Personality Theory:
A Biosocial Approach

C. George Boeree, PhD
Psychology Department
Shippensburg University

© Copyright C. George Boeree 2009


Constructed realities

The world before it is perceived is an infinite collection of qualities.  It is up to the perceiver to use some of these qualities to differentiate one event from another.  This process of differentiation is driven by desire (relevance, need, meaning...).  The perceiver does not “construct” reality itself;  he or she constructs an understanding of reality, a model or theory which guides perception and behavior.  Neither does reality alone determine perceptions and behaviors; reality is experienced “through” our understanding of it.

Animals, we presume, live in a perceived reality mediated only by instinct and individual experience.  The differentiations they have or develop remain close to the natural “fault lines” of reality before it is perceived.  In other words, what one animal sees is pretty likely to be similar to what another of the same species with similar experiences perceives.  This unconstructed immediate reality is also what infants experience - and what we all experience, every now and again, when we are totally engaged in the world.

We adult human beings, on the other hand, are more usually creatures of symbolization, language, and culture.  We may have instincts, and we certainly have our own unique experiences, but we also learn from the experiences of others (or even the whimsy of others) communicated through language and other symbols, artifacts, and techniques.

Let’s back up a moment:  Images are anticipations temporarily detached from their referents in the real world - perceptions without their objects.  When we imagine (fantasize, think...), we use these “loose” anticipations as if they were real.  We experience the same problems and problem-solving, with the same distresses and delights, that we experience in full interaction with the world.

Symbols are events that become attached to images.  These symbols thereby allow us to “project” images (and fantasies, and thoughts...) outside our minds, in the form of speech, writing, art, and so on.  We can then communicate our mental images to others who share our symbols.

These symbols can themselves be held within our minds as images, and we can manipulate those images as we can any other.  We are now actually three-times removed from immediate experience!  This is what most of us call thought in the strictest sense, i.e. the internal manipulation of symbols.

When rules for manipulating symbols are shared along with a set of symbols, we have a language.  We communicate to the extent that we share these symbols and rules, which ultimately means to the extent that we share differentiations.  This is the essence of culture:  shared differentiations - shared understanding of reality - as reflected in shared symbols.

This is ability gives us a huge advantage:  Each individual need not discover from scratch what others have discovered before them.  Plus, in a social creature (one that requires, not just enjoys, the presence of others), the very real and immediate needs of others can be efficiently communicated, rather than vaguely intimated and guessed at.  Further, words (and symbols in general) are not tied to reality the way that anticipatory images are.  They can be manipulated, moved around, recombined....  They are our most powerful means of creativity.

But there is a negative side to this as well.  Because words and symbols are relatively independent of reality, they can easily develop a life of their own.  Differentiations and complex systems of differentiations that may once have had meaning (or not) are communicated to the developing child as if they represented a reality directly, experientially, available to anyone.  I refer to this as constructed reality, since it is made rather than “grown” experientially from the reality beyond perception.  It is, we might say, a fiction or myth, and it may be beneficial or destructive.

The most important constructed reality is social reality itself.  We create this social reality out of fabric provided for us by our culture through our parents, teachers, peers, media, etc.  Each individual’s social reality is somewhat different, but our social realities are similar, and mutually validating, to the extent that we share common cultural traditions, meaning common symbolic differentiations.  If we share socio-cultural traditions, we are “cut from the same cloth,” so to speak.

These social realities are fictions that have socially evolved over generations because they aid in the smooth operation of society.  They survive the way physical characteristics and instincts survive, and for the same reasons.  We could even speak of cultural genes or "memes", as some indeed have. But they are fictions, created and not “born,” and only loosely tied to deeper reality.  As long as they tend to help rather than hinder, and do not too frequently fly in the face of that deeper reality, they can survive and flourish.

Unfortunately, we tend to reify these structures, to give them lives of their own.  We may even consider them more real than the experiences they represent.   And they may become roadblocks to further actualization, rather than aids.  They may be used to interpret and explain reality, instead of being used for practical communication. “E = mc2” becomes a law of the universe rather than an abbreviated description of a recurrent pattern.  “God” becomes an all-powerful entity beyond and behind the very world he was invented to explain.  A person is neurotic, introverted, self-actualizing, etc., rather than worried, shy, or creative.  And so on and so on.

All this leads me to some very strong conclusions:  For the most part, religions are fictions;  governments are fictions;  economies are fictions;  philosophies are fictions;  sciences are fictions;  arts are fictions;  societies are fictions;  all the “isms” -- capitalism, socialism, racism, humanism, sexism, feminism... are fictions.  They are words with few referents.  A mature, experienced, intelligent person can handle these words and use them as conveniences in communication. Unfortunately, the great majority of people apparently cannot.

