When I was a child in Saskatchewan in the 1950s, my parents and their friends smoked cigarettes, most women were housewives, birth control and homosexuality were illegal, and pornography was scarce. Today, almost no one I know smokes, many women are professionals, Canada has legalized same-sex marriage, and hard-core pornography is available to anyone with Internet access. What causes these enormous social changes?

Contemporary social science is oddly incompetent to explain such transformations. Much of economics and political science still assumes that individuals always make rational choices, despite the abundance of evidence that people frequently succumb to thinking errors such as motivated inference, fear-driven inference, confirmation bias, sunk costs, and framing losses differently from gains. Much of sociology and anthropology is taken over with the postmodernist assumption that everything is constructed on the basis of social relations such as power, with no inkling that these relations are mediated by how people think about each other. Social psychology should serve as the connection between changes in individual minds and social transformations, but the study of social cognition tends to focus on how individuals think about each other, rather than on the group processes that produce the spread of concepts and emotional attitudes across societies.

A better approach to explaining social change needs to be constructed by building on current work about the neural mechanisms responsible for cognition and emotion. All mental representations – images, concepts, beliefs, rules, analogies, emotions, desires – can be built out of patterns of neural firings that Chris Eliasmith calls semantic pointers, which can function like symbols but unpack into sensory-motor representations.  His Semantic Pointer Architecture aims to provide a unified, brain-based account of the full range of human thought, from perception to language. What does social change look like from this perspective?

If all thinking in individuals builds representations out of semantic pointers, then communication between individuals produces approximate transfer of such neural processes. It should be possible to identify the full range of social interactions that transmit ideas, which go beyond verbal means such as conversation and argument. Nonverbal ways of communicating semantic pointers include gestures, touches, pictures, as well as collective activities like singing, marching, and participating in religious rituals. Technologies such as television and Facebook use words and images to communicate emotional attitudes in addition to verbal and pictorial information. Because semantic pointers cover nonverbal information from the senses and emotions in addition to words and sentences, they should provide the basis for a general theory of communication. Social changes result from alterations in the neural representations in individuals and from the exchanges between them that causally interact with what goes on in individual heads.

From this perspective, social change results from the combination of communicative interactions among people and their individual cognitive-emotional processes. This approach, which I call social cognitivism, does not attempt to reduce the social to the individual as rational choice approaches want, nor does it attempt to reduce the individual to the social as social constructionist approaches want. Rather, it views social change as the result of multilevel emergence from interacting social and mental mechanisms, which include the neural and molecular processes that make minds capable of thinking. Validation of new ideas about social cognitivism and multilevel emergence will require detailed studies of important social changes, from norms about smoking and pornography to economic practices, political institutions, religious customs, and international relations. The study of social change should serve not only to explain past developments, but also to suggest how to deal with ongoing problems such as racism, climate change, and inequality.

Credit:  The smoking image is from Wikimedia Commons.

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