One Among Many

The self in social context

Meta Prezzo

Half-baked and half-price

As my faible for Italian post-titles has not fully atrophied, I offer Meta Prezzo, or half price. At the Marechiaro in Bergamo, where I was staying during the heady days of teaching in the Università’s internationalization program last May, the Giordano family offered Pizza at meta prezzo every Wednesday. When in Bergamo, please see the Giordani at Borgo Palazzo and tell them I sent you. Who needs TripAdvisor when you can have Psychology Today?

Art appreciation

In Bergamo, the art of the Renaissance put me in thrall; in Amsterdam it was the masterpieces of the 17th Century. Common denominator: Each nation had a golden age, and I am beginning to understand what this means (Incidentally, the U.S is still waiting for its; I fear it is not going to happen during my lifetime). I am currently teaching a seminar on the psychology of creativity, and the students and I continually struggle with the question of how creativity is defined or recognized. The “you-know-it-when-you-it” stance is unsatisfying, yet it is often all we have. The difficulty is that creative production combines intrinsic qualities, such as technique, and extrinsic elements, such as social validation. The two are often so enmeshed with each other that their effects are inseparable.

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Night Watch
Here’s an example. In Amsterdam, I visited the Rijksmuseum. The core of the museum is “The Collection,” which comprises many of the works of the great masters of the golden age (Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals inter alii). The museum has arranged things so that the truly outstanding works stand out. For example, you approach Rembrandt’s monumental Night Watch, by passing a number of lesser works first. This arrangement produces a gradual build-up of anticipation. As you can see Night Watch in the distance, you know that this painting will provide a peak experience. This experience is partly constructed for you by those who have already determined the painting’s greatness. I don’t mind this at all. I welcome the enhanced experience.

A similar, but more surprising, moment of art appreciation occurred as I was walking back to Centraal, Amsterdam’s train station. I discovered that the City of Amsterdam was running a special event. For a few weeks only (scarcity!), 20 of the great patrician homes on the grachten (canals) are open to the public. I saw some living quarters and exhibitions in these buildings, and I discovered Johannes van der Beeck (aka Torrentius). Beeck was a 17th Century painter and the undisputed master of still lifes. He was an atheist and a womanizer, and for the former, he was tortured and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The King of England bailed him out. Beeck went to London, continued to stir up trouble, and eventually returned to Amsterdam, where he died of syphilis. Meanwhile, the pious Dutch had burned his paintings, except one (scarcity!). This one painting was discovered in 1913. It had been used as a lid for a raisin barrel (degradation & redemption!). When the painting was cleaned, Beeck’s signature was discovered and recognized as authentic.

van der Beeck
While the story was told by audiotape, the projector showed the painting, but not all at once. The projection began with a deep zoom-in at the center of the painting. At first, I thought I was looking a bad picture of the Andromeda Nebula taken by the Hubble telescope. The gradual zooming out brought the full glory of the painting into view, little by little, reminding me of the Night Watch gradually coming into view at the Rijks (gradualness!). Of the objects in the painting, the glass was the first to appear, along with the tantalizing reflections of light thereon. Eventually, the whole arrangement could be beheld: flagon, glass, jug, and bridle. The voice on the tape, being perfectly paced with the gradual construction of the visual image, explained that Beeck created this masterpiece with just one layer of paint and only one correction. For lack of a better analogy, I ask the academic reader to consider writing an article for the Psychological Review in one draft, and getting it published. It can’t be done. But it was done. By Mr. van der Beeck. Technique and skill are the hallmarks of great expertise, but creating a masterpiece with apparent effortlessness is far beyond the realm of the ordinary.

Guernica
The psychologically-minded ask: Would one be in awe of this painting without the elements of scarcity, drama (degradation & redemption), gradualness of revelation, and assurance of effortlessness surrounding the experience of the painting? The answer is, probably not. But why should such context effects detract from the appreciation of the art? Suppose other pieces exist that are technically as sophisticated as Beeck’s. Would it be unfair to privilege his painting? To raise questions of fairness is to introduce a moral dimension, which I think is irrelevant here. The uniqueness and the drama surrounding Beeck’s painting are characteristics that are fused together with the physical work. They have become integral. They are part of the Gestalt. For a better-known analogy, consider Picasso’s Guernica. Who believes that Guernica is sufficiently described by its physical properties and the master’s technique? Who believes that his painting can stand apart from the story it tells, a story that did happen and that left a scar on the face of the 20th Century? Context matters, in art as in life. 

Chicken and egg

Much of my empirical research is concerned with the issue of social projection, that is, with the finding that most people assume others to be similar to themselves rather than dissimilar and the psychological mechanisms that make it so. The basic idea is that people tend to have a good deal of knowledge about themselves, their preferences, goals, or habits, and they use this information to estimate what is common in the groups to which they belong. Thus, social projection is a special type of inductive reasoning. People infer the lesser known from the better known. In principle, then, the direction of the inference can reverse, such that people infer uncertain properties of the self from known properties of the group. When they do, we have a case of self-stereotyping. There is evidence for self-stereotyping, but overall, social projection dominates.

I recently had occasion to hear an argument for the view that self-concepts are necessarily derivative of social groups. The argument goes that selves are not born, but shaped and constructed by group life. This is a fair enough claim, but it should not be confused with the idea that when there is a correlation between self-judgments and judgments about a group, it is always a matter of self-stereotyping and not a matter of social projection. Indeed, the premise that self-concepts are shaped and constructed by interactions with fellow group members negates the claim that self-stereotyping dominates social projection. Self-stereotyping occurs when self-concepts are ill-defined, fragile, and uncertain, in other words, when they have not yet been built up firmly by group life. One may either claim that once self-concepts have been constructed by group life, their elements can be projected back on the group, or one may claim – contrary to evidence – that self-concepts are forever brittle and in need of being constructed on the spot by self-stereotyping, but one cannot claim both.

Being a staunch defender of the social-projection hypothesis, I would not dream of claiming that self-concepts emerge on their own without a suitable context of a sustaining group. In the prehistory of our species, it is virtually certain that group life existed before self-conscious self-concepts appeared on the scene. In that sense, the group can claim primacy. To suggest that this paleontological primacy of the group negates the role of social projection in the perception of contemporary groups is a red herring.

 

Joachim Krueger, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Brown University who believes that rational thinking and socially responsible behavior are attainable goals.

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