Ethics / General Musings

Copycat: Social Imitation and Reciprocal Determinism

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

~ W. Shakespeare

What would you say to the possibility that the very fabric of our learning and cognition, of how we perceive and identify the external world, our opinions, our world view and ultimately our identity is actually determined solely by our social and environmental conditioning? That what you consider to be your ‘individuality’ is really an integration of a number of learned behavioural patterns that you have spatially identified and assimilated into a cohesive language which you alone understand and refine into a framework assuming it to be your own? Indeed, Carl Jung spoke of a Collective Unconscious where people share common experiences and emotions and form archetypes or characters and personalities that we shape and mould and pretend to be ours. “The mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely, the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the persona, the mask of the actor.” [1] It is not difficult to believe that societal processes can appear to be nothing more than a simulation of reality. Indeed, the idolisation of celebrities such as the Kardashians – an empire built on the incredibly intelligent and effective marketing ploy and PA for what is essentially a rubbish family of senseless people – has provided the social instrument to form a continuum for millions who attempt the same effective marketing ploy and PA for themselves, covering themselves in a thick layer of make-up, spending thousands of dollars on breast augmentation or injecting fillers into their lips as they dishonestly present this archetype of normality to others. Psycho-social interaction and masquerading a false identity puts a question mark around whether we are capable of introspection and honest self-reflective examination and whether we have the cognitive capacity to transcend the determinism of our social environment.

There was a moment several days ago that resulted in an epiphany for me as I sat on the train on my way to work and in my sleepiness looked out at the cold scenery through the window covered in speckled rain. Briefly stopping at a local station to collect new passengers, across the platform another train had arrived to go the opposite direction and I saw a woman attempting to board the that train, albeit with a great deal of difficulty. My attention was first drawn to her feet, my concern immediate as she wore a mangled pair of flip-flops on such a cold day and I thought ‘goodness, you should be wearing a thick pair of socks and boots!’ She was incredibly thin under her tattered clothing, had tattoos on her gaunt face as she flicked her cigarette when someone finally helped her open the door. My thoughts, however, were drawn momentarily away from my concern for her well-being as I suddenly imagined this woman a young child, pretending to myself that for a moment I knew her mother and father who themselves were repeating a history of abuse and they raised this young girl in an environment that made her feel worthless, her existence valueless that she had grown to believe the same in herself. She could not find the will to take care of herself until one day she encounters some drug-dealer who deceptively made her feel significant for his own benefit and trapped her into a vicious cycle that, over time, the light within her completely diminished to the state that she had now found herself in.

This set condition then shattered into a matrix of an interconnected set of imagery, where I remembered an overweight man sitting at a bus stop eating from one of three large containers of fried chips smothered in gravy, or that girl who defensively boasted about having sex with the same number of men as her age and in one night for a birthday gift to herself, or that middle-aged man that aimlessly sat outside the local shopping center chain smoking. They contained the same root problem; each of them appeared to lack any sense of dignity as though they eventually became disillusioned to point of becoming truly lost. I could see this pedigree or continuity of abuse beginning from others before extending to the self as though persisting in this maltreatment somehow justified the former. Indeed, a woman who experiences the oppression from a violent husband who in turn creates the right conditions – keeping her away from her family, from friends, from an education or employment – enables him to gaslight her through psychological manipulation and make her believe that she is at fault enough for her to begin to believe it herself. The social and environmental conditions facilitate this failure for many to perceive objectively the overall wrong in their experiences that they finally stop caring for themselves as a coping mechanism for the initial mistreatment that they experienced.

