Categories
d. The Acquisition of Knowledge

The Acquisition of Knowledge

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.

Nurture

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Categories
g. Anti-social Needs and Behaviour

Anti-social Needs & Behaviour

Our normal needs have an evolutionary basis and are those which, in the past, best enabled us to survive and procreate. They are the result of order brought about by life’s struggle against entropy and can be likened to the sandcastle described in my first article “Schrodinger’s Other Paradox”. They have a basis in both genetic and cultural evolution.

Unfortunately, due to the same evolutionary processes, some individuals have anti-social needs which cause behaviour that is a contra-satisfier resulting in harm to others. Note that I do not regard simple differences of opinion or personality as being anti-social. Nor do I regard outrage or disapproval as a harm. There must be a genuine impact on the contra-needs of others. Anti-social needs are the inevitable effect of entropy both on society and on the human genome, and can take many forms, most of which are harmful. Their existence can be likened to the many ways in which the sandcastle can begin to decay into a random heap of sand.

In practice, both normal needs, anti-social needs, and the behaviour they cause are defined by laws, norms, and consensus. These differ from nation to nation, culture to culture, and time to time. Generally, however, crime is subject to laws and punishment by the state, for example, imprisonment for theft. Violation of moral and religious codes has been regarded as punishable by God. Historically, for example, hell has been the ultimate fate of sinners. In some highly religious societies, the state can also intervene and, for example, impose punishment for blasphemy. Violation of social norms is punishable by the community by, for example, shunning. However, acts that cause mental stress or psychological damage to the victim often receive no censure.

Our contra-needs, or those harms that we wish to avoid, also have an evolutionary basis and are largely universal. Any behaviour which impinges on them will, therefore, be regarded by the recipient as unacceptable. If social controls favour normal needs, then the tendency will be towards orderly and healthy societies. However, if religious dogmas, political ideologies, corruption, or any combination of the three gain undue influence, especially control of the state, then incompatibilities can occur. This results in a society which can only be sustained through force, coercion, and repression.

Although normal needs are relatively universal and based on what has best enabled human beings to survive and procreate, disorder can occur in infinite ways. The causes of anti-social needs are, therefore, boundless. Examples include heredity, biological disfunction, drugs, upbringing, poverty, social, political, and economic factors, and so on. Criminologists recognise, for example, that the causes of crime are unique to each individual and that a combination of several factors may be in play.

It is impossible, therefore, to categorise anti-social needs. Furthermore, because an actor with anti-social needs will usually disguise them to avoid social controls, and will not be forthcoming with researchers, it is also extremely difficult to assess the priority that he or she gives to them and to anticipate when anti-social behaviour will occur.

Anti-social needs do, however, lie on a scale of type, which can vary from extreme psychological disorder, to exaggerated normal needs. Once a need is adequately satisfied, we usually move on to the satisfaction of others. However, for a variety of reasons, such as social influences, force of habit, or personality traits, it is possible to become trapped in the satisfaction of a particular need, to the extent that it is indulged in to harmful excess. For example, the pursuit of excessive wealth, power, or celebrity.

Anti-social needs also lie on a scale of harmful intent. At one extreme lie psychopathy, paedophilia, narcissism, etc., where the need is only satisfied by deliberately causing harm to others. At the other extreme lie antisocial behaviour and Schadenfreude or pleasure at the misfortune of others. Anti-social behaviour, as we presently understand it, is inconsiderate behaviour. It incudes, for example, vandalism, graffiti, littering, and dumping rubbish.

Finally, anti-social needs lie on a scale of effect which depends on the priority given by the victim to the relevant contra-need. Death, for example, would be high in the list of a victim’s contra-needs.

Life is a struggle against entropy, and it is inevitable, therefore, that we will always be faced with anti-social needs. However, this does not mean that we should just accept them. They are entropic in nature, and we are compelled by evolution to fight against them.

Most criminologists recognise that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. It is also the case that people are attracted to institutions, organisations, and individuals who they feel will satisfy their needs. Knowing this, risk assessment, deterrence, prevention, and mitigation, based on the priority of the relevant contra-needs and the number of people affected, could be a practical approach. This would, for example, involve assessing the risk of an institution being steered in a harmful direction, and taking measures to reduce the risk that an individual with relevant anti-social needs can take its reins.