The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) remarked on our inability to find a satisfactory criterion for knowledge. I will, therefore, define it as information held in peoples’ minds, which may be considered true or false, and which includes our beliefs and attitudes. “Knowledge”, “beliefs” and “attitudes” are essentially different words used to describe mental information in different contexts. This information, in combination with our reasoning processes and our needs, determines our behaviour.
The knowledge of an individual is acquired in two main ways: from observation of the world around us and by receipt from others. All children are born with inherited predispositions but no knowledge. If a child had to work out for itself how to survive in its environment, then it would frequently make mistakes and might come to an unhappy end. Parents and other members of a child’s community will therefore provide an initial education which gives the child a working understanding of its environment.
Our early schemata are established in this way. However, as explained in the previous blog, information provided by others may have been distorted by their “effort after meaning”, contain errors of reasoning, and may even be lies. We accept as true any information which does not contradict our existing schemata. Failing that, we would acquire no new knowledge. Much of the information that young children receive from others falls into that category. Once established, the early schemata of the child will be resistant to change. As Aristotle famously said, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man”. Change can occur, however, if sufficient contradictions accumulate. Thus, our schemata alter in fits and starts. There is a period of rapid change followed by a period of quiescence in which the schema is resistant to change. In cases involving a significant change of worldview, this can be accompanied by an emotional crisis similar to grief at the loss of a loved one. Such crises can last for several years while the young adult goes through the stages of denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. The importance of providing children with reliable knowledge cannot be understated, therefore.
Socialisation or Social Learning
Social rules are necessary if society is to co-operate successfully for the benefit of its members. If we follow them then we will function successfully in our society, contribute to its success and, thus, prosper personally. Again, it is difficult for the child to work out these social rules for itself and, thus, parents and other teachers will provide an initial working education based on the culture of the society, i.e., its norms, values, beliefs and symbols.
During the 1950s psychologists developed the theory that we now know as Social Learning Theory. In summary, this theory states that some beliefs and strategies are formed in the following way:
- Identification with role models. Role models are usually parents, teachers, peers or people like oneself, and people seen as having advantages such as popularity, wealth, or fame.
- This identification leads to imitation behaviour and/or learning through observation. In the latter, behaviours may not necessarily be imitated immediately but may simply be remembered as strategies which can be used in later life. Seeing that a strategy adopted by another person successfully satisfies their needs will provide what is known as vicarious reinforcement and will condition a strategy even when it is not being performed by the person learning it. For example, if a colleague at the office always works through their lunch break and ultimately receives a promotion, then you may unconsciously adopt the same strategy in your next job.
- Imitation behaviour is either positively or negatively reinforced by other members of society depending on their beliefs about what is acceptable or unacceptable. These beliefs about social behaviour are referred to as norms. It may, for example, be the norm in your office to work through the lunch break. Through conditioning, norms become internalised or accepted as one’s own, and can be held unconsciously. Thus, the strategies underlying behaviour become conditioned or extinguished through social reinforcement. Highly conditioned beliefs about social behaviour form the conscience, a set of beliefs governing behaviour which cause psychological distress when our behaviour is contrary to them. For example, a socialised person will feel guilty if he steals.
In my next post, I will return to schemata, paradigms, and memes and describe the features that they have in common.