way deeper than simple parental DNA, there are 16 different sorts of people –not 4, not 8, not 32 – different ways of relating to these experiences and that upbringing, and these differences are vital for a species as complex as ours to prevent psychological cloning with physical determinism or environmental behaviourism, both of which would have stagnated intellectual progress long ago.

So, our inborn differences are vital for our survival as a group and simultaneously, our collective actions and interactions are responsible for the social problems we experience today, including bullying and eating disorders, and we can only change those if we understand the problem at this deeper level.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. letsavengeourselves
    Jan 26, 2015 @ 01:25:58

    If you can please check out my blog. I am just starting out
    Thanks
    https://letsavengeourselves.wordpress.com/

    Reply

  2. Trackback: According to the Dictionary: Schooling or Education | nonentiti

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