Personality Theory:
A Biosocial Approach

C. George Boeree, PhD
Psychology Department
Shippensburg University

© Copyright C. George Boeree 2009

The social unconscious

When our understanding of things is lacking and we fail to anticipate, we scramble to improve our understanding; once we understand something, and our anticipations are right on target, we are satisfied.  In fact, it almost seems that we spend our lives trying to be unconscious!  After all, we feel distress when things go wrong and delight when things improve, but neither when things are going just right.

Things that are thoroughly learned are unconscious.  Concerning small behaviors, we call them habits. When they concern social behaviors, we call them rituals.  Coronations, marriage ceremonies, funerals, standing on line, taking turns when talking, saying "hello, how are you," whether you want to know or not -- all are examples of rituals.

There are also ways of thinking and perceiving that are so thoroughly learned we tend not to be conscious of them: attitudes, mind-sets, norms, prejudices, defenses, and so on.

The key to identifying habits and rituals is that the acts are essentially emotionless (hence unconscious).  Mind you, things “around" the habit or ritual may be emotional (i.e. a funeral!), but the things done are done rather automatically - like driving a car, once you've caught on - until things go wrong!

When that happens, you experience some kind of distress.  Go ahead, tell someone who asks "how are you" all about how you really are!  Or stand the wrong way in an elevator.  Or interrupt the smooth flow of a restaurant (e.g. by taking peoples' orders, "to help out").  This is called Garfinkling, after Harold Garfinkle, who invented it.  It will reveal rules of behavior that are so ritualized that we've forgotten they exist.

Anyway, maintaining things the way they are, keeping social "law and order," is an extremely powerful motivation.  In its most positive form, it's our desire for peace and contentment.  In its most negative form, it is our resistance to anything new or different.


Even as adults, we depend on others. Sometimes, to use some existential terms, we "fall victim" to "the Other," that faceless generalization we often refer to as "people" (as in "people are watching") or "we" (as in "we don't do those things") or "they" (as in "they wouldn't like that"). We forfeit our freedom and allow ourselves to be enslaved by our society.  The existentialists call this fallenness, and it is the foundation of what most of call conformity.

Conformity is actually a rather complex concept, and there are a number of different kinds:

1.  The conformity to norms we discussed earlier is often quite unconscious.  It has been internalized (learned well), probably in early childhood.  Our societal norms are seldom doubted; rather, we take them as givens, as "the way things are."  The learning is supported throughout life by the "validity" of the norm - i.e. it works because it is the norm.

2.  But sometimes we choose, consciously, to conform, as when we join a group voluntarily.  We adopt certain norms because the group is attractive to us and we identify with the group and its values or goal.  In its more dramatic forms, this is called conversion.

3.  In other cases, we conform because we are forced to, i.e. we are conscious of our conformity but it seems a lot less voluntary.  This is often called compliance, and it can be brought on by anything from a gun to the head or the promise of candy.  In other words, it is conformity due to the sanctions the society or group has in effect.

4.  But most of what we call conformity in the research literature concerns something "somewhat conscious" and "not quite voluntary."  It is usually brought on by social anxiety -- fear of embarrassment, discomfort at confusion, a sense of inferiority, a desire to be liked, and so on.  I think it should be called defensive conformity.

Conventionality is the most pervasive form of conformity.  It involves ignoring one's freedom and living a life of conformity and shallow materialism.  If you can manage to be like everyone else, you need not make choices.  You can turn to authority, or to your peers, or to the media for "guidance."  You can become too "busy" to notice the moral decisions you need to make.  You are fallen and living in what Sartre called bad faith.


It's one of the great mysteries of the world that, while the laws of nature (like gravity) "weigh us down," their very consistency, their orderliness, their predictability, allows us to use them for our own ends.  Knowing the laws of gravity and aerodynamics and so forth allows us to design and build airplanes that (in a sense) "free" us from those laws!  Our power comes from our knowledge of that background of order.

The social world is also orderly.  Social order doesn't have the necessity that physical order has, and while the force of law or custom may be powerful, ultimately we choose to conform or not.  "You cannot have sex with your mother" is a powerful injunction, but it's still not quite as powerful as "You cannot walk through a brick wall." (Kelvin, p. 21)

Nevertheless, just like in the physical world, in order to act in the social world, we need some order.  The social order is based on shared expectations (beliefs, rules, values) called  norms.