Erich Fromm suggests that the human needs can be expressed in one simple statement:  The human being needs to find an answer to his existence.  Fromm says that helping us to answer this question is perhaps the major purpose of culture.  In a way, he says, all cultures are like religions, trying to explain the meaning of life.  Some, of course, do so better than others. A more negative way of expressing this need is to say that we need to avoid insanity, and he defines neurosis as an effort to satisfy the need for answers, but one that doesn't work vdery well.  He says that every neurosis is a sort of private religion, one we turn to when our culture no longer satisfies.

"Culture is a way of thinking, feeling, believing. It is the group's knowledge stored up (in memories..., books, and objects) for future use." (Clyde Kluckhohn, Mirror for Man)
Culture is learned.  But, as we saw, learning, at least in people, is a lot more than just conditioned responses.  It would be more accurate to think of it as a soaking-up of the world - especially the social world - around you. This makes the impact of culture considerably richer, if less fundamental, than the impact of genetics.

It is easy to get carried away by genetic or sociobiological explanations for human behavior.  They seem so reasonable!  But you have to be careful:  Many of the things that have sociobiological explanations may also have learned, cultural explanations that are just as reasonable.

For example, it is certainly true that those who carry a gene that pushes the individual towards sexual activity are more likely to leave behind children who, in turn, will have that gene and pass it on, etc.  And, conversely, those who carry a gene that makes them sexually unresponsive may leave behind fewer children, and that gene eventually may disappear from the species.

But a society of people with certain well-learned cultural habits that push them to reproduce has the same effect!  Someone who thoroughly believes that it is one’s duty to have many children is more likely to actually have them, and then teach them what they so thoroughly believe:  That it is one’s duty to have many children.  And so on down the line!

Those who believe they should reproduce pass on those beliefs as well as their genes.  Those who believe that it is better to remain celibate don’t pass on their genes, nor their beliefs in celibacy.  But wait:  Haven’t their been cultures that promote celibacy - the Catholic and Buddhist traditions of monastic life, for example?

In these cases, although a portion of the society is not reproducing, that portion may actually serve a useful purpose for the rest of society, helping to pass on that society’s beliefs via education.  The beliefs concerning the value of celibacy are passed on to other people’s children, and so they continue as well!

Cultures need to accomplish certain things if they are to survive at all.  They must assure effective use of natural resources, for example, which might involve the learning of all sorts of territorial and aggressive behaviors, just like in sociobiological explanations.  And they must assure a degree of cooperation, which might involve learning altruistic behaviors, rules for sharing resources and for other social relationships, just like the ones in sociobiological explanations.  And they must assure a continuation of the population, which might involve certain courtship and marital arrangements, nurturant behaviors, and so on, just like in sociobiological explanations.

If a society is to survive - and any existing society has at least survived until now - it must take care of the very same issues that genetics must take care of.  But, because learning is considerably more flexible than evolutionary adaptation, culture tends to take over many of the tasks of genetics.  That is, after all, only evolutionary good sense!

It has become popular to refer to these beliefs as memes (in analogy to genes).  “It is your duty to have many children,” “Celibacy is to be valued,” “Obey those older than you,” “Kill those who do not conform to our beliefs,” are all examples of memes.

Also included as memes are all the techniques a society develops, such as how to make a flint tool, how to grind wheat, how to butcher a pig, how to make a cake, how to wage a battle, how to read and write, and so on, all the way up to how to build a nuclear power plant or perform neurosurgery.

Other memes include the rules to sports and games, the way we keep time and dates, the events we celebrate, the rituals we engage in, the rules for choosing leaders, the way we keep track of who owes whom how much....  The list is endless.  And yet all these things survive - or not - in a manner not too dissimilar from the manner in which we pass on our genetic inheritance:  If they promote the welfare of the society, they continue.  If they work against the welfare of the society, they will disappear, perhaps with that society.

Many memes have very short life-times:  Top-ten music hits seldom last longer than a few months;  Fashions are notorious for changing one year to the next;  And the popularity of one celebrity or another goes as fast as it comes.  But some memes last for generations, and some last for a thousand years or more!  There are characteristics of various ethnic groups (often contributing to exaggerated stereotypes) that can be traced back centuries and seem to be nearly impossible to erase.  These memes may even become things that a people use to identify themselves as a culture.