Violence is not strictly physical, whereby vicious or cruel words, threatening behaviour and persistent harassment can be just as violent as physical harm. “Battering is not merely physical violence but a range of coercive behaviours that often consists of physical, sexual, psychological, verbal, and economic abuse. These behaviours serve to undermine the victim’s self-esteem and independence.” A marijuana addict or an alcoholic, those that eat too much or starve or smoke among a litany of other concerns are just as violent to themselves as physical self-harm can be. The causes of aggressive behaviour can be a direct result of learned responses, whereby according to Albert Bandura’ theory of Triadic Reciprocal Causation, there are three factors that play a determinative role during the process of imitation where people model themselves to their social environment as part of an identification process. This includes learned conditioning through the continuous interaction between personal, environmental and behavioural influences, whereby interplay of psychosocial processes enables an individual to simulate prominent role models that ultimately expand and become included into ones self-regulatory mechanisms and behavioural patterns. While mirroring such behaviour from others has been attributed to violence or aggression against others, it is clear that person who harms themselves in some way may be reproducing the same harm they experienced, only back to themselves.

Mapping the reciprocal interactivity and cognitive functioning that enables an individual to simulate and imitate their environment, whereby the construction of an individual’ reality is based on the adaptation and modelling of external behaviour, has been used to understand a number of internalisation and self-regulatory processes. This includes the mechanics of motivation, values and models of self-guidance and indeed the complexity of this development continues into adulthood where individuals may encounter new experiences that can result in a alteration of cognitive processes and perspectives and in turn shed light into the possibility of whether we are cognitively capable of self-reflective determination.

Globalisation itself is an ambiguous term but reflects the continuous discourse on the ever-changing and complex social structure of contemporary western society. The socially constructed idea of beauty or the concept of masculinity for instance has played a major role in developing the right conditions that provide the landscape for widespread abuse by external parties. Just as our immediate environment – such as family and friends – can impact on the structure of our personal identity, the broader social configuration causally influenced by economics and engendered by profit additionally influences behaviour that subliminally networks into this influence and shapes our view of ourselves. Like how some men or women, or drug-dealers, or even sales agents can calculate an opportunity to use the vulnerabilities of others for their own advantage, parties of globalisation have opportunistically captured the right tools through commercial and consumer marketing to diminish any resilience against this disregard to oneself. Cosmetic surgery for the purpose of being ‘beautiful’ is a form of self-harm normalised by the disillusioned as a number of social and environmental factors have enabled the right conditions that tolerate the absorption and consumption of an image, a symbol of something better then they are. It is a form of social violence that imperceptibly tells others to copy and paste an identity that is not their own. A way of making one feel unworthy until they reach a state where who they are becomes truly lost, just like a drug addict. Indeed, the construction of masculinity is no different; conceptions of physical power and violence as determining the identity of a ‘man’ can be considered a form of violence by society against the identity of men.

Cosmetic changes for the purpose of being ‘beautiful’ is a form of self-harm normalised by the disillusioned as a number of social and environmental factors have enabled the right conditions that tolerate the absorption and consumption of an image, a symbol of something better then they are. It is a form of social violence that imperceptibly tells others to copy and paste an identity that is not their own. A way of making one feel unworthy until they reach a state where who they are becomes truly lost, just like a drug addict.

The question that inevitably comes to the fore is whether we are enabled with the cognitive tools that would allow us to transcend learned social behaviour. Indeed, but perhaps a post for another time. It is moral consciousness in my opinion, the state or capacity of genuine love that will enable one to take the necessary steps toward reaching an actual state of authenticity. The evil here is the subtle hatred that infects the person who desires to be loved and so appealing is this need that it causally disconnects them from the ability reach a state of self-determination, making one believe that yielding to the whims of society and receiving accolades for a false image is better than the harsh reality of the Desert of the Real.

[1]C.G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Routledge (2014) 20
[2] Lee Ann Hoff, Violence and Abuse Issues: Cross-Cultural Perspectives for Health and Social Services, Routledge (2009) 152
[3] See Albert Bandura, Social foundations of thought and action: a social cognitive theory, Prentice-Hall, (1986)

One thought on “Copycat: Social Imitation and Reciprocal Determinism

  1. “It is moral consciousness. . . . the state or capacity of genuine love that will enable one to take the necessary steps toward reaching an actual state of authenticity.” I would agree. It is love that takes us out of ourselves, thereby freeing us at least for the moment, from the societal factors that otherwise determine our actions. It yields genuine spontaneity.

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