Norms are used as standards with which we measure the appropriateness of behaviors, perceptions, beliefs, and even feelings, within the social group to which the norms are relevant.  "Social group" may refer to an entire culture or society, a subculture or ethnic group, an organization or community, or even a club or gang.

The word norm is from the same root as "normal," and the simplest way of finding norms in some group or society is to see what the people consider to be normal.  Normal (if you remember your basic statistics) means "what is highly probable" -- and you could list various behaviors and ask people to rate them.  (These ratings are known as subjective probabilities.)

How often do you brush your teeth?  Never?  Once a year?  Once a month?  Once a day?  Twice a day?  Three times a day?  Every hour?  Continuously?  In our society, I believe, once or twice a day might be considered normal.  A child might skip a day; a dental hygienist might brush after every meal and snack.

But note:  A norm need not be what everyone says is right or good!  We probably all should brush three times a day, and floss as well, but we don't -- that wouldn't be considered "normal."  Criminals may be abnormal, but so are saints!

On the other hand, sometimes the norm is  not  what most people do.  It's interesting to compare what people  think  is normal with what actually is  normal (statistically) in private domains such as sexuality! Not long ago, for example, society’s norms still included taboos regarding masturbation, even while a majority of people engaged in the practice!

Norms, like habits, seem to maintain their own existence:  "The behavior 'prescribed' by an informal norm is prescribed because it is deemed to be valid.  This validity itself, however, is inferred from the frequency of occurrence of the behavior in question."  (Kelvin, p. 87)  So we brush our teeth once or twice a day because that is normal, and it is normal because we brush our teeth once or twice a day.

Note that one of the most common source of information about "frequency of occurrence" is tradition.  So a norm such as "boys will wear pants; girls will wear skirts" is justified by saying "boys were meant to wear pants; girls were meant  to wear skirts," and that in turn is justified by noting "It has always been so."

Beyond habit and tradition, a group or society may also reinforce norms with sanctions,  that is, with rewards and (especially) punishments.  Then, when norms and sanctions become formalized, they become rules, laws, judicial systems, penitentiaries, electric chairs, and so on.

The classic demonstration of normative behavior is Muzafer Sherif's.  If I shine a pin-point of light on a wall in an otherwise pitch-black room, it would appear to move - an illusion called the  autokinetic effect.   If I were to ask you how far it moved, you could give a guess - 5 or 6 inches, perhaps.  What Sherif did was to have a group of people view the dot and give their guesses outloud.  While at first the guesses might differ by a few inches, with each repeated presentation of the light, their guesses would come closer together - that is, the group would develop a "norm."

If Sherif put a "stooge" - one of his assistants - in a group and instructed him to give an inflated guess (14 or 15 inches, for example), the group would tend to make higher guesses in response to the stooge.  If the stooge stuck to his high guesses, he could bring the whole group up to his guess.  Sherif even found that the artificially high norms could last for several "generations" of subjects:  He would replace, after so many guesses, first the stooge, then others of the original group, with new people.  The high norm would only slowly disappear.

So, in the real world, we have many norms that are no longer terribly helpful or relevant, that nevertheless last and last.  There are lots of examples to be found in the relations between men and women!

We tend to think of conformity to norms as being bad somehow - a sign of weakness, stupidity, even fascist slavishness.  But, first of all, our lives are full of conformity to norms, much of which we don't even notice because we all conform!  After all, conformity to norms is normal, by definition.

Take clothing:  You may think of yourself as being highly individualistic, and may point out the great variety of styles around you.  But notice instead the similarities:  As you look around you at your fellow students, notice the jeans and t-shirts and preppy hand-me-downs.  And what would happen if one of you came into class in a tuxedo, a chiffon evening gown, a bikini, nothing, a kimono or sari, in the clothing of the opposite sex... well, that wouldn't be "right," would it - perhaps a sign of mental illness.  That is, we would make inferences, as in any act of person perception.

