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Social aptitude is something that is often at the forefront of my mind. Not because I am particularly interested in the topic, but rather I worry about the perceptions others hold, whether I am ‘performing’ socially at an adequate level and where the next social challenge will come from. But where do these fears and observations stem from? Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places social interaction (the need to belong) as a fundamental requirement of human nature. Evolutionary psychologists correlate brain size with group size and through a process of ‘social grooming’, the development of bigger brains (as more individuals are engaged) becomes a necessary evolutionary requirement if the individual is to remain competitive. Linguists, philosophers and evolutionary psychologists all theorise that the growth of language arose from the need for efficient communication in large social groups. According to the philosopher Daniel Dennet, the use of primitive ‘warning-call’ languages that used a single word for each unique event (high pitched cry = lion approaching) quickly exhausted the minds of our ancestors, thus encouraging the development of a versatile language where words can take on multiple meanings and be used interchangeably in syntactically acceptable ways.

The conclusive intersection reached by all of these variations on our social heritage seems to suggest that social interaction is a fundamental need of humanity. The questions I intend to explore in this article include; what does this conclusion mean for day to day life and where did it come from, should we be worried about how we are performing socially (and how others perform) and finally, is such a reliance on social exchange wise in a society that is moving away from such contact, at least in the traditional sense (replacing face-to-face interactions with those of a purely distant, digital form).

The origins of our social nature might lie in ancient survival techniques. We are relatively vulnerable creatures, and following our descent from the trees, became even more so. Mad dashes between the relative safety of foliage could have acted as the first catalyst for communal behaviour. Warning calls and proto-language enabled groups to share the task of vigilance, while at the same time, allowed some individuals to exploit the warning system, using it to cheat others out of food (faking danger to eliminate competition). This actually occurs in the real-world with primates. Anexample I can only dimly recall from an Evolutionary Psychology lecture goes a little something like this. A specific species of primate (a type of monkey I believe) can be observed in the wild to fake the warning calls that signal a predator is on the way. This eliminates other group members from the newly spotted food source and allows the faker to steal it from under their noses. What is more astounding is that upon seeing this obvious deception, the remaining group members will attack the faker and beat them to within an inch of their life! Thus the raw ingredients for human social characteristics (in a psychologically comparative sense), such as deception and basic morality/punishment of wrongdoers seem to have their roots in dynamics that govern large groupings of animals.

Questions that still linger on the horizon are 1) why aren’t there species at various stages of cognitive/social evolution (providing us with irrefutable proof of the missing human/primate link) and 2) what made us (or more specifically, our ancestors that diverged from the chimp lineage) so different to all other species; what acted as the catalyst for change that prompted the development of bigger brains and society? The answer to 1) is easy, we killed them. Neanderthals and earlier sub-species (Australopithecus) , whether due to climate change, competition with homo sapiens or simply poor genes that weren’t as catered towards adaptability as ours, were all wiped out. It is interesting to note that Neanderthals’ brain size was larger than that of modern humans, possibly (though not necessarily) indicating higher intelligence, although perhaps their brains were organised in a different or less efficient way (or perhaps they were less war-like and bloodthirsty than us!).

The second question of our uniqueness is a little tougher to explain. I believe that the combination of random genetic mutation, physical traits and environmental change all acted as evolutionary momentum towards the creation of language and society. An analogy using the imagery of mountains and channels of water aptly describes this evolutionary process. Pressures on a species to change/adapt, whether they be environmental or genetic, combine to create a large peak; the height of the peak is determined by the urgency of the change. For example, the sudden onset of a new ice age combined with a hairless body would cause the formation of a large peak as the organism would thus be genetically selecting (through evolution) for offspring that could survive the change (warm coats of fur is one solution). Like a flowing river, evolution follows the easiest path downhill to its ultimate destination. Again, in analogy to a river, external influence can alter its course or slow its speed, sometimes with drastic results (an evolutionary dead end and extinction of the species). So quite possibly, the combination of our differing physical traits (homo sapiens were taller and acquired less muscle mass than the stocky, well-built Neanderthals) combined with some sort of environmental change (climate change or elimination of a primary food source – homo sapiens were omnivores whilst Neanderthals were thought to rely solely on meat) gave our species the evolutionary push down the mountain slope that outpaced that of our competition.

The creation of society and language is even more uncertain. The main problem is deciding whether language was a gradual process or emerged ‘all at once’. But again I digress. We now have enough background knowledge to proceed with a discussion on modern social traits and what they mean for everyday interaction.

