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How You Learned To Play Nice & Get Along with Others

There are 7 billion people in the world and every day we interact with one another like a giant ant colony. Just imagine how many one-on-one interactions happen every single day. Isn’t it remarkable that, for the most part, these interactions go according to plan. How is it that we can interact with people we’ve never met before? How do we know what these strangers will expect of us? The answer is simple, right? Common sense tells us how to interact with one another.

As we discussed in the first part of this series, despite it’s name, common sense is a fantastically complex system of rules within rules. It is so complex in fact, that currently there isn’t a supercomputer or algorithm that could recreate it. You read that right, common sense, the thing we all take for granted- the thing that even children have developed, is far more complex than all of our fancy modern technology can handle.

The sociological question you should be asking now is, if common sense is so complex, how did each of us develop it in the first place?

Common Sense & The Generalized Other

From the moment you opened your eyes, the humans around you have been interacting with you. As a newborn they made faces at you, spoke words around you, and taught you that certain stimuli (e.g. crying) would be rewarded (e.g. with food). You first learned to mimic these behaviors and then over time, through repeated one-on-one interactions and trial and error, you learned that there is a collection of rules, roles, ways of thinking, beliefs, customs, etc. that those around you were using to interpret your actions and design their responses.

These common sense rules of interaction are what the sociologist George Herbert Mead called the Generalized Other. Mead started developing this theory by observing little children and he discovered what anyone who has been around toddlers knows: they are self-centered and cannot see themselves from the perspective of others. This fact leads to some cute interactions like when my one year old put her hand over her eyes and teased, “you can’t see me Daddy!”

We first learn to consider others by focusing on specific individuals. We think, “what will mom/dad think of me if I do this?” or “will my brother be angry if I do this?” We test these hypotheses through trial and error and eventually develop a robust understanding of what our mother, father, and brother expect of us.

I often joke that we send children to school to learn to get along with people who don’t love them. While I say that in jest, it’s fairly accurate. Kindergartners learn to value the perspectives non-family others have of them. Here too, children can develop their interaction skills by focusing on specific individuals. “What will my best friend Fiona think of me if I do this?"

Eventually, once our brains are developed enough and we’ve had a sufficient amount of practice interacting with others, we expand the rules we’ve learned from interacting with specific individuals and come to understand what others will expect of us in general. And that is why Mead named the term the Generalized Other. With a developed generalized other, an individual can with a fair degree of accuracy predict how their words and actions will be received by those around them and also how those around them will likely respond.

Programming The Human Super Computer

If you’ve ever interacted with a computer trying to pretend to be a human, you know that it’s often an awful experience. Try as they might, engineers and programmers cannot develop a machine or algorithm that feels unmistakably human.

The computational power of the human brain far exceeds that of what we today call super computers. Humans are evolutionarily designed to mimic one another and estimate how likely something is to happen[1]. However, at birth we are not able to understand fully how others see us or how we look through their eyes. This is a skill that biology cannot provide us. We only become human through interaction. The human super computer is programmed socially.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Growing up, who were the specific individuals that were important to you and served as your specific others.
  2. The comedian Louis CK observed that you never hear little children ask, “is this a good time for you to talk with me?” What would Mead say explains this? Be sure to use the concept of the generalized other in your answer.
  3. How do schools teach little children to interact appropriately with others? Or put more sociologically, how do schools encourage children to develop a generalized other?
  4. The generalized other uses a few specific observations to make broad sweeping rules about large groups of people. How is this similar to stereotyping? How can a person use their generalized other without stereotyping other people?

  1. For an approachable discussion of these facets of the human brain check out Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz.  ↩