This post shares recent conjectures. I’m less confident than usual. I’m confident there’s something important and irrational about social dynamics (which is not a recent or original thought), but I’m less confident about the connection with static memes in particular (which is an original idea covering specifics that David Deutsch left mostly unspecified).
The core static memes (see Third Type of Meme: Static Companion Memes and comments, which I'm following up on) are second-handedness (see The Fountainhead) and related social orientation instead of reality orientation. The way static memes suppress critical faculties is by getting people to judge in terms of the opinions of other people, and their social status, rather than in terms of facts, logic and reality. Static memes get people to replace their connection with objective reality with a connection with social dynamics.
Static societies are similar to what Elsworth Toohey described to Peter Keating in The Fountainhead (emphasis added):
“ ... A world of obedience and of unity. A world where the thought of each man will not be his own, but an attempt to guess the thought in the brain of his neighbor who’ll have no thought of his own but an attempt to guess the thought of the next neighbor who’ll have no thought—and so on, Peter, around the globe. Since all must agree with all. A world where no man will hold a desire for himself, but will direct all his efforts to satisfy the desires of his neighbor who’ll have no desires except to satisfy the desires of the next neighbor who’ll have no desires—around the globe, Peter. Since all must serve all. A world in which man will not work for so innocent an incentive as money, but for that headless monster—prestige. The approval of his fellows—their good opinion—the opinion of men who’ll be allowed to hold no opinion.... Judgment, Peter? Not judgment, but public polls. An average drawn upon zeroes—since no individuality will be permitted.... I want power.... Let all live for all. Let all sacrifice and none profit. Let all suffer and none enjoy. Let progress stop. Let all stagnate. There’s equality in stagnation. All subjugated to the will of all. Universal slavery—without even the dignity of a master. Slavery to slavery. A great circle—and a total equality....”
Static companion memes, then, are socially calibrated behaviors – they compete to better fit into the social game instead of being useful or reality-oriented. Most of the social rules (in detail re particular things) and behaviors don’t create or cause the social game itself, they just make sense within it. An example is being passive-aggressive (or more specifically a particular insult like saying something is a “bad look” or “weird”). That’s something which is adapted to the selection pressures of social games instead of the selection pressures of dealing with reality. Wearing fashionable clothes, learning recent jargon for a subculture, trying to please others, and all sorts of social climbing are static companion memes. They’re evolved not to directly suppress thinking but to be effective in the social world created by the core static memes to shut down creative thought about reality.
Consequently, it’s informative to analyze many things in two ways: in terms of reality (facts, logic, science, literal meanings of word, etc.) and in terms of social reality (what people think of it, its meaning in social status contests). Many misunderstandings and clashes between people in our mixed society are because one person, at this time, is focusing on real reality while the other is focusing on social reality.
David Deutsch described in The Fabric of Reality how (in his experience) scientists only have a scientific mindset at certain times and use a social mindset at other times. Italics are DD’s, bolds are my emphasis:
I have sometimes found myself on the minority side of fundamental scientific controversies. But I have never come across anything like a Kuhnian situation. Of course, as I have said, the majority of the scientific community is not always quite as open to criticism as it ideally should be. Nevertheless, the extent to which it adheres to ‘proper scientific practice’ in the conduct of scientific research is nothing short of remarkable. You need only attend a research seminar in any fundamental field in the ‘hard’ sciences to see how strongly people's behaviour as researchers differs from human behaviour in general. Here we see a learned professor, acknowledged as the leading expert in the entire field, delivering a seminar. The seminar room is filled with people from every rank in the hierarchy of academic research, from graduate students who were introduced to the field only weeks ago, to other professors whose prestige rivals that of the speaker. The academic hierarchy is an intricate power structure in which people's careers, influence and reputation are continuously at stake, as much as in any cabinet room or boardroom — or more so. Yet so long as the seminar is in progress it may be quite hard for an observer to distinguish the participants’ ranks. The most junior graduate student asks a question: ‘Does your third equation really follow from the second one? Surely that term you omitted is not negligible.’ The professor is sure that the term is negligible, and that the student is making an error of judgement that someone more experienced would not have made. So what happens next?