Examples can easily be found in the cultures of traditional people around the world.  The ancestors of people living in small villages in parts of the Middle East, or Sub-Sahara Africa, or high in the Andes of South America would likely have little difficulty fitting in with their descendents - except, I suppose, for the occasional radio or cellphone.  Even in Europe, the day-to-day life of peasants changed little from the dark ages to the renaissance.

Another example is language.  Language usually changes very slowly, if there are no major movements of tribes.  In Iceland, a very modern country in every other way, the language is nearly identical to that spoken by its original viking settlers from a thousand years ago!

On the other hand, when populations start to move and cultures begin to mingle, we can see rapid changes in culture.  One hundred years ago, white Americans were rarely well educated, looked to the Bible for guidance, were very independent, hard-working, and frugal, and would have nothing to do with African Americans or their culture.  Today, almost all have a high school degree, and a large number have college degrees.  Religion still has a strong influence, but most people turn to doctors, lawyers, and psychiatrists for guidance.  Most people work for large corporations and government institutions, belong to unions, expect all sorts of government services.  They tend to spend money very freely - even money they don't actually have - and consider leisure time a God-given right. And parts of African American culture have been thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream culture:  Blues, jazz, rock, and hiphop are referred to as true American music, though created by the descendents of slaves.  And they might even consider voting for an African American for president!

Even more dramatic are the changes wrought by technological advances.  Many of the major cultural changes of history follow major changes of technology:  The agricultural revolution and the industrial revolutions are the obvious examples.  Consider the technological revolution of the last century:  Imagine the world of your great-grandfather or great-grandmother 100 years ago.  No cars, no highways, no airplanes, no radios, no televisions, no telephones, no computers, no recorded music, no internet....  Imagine what your great-grandfather or great-grandmother would think of the world today. Things have changed.

If we look at the world today, we can clearly see the results of centuries, even millennia of this cultural kind of evolution:  Democracy seems to be winning out over totalitarianism;  Science seems to be winning out over superstition;  Less happily, militarism seems to be winning out over peacefulness, and the economics of greed over an economics of compassion.  We may have to be extra vigilant in the near future:  Militarism and capitalism have little use for the voice of the people, and prefer ignorance over knowledge.

Another thing to consider here:  Just like genes are selected in the context of an ecosystem, so are memes selected in a larger context.  What worked really well in the stone age may not work so well in the agricultural age.  What meant superiority in the middle ages may lead to disaster in the industrial age.  Even what meant success in the last century may not mean success in this one.

And one more thing:  Unlike physical evolution, cultural evolution can change very quickly!  We don’t have to wait for the slow processes of natural selection:  Change can occur in a single generation.  And a single individual can introduce a new meme - a new belief or technique - that alters the world.  Think of Edison, Gandhi, Lister, Einstein, Sanger, Darwin, Pinel, Pasteur, Gorbachev...  the list goes on and on!

Getting a picture of a society

What makes up a society?  How do we describe one?  It is a complicated affair, but here are some suggestions as to what we need to keep in mind:


1.  Who - the individuals, the roles, the qualifications....
2.  What - the objects, clothing, tools, ritual objects, technology....
3.  When - scheduling, timing, cycles....
4.  Where - the locale, buildings, furnishings....
5.  How - the activities, rituals, techniques....
Domains (or Why we do these things)
1.  Organization - order (kinship systems, government, guilds, corporations).
2.  Power structures - enforcement (the military, police, defense, war).
3.  Production - subsistance (work, industry, agriculture, crafts, technology, cooking, cleaning, sewing, modern professions, applied science...).
4.  Education - learning (school, apprenticeship, research).
5.  Recreation - entertainment (play, sports, toys, games, art, music, musical instruments, stories, literature, theater...).
6.  Belief systems - stability (propitiation of the gods or spirits, satisfaction of superstitious tendencies, social manipulation, moral control, religion, magic, theoretical science...).
Layers of society (the "concentric domains")
1.  Family - the most intimate circle and its activities, including meals, sexuality and reproduction, child rearing, male/female and adult/child role differentiation....
2.  Community - a larger circle of people that we still think of as "us," and all that pertains to "us."
3.  The Others - the people beyond our community, whom we think of as "them," and how we relate to "them."
(There may be additional layers and sublayers, depending on the complexity of the society.)

Cultural typologies

I am a fan of the work of Richard Castillo, who uses three very traditional culture dimensions in discussing multicultural psychopathology and therapy.

