Saturday, March 12, 2005

Society and the Individual

A friend and I were recently discussing the often fascinating behavior of societies of insects. This is a topic covered at length in the book Godel, Escher Bach, as I'm sure many of you know.
One big question is what "motivates" the individuals in an ant society to behave the way they do; how do they know that what they're doing is going to add up to something big and complex, and positive for the society?
Of course, the real reason to look at the social behavior of insects is to understand our own biological minds and social behaviors. So my simple hypothesis is that, there is no strict distinction between what an individual wants and what his or her society wants.
I'll briefly use this lens to look at a few things.
If you ask, "why are there so few women in computer science", then someone might be inclined to say that women aren't interested in computers. But as that link points out, that statement sorta begs the question. Why is it that society "wants" women to be disinterested in computers, how can we change that, and how can we strengthen individual womens' attitudes so that they over-ride the "wants" of society?
Here is an interesting article about a study about test-taking for African-Americans. Selected quotes:
"...Ours is an individualistic culture; forward movement is seen to come from within. Against this cultural faith one needs evidence to argue that something as "sociological" as stereotype threat can repress something as "individualistic" as intelligence...
...for black students, difficulty with the test makes the negative stereotype relevant as an interpretation of their performance, and of them. They know that they are especially likely to be seen as having limited ability...
When the difficult verbal test was presented as a test of ability, black students performed dramatically less well than white students, even though we had statistically matched the two groups in ability level. Something other than ability was involved; we believed it was stereotype threat....
We presented the same test as a laboratory task that was used to study how certain problems are generally solved. We stressed that the task did not measure a person's level of intellectual ability. A simple instruction, yes, but it profoundly changed the meaning of the situation. In one stroke "spotlight anxiety," as the psychologist William Cross once called it, was turned off--and the black students' performance on the test rose to match that of equally qualified whites..."
So basically, when the African-American students felt that they were expected to perform poorly because of their race, they did indeed perform poorly.
But how does this idea affect the privileged members of society? Well, why do people constantly sacrifice happiness in their personal lives for success and power? The concept of prestige is tightly coupled with "what society wants of us." Part of them, as individuals actually wants to be happy, the part that wants what society "wants" pushes them away from happiness toward their idea of society's idea of prestige.
Even in the famously individualistic United States, we can't truly separate what society wants of us from what we want for ourselves.  

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