Cultural Para-stimuli

The phenomenon named in the title of this post does not exist.  As I pointed out in my last post, it is a theme in Tom Wolfe’s novel I Am Charlotte Simmons.

A similar phenomenon does exist, but it’s name isn’t so sexy.  It’s called Observational Learning and it’s one of the main ways we humans pass our culture from one generation to the next.  I said before that I thought B. F. Skinner had discovered the effect.  I was wrong.  At this point I’m not entirely sure who first demonstrated observational learning in pigeons, but I do know who proved it exists in cats.  That distinction goes to E. Roy John, Phyllis Chesler, Frank Bartlett, Ira Victor who, in 1968, demonstrated that observer cats who watched a student cat learn to hop over a barrier when cued by a buzzer developed the same behavior more quickly when placed in the experimental apparatus than cats who didn’t watch other cats learning the behavior.  In fact, some of the observer cats demonstrated their mastery of the barrier hop from the first time they were cued to perform it.  [“Observation Learning in Cats,” Science, New Series, Vol. 159, No. 3822 (Mar. 29, 1968), pp. 1489-1491]

Similarly, I think we who watch media aggrandizement of arguably maladaptive behaviors learn to adopt the abnormal behavior precisely because our society heaps praise upon disruptive individuals.  For more on that subject, see Ann Coulter’s Guilty: Liberal “Victims” and Their Assault on America.  I know humans pick up behaviors this way because of another experiment in which participants’ consumption choices (of either animal crackers or goldfish crackers) were influenced by watching other participants’ cracker choices on a CCTV monitor [Robin J. Tanner, Rosellina Ferraro, Tanya L. Chartrand, James R. Bettman, Rick Van Baaren, “Of Chameleons and Consumption: The Impact of Mimicry on Choice and Preferences,” Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 34, No. 6  (April 2008), pp.754-766].  The abstract of this paper follows:

This article investigates the effect of mimicry on consumer product consumption and appraisal. We propose and test two paths via which mimicry may influence product preferences. In the mimicking consumer path, we suggest that individuals automatically mimic the consumption behaviors of other people and that such mimicry then affects preferences toward the product(s) consumed. In the mimicked consumer path, we argue that being mimicked leads to increased prosociality, which affects preferences for products presented in dyadic interactions. Three studies confirm the two paths and suggest that mimicry can indeed influence product preferences.

To summarize the results, people who watch other people naively performing  behaviors – such as eating animal crackers instead of goldfish – that demonstrate a preference for one option over another tend to choos the same option as the person they’re watching.  This effect is present even when the person watching has previously expressed a preference for the other choice.

I veer, here, into opinion land.

I think Obama’s campaign ended in his election because he ran it for so long that the passive social demonstrations of preference for him (among other factors, of course) pushed observer voters to learn that liking Obama was a beneficial behavior.  After all, knowing you and a few dozen of your new closest friends can get a huge dopamine rush whenever you chant, “Yes We Can,” is a huge draw.  The Chameleon paper pertains to increasing the number of brand-based decisions consumers make by getting consumers to repeatedly associate their choices with an unconscious sense of social belonging.  I’d say the authors got scooped by about a year.

Whatever.  I serve my country.

2 Responses to “Cultural Para-stimuli”

  1. Andrea says:

    Bullshit. People voted for Obama for many, many reasons. For some it was the color of his skin, his background as a teacher of law, or his eloquent speeches. But many others voted for him because they hate Bush so goddamn much.

    Many people switched parties this election, and it was not for the good feeling of being like everyone else.

    And really, Ann Coulter?

  2. joe says:

    Thanks for your opinion, Andrea. I’m glad to know my comment system works :-)

    I know people voted for Obama for many reasons. I think this is one of the reasons that undecided voters chose him. I know you weren’t among them. You’re strong-minded and firm in your opinions.

    And really, Ann Coulter. I don’t need to explain that to you.

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