1.  Sociocentric vs. egocentric.  This is also known as collectivism vs. individualism.

In the sociocentric society, a person gets his or her identity from the group, traditionally, the extended family.  Your status comes from your position within the group, and the group's position in the larger society.  People rarely try to move beyond the group, since that means a loss of identity.  In fact, being "excommunicated" is the strongest punishment the group can apply.

In an egocentric society, a person's identity is independent of the group.  Even when there remain socially stigmatized individuals and groups, the egocentric society maintains an ideal that says you are what you make of yourself, rather than what class, race, or gender you were born into.  Being dependent on others, on the other hand, is frowned upon.  The down side is that you have much less of a safety net in egocentric societies.

2.  Dominance hierarchies (authoritarianism) vs. egalitarianism

In societies with prominent dominance hierarchies, people at lower levels of the hierarchy are perceived as having less value and are stigmatized.  This leads them to develop low self-esteem, which in turn leads them to accept the situation as deserved and appropriate.  These people see their social environment as hostile and respond to it in various ways:  They may simply submit to their plight, they may attempt to "pass" as members of higher status groups, they may imitate their "betters," or they may resist their plight with violence.

Egalitarian societies tend to view all people as having similar value, even when that may not be entirely true of the society.  Equality is at very least held up as an ideal to aspire to.  People in egalitarian societies tend to prefer negotiation over conflict, informal leadership based on abilities as opposed to authoritarian structures, consensus over division.  People are much less likely to resort to violence.

3.  Premodern vs. modern.  Premodern societies have a relatively low level of technology.  They tend to have a subsistence economy with little specialization.  Kinship systems are the predominant basis for social organizations, and authority tends to be located in the family or in religion.  And supernatural causes are assumed for many things.

Modern societies are basically those that have passed into an industrial economy, or at least a high-level agricultural level with a significant urban population.  Social organizations other than the family are common and significant, and, while religion may still have a powerful influence, scientific and technical solutions to problems are commonly sought.

This last dimension is clearly oversimplified, although it serves well enough in the modern world for psychology's purposes.  The classification of societies on the basis of degree of technological and economic progress is, of course, old as the hills, and was particularly important to Karl Marx and the many social scientists he influenced.

An example of such a classification scheme is the one developed by anthropologists Morton H. Fried and Elman Service, which has four levels of society:

1.  Hunter-gatherer bands - very small population density, an economy based on (of course) hunting and gathering, with the tasks divided approximately on the basis of sex and age, and an otherwise egalitarian set of relationships.

2.  Tribal societies - low population density, an economy based on simple agriculture and some domestication of animals, and a moderate amount of social stratification and specialization.

3.  Stratified societies - moderate populations, with formal hierarchies and assigned statuses.  There are firmly established classes with defined rank.  Agriculture is sophisticated, the society may develop strong pastoral habits, and there is considerable specialization, especially among artisans.  Villages are large, sometimes including wide-ranging alliances, and serious warfare raises its ugly head.

4.  Civilization - high populations, with considerable urban concentration.  Multiple hierarchies, considerable authoritarianism, much social stratification, including layers of leadership at the top, and peasants, serf, and slaves at the bottom.

Of course, civilizations can vary hugely.  The ancient Romans were certainly civilized, and yet few of us living in western societies (or even most nonwestern ones) would enjoy living in such a society.  Something happened in the last few hundred years, that has led us to at very least strive for a degree of liberty, equality, and, yes, fraternity.

In addition, in those same few hundred years, technology has evolved at a breakneck speed, taking the factory system that we even find in ancient Rome and transforming it into modern industry.  Add steam engines, the automobile, electricity, mass communication, and the computer, and you have a society that would no doubt appear magical to those ancient Romans.

This latter differentiation - just subsets of civilization - is actually the one that Castillo is referring to when he differentiates premodern from modern!

The band

It is an educated guess that our original society resembled what is now a rare form:  the band.  Our paleolithic ancestors were hunter-gatherers -- a style of life that lasted about 90% of our time on this planet.  Now we only find these bands in areas of the world so hostile that more sophisticated societies simply haven't wanted them:  deserts, the arctic, the deepest rain forests.

But back at the beginnings of human life, bands could be found everywhere, and especially in the lush savanna of Africa to which we owe our roots.

A band is an association of somewhere between 10 and 50 people, mostly related by birth or marriage.  It is thought that people were spread very thin back then -- between .2 and .02 people per square mile -- because of the large area of land needed to support even small populations surviving only by hunting and gathering.  For comparison, Pennsylvania has 260 people per square mile, the USA has 62, and even Alaska has .7!