Owing to a long history of evolutionary pressure to establish pro-social traits in the human psyche, we consequently now have many autonomously and automatically operating processes that operate on a sub-conscious level. Conscious thought patterns are prone to error, therefore creating the need for these processes to occur unconsciously and without our awareness. The nature of humanity, with the majority acting as intrinsically ‘good’ and moral beings and a minority acting in their own self interest, caused the formation and detail to most of these processes. On one hand, we require co-operative patterns of interaction, with pro-social attitudes such as conflict resolution (because fighting is alot riskier than talking) and the fair division of resources. On the other hand we also require a defense (and capability to commit it ourselves) against deception. A fine balance has to occur between knowing when to take more than you need and sharing out for the greater good. In a society where all are treated as equal, communal behaviour rules. But like any evolutionary system, occasionally ‘cheaters’ will enter the fray. Those that evolve patterns of behaviour and thinking that seek to take more and gorge themselves at the expense of others. A society full of such organisms is prone to failure, therefore the natural solution is to limit the number of such agents. Perhaps this formed the basis for language and self-actualisation; a defensive mechanism invented by communal individuals to defend against cheaters and test the sincerity of other communals.

So from a purely animalistic perspective, yes we should be worried about our social performance. As most of this behaviour is rooted in unconscious processes that are often beyond our control (at least if we aren’t aware that they are occurring), other individuals will unknowingly be testing each other at each interaction. At first thought this seems paralysingly frightening. Every interaction is a test, a mental duel, a theatrical performance with both agents vying for supremacy. Unconsciously we begin to form impressions based upon animal urges (are they sexually attractive, are they a cheater or a communal, are they a threat to my power) and often such stereotyping and categorising brings out the worst in human behaviour.

More forward, as most of social interaction is based upon unconscious processes that stem from millenia of evolution, is it wise for us to proceed ‘as planned’ without challenging the ways in which we exchange information with other people? Especially in a society that is moving quickly towards one that favours anonymity and deception as a way of life. The internet and information revolution has prompted a change in the way we conduct social interactions. The elimination of non-verbal communication and direct observation of physical features during socialisation is good in the sense that our animal evolutionary processes are being stunted, but bad in that this newfound anonymity makes it easier for the deviants of society to hide behind a digital veil. The world has, without a doubt, become increasingly more social as the internet revolution reaches full intensity, however is this at the expense of meaningful and truthful social interaction? On the digital savannah, truth flies out the window as the insecure and otherwise socially inept have a vast arsenal with which to present themselves in a more favourable light. Avatars replace face-to-face communication forcing people to exist in a pseudo-reality where one can take on any attributes they desire.

Is the new path of social interaction leading us to an increase in cognitive development or stunting our growth and forcing us back hundreds of years in social evolution? The jury is still out, however it is without a doubt that social situations are still highly valued exchanges between individuals. This makes them none-the-less scary, especially for those individuals that have a tendency to bring the unconscious to the forefront of their minds (myself included). Performing such an act is paralysing, as the frontal lobes take over the task that is usually dealt with on an unconscious level. Each word is evaluated for its social merit, the mind constantly simulating the reactions of others and hypothetically testing each sentence to ensure it makes sense. It is only through a relaxation of this monitoring process and a relapse towards the unconscious that conversation flows and the individual is socially effective. But as we have seen, these unconscious processes are steeped in ancient and primitive principles that have little use for a future society that aims to be inclusive, intellectualised and transcendent. However, one thing is certain. The full extent of the changes that sociology is currently experiencing must be monitored to determine if they are accentuating dysfunction or more positively, changing our evolutionary course away from animalistic urges and towards genuine social interactions that value the input of both members without and subtle undertones and jockeying for higher authority.

The act of categorisation is a fundamental cognitive process that is used to attach meaning to objects. As such, it forms the basis for daily interactions both social and introspective; social in the sense that stereotyping (a form of categorisation) affects not only our thoughts, but also our behaviour when interacting with others. This process is also introspective in that the act of categorising external objects influences how that information is internalised (correctly or incorrectly stored depending on the structure of the agent’s categorical schema).

Categorisation influences our perceptions of the world in a very marked way. The main advantage this function brings is that it makes generalisations possible and useful. Without categorisation, communicating thought processes and disseminating information from our world would become a very long-winded and convoluted process. The versatility of grouping commonly featured objects together allows us to talk about things informatively while leaving out all the tedious descriptive stuff. Categorisation is also one way of allowing meaning to be attached to objects, thoughts and feelings. For example, the emotion of feeling ‘sad’ includes a vast range of varying mental states all bubbling and boiling away in a sea of unpredictability. The overall result, of course, is easily identifiable to us as ‘someone of negative affect’, but how would we accomplish this feat if we did not have access to categorisation? We would surely be paralysed by the overwhelming variation that individual differences in the expression of sadness brings. One possible function of categorisation is to work cooperatively with the sensory regions of the brain to help provide an overall picture or concept to use in working memory space. Take face recognition for example, many hundreds of fluctuating variables (shape, position, features, colour etc) that somehow are compressed and averaged into something that is usable by the brain. The act of categorising the facial features into a coherent whole allows not only recognition, but the activation of memories, stereotypes, future planning and emotions (among other actions).