In an analogous situation, a powerful chief executive whose business judgement was being contradicted by a brash new recruit might say, ‘Look, I've made more of these judgements than you've had hot dinners. If I tell you it works, then it works.’ A senior politician might say in response to criticism from an obscure but ambitious party worker, ‘Whose side are you on, anyway?’ Even our professor, away from the research context (while delivering an undergraduate lecture, say) might well reply dismissively, ‘You'd better learn to walk before you can run. Read the textbook, and meanwhile don't waste your time and ours.’ But in the research seminar any such response to criticism would cause a wave of embarrassment to pass through the seminar room. People would avert their eyes and pretend to be diligently studying their notes. There would be smirks and sidelong glances. Everyone would be shocked by the sheer impropriety of such an attitude. In this situation, appeals to authority (at least, overt ones) are simply not acceptable, even when the most senior person in the entire field is addressing the most junior.
So the professor takes the student's point seriously, and responds with a concise but adequate argument in defence of the disputed equation. The professor tries hard to show no sign of being irritated by criticism from so lowly a source. Most of the questions from the floor will have the form of criticisms which, if valid, would diminish or destroy the value of the professor's life's work. But bringing vigorous and diverse criticism to bear on accepted truths is one of the very purposes of the seminar. Everyone takes it for granted that the truth is not obvious, and that the obvious need not be true; that ideas are to be accepted or rejected according to their content and not their origin; that the greatest minds can easily make mistakes; and that the most trivial-seeming objection may be the key to a great new discovery.
So the participants in the seminar, while they are engaged in science, do behave in large measure with scientific rationality. But now the seminar ends. Let us follow the group into the dining-hall. Immediately, normal human social behaviour reasserts itself. The professor is treated with deference, and sits at a table with those of equal rank. A chosen few from the lower ranks are given the privilege of being allowed to sit there too. The conversation turns to the weather, gossip or (especially) academic politics. So long as those subjects are being discussed, all the dogmatism and prejudice, the pride and loyalty, the threats and flattery of typical human interactions in similar circumstances will reappear. But if the conversation happens to revert to the subject of the seminar, the scientists instantly become scientists again. Explanations are sought, evidence and argument rule, and rank becomes irrelevant to the course of the argument. That is, at any rate, my experience in the fields in which I have worked.
DD describes a world in which social behavior is the norm, but some men temporarily set it aside to think like scientists capable of learning something about reality instead of about who thinks who has a higher social rank than who.
See also The Law of Least Effort as an example of insightful analysis of social dynamics. While some basics about social status and interaction are well known, lots of the details and rules are not well known (or there are well known myths about them).
The core static memes are things which cause this situation and create the social game in the first place, rather than the consequences and details of it. It's whatever makes people second-handed rather than the latest fashion which isn't responsible for the situation. The law of least effort is something deep enough it could be closely related to a core static meme instead of being a superficial consequence like men holding doors open for women, but it's hard to tell.
In response to the basic idea that social dynamics are the essence of irrationality, there's a question one should ask. What about some other candidates for major irrationality issues? For example, superstition, religion and coercive parenting. How do those things fit into this picture?
Religion is a mix of social interaction and superstition (and some useful life advice), so let's turn to superstition. When people are oriented to social reality instead of physical reality, they lose touch with facts and logic. They judge a superstition not by whether it's true but by whether high social status people believe it.
For parenting, a lot of what parents do is socialize their children. They make them learn to defer to parental authority. They make them learn the social hierarchy of society and how to get along with others. When they say "Because I said so..." they mean because a higher status person said it to a much lower status person.
The problem I've been thinking about, which this post is in response to, is what's going on with people who won't/can't read literally, think logically, get facts right, be precise, etc. Why can't we have some common ground, as a basis for discussion, using standard dictionary English and some simple facts?
It's because they read and write sentences in terms of the loose gist for the reality meaning and focus mostly on the social meaning. While I read and write in terms of the reality meaning while paying only a little attention to the social meaning (overall, I do a lot better than random chance at e.g. not being rude – that shows some awareness of social meanings).
When I ask people to meet me, as common ground, at facts and logic – try to get some little details correct and focus on correctness and go step by step – it doesn't work because they're so oriented to the social world.
When I talk about problems like overreaching or lack of paths forward, those don't work with most people because they are reality/facts/etc oriented. They seem fundamental to me from my perspective, but they aren't designed to have the right social meanings to work for socially-focused people. Overreaching is not the fundamental problem of an overreacher. Living in social reality instead of actual reality is their fundamental problem.