Most members of a band could probably do any of the tasks required for survival, but men specialized in hunting while women specialized in gathering and child care.  Training consisted of children imitating adults and actually performing the full range of adult tasks early in life.  Work was life, and life was work.

Tools were developed early in the history of our species - in fact, it was our pre- Homo sapiens ancestors who invented them.  The band had all the basic tools:  scrapers, axes, spears, sewing needles, mortar and pestle, baskets, simple clothing to wear, and tents, huts, or caves to live in.  All tools were homemade.

Bands were fairly egalitarian.  Status was based on respect for someone's abilities, and that respect could change in different situations and over time.  Anyone with some respect could make a suggestion, but no one was in a position to give orders.  And others followed those suggestions because it was the rational thing to do.  The closest you get to a leader is a person that the Inuit call the ihumakortujok:  "person of wisdom in ordinary affairs."

The economy of the band is simplicity itself:  generalized reciprocity.  Each person got what he or she needed, and if there was anything left, it was shared.  Each band may have had set formulas regarding how to split up game:  Often the one who made the kill had the right to distribute as he saw fit.  Sometimes the kill would be partitioned, with the front parts of the animal going to the one who made the kill, and the hind quarters split among his assistants.  Whatever the rules were, when the hunters returned, there would be a general feast.

The concept of private property only extended to a few decorative or ceremonial articles, and never to the necessities of life.  Neither were there exclusive rights to land use, watering holes, animal herds or plants.  These might be associated with a particular band, and it might be considered polite to ask first, but the idea of ownership as we know it probably didn't occur to them.

Theft was unknown, simply because there was nothing to steal.  Instead, the sin was not sharing, being stingy, or refusing a gift.  Even then, the response was likely to be a matter of ignoring or making fun of the culprit.

Relations with other bands was touchier, but scarcity tended to mean more sharing, not less.  If hostilities did break out, it was likely to be a matter of aggressive posturing rather than anything physical, and if someone should actually get hurt, everyone goes home and feels bad about it.  Some plains Indian groups, for example, even though they had evolved well beyond the band level, still preferred to "fight" in the form of something called "counting coup," that is, in the form of ritualized contests involving sudden forays, the goals of which were nothing more than touching the enemy.

Besides which, bands were exogamous, meaning you had to find a spouse outside your band.  Marriage ties between bands meant that even they were relatives of a sort.

It is only when it comes to behaviors that threaten the solidarity of the band that we might have seen the far more drastic responses of murder or ostracism - which was death as well - in these societies.

This society, although our most basic, is nevertheless a far cry from what we see in the world of the chimpanzees or the baboons:  No power hierarchies, no alpha males or alpha females, no gangs of irritable bachelors.

What were the psychological motivations of these people?  Selfishness is sin; everything is in the service of the band.  So one would imagine that our ancestors had to suppress their assertive instincts rather severely and allow only their nurturant instincts to express themselves.  The only sense of assertiveness that might have been permitted is striving to model oneself after the best of your band, the role models who, of course, put the good of the band ahead of their own individual needs!

But notice: No band, no individual.  There is actually not a very great gap between what is in one's own interest and what is in the group's interest. The nurturant instincts and the assertive instincts, far from being in conflict, actually supported each other. Life was hard, no doubt.  But inner turmoil was probably minimal.

The tribe

At some point, bands started evolving into tribes.  This probably first happened in the neolithic Near East, perhaps 10,000 years ago.  The innovation that made this possible was agriculture.  For the first time, we saw surpluses.  Farmers had to work harder than the hunters and gatherers, but that was a small price to pay for the security farming brought.

Agriculture meant a good deal less traveling.  Although it began with the slash-and-burn technique, which still required moving every few years, families could put down some roots (no pun intended!) and allow their population to increase.  Instead of 10 to 50, a farming community could support hundreds of people, and often in a smaller area.

Keep in mind that 10,000 years ago, there were only about 8 million people in the entire world - less than now live in New York City.  Bringing it closer to the present, in 1500, just before the European expansion, there were only one million people living in the area now covered by the USA and Canada, as many as are now comfortably collected in the state of Rhode Island.

Tools included hoes and plows, and would eventually be made with metal.  Clothes were more often made of cloth, which required looms.  Houses were made of wood and stone, which required the tools of construction.  Things were getting substantial!  This in turn encouraged a few people to develop their talents in one direction or another, rather than remaining generalists.

Most importantly, agriculture requires a new system of economics.  With surpluses come the concepts of food preservation and storage.  These in turn demand that the surpluses be collected and later redistributed.  And something this important demands that we find among ourselves someone of great character, and that we imbue the position with powerful controlling rituals and tokens.

