General analyses of signaling systems illuminate fundamentals of psychology

Individual psychology is a locus or node within a larger social system.

More precisely, individual psychologies are particular signaling systems within larger social signaling systems.

It is valuable to see this because general analyses of signaling systems—even those having nothing to do with human psychology—can shed light on human signaling systems, including both individual psychology and many aspects of sociology.

When human psychology is viewed as a signaling system, we can readily see that narcissism is bound to occur because narcissism is fundamentally a simplistic signal system.  (See Narcissism redefined (yet again) for more.)

When human sociology is viewed as a signaling system, we can similarly see that parasitism is bound to occur because the exploitation of one system by another is a fairly simple matter.  (See Social parasitism in ants and humans for more.)

In like manner, we can see that social hierarchies importantly have evolved because they are simple and decently efficient signal (communication) systems.

We can also see why hierarchical system often are overthrown and why they often do not arise in systems where they are not needed.  For example, no hierarchy is needed for a language system once the basics have been established.  A parasitic or authoritarian group might impose a hierarchy on a language system, but that’s a different animal.

When individual psychology is viewed as a signaling system, we can see that a great deal of what we consider “disordered” or “ill” within that system is fundamentally a problem of the signal system itself and not the “personality” we have mistakenly abstracted out of that system.

Indeed, most of what we think of as personality is nothing more than an individual signal system attempting to conform to its understanding of the larger social system within which it exists.  When science is applied to “personality” erroneously conceived, we arrive at the many psychometric tautologies on personality traits we now have.  Psychometrics have limited value for describing societies, but are frequently misleading, even damaging, when applied to individuals.  In this, they resemble BMI data which originally was used as a marker for the health of whole populations, not individuals, and which can be misleading when applied to individuals.

When we view individuals as signaling systems rather than personalities, we can immediately see that these systems can and should be optimized for better communication.  Indeed, this is the real job of psychology—optimizing individual signaling systems. Not just treating “personality” disorders.


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Imaginary communication

Normal socially-defined communication—business, school, professional, etc.—operates within known limits and terminologies. Skill is largely defined as understanding how to use the system without exceeding its limits, how to play the game.

Many other forms of communication must be imagined. That is, I have to imagine what you mean and you have to imagine what I mean.

In many cases of this type I will imagine that you are normal to the extent that I am able to imagine what normal is. And I will imagine that you imagine me to be normal. As I imagine you I will probably assume that your sense of what is normal is more or less the same as mine. This is probably what the central part of the bell curve of imagined communication looks like. People in this group are capable of imagining and cleaving to normal communication standards. If you reciprocate, we will probably get along fine.

If my imagination is better than normal, I will be able to imagine more than the normal person or given to imagining more. If this is the case, I will tend to want to find a way to communicate more than the norm to you. If you reciprocate, we might do well communicating. If you don’t, I might appear eccentric to you or distracted.

If my imagination is worse than normal, I will have trouble imagining or understanding normal communication. I won’t have a good sense of the cartoons we are required to make of each other and will probably appear awkward or scatterbrained to most people. If you reciprocate, we might do well communicating and find comfort in each other.

Normal communication, even when imagined, is based on something like cartoons. I see myself as a cartoon acting in relation to the cartoon I imagine for you. If my cartoon fits you well enough that you like it and if your cartoon of me fits well enough that I like it, we have a good chance of becoming friends.

A great deal of normal imagined communication is cartoon-like, and being normal, will take the bulk of its cartoons from mass media—movies, TV, radio, and, to a lesser extent today, books and other art forms.

People still read and learn from books and art, but normal communication has come to rely heavily on the powerful cartoons of mass media.

The big problem with our systems of imagined communication is they are highly idiosyncratic, messy, and ambiguous. We have to spend a lot of time fixing problems and explaining what we really mean.

It’s good to have idiosyncratic communication, but we have to find ways to understand each other on those terms.


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A major unit of psycholinguistics that I have not seen described: convertations

When we consider psycholinguistics from the point of view of interpersonal communication (especially psychologically rich communication) we can identify a unit of communication that springs from the working memory as it indexes deeper and more extensive information stored elsewhere in the mind/brain.

This unit of communication is used to start a conversation and then maintain it.

For example, my partner recently had a performance review at her job. This morning I asked her about it. When I asked her, I intended to start a conversation. Along with my intention, I knew a few things:

  • that she would be interested in the topic
  • that she would have new information
  • that I knew a good deal about it but not as much as her
  • that we would almost certainly engage in a conversation that is of practical as well as psychological interest to both of us

In raising the subject, I held an amorphous notion in my working memory roughly described by the text just above. I embarked on the subject with a pointed yet open-ended question, “So how is the job review going…”

That question signaled in my mind, and it turns out in may partner’s as well, that I wanted to converse with her about her job review.

I want to call what I did there the initiation of a convertation,(which is the word conversation with a “t” in place of the “s”). I am using a special term because I want to isolate and describe it as a psycholinguistic unit of major importance to both speech and psychology.

I submit that a convertation, which the above is merely a single example of, is a major psycholinguistic unit; a major piece of psychology and language both together and separately.

A convertation springs from the working memory where it appears as an index of much more. Many convertations could be described as “gambits,” but gambits are only one type.

Loosely speaking, a convertation includes an intention, a purpose, somewhat defined content, and open-endedness. In the example above:

  • My intention was to converse with my partner, listen to her speak, enjoy the morning, have fun talking with her, and find out how her job review was going.
  • My purpose was to get new information and assess how the review was affecting her and if I had any role to play in it.
  • The content (once it began) of now our convertation was the job review and my partner’s psychological responses toward it. Less important but also significant were my psychological responses to hers.
  • The open-endedness could be anything sparked by the original premise of the convertation.

In the case above, everything went smoothly. My partner was not stressed by the review. It seemed to be going well. I felt some relief but was not surprised. At some point, we began a discussion of why her employer did the review the way they did. Lastly, I said our talking constituted a good example of what I mean by convertation.

Convertations can be fruitful and very pleasant as in the above example. Or they can be fraught with dangerous misunderstandings, misplaced emotions, psychological and linguistic harm.

Sometimes a convertation constitutes an entire conversation. Sometimes a convertation is a sub-unit of a larger conversation. If you isolate convertations and view them as units in themselves, sharper distinctions can be made about how and why people speak to each other.