Thursday, December 15, 2011

Normative Cues - Good and Bad

Normative cues, in addition to laws, can be used to keep people down.  And often the normative cues - societal values - are stronger than the laws that codify them.

I keep writing about normative cues, and perhaps one reason is that I have really first started to notice them, at this stage in my life.  Why?  Well, I am getting older.  Also, I live on a fairly deserted island were there are not a lot of people, traffic, Starbucks, shopping malls, and traffic.  You can drive around here and not see another soul.  It is kind of weird.

Compared to living in Washington, DC, that is.  I still remember moving there, 25 years ago, from rural Central New York.  It seemed that everyone was wealthy - driving fancy cars, and driving like maniacs, too.  And everyone had nicer clothes, electronic gizmos, and all sorts of status symbols.  It was the big, big, city for a country boy, and my initial impression was be over-awed and a little depressed.

After all, how could I succeed in such a place?  It was so fast-paced and everyone had so much money and everything was so freaking expensive!  But, over time, I got used to pace and my normative cues in life, set from a much more impoverished and rural area, adjusted to a new norm.  Within 20 years, I was making a lot of money, and owned not one, but four properties in the area.

Your mind adjusts to norms in different environments, and to some extent, you tend to mimic these norms - the behaviors of others.  Now, some psychologist probably would read this and chuckle and say, "well duh, anyone knows that" - and maybe they covered this psychology 101.  But on the other hand, group behavior and group norms is something we all like to think the other guy is doing.  We are too astute and clever to fall into that trap.

Actually, it would be funny to observe a psychologist's convention and observe how their behavior was similarly lemming-like.  How they would all tend to act, dress, and sound alike as a group.  I'll bet they can't help it either.  No one embraces folks who are "different" and even kids who claim to be trying to be "individual" are usually just being individual in a manner uniform with their peers.

So, we are all subject to these normative cues and probably the best way to avoid allowing your brain to succumb to them is to limit your exposure - which is why the television is your worst enemy in the world.  It blasts a fire-hose of normative cues at your cerebral cortex at a billion miles an hour.  You are bombarded with ideas, mostly bad ones, at a rate far faster than you can cogitate and process.  Just turning if "off" is the best idea.

But again, what are these cues, exactly, and are they good or evil?  They can be both.  Let me see if I can explain what I mean.

Normative Cues are the subtle indications you receive in life as to what is expected of you - how to behave.  Not only in terms of your responsibilities, but also in terms of what you can get away with.  And while many laws are based on our socially acceptable norms, not all of our norms are enacted into laws.

Positive normative cues are those which help you, as an individual, to function, as well as help the greater society as a whole.   Taking care of yourself and your own needs is a positive personal value and positive social value.  Sadly, this is a normative cue that is losing strength in recent years, as we are all expected to throw ourselves on the mercy of the welfare state, should things go horribly wrong.  And in following some of the poor normative cues we seem to celebrate these days, things inevitably go horribly wrong.

But, at least back in the day, there were some positive normative cues that had redeeming social values.  Do unto others, for example, or don't steal shit, even if you can get away with it.  These were the sort of things that help glue a society together.  And there were others - the ideas of working for a living, supporting yourself, your word is your bond, honesty, trustworthiness, thrift - in short, pretty much all the things that today, we think are old-fashioned, outdated, or just pure hokum.  Back then, there were some things that just weren't done, even if they were legal.  Today, most folks look at the law itself as an outlier of human behavior, or more correctly, the enforce-ability of the law.  What you can get away with, today, is considered the norm.

But lest we look at the past with GOP-coloured glasses, we should realize that that era had a lot of horribly bad normative social cues as well.  If you read the book (or saw the movie) The Help, it may have reminded you that in that era (post-war America) that racial segregation and discrimination was not only a function of race laws, but also of social values - strong social values.  Blacks and other minorities were treated a certain way simply because that's the way it was.

Back then, there were some things that just weren't done, even if they were legal.

And up until the last two decades, the role of women was subjugated mostly through societal norms, not through legal means.  Women, technically and legally were largely equal to men.  However, it was societal attitudes - normative cues - that kept them down.  A "lady doctor" or "lady lawyer" was a novelty, and hey sweetie, why doncha fetch us all coffee?

And normative cues can be very subtle, at least at the time.  Consider the concept of calling a woman by "Miss" or "Mrs." depending on her marital status.  This was a pain in the ass, frankly, when writing business letters back then.   Do you call them up and ask if they are married before writing a letter to them?   Or do you just say "Dear Miss or Mrs."?  The "Ms." designation was derided as silly nonsense at the time, but it saves us all a lot of headaches today, particularly when there are now so many women in the workplace.

But that simple thing illustrates how for a woman, her marital status was basically an indicia of self-worth. And even her name was based on which male she belonged to (father or husband).  But again, to even point such things out is to be called a "radical man-hating lesbian feminist" or worse.

Or take even the color of a band-aid or a crayon.   What exactly is "flesh-tone" and by making it basically pink, what are we saying is a "norm" in our society? 

Back then, and even today, if you pointed out these normative cues as being idiotic or damaging, well you would be called alarmist, crazy, or whatever.  And that is the nature of normative cues - the person trying to change them generally ends up on a cross.  How Jesus was treated (or Socrates) was not an anomaly, but a predictable event.

In recent years, our normative social cues have improved, somewhat, with regard to the position and treatment of minorities and women.  At least on the surface, it is not acceptable to use racist or derogatory terms.  Some refer to this as "political correctness" and the resentment of it is, in fact, a normative cue in some circles.  Everyone professes to hates political correctness, but that is not to say anyone embraces racism, at least openly.

