How Patterns Influence Our Lives

In Beyond Human Nature, Jesse J. Prinz argues that culture is the ultimate determiner of behavior. In the chapter "Gladness and Madness," he addresses depression, which is statistically on the rise.
"Perhaps," Prinz argues, "we are learning how to be depressed . . . Each symptom of major depression can occur naturally, and each can be viewed as a coping response to the challenges of life . . . The difference now might have something to do with the fact that we all know about depression . . . Everyone has learned how to be depressed. We have learned the depression script. We have learned that a certain set of symptoms co-occur with an intensity that makes life painful and difficult . . . [Culture] can make a cluster of symptoms . . . define the relevant curve balls . . . train us to construe things in a way that increases the likelihood of getting depressed."
Prinz has a point. The idea that we "learn" (through culture) what certain experiences mean as well as how to react to them explains defunct behavior like swooning and the half-deliberate/half-non-deliberate hysterics of the teenagers in the Salem Witch trials.  Later in the chapter, Prinz relates how different cultures deal with or interpret depression, noting that the conditions and explanations can differ substantially.

Prinz does allow (repeating several times) that there may be a genetic predisposition or hormonal imbalance involved in depression (and he goes on to argue that strong cultural expectations make the experience largely involuntary--though not how someone deals with it).

In truth, I don't completely buy into Prinz's argument, precisely because I think he ignores the impact of biology and hormones to a stunning degree. I half-expected him to start arguing that women are the ones to give birth because, hey, that's what our culture expects. (The animal nature of the human experience is a force that many cerebral interpretations prefer to by-pass.)

However, I think Prinz has a minor point, especially when it comes to families (although he does not address families exclusively). I dislike environmental and genetic determinism and have no intention of replacing those "theories" with THE BLUEPRINT THEORY. The following is a possibility, not an explanation of all human behavior since time began.

The Possibility

Families, culture writ small, create blueprints in their members' heads. Some of those blueprints reside in the unconscious; we accept them because to not do so would make life impossible. This blueprint can involve traditions as basic as the fact that we call people by names (not numbers or emotions-see Inside Out).

Other blueprints reside in the semi-conscious: how people think about work, how people argue, how people react to holidays. These blueprints can be questioned. The questioning by itself is not inherently meritorious or unique. After all, there is no such thing as a life without patterns or a blueprint. As Hayden Fox explains on Coach, even the absence of a parent can be a blueprint.
It's impossible to imagine--humans ARE their patterns.

In fact, human beings couldn't exist at all without these blueprints--whatever John Lennon tried to

For instance, take a blueprint that exists in many families and churches: reverence. In Western, middle-class, American culture, this largely philosophical concept has a blueprint of people sitting quietly and politely in dresses and suits while listening to quiet music and/or quiet speakers in an often pastel environment. Or, being alone in a large quiet field with a beautiful (non-urban) view.

It is very Protestant.

When I teach my little kids at church, I teach them to behave in the above way (or try to) because I know they will benefit in Western, middle-class, American culture if they know how. I would be remiss if I didn't. This largely Protestant behavioral ideal is necessary if my American little kids want to grow up to get good grades in school, wait in line at post offices, learn to drive, get jobs after surviving reasonably civil interviews, attend weddings, attend movies in movie theaters, go to restaurants, not get killed by mobs at soccer games or music concerts, and so on.

However, I confess, I don't take the next step in the blueprint; I don't tell them that this particular behavior is inherently "righteous" or "Godly."

If they were older, I could explain that "this blueprint is the way that people demonstrate Godliness in our culture," but they aren't that old. They need to be socialized--and I'm perfectly willing to socialize them to the current norms since those norms are fairly effective (and I'm not the type of radical to "revolutionize" the norms until I know the new norms have been tested). 

But I can never forget--and I don't especially want them to forget--that it's a cultural and temporal blueprint. In the past, Bible men and women showed reverence by dancing, shouting, wrestling with angels, spitting on people (no kidding), and running away.

God is bigger than Protestant America.

Truth: the blueprint my students get at home and with their peers (see Judith Rich Harris) is more powerful than anything I tell them anyway. And those blueprints--how people are supposed to parent, how people are supposed to act in large or small groups, how people are supposed to handle sadness or confusion, how people are supposed to deal with defeat or success--are powerful.

I'm not sure how much the blueprints can be changed. I do know that many of them can be questioned and tweaked and that small tweaks can lead to decidedly different outlooks and choices in life (if this wasn't true, then human nature would never change at all: lower-classes in Europe wouldn't have upped and moved to America; medicine would never improve--see miasma theory; and people would never have gone into space).

Choice matters. As Judith Rich Harris states, quoted in Steven Pinker's Blank Slate, "We may not hold [children's] tomorrows in our hands but we surely hold their todays, and we have the power to make their todays very miserable," and as Stephen Pinker himself states earlier in the same book, explanation is not the same as exculpation (his emphasis). We may not be singly responsible for the rise and fall of cultures, but whatever happens in the present is well within our purview.


Joe said...

Accepting that you are paraphrasing, I find Prinz's observations incredibly naive. It seems he is so attached to his theory that the obvious gets lost; namely that the society has made it okay to talk about depression. Personally, I wish depression and severe anxiety were a social construct, since I could then do something about mine.

Seems to me that the "society causes behavior" argument is only one step removed from the blank slate theories of Marxism and ultimately falls into the same trap of the "if you'd only listen to me" nonsense so prevalent in the ivory towers of academia. What makes this particularly peculiar is that it's been discredited for decades, so why persist?

I think it's because human behavior is messy, complicated and convoluted and there are no easy answers. For example, books an child rearing are great until you have your own (and then have an Amanda or, for her, an Oakley.) The end result, especially for intellectuals and the religiously minded, is that finger pointing becomes problematic, if not impossible.

That said, there is an undercurrent of; we're all victims of society/biology/whatever and there's not much, if anything, we can do about it. While there is some evidence that some choices we make are not as cognitive as we want to believe, it doesn't mean we have no free will.

(To get all metaphysical, what is behavior? What you do in a direct observational sense is behavior, but what about how your think, but don't act? Is "lust" behavior? Anger? What about cowardice or bravery?

If everything in me tells me to run away and even after the fact, I wish I'd run away, but I didn't, is that bravery? Perhaps my fear was so great that I was unable to run away until it was too late. Is it now bravery?

Is is possible that sometimes, maybe even ofttimes, there is no cause-effect explanation? Or, if there is, it has so many layers in society, biology, hidden and known, common [to humanity] and personal to one self, that no genuine answer can be understood. And is it possible that that frightens people, especially those who think they have, or should have, all the answers?)

PS. I reserve the right to completely change my mind about all of this, so don't hold me to it!

FreeLiveFree said...

I like your Theory of Patterns and also how you admit it can't explain everything.

Both cultural and genetic determinism don't take in account free will. There's certainly truth that both society and biology have determining factors in who we are, but I believe we also choose who we are. That's the reason two children grow up in an abusive home: one grows up to be an abuser another grows up but chooses not too.

That's one of the reasons I'm skeptical of cultural commentators. Just being from a different part of the country or of a different ethnicity can mean major differences. There's a difference between a Texan of Scots-Irish descent (like myself) than say Jewish person from New York. Both being Americans have similarities but there are differences.