Secondly, imagine what it would be like if everyone wore, did, spoke without regard to "styles," "traditions," norms--without regard to others' expectations?  You'd be living in constant unpleasant unpredictableness.  You've all met "unusual" people, people from whom you never quite know what to expect:  Imagine if everyone acted that way.  The mild irritation would mount to unbearable levels.  It'd be what many people experience when they move to other parts of the world and don't know the norms:   culture shock.

Imagine further what it would be like for young children, who are only just  learning to anticipate people.  Childhood would be even more painful than it already is.  It is not for nothing that we maintain a certain comfortable regularity in our homes, that we don't act crazy in front of children, and that we all sometimes feel a nostalgia for the "simple life" of our home towns.  Developmentally, we grow "into" our individuality from a base of consistency.

There are a number of different ways of describing norms.  The simplest is to contrast   prescribed  and  proscribed  behavior.  Prescribed behaviors are the "musts," the obligations, the things that make you a member of the group.  Proscribed behaviors are the "must nots," the taboos.  Small groups will kick you out if you do these things (like "no shoes, no service").  Societies tend to imprison, institutionalize, excommunicate, exile, or kill you.

Another way refers to the ideas of normality and probability mentioned before:  The horizontal axis represents the variety of behaviors in question; the vertical axis the degree of normality:

We need to add only one thing:  a line that divides the acceptable from the unacceptable behaviors, so:

If we are looking at "appropriate dress for professors" as the behaviors, we might find tuxedos and evening gowns on one end of the curve, and swim suits or complete nakedness on the other end.  In between, anything from blue jeans to three-piece pin-striped suits might be acceptable.

Sherif developed a third way of describing norms that compromises between the gradual curve and the abruptness of "prescribed-proscribed."  There is a set of behaviors in a  latitude of acceptance  which are important to membership; there are also  latitudes of rejection  that include behaviors unacceptable to the group; and in between are neutral latitudes that include the irrelevancies:

A Lutheran, for example, might be comfortable with Episcopalian and Presbyterian church services, be non-committal about a Catholic mass on the one hand or a Methodist service on the other, place Greek Orthodox services beyond Catholic ones as sensual and mysterious, and Baptist services beyond Methodist ones as rather exuberant and excited.

Among the details that Sherif discovered in his research was that the more "ego-involvement" (i.e. passion) in the issues, the smaller the latitude of acceptance and larger the latitudes of rejection.  A very intense Lutheran might not find any services other than his own acceptable.

And people who find themselves at one extreme or the other of a range tend to be more ego-involved.  Extreme religious groups tend to be much fussier about what seems to others to be tiny details.  In some ways it is easier, psychologically, to be an extremist:  It takes less thought, less effort;  You  know.   Moderates, on the other hand, tend to more tolerant, and more confused.

Which brings us to some of the problems we find concerning norms.  One problem is the disagreement about norms that we find when two groups or societies necessarily interact.  Another problem is disagreement  within  a group or society as to the norms, or the latitudes, or the appropriate sanctions.  Many petty squabbles, and quite a few major wars, are based on the social friction that occurs when norms are not agreed upon.

Once upon a time, we lived in small, isolated, and rather authoritarian societies:  Norms were strong, tradition was strong, there was little conflict and little change.  Even today much of the world's people live in what developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner calls  monolithic  societies.

But nowadays, because of communications and education, we find ourselves more and more confronted with a great variety of norms -- what Bronfenbrenner calls pluralism.   The constant bickering typical of our society is one symptom.  But so is, according to Bronfenbrenner, the development of higher values!  It is difficult to develop a sophisticated value system for yourself if you haven't experienced a variety of value systems.

In monolithic cultures, norms are expected to be known and followed by everyone.     E. T. Hall calls this high context:  You have to be aware of millions of subtle little details in order to know what to do or how to read another person's behavior.  A child in a monolithic culture learns the rules with his mother's milk, and the rules tend to be quite unconsciously adhered to.  Japan is more monolithic or high context than we are, for example.

On the other hand, in pluralistic cultures, norms have to be pretty well spelled out -- what Hall calls low context.  There are fewer norms, they have to be consciously followed, and are often explicitly taught.  Our own culture, especially when you get out of rural areas or the urban neighborhoods, is very pluralistic and low context.