In fact, this normative cue to distrust positive normative cues seems to be on the rise.  The first lady touts healthy eating and she is called a "Food Nazi" for "telling us what to eat!"    In trying to establish a positive normative cue, she is crucified, predictably, by the status quo.

And increasingly the status quo, having economic interests in the game, are trying to bend, distort, and otherwise twist normative cues to their advantage.  And they ways in which they do this is subtle and perhaps "under the radar" for most, if not all of us - at least some of the time.

Things like product placement for example, are becoming quite popular.  What we consume, how much of what we consume, and how much we pay, are often determined not by our own choices, but the choices of the collective.  We think we are being an individual, but really only in a group manner.

Take eyeglasses.  Back in the 1960's it was hip to wear Buddy Holly thick plastic framed eyeglasses.  Then the Beatles made the round "granny glasses" hip.  Then in the 1970's, we wore tinted "Aviator" style frames.  The punk rock came in and we went back to the Buddy Holly style.  Elaine Bennis stated wearing tiny glasses on "Seinfeld" and suddenly, we wore them, too.

Why did we change styles?  Well, we bought what we saw - and what was available at the store.   We all like to think we are unique or individual and made personal choices, but if you think about it, even the most extensive eyeglasses store only has maybe 100-200 frames, if that, and even among those, they may fall into maybe 10-20 styles, tops.  And of course, we pick a style that everyone else is using.

It is funny, but we were watching a documentary about an architectural photographer, and they interviewed all these modern architects.  And they were all wearing the same pair of "architect glasses" - the round kind favored by Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei et al.  Within their social group, they tend toward sameness, at least when it comes to glasses.  I wonder what kind psychologists wear?

OK, so we all act like sheep, following the herd and keying off these normative cues.  What can we do about it?

Well, I think a good first step is to recognize them - even when they are subtle.  Often the underlying premise of any statement, argument, or even sentence, tells more than the purported subject.  For example, an article cries, "How to get the best deal on a Smart Phone!" - the premise here being that "everyone" needs or wants one of these items.  The question isn't "Do you need a Smart Phone?" - that is the premise, the assumption, the normative cue - that you need and want one.  Of course you desperately want one!  Everybody does!  Everybody wants more and more things in their lives.  Or do they?  Are you being sold a bill of goods?

If you keep your eyes open, you see these cues more and more.  Remember those game shows from the 1960's - or even today?   How the announcer's voice went, when Curtain No. 3 was pulled back to reveal...."a NEW CAR!" and everyone would start screaming and jumping up and down.  What is the normative cue being sold here?  That a brand new car is the end-all to humanity, and that if you got one, you would cry with happiness.  Even if it was a stripped-down Pinto, as was so often the case on those game shows in the 1970's, you would be ecstatic.

And today, most people still feel that way about cars.  To them, the wanting and needing of a car is just assumed.  You want one, because everybody does.  And to not have a brand-new car, in our culture, is considered weird.  To not desire a car - particularly a fast or fancy one, is just not understood.   And perhaps it isn't until you've had a number of them that you realize they are just cars and maybe only then you start to question the premise.

And that is the second step - once you've identified the normative cue, decide for yourself whether it is right for you.  In most cases, it isn't.  Lately, most of the normative cues being thrown at you involve you parting with your money.  Whether it was buying an overpriced house with a funny mortgage, leasing a new luxury car, or getting a fancy credit card with a staggering interest rate - or getting the ubiquitous smart phone.

And normative cues can be even more subtle that that.  An attorney at a law conference confessed to me that she was a "serial refinancer" which I am sure elicited a chuckle at a cocktail party in the suburbs of Atlanta, but elicited only a look of horror from me.  But it illustrates how you might be getting subconscious feedback from your peers with regard to financial matters.

If everyone at the pot-luck supper in the cul-de-sac at foreclosure mews estates is bragging about what a great deal they got on a frequent-flyer miles card (and I've seen this, first hand) you may be inclined to think they are a good deal.   And if everyone commiserates about they will "always have a mortgage" you may be inclined to think that paying yours off, over time, is the wrong thing to do, or perhaps that doing another re-fi is not so bad.

You have to figure out and create your own normative cues - and that is the third step.  Figure out what is right for you, versus what everyone else is doing.  Your friends on the cul-de-sac may all be making poor financial choices, but that doesn't mean you have to, as well.  And their making poor choices doesn't validate your own bad choices, either.

This is arguably the hardest part for most people, as most folks claim they have don't have any clue of what to do in life.  When faced with a choice, they panic.  And often, they feel, it is safest to follow the herd.  This is not to say the herd is always wrong.   But think for a moment where herds end up going, half the time - usually marching off to their own death.  Don't be afraid to go against the herd, when the direction makes no sense.

There is a fourth step, of course.  And that is this:  Don't expect anyone to follow you.  And in fact, expect to be ridiculed and ostracized for not following the herd.  You are making them nervous, going your own way - and it is easier to shout you down, ridicule you, or nail you to a cross, than to think about whether you might be right.  So do your own thing, but expect trouble for your efforts.  And in that regard, hiding your efforts - appearing to be going along with the crowd, can sometimes be valuable camouflage.

I am not sure I have explained the concept well.  And as I noted at the beginning of this post, the best way to avoid "programming your brain" is to not listen to the programming all the time.  The TeeVee, the media, the papers, the "news", etc. are all full of poor normative cues and if you listen to them enough, you'll start to think they are good ideas.