Social Control Mechanisms

Time: Friday, December1, 14h-16h

Place: room  D.1.07, VUB Campus Etterbeek, Pleinlaan 2, 1050 Brussels

Social Systems Programming:
Behavioral and Emotional Mechanisms Co-opted for Social Control

Francis Heylighen, Marta Lenartowicz, Kate Kingsbury‡, Shima Beigi & Tjorven Harmsen

Evolution, Complexity and Cognition group, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
*Department of Anthropology, University of Alberta

Abstract: Social systems can be defined as autopoietic networks of distinctions and rules that specify which actions should be performed under which conditions. Social systems have an enormous power over human individuals, as they can “program” them to sacrifice resources, happiness, loved ones and even themselves to the perpetuation of the system—as exemplified by religious celibacy, honor killings and suicide bombings. Such overriding of the biological instincts of survival and procreation demands powerful control mechanisms. The present paper surveys the most important neural, behavioral and emotional mechanisms that have been co-opted for social control. Basic conditioning happens through rewarding or reinforcement of socially sanctioned actions. Its power is extended by the conformist transmission of narratives that promise as yet virtual rewards. Deviation from the norms is suppressed through negative emotions: fear of punishment and ostracism, guilt about wrongful thoughts or actions, shame about personal deficiencies, and disgust for pollutions of the “pure” social order. Insecurity, cognitive dissonance and jostling for status in social hierarchies make individuals particularly susceptible to avoid such negative reinforcements. Through these suppressive mechanisms, social systems commonly impede individual emancipation, self-actualization and societal progress.


Social Systems Programming I: neural and behavioral control mechanisms

Social Systems Programming II: emotional and structural control mechanisms

(both submitted to Systems Research and Behavioral Science)