An example: attraction

What constitutes attractiveness may well have a genetic component to it, of course.  But it is well worth noting that attractiveness can be very different in different cultures.  In our culture, for example, thin is in.  In the old Hawaiian culture, on the other hand, fat was where it was at.  European culture, just a few hundred years ago, had a similar opinion:  Look at Rembrandt's nudes!  As long as your size allows you to survive and reproduce, nature allows culture to determine the variations.

Or look at how we decorate ourselves.  In our culture, women paint their faces.  In one tribe in Ethiopia, it’s the men who paint their faces.  Men of the ancient Celts (ancestors of the Irish, among others) and American Indians not long ago painted their faces when going into battle.  Maoris, the Ainu of Japan, the Native Americans of the Pacific northwest all thought facial tattoos were attractive, as do present day members of certain American subcultures.  A few cultures use scarring to decorate their faces and bodies.

We wear earrings.  Many women in India (and some here) also wear nose-rings.  Some South American tribes stretched their earlobes.  Some African tribes wore lip plugs.  The Chinese of the last century thought deformed feet looked nice on rich ladies.  We thought wasp waists and big bustles were sexy 100 years ago.  Today, some people like piercing their navels, nipples, tongues, and even (ouch!) their genitalia.

How much we wear is another issue:  We don't permit the display of a woman's breasts in public; other cultures permit that, but not the display of thighs; others don't permit display of the face; others still don't permit the display of a woman's hair.  We don't permit public display of a man's penis; in the late middle ages, men wore "cod pieces," which contained and exaggerated the penis; in New Guinea, some tribes wear long cones over their penises.  In ancient Greece, male athletes competed in the nude (that’s what gymnastics means - nude exercise!)  On and on.

And, what's more, attractiveness is in the eye of the  individual  beholder as well.  Everyone, for example, believes their own baby is the most beautiful!  In other words, learning accounts for at least a great deal of what we consider attractive.

Whatever the roots of attractiveness, its effects are powerful.  When it comes to attractive people, we tend to ignore their faults, forgive their trespasses, and even infer good qualities they don't necessarily have - better dispositions, motives, intelligence, etc.

An experiment by Snyder, Tanke, and Bersheid says a great deal about the effects of  attractiveness:  Men were asked to talk to a woman over the phone after being shown a picture of her.  Half were shown an attractive picture of her; the other half were shown an unattractive picture of her.  The ones that had seen the attractive photo thought she sounded more poised, humorous, and socially adept.

The conversations were bugged, and the independent listeners, who did not know which pictures the men had seen, rated the men who had seen the attractive photo as more poised, humorous, and socially adept.

And these independent listeners rated the woman talking to these men who had seen the attractive photo as being more poised, humorous, and socially adept - though, again, neither they nor the woman knew which photo the men had seen!  In other words, if other people think you are good-looking, you will act appropriately and think of yourself as a good person:  the old self-fulfilling prophecy.   And if people consider you ugly, you may become crabby, which only confirms everyone’s suspicions about ugly people.

Another example: personal space

There are certain culturally specified distances for various interactions - usually one for public address, one for ordinary conversation, and one for intimate conversation.  In our culture, public distance begins at about ten feet--which is part of the reason people tend not to sit in the front row of a classroom.  The conversational distance is about 2 and a half feet, and the intimate distance is a few inches.

There is a little illustration of this called the parking lot waltz.  If I take you into an open space, such as a parking lot, engage you in some conversation, and stand too close to you, you will feel uncomfortable and begin to back away.  If I step closer, you will back off again.  By changing angles, I can waltz you around the parking lot.  Try it, it works.  You will know that you are too close because you will feel uncomfortable, too.  Things can go wrong, however, if you read my closeness as an attempt to get intimate and you either run away or beat me up.

The same works in reverse - but not as well.  As you recall, moving away is read as a loss of interest, breaking off a conversation, so the other person is likely to say goodbye and leave.  There are, of course, some people who don't read signs very well and will continue to talk to you even as you walk briskly away!

As I said, different cultures have different distances.  Germans, for example, have longer conversational distances, three or three and a half feet.  Arabs, on the other hand, have very short distances, one and a half and even one foot.  It is considered a social pleasure to feel the other's warm, moist breath and smell their smells.  Americans often feel uncomfortable when talking with Arabs and back away, which the Arab sees as being cold and impolite.  Many international business deals probably fall through because of personal distance!