In many tribal cultures, the chief is the hardest worker in the tribe.  He maintains his prestige by demonstrating the quality most valued in someone entrusted with the important task of redistributing surpluses:  generosity.  He must pay for the satisfaction of his position by giving things away!  A particularly dramatic example of this is the famous potlatch of the Indians of British Columbia.

As the populations of farming villages increases, they begin to split, first into moieties (two very extended families) and later clans.  These moieties and clans each resemble the earlier bands, with their own special cultural traditions, and they use each other as sources of spouses.  Of course, this means that it is less important to have good relations with other tribes.

Clans become lineages as the tribal structure matures. "Family trees" become very important.  This is determined, of course, in different ways in different tribes.  But in any tribe, the details of social behavior are heavily dependent on the way in which you are related to others.  This becomes especially important as positions originally based on respect become positions based on inheritance.

Surpluses, specialization, and a variety of ritual objects mean more property, and the concept of theft arises.  At first, this mostly applies to symbolic items, but eventually it includes areas of land, particular fruit or nut trees, totem animals, personal tools, and so on.  Adultery, too, becomes a greater concern, now that keeping  track of lineages has become important.  These lead to an increase in the amount of conflict within the tribe, and likewise an increase in the importance of explicit rules.

In the band, the rules were implicit, even unconscious.  "This is the way we behave....  This is the way we have always behaved."  In the tribe, though, we may have differences among the various clans.  We have more property to be concerned about, more surpluses to carefully redistribute, more feelings to be hurt.  So the rules become more explicit, more law-like.  Punishments, too, become more defined, and often harsher.

The psychology has begun to change a bit, it would seem.  People are beginning to be differentiated from each other, in specializations and rank, as well as on the basis of talent and reputation.  In the more "natural" world of the band, the crowded village would have long ago splintered.  People are behaving differently in the different clans and lineages.  Some have more clout than others, just because of the luck of a good birth.

The tribe still requires most individuals to suppress whatever assertive tendencies they may have, but the social instincts that so easily lead to conformity in the band now need considerable outside forces to support them.  Conformity becomes a real issue, with more rules and stricter punishments, precisely because there is less "natural" conformity!

But it won't be until the next stage of social development that the urges toward self-promotion would actually start seeing some rewards.


Civilization comes with the development of the city-state.  As agricultural technology develops, fewer people need to be involved in farming.  And more people can be supported to engage in arts and crafts.  The complexity of a large population requires improvement in management techniques.  The transformation of the warrior from any able-bodied member of society to a professional specialty occurs.  With that comes the transformation of the war chief into a continuous leadership position.  Religious life as well transforms from a placation of nature spirits and appeals to the dead into an organized hierarchy of priests, with their own leadership position.

Eventually, we see the development of stratification:  Some people have power and some don't.  Some have everything they need and others have to make do with what's left to them.  Some have, some have not.  I should mention that this concept spread to the pristine tribes, which became the considerably less friendly societies we still find today.  There are no more "pristine" societies!

There are a number of possible scenarios for the development of stratification.  Perhaps a pastoral tribe has taken advantage of their mobility and warfare savvy to take over nearby farming communities, turning themselves into a ruling elite.  Perhaps, with the invention of irrigation, downstream people become dependent on the good graces of upstream people.  Perhaps a shortage of land develops, and the distribution of produce turns into the distribution of land - for rent!

In bands and pristine tribes, hoarding is antisocial.  In  stratified societies, it is institutionalized.  Property becomes private.  Instead of shortages increasing sharing, shortages raise prices (at first value in trade, later in labor, later still in money).  You can even hold back necessities to raise prices, or create black markets and play favorites.

Because stratification is stressful, it is by nature unstable, and requires some strong organization to keep the society from flying apart.  We develop various bureaucracies:  military institutions, religious institutions, legal institutions, a treasury....  There are large farms worked by peasants or slaves, and large workshops of craftsmen and slaves, but all owned by the elite.  This is the beginning of what Karl Marx called the alienation of the worker from the product of his or her labor: You have no claim to what you grow or make. It all belongs to the well-named owners.

Stratification creates poverty.  When times are hard, it is no longer the entire group that suffers:  The elite takes what it thinks it is due, and the underclass does without.

Stratification institutionalizes war.  In order to feed the city's or state's voracious appetite, the elite look to what other cities or states have, and decide to take it.  Or they fear the greed of the other state, and attack to prevent attack.  The warrior class justifies its existence by making war.

