Sunday, 6 October 2013

The bonds of behaviour

It seems to me that one of life’s little problems is conversation, or rather lack of conversation. How many people are there in your particular circle with whom you have meaty conversations. Serious conversations about the existence of God, life on other planets, climate change, political correctness, moral standards or whatever.

Is it related to this dumbing-down we keep hearing about? Maybe not, maybe it’s more fundamental. To my mind it has something to do with the fact, at least I think it’s a fact, that we are not encouraged to be analytical with respect to our own behaviour.

One of the oldest and most enduring social discoveries is the idea that we simply respond to a stimulus in a way that has previously been positive for us and avoid those which have been negative. It goes back at least as far as the pleasure/pain principle of Epicurus, although to my mind the word pleasure has too many physical connotations and peace is often better.

From Wikipedia
For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia—peace and freedom from fear—and aponia—the absence of pain—and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends.

However we describe it, our lives are a record of positive and negative impacts and feedbacks and the way they made us what we are. It’s a simple enough philosophy and very powerful but we don’t make much direct use of it. Yet the rich and powerful have always used it as the primary method of social control. It is used today in mind-boggling detail and presumably always will be.

We don’t seem teach the pleasure/pain principle to children in any systematic way though, even though the idea is simple, suited to role playing and the value of it screamingly obvious. I wonder why?

Perhaps the whole idea is just too revealing?

The rich and powerful still need it as much as ever because they don’t have anything else. So they have to use it covertly, obliquely or at least keep it below the mainstream radar most of the time.

David Cameron’s reference to nudge theory is an obvious example of how the idea is still seen as politically unidirectional – from rulers to ruled. After all, anyone might reasonably ask how Cameron responds to nudges from the electorate. Maybe he responds to winks from his cronies instead.

Sip a cup of coffee and put it down because it is too hot. Stimulus and response – we are bound by it throughout our lives but rarely bring it into the open and admit the mechanical nature of much of what we do – much of what we are. Maybe there is anticipated pain which prevents us from knowing too much about ourselves.

A painful shattering of illusions perhaps?

Also posted at Broad Oak Magazine

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