Of course, we also have personal distances behind us and to the sides.  We have, in fact, a  personal envelope.  At a relatively uncrowded bus stop, for example, people will spread themselves out to a comfortable degree.

Again, different cultures have different envelopes, and men and women differ as well.  But notice the effect of context:  Watch the different distributions of people at a party.  Notice the differences between all male group, all female groups, and mixed groups.   Or look at the way people squeeze through a crowd:  Do they face the person they are brushing past, or turn their backs to them?  It is interesting.

Situations change our personal envelopes.  In New York City at three in the morning, a person walking behind us makes us nervous - even if they are a block away.  But in a rush hour subway, we can be squeezed together like sardines, and we ignore the sexual or aggressive messages of violated intimate space, though we seldom feel comfortable!

Two examples of the interaction of situations and envelops you might want to observe for yourself are the direction one faces in elevators and the effects of "neighborliness" at urinals.

The envelope can also vary because of personal experiences.  A Vietnam veteran friend of mine would take off your head if you came up behind him too quickly.  And some researchers have found that criminals tend to have rather large envelopes.  The question remains:  Did they get into crime because their huge envelopes were constantly getting stepped on, or did they develop huge envelopes in response to the dangerous games they play?

One more example: time

The anthropologist E. T. Hall distinguishes two broad conceptions of time:  monochronic and polychronic.  "M-time" is typical of modern, industrialized, western cultures - such as our own.  "P-time" is typical of more traditional ones - such as we find in Latin America and the Middle East.

M-time involves schedules:  Time is thought of as a ribbon or a road, and it is chopped up, with each piece assigned a certain purpose.  Each piece has a clearly defined beginning and end:  promptness counts; tardiness is a character flaw, if not a sin.  Time is concrete:  It can be saved or spent, lost or made up... and eventually you run out.  We have clocks and calendars and use them -- or rather they use us.

M-time is really rather arbitrary (why 50 minute classes? 40 hour work weeks?  15 week semesters?).  You have to learn to follow all these schedules:  except for the day, the year, and the seasons, they do  not  come naturally.  Also, you deal with people in a way that is molded by m-time:  one person (or a few) at a time, orderly, separately...  Life is segmented;  social  life is segmented.

P-time, on the other hand, makes Americans crazy:  The first thing likely to hit you is the lack of concern about appointments.  An hour wait is not at all bad -- if you complain, they point out that they were speaking with someone important - and you wouldn't want them to rush someone important!  A government office may have a courtyard where dozens of appointments sit or walk about, and several officials "mingle" with them, rather than everyone lining up for their 15 minutes.  If you get ignored - well, perhaps you're problem wasn't sufficiently significant to cause you to step up and interrupt!

P-time is people-oriented, task-oriented, and very much tradition-oriented:  Like the priest who can’t see you now because someone needs him or an artist who'll get to you when the inspiration has worn off a bit, the present moment is rather sacrosanct.  "3:15 on October 28th," on the other hand, is an abstraction that means nothing in P-time.

This, of course, is terribly inefficient!

In contrast, we M-timers schedule not only our work but our fun as well:  dinner at 8:00, a weekend in N.Y., two weeks vacation,  Reality TV  at 9:00 (for precisely one hour), John has the kids on Saturdays, spends a little "quality time" with them, sex on Friday at 10:00....

M-time is efficient, and it's likely that we would never have developed our high-tech society without it.  But it is also alienating.  It turns us into something akin to the very machines we work with:  wristwatches, punchclocks, factory whistles, assembly lines, computers.


So, norms are shared expectations.  Usually we think of these shared expectations as referring to general behavior expected of everyone in the group.  But we can also have shared expectations concerning specific members of the group.  We may expect them, and they may expect themselves, to perform a certain function, to play a certain  role  in the group.  Roles are shared expectations concerning functions.

There are many different types of roles.  For example, many roles are  formal.   In large groups (organizations, societies), these formal roles have titles and are used to refer to some category of people.  "Doctor," for example, is a title we give to certain people, and we expect them to act in certain ways in certain situations.  And they expect themselves to act so, too.  Note that people who play certain roles may get together to form groups of their own, e.g. the American Medical Asociation.