Stratification breeds slavery.  In band societies, women and children are occasionally captured during raids, but they are usually absorbed into the society.  There is more slavery in tribes, but they are almost always a minority of the population.  The city state places slaves under threat of death and torture, and creates a class that is even lower than the underclass.

These city states continue to grow.  It seems that they need to grow in order to survive!  They may begin with a thousand people; they end up as empires with millions.  It has only taken a few thousand years for these social structures to dominate the entire planet.

Civilization adds considerable stress to its individual members.  On the one hand, selfish motivations are actively encouraged:  Survival depends on taking care of "number one" (and one's nearest and dearest).  On the other hand, the institutions work by means of explicit rewards and punishments to control the assertiveness of most of the underclass and a good portion of the elite.  Within certain small groups, the kinds of conformity pressures we see in the band may still operate.  But beyond those, we see severe consequences instituted to keep people and groups of people in their "place."

One of the most significant psychological methods of promoting conformity is religion.  Since the society is split into many different groups and several classes, there is no longer a general "center of gravity" for norms to revolve around.  Instead, an otherworldly ideal is promoted, conformity to which is encouraged by promises of rich rewards or horrendous suffering in the afterlife.  The more effective the religious ideology, the less the elite needs to waste their resources on more physical incentives to conformity.

Under certain circumstances, a state or empire might enter into a steady-state period.  If there is relatively little threat from outside the society and relative prosperity within, and if the religious ideology is powerful and the bureaucracies efficient, a state may last for centuries.  Examples include ancient Egypt and China.  The closest we get to such long-lasting states in Europe are the Roman Empire and the culture of the Middle Ages, the first because of its military structure, the latter because of its powerful religious traditions.

Crucial to such steady-state societies is an image of reality involving a "great chain of being."  The society - even the world - is ordered into a huge stratification, from God and his angels down through the kings and popes, down through the various elites, down to the artisans and merchants, down to the peasants and the working poor of the cities, down to slaves and barbarians, down even into the realm of the animals.  This chain of being is understood as being established by God, or something in the nature of the universe, such as karma.  The people of these societies saw this chain like we see the laws of nature.

And just like disobeying the laws of nature results in disaster, so does disobeying the laws of society.  God or karma or whatever forces hold the universe together will get you, now or in the afterlife, if you attempt to deviate.  This, of course, gives all members of the society - but especially those on higher rungs - the right, even the duty, to help God or karma along.  Disobey the social laws and you are truly an outlaw - someone who is no longer a part of the great chain at all.

The age of the individual

In the last 500 years or so, beginning in Europe, a rather dramatic change in social structures and the accompanying psychological attitudes has occurred.  Bit by bit, we have magnified the role of the individual.  At the same time, society and its conformity pressures haven't really diminished, meaning that we have become "split personalities" in that the pressures to conform and the pressures to realize one's autonomy divide each of us, and often cause us to feel alienated from our societies, our communities, and even ourselves.

How did this come about?  The first step, I believe, was a shake up of the European order during the renaissance.  Before, the continent was at unified culturally by the Catholic Church, if not by a single empire.  The great chain of being, for all the infighting amongst the nobility, held.  With the renaissance, the powers of the nobility increased, the boundaries between nobility and the church became blurred, and the authority of the pope diminished.  Aristocrats began to think of themselves as free agents, who could rise (and fall) in the great chain via wealth and politics, as well as warfare.  The church, which had the supposed last word on one's status, could be bought off or simply ignored.

The second step was the protestant reformation.  At first, it was simply an extension of renaissance power struggles.  But it also contained some slight variations on traditional beliefs that allowed people to essentially deconstruct the great chain of being.  In 1517, Luther (and others) said that our salvation was in our own hands, and not something mediated by the priests and bishops of the church.  God speaks to each of us, and judges each of us, and grants his grace to each of us, as individuals.  Lutheranism would, of course, simply become a minor variation of the Catholic Church in short order - but a new "meme" had been introduced.

Calvin added another small idea to the mix:  Since God knows all, he knows who will be saved and who will be damned. Some of us, regardless of our blood lines or position in the church, were predestined to end up in heaven, and the idea of the Elect was born!  People, of course, wanted to know what signs would indicate salvation, and found it in something that cut across old hierarchies of church and state:  wealth.  And, since wealth is far more variable than the older traditions of the great chain, people began compete for places on what was now more of a ladder than a chain.