Delving deeper, I wonder whether it is possible to describe a thing without falling back to categorisation? It seems not, as the very act of describing something seems to presuppose, if not require, the existence of categorisation. This ‘reductionist’s nightmare’ becomes apparent with a simple mental simulation. Try now to describe a common everyday thing without referring to pre-established categories. Take a humble kitchen drinking glass for example. Straight away I have categorised the item; I could have been talking about any glass at all, however immediately I have succeeded in creating a mental image of a glass, which was then refined by the sub category of ‘drinking’. The first category, glass, could elicit countless mental images of everyday objects. Those images would cluster around some variation of the bell curve (although how do you arrange ideas and concepts either side of the most frequent and central idea as in a ‘normal’ bell curve?), with the frequencies of each item starting off low and graduating up to the most common. Most likely the majority of conjured mental images will correspond to some fuzzy approximation of the everyday drinking glass. Each image will vary from mind to mind, however the overall category is well defined and usable in terms of conveying ideas. The brain is ready to receive and store the incoming information under the category ‘glass’. Again we attempt to describe the glass without using categories; in this case we take the reductionist approach and peel back another layer of physical form. A possible avenue for this is to describe the molecular structure; X many billions of Silica molecules arranged in formations just so, composed in turn of X number of silicon atoms and X number of oxygen atoms…and so on. The problem here is that we are still referring to categories. We are using words such as ‘atoms’, ‘molecules’ and ‘oxygen’; all are categories of physical things that are inclusive of all those objects that make up the said category. They still succeed in conjuring up a generic icon in the mind’s eye.

Or a different approach could be taken, and instead of trying to explain the constituent components of the item in question, the utilities are proposed. Our old mate the drinking glass would thus be described in terms of its usefulness (holds liquids), its actions (constrains, lifted to the mouth, poured), its influences on our bodies (delivers nutrients via the mouth) and even the processes that went into constructing it (Sven from Ikea, cheap Chinese sweatshop). It soon becomes obvious that no matter how hard we try to avoid the use of categorisation, it forms the basis for our thought processes. Whether it be categories of sub-components, materials and atomic structure or categories of behaviour, actions or origin, placing everyday objects into generalised groups according to their features is what gives it meaning. Without categories not only would the (traditional) communication of ideas be difficult, even impossible, the very essence of the stuff around us would be meaningless. In short, without categoisation, the external world looses its meaning.

But what of the negative aspects of categorisation. Perhaps the most obvious is the potential for errors; that is, incorrectly categorising something to a pigeon hole that it shouldn’t belong in. Due to the fundamental (and often unconscious) manner in which catergorisation affects the entire thought process, an error at this foundation level can spell disaster for the entire system. Subjective ‘errors’ in the categorising process become most apparent in social situations. I believe this is due to a low level sub-routine that uses social interactions to make refinements to the overall system; by observing the responses of other agents (in the form of behaviours) to the behaviour of the self (once the category has been assigned and a response elicited) the sub-routine compares and contrasts how effective and accurate the assigned category is in relation to the categories of others. In this way our individual systems of categorisation are kept in-sync, thus preserving the collective sense of meaning and making communication possible. If this is unclear, take the following example. Bill is attempting to explain a novel object to Joe. Bill states the object is a ‘Kazoolagram’ but this contains no meaning to Joe at all; his categoorical ‘set’ is missing this category with its attached label of meaning. The object’s properties are then described, and Joe responds by suggesting similar sets from his repository of meaning; “Well is it anything like a Nincompoop?” Here Joe attempts to refine his mental schemas and grasps at existing examples to attach meaning to this unique object. The banter continues, with both participants gauging the accuracy of their categorisations through the behaviour of the other agent. Eventually they agree on the meaning of the object. This brings us to another question; is meaning emergent (ie greater than the sum of the parts) or simply a cobbled together collage of pre-existing mental representations (limited by the extent of the agents prior experiences)?

It seems as though the process of categorising can be influenced by the pre-existing content present within brains, especially past examples and experiences of events or objects similar to the one in question. Meaning seems to be both an emergent property and a combination of past experiences in that individually, the features of a category are useless, however together and in partnership with the agent’s existing knowledge (making the process faster if both agents have similar experiences) categories flourish into useful, meaningful tools for the processing and transmission of information.

The point of this article was to expose the extent of categorisation and provide the case for it’s existence as an everyday, fundamental cognitive process. Sure, categorisation has its weaknesses, but more than compensates for them with its strengths. Categorisation runs deeper than most would realise; potentially providing insight into the very way in which brains receive, process and store information. Perhaps a more accurate and efficient process may arise if humanity succeeds in modifying the essence of cognition towards better ways of classing objects and describing internal states. Maybe the direct transmission of meaning brain to brain will supersede categorisation and allow for instantaneous communication between agents.