There are also very tiny roles called low-level implicit positions that have no title, are very short-lived, are found only in certain highly specific circumstances, and may be quite flexible.  "Giving the bride away" at a wedding is an example:  It doesn't have its own title (like "maid of honor"); it occurs only at a specific point in the ceremony and lasts only a few minutes; it never carries over into, say, the reception; and the role, though usually played by the father of the bride, may be played by another person, or even by more than one person - both parents, for example.

Then there are roles so broad they get confused with biology.  What is "woman," for example?  A certain chromosome arrangement?  Certain reproductive plumbing?  Or is it a way of being loaded with all sorts of cultural expectations?  It is more of the latter than most people realize.

One important thing about roles is that they come in pairs;  role-relations  are always  reciprocal.   We (non-doctors), when we find ourselves in certain situations in the presence of doctors, are expected to behave in certain ways.  Doctors expect it of us; onlookers expect it of us; and we ourselves expect it of us.  We take the role of patient.

This goes back to the idea of contrasts:  To have doctor you must have patient; to have teacher you must have student; husband-wife; parent-child..., and all in reverse as well.  Notice the embarrassment, or even pathology, of someone playing a certain role to the wrong person, or attempting to play it towards everyone.

In my definition I mentioned functions.   For roles to be meaningful to people, they must have a function, a purpose, a task in the society or group; they do not refer to accidental or haphazard behaviors.  The doctor is there for a purpose, as is the patient.  It is the task or function that becomes our standard for evaluating the role-player:  One can be a good doctor or a bad one, a good patient or a bad one, and so on.

But I must point out to you that many, perhaps most, of the behaviors associated with a role are more  symbolic  of purpose than truly purposeful - although the symbolic is always "purposeful" in that it tells us that a role is present.  Why does the doctor wear a lab coat and write illegibly?  Why does the banker wear a suit?  The bride a wedding dress?

I also keep mentioning  situations.   Roles typically express themselves in the context of certain situations.  At the hospital, in the examining room, at the scene of an emergency...these are appropriate situations to engage a doctor-patient role relationship.  If the doctor asks you to remove your clothing at a cocktail party, you may be suspicious.

Roles also typically express themselves in the  context  of a performance.   The doctor has examining room routines, the banker has certain paperwork, the bride has her wedding....  Notice again the amount of symbolism in the performance, beyond the actually task.

The performance may, however, be much more than symbolic:  It may have functions of its own.  Much of the examining room ritual, for example, is devoted to de-sexualization.  We go out of our way to guarantee asexuality:  The nurse at the door, the air conditioning one setting too cold, the cold, hard, plastic table with paper on it, the cold stethoscope, the rubber gloves, the uniforms, the diplomas on the walls... all help in making the intentions clear.

The lack of warmth exhibited by surgeons is another example:  In order to deal with the realities of surgery, it seems necessary for most surgeons to keep themselves emotionally detached from the people they cut into!  Note the age-old rule among surgeons that they never operate on family members.

Roles may have some specific  prerequisites:  to be a doctor, a certain education is expected, along with experience, licensing, etc.  To be a bride, you must be a woman of a certain minimum age, not married to someone else, etc.  Likewise, roles may also have certain  consequences:  The MD degree opens up a certain range of possibilities;  being a bride results in a specific new role, that of wife.

There are plenty of opportunities for problems regarding roles.  First, we can have misunderstandings between people.  For example, we may not realize we are supposed to be in a certain role relation - like when one of you thinks you're lovers, but the other doesn't.  Or we may not know what the role entails, what the rules are, what others expect of us.  Or we may both "know" but not agree!

Another source of trouble is that we normally have multiple roles in our lives, and these can conflict.  A man, for example, may be a father and a policeman - tender and loving in the morning, tough and hard-nosed in the evening.  Normally, this is not a problem - there are different people involved, situations, times...   But what happens when the policeman catches his own son dealing drugs?  Conflict!

Even one  role can actually be many roles, depending on the contrasting role:  A doctor acts one way towards patients, another towards nurses, a third way towards administrators, another way towards fellow doctors.  But what happens when his patient is a fellow doctor?  Or when his administrator tells him he must watch the budget while his nurses point out his humanitarian concerns?  Conflict!