Christopher Columbus and his imitators played a big part.  By opening up the "new world" to Europe in 1492, he gave the European people two things:  An incredible surge of wealth in the form of silver and other products they could compete over (at the expense of the prior inhabitants of both the Americas and Africa, of course), and a place for thousands of malcontents to escape where they could - perhaps - make fortunes independently of their social origins.

Another piece of the puzzle is the Gutenburg Bible.  The printing press meant that increasing numbers of people had access to the word of God, and had less need to rely on the priesthood.  In addition, reading was an asset to the middle classes, since it allows one to keep books and ledgers - allows one to keep score, you might say.  As printing expanded beyond the Bible, philosophical and technical thought became available to that literate middle class.  People were asking themselves:  How is the priest or the nobleman so different from me?  Why should they get all the respect?

A bit later, we see a few more literal revolutions:  The Great Peasant War of 1525; the Edict of Nantes in 1598; Dutch independence from Spain in 1648; the overthrow of the British monarchy in 1649; the Declaration of Rights in 1689; the rebellion of those pesky colonists in American in 1776; the overthrow of the French nobility in 1789; and so on.  The idea that "the people" (always defined with limitations, of course) had actual rights - what a concept!  And what a boost to the individual!

Then there's the industrial revolution.  Beginning in England and rapidly expanding to the continent, the development of the factory system of production caused a massive reconfiguration of western Europe, with peasants moving from their traditional farms to the cities, exchanging their bondage to the land for bondage to the machine.  The aristocratic landowners become less and less significant, while the factory owners, usually of middle class origins, became richer and more powerful.

And late, very late, in all this, we see the freeing of 40 million serfs in Russia in 1861 and 4 million slaves in the United States in 1863, and similar events all over the western world.  The day to day conditions of serfs and slaves changed very little - but the idea of individual freedom for even the lowliest among us is a genie you cannot easily put back in the bottle!  Even women - that eternal underclass - would achieve political equality in many places by the early 1900's.

All this was not without consequences, of course.  Wars became more extensive and sophisticated.  Churches of all denominations became more possessive of what power they had left.  The nobility hardly missed out on all the opportunities for wealth and power.  And the modern concept of the nation-state solidified, complete with patrolled borders, standing armies, heavy taxation, and huge bureaucracies.  England became Great Britain, France became a powerhouse, Italy and Germany finally became unified, Russia and the US entered the international scene.

Finally we have the socialist revolutions - especially the Russian Revolution in 1917 - with dreams of economic equality for all.  Although the extreme versions have since failed, socialism has had a huge impact everywhere.  The worker was protected, education was spread more evenly, the poor were assisted, and the powerful industrialists were restrained.  There was something closer to a "level playing field," where each individual had similar opportunities to make of their lives what they wished, than ever before. Sadly, what should have been the final surge of freedom would coincide with the battles of huge nation-states that were World War I and II.

While the hunter-gatherer condition lasted hundreds of thousands of years, and the agricultural tribes lasted tens of thousands, and the traditional civilizations began only thousands of years ago, all these later changes happened in a mere few hundred years.  Change was actually noticeable to the people embedded in it.  We are still reeling from it.

Psychologically, we are stretched rather thin today:  Society still asks us to conform, but that conformity is more a matter of law than of cultural tradition and religious ideology.  Although we rarely think in terms of great hierarchies or chains of being anymore, we still feel the pressures to conform "horizontally," to each other - feelings strongly supported by the novel forces of mass media.  On the other hand, the variety of beliefs, cultural traditions, lifestyles, choices of careers, educational opportunities, and international movement, constantly confront our minds with the fact of our considerable autonomy and the responsibilities that come with it.  We can no longer say, when we feel unhappy with our lives, that this unhappiness is the sad but inevitable result of being born to a particular station on the great chain of being.

We are a divided animal, with conflicting instinct: The assertive instincts drive us towards individuality, and the nurturant instincts drive us towards community. Both derive from older instincts: The assertive is based on our basic needs plus competition for mates and a place in the dominance hierarchy. The nurturant is based on infant care, mate pairing, herd instincts, and reciprocity.

When we add cultural learning, the assertive instincts may be expressed by individuality, leadership, stratification, striving for success, etc. Similarly, the nurturant instincts may be expressed by conformity, ethical codes, religions, and morality. Just like sexual needs can be expressed in dramatically different ways in different cultures, so can the assertive and nurturant instincts, providing the foundation for the many thousands of societies our species has created.

But note that these instincts may also contain the roots of their own transcendence.  For example, our assertive need to "show off" can be stretched into a desire for creativity and self-expression. And our nurturant need to care for our own children can be extended to a concern for all children, humanity, animals, and life itself.