Finally, an individual can become confused about his or her roles.  In the example of the policeman, what would happen if he began to act fatherly to all the juvenile delinquents on his patrol?  Or if he began to bring home the tough cop role to his wife and kids?  Many people have the problem of not being able to leave the job at work.


Status is such a useful word, it is a pity that it is used in so many different ways.  For our purposes, let's define it as "shared expectations regarding influence."  Here's a fuller definition from Sherif:  "Status is a member's position (rank) in a hierarchy of power relations in a social unit (group or system) as measured by the relative effectiveness of initiative (a) to control interaction, decision-making, and activities, and (b) to apply sanctions in cases of non-participation and non-compliance."  Whew!

I used the word influence.  This is what someone has when others change their beliefs or behaviors to fit his or hers.  But, as you are no doubt aware, there are two kinds of influence:  In the first kind, there are sanctions involved, either the use of them, the threat, or just the potential.  This is called power.

Power has several sources.  First, it may be rooted in skill , the knowledge you have that allows you to influence others.  A master chess player controls his opponent by using his superior understanding of tactics and strategy; a master politician does the same through persuasion, manipulation, and gamesmanship.

Power can also derive from resources:   If you have wealth or weapons at your disposal, you have greater opportunity to apply sanctions.  A gun makes for great obedience on the part of others.

And power can derive from legitimacy.  Most people with power don't actually possess that much talent or resources.  They are acknowledged as having power, and therefore influence, and therefore status, by others, who in turn have skills, resources, or legitimacy of their own.  It serves their purposes to support the one, as it once served English barons to have a king:  It provides a social order to work within.

The second source of influence is respect.  This is "power" that is given to you by the people you influence; Rather than complying because of fear or greed, they follow you because of their admiration.

This too has several roots:  The most powerful is the admittedly vague concept of attractiveness, often called "referent power."  We give respect to people for the irrational reason of physical attractiveness, as well as the more rational reason of personal attractiveness.  And we find them attractive not only on the basis of what they are, but on the basis of what they are in relation to us--i.e. their similarities to us.  More of this in the future.

Another basis for respect is expertise ("expert power").  Skills and knowledge relevant to the task are a very rational reason to be influenced by someone.  Note the difference here between the skills mentioned under power and those mentioned here:  The first involve skills at influence, rather than at the task at hand.  But notice that, when we compete with someone, the task is the competition, the influencing, and we may very well respect the other's ability to beat the pants off us!

And a last basis for respect is trustworthiness, a sense that the person is honest, has the best interests of others in mind, has no ulterior motives.

There is one more basis for status and influence which doesn't clearly fall under either power or respect:  Tradition.  Status is clearly an aspect of norms in this regard.  Why do you follow this person?  I've always followed them.  How else to explain the British monarchy, or the die-hard Republican or Democrat who has always voted so, regardless of the issues, the candidate's qualifications, or any other relevant concern.

There are a number of points one should keep in mind about status:  First of all, status is characteristically a part of a broader role, so all the things we've said about roles apply.  Most roles involve some status differentiation (e.g. parent and child), and some roles are mostly a matter of status (e.g. chief, chairperson, president, etc.).

So, status involves the reciprocal nature of roles:  In order to be king, you must have subjects; in order to be a doormat, you must have someone to walk all over you....  And it partakes of the symbolic, ritualistic character of roles, perhaps even more so, inasmuch as most pageantry celebrates status!

Status also has its share of problems -- perhaps more than its share!.  First, there is uncertainty as to relative status.  Just like roles, status is "in the minds" of the people involved, and so always hard to measure.  The results of this uncertainty are all the power struggles we see around us every day.

A set of problems more unique to status derive from the distinction between status based on power and status based on respect:  Sometimes people have no respect for the legitimate authority (national and office dictators, for examples); other times, we find the people we respect unable to achieve the power they need to get things done.

Generally, low status means low freedom:  "The predictability of one's behavior is the sure test of one's own inferiority" (Crozier, 1964, quoted in Kelvin, p. 158).  But influence also means responsibility.  So status may in fact involve a restriction of freedom as well as the increase of freedom we normally expect with status.  If your status is based on legitimacy, you must do right by all those who give you that legitimacy; if your status is based on respect, you must behave in a manner that upholds that respect; and if your influence is based purely on your wits and strength, you can never rest!

Society and our mental health

When we created culture, it developed a life of its own.  Rather than remaining close to other aspects of our natures, culture can become a force in its own right.  And even if, in the long run, a culture that interferes with our actualization dies out, we, in all likelihood, will die with it.

Don’t misunderstand:  Culture and society are not intrinsically evil!  It’s more along the lines of the birds of paradise found in Papua-New Guinea.  The colorful and dramatic plumage of the males apparently distract predators from females and the young.  Natural selection has led these birds towards more and more elaborate tail feathers, until in some species the male can no longer get off the ground.  At that point, being colorful doesn’t do the male -- or the species -- much good!  In the same way, our elaborate societies, complex cultures, incredible technologies, for all that they have helped us to survive and prosper, may at the same time serve to harm us, and possibly even destroy us.

Carl Rogers tells us that organisms know what is good for them.  Evolution has provided us with the senses, the tastes, the discriminations we need:  When we hunger, we find food - not just any food, but food that tastes good.  Food that tastes bad is likely to be spoiled, rotten, unhealthy. That what good and bad tastes are - our evolutionary lessons made clear!  This is called organismic valuing.

Among the many things that we instinctively value is positive regard, Rogers umbrella term for things like love, affection, attention, nurturance, and so on.  It is clear that babies need love and attention. In fact, it may well be that they die without it.  They certainly fail to thrive - i.e. become all they can be.

Another thing -- perhaps peculiarly human -- that we value is positive self-regard, that is, self-esteem, self-worth, a positive self-image.  We achieve this positive self-regard by experiencing the positive regard others show us over our years of growing up.  Without this self-regard, we feel small and helpless, and again we fail to become all that we can be!

Carl Rogers believed that, if left to their own devices, animals will tend to eat and drink things that are good for them, and consume them in balanced proportions.  Babies, too, seem to want and like what they need.  Somewhere along the line, however, we have created an environment for ourselves that is significantly different from the one in which we evolved.  In this new environment are such things as refined sugar, flour, butter, chocolate, and so on, that our ancestors in Africa never knew.  These things have flavors that appeal to our organismic valuing - yet do not serve our actualization well.  Over millions of years, we may evolve to find brocolli more satisfying than cheesecake - but by then, it’ll be way too late for you and me. A curious point to make about the example used is that today we have refined sugar - something which was not available to our ancestors, but which we discovered and passed on to our descendants through learned culture.   It is clear that today a great attraction to sugar no longer serves our survival and reproduction.  But culture moves much more quickly than evolution:  It took millions of years to evolve our healthy taste for sugar; it took only thousands of years to undermine it.

Our society also leads us astray with conditions of worth.  As we grow up, our parents, teachers, peers, the media, and others, only give us what we need when we show we are “worthy,” rather than just because we need it. We get a drink when we finish our class, we get something sweet when we finish our vegetables, and most importantly, we get love and affection if and only if we “behave!”

Getting positive regard on “on condition” Rogers calls conditional positive regard.  Because we do indeed need positive regard, these conditions are very powerful, and we bend ourselves into a shape determined, not by our organismic valuing or our actualizing tendency, but by a society that may or may not truly have our best interests at heart.  A “good little boy or girl” may not be a healthy or happy boy or girl!

Over time, this “conditioning” leads us to have conditional positive self-regard as well.  We begin to like ourselves only if we meet up with the standards others have applied to us, rather than if we are truly actualizing our potentials.  And since these standards were created without keeping each individual in mind, more often than not we find ourselves unable to meet them, and therefore unable to maintain any sense of self-esteem.

At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves a bit, allow me to give you a simple way of looking at the influence of culture on mental health.  Just like with more individual problems, psychological disorders based on culture often - maybe always - begin with stress.  The nature of the society - as enacted within families, communities, and, today, in the media - is such that it always contains cultural, "institutionalized" stressors, demands made upon the individual, prejudices, abuse, disrespect, and so on - the "conditions of worth" Rogers talks about.  Stress leads to strong emotions: fear, anger, depression.  These emotions in turn lead to various actions: obedience, conformity, violence, escapism, narcissism, resignation, apathy, cyncism, suicide.

Culture is very difficult to separate from (a) biology and (b) individual variation.  The only thing not in doubt is its enormous influence on our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.