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.

Social parasitism in ants and humans

Parasitic ants parasitize other ants using aggression and deception. (Source)

Ant parasitism is an evolved social behavior, a “game” that has arisen within large social communities. We have a great deal of evidence that human communities can also be parasitic or harbor parasitic human subgroups.

It makes sense that social parasitism as a “game” of signal exchanging would evolve in large social groups. Social signal system have an inherent capacity to diverge; and from there to fight, compete, exploit.

There are many large examples of human social parasitism, the Manchurian elite of the Qing Dynasty being one. Social parasitism can also be seen among humans in small groups of gaslighters, gangs, or cults.

Every summer, blood-red ants of the species Formica sanguinea go on a mission to capture slaves. They infiltrate the nest of another ant species, like the peaceful F. fusca, assassinate the queen, and kidnap the pupae to raise as the next generation of slaves. Once the slaves hatch in their new nest, they appear none the wiser to their abduction, dutifully gathering food and defending the colony as if it were their own. (How blood-red ants became slave snatchers)

Games as semiotic focus

Define a game as “a set of rules that focuses and directs thought, feeling, intention.”

Most human games are overwhelmingly involved with human semiotics. Human feeling, thought, and intention overwhelmingly operate within and are defined by human semiotics.

Humans are semiotic animals who live within semiologies as much or more than their natural environments. Few of us can even comprehend our natural environments save through a semiotic system.

A semiology is a signal system, a system of signals. Humans need and want their signal systems to be organized; from this arises culture and psychology.

From this arises the many games of human semiotic organization. Humans crave meaning—a synonym for semiotic organization and focus—and thus play games (as defined above) with their intentions, thoughts, emotions, behaviors, instincts, perceptions, desires, and so on. Without meaning, focus, purposive semiotic organization, life is dismal and many humans destroy themselves and others for this alone.

Human semiotic organization can be beneficially reorganized in two basic ways:

  • Through general thought, which mainly changes how we focus and what we focus on. This region of organization includes all culture and science, including mainstream psychology and its treatments.
  • Through analysis of the most basic elements of semiotic organization, individual semiotics and semiologies. To do this at the individual level, two individuals are needed because you cannot successfully analyze your own semiotics by yourself. This is so because a great number of human semiotics are fundamental to both psychology and communication. They do not exist independently.

The goal of reorganizing individual semiologies is to optimize them. As individual semiologies optimize, individual psychologies inevitably optimize apace. Much is possible at this level that is not possible at the general level of psychological theory.

Reorganization at this level is done through individual semiotics, the actual signals of individual communication and psychology alike. To play this game—the game of semio-psychological reorganization and optimization—you have to have rules. Here they are.

Personality disorders and signaling

In my opinion, “personality disorders” are more easily understood as signaling problems.

All types of personality disorder involve dysfunctional signaling with other people. Signals are both sent and received in ways that result in suffering.

As currently defined, personality disorders “develop early, are inflexible, and are associated with significant distress or disability.”

Thus, if there are no significant brain injuries or other biological problems, all personality disorders (PD) develop through experience.

This means that during childhood the PD sufferer has received many bad signals resulting in their failing to form a coherent well-functioning internal signaling system.

The way to fix this is work with the signals. And the best way to do this is FIML practice. A professional psychotherapist cannot possibly provide this level of treatment.

This brings me to a second point: is there anyone who would not benefit from improving their signaling?

Why do we view psychotherapy as treatment designed merely to make us look and feel “average”? Why don’t we instead work to optimize our psychologies every day?

The Buddha said we are all crazy. We are. We all need to work on our signaling—our personality disorders—all the time.

The distinctions between one PD and another and those who have PDs and those who don’t are vague. This is because all PD problems (absent significant biological deficits, which may include intelligence) are idiosyncratic varieties of signaling malfunctions.

If signaling is the core problem, it should follow that all acquired PD will be classifiable as some kind of signaling malfunction. And that is precisely what we see.

Narcissism is a too simple signaling system. Borderline is an unstable signaling system. Compulsive, passive aggressive, histrionic, avoidant, and so on all are variations of a poorly formed internal signaling system.

The way to study this is through interpersonal semiotics; that is interpersonal semiotic analysis of real-time, real-world communicative signs and symbols.

All people need to do this to optimize their psychologies (their internal signaling systems). Why would anyone not want to do this? Maybe not wanting to do this is the surest sign of PD there is.

The hardest part about doing FIML is finding a willing and able partner. To me, this shows how pervasive bad signaling is. Most people will do almost anything but examine their own signaling with the help of another person.

Psychology as fundamentally signals

I propose that we largely discard all other paradigms for human psychology and replace them with one based on signals. Humans are semiotic entities who signal constantly internally and externally. No need for personality or self.

Signals are objective, measurable, quantifiable, and analyzable. And they are at the heart of everything we call “psychology.”

The most basic psychological paradigm still current today is personality. This concept should be greatly demoted, relegated to broad-brushing some genetic tendencies or matters involving personas.

Signals cover all psychological territory without exception, including everything we can now say based on personality. Bodies signal, brains signal, organs of perception receive signals, thoughts are signals, language is signals, biology signals, as does everything in physics.

No matter how you look at psychology, you will find signals. Using signals to describe psychology is almost always clearer, more succinct, and more precise.

Another basic paradigm for describing/explaining psychology is matter; psychology comes from the brain and the brain is matter. But then you get mind-matter problems, problems with top-down behaviors, loss of spirituality as an actual probability, and many problems with scale or behavior. Besides all matter signals!

So much simpler to describe how biological signals lead to thought and behavior. Or how top-down psychological signals affect biology.

Instead of “personality disorders” being vaguely defined and understood as ghostlike ephemera that seem to inhabit sufferers, we can define them as signal malfunctions that have arisen due to previous signal malfunctions, either biological, experiential, or semiotic.

A signal-based paradigm of human psychology would view individual psychology as a complex of signals, a semiology unique to each individual.

Narcissism has been discussed in this way. A signal-based analysis of other disorders can similarly make our understanding clearer and more efficient.

Borderline personality disorder, for example, can be viewed as a poorly integrated internal signaling system, a poorly functioning individual semiology. Due to the centrality of signals to all aspects of human psychology, we can expect borderline people to search frantically among others for the cohesion they lack in themselves.

If we understand psychology as a complex of signals, it becomes easier to categorize problems and discover treatments. It also becomes obvious that we can and should optimize this system even in healthy individuals by clearing up confused signals while removing bad ones.

Narcissism redefined (yet again)

A new study on narcissism, which selfishly lies behind a paywall, claims to have answered “three key, inter-related problems that have plagued narcissism scholarship for more than a century.”

These three problems are described in the abstract (which is publicly available) as:

…(a) What are the key features of narcissism? (b) How are they organized and related to each other? and (c) Why are they organized that way, that is, what accounts for their relationships? (The Narcissism Spectrum Model: A Synthetic View of Narcissistic Personality)

The study seems to have been well-summarized in 3 Core Facets of Narcissism, from Malignant to Adaptive:

This new way of understanding the narcissistic personality places self-centeredness front and center, providing a useful way to characterize narcissism’s two underlying dimensions. When you’re dealing with the most narcissistic of all individuals, the grandiosity you see isn’t masking any deep-seated insecurity. The narcissistically vulnerable, who becomes enraged when deprived of status and attention, conversely, is driven by feelings of insecurity, and insecurity alone.

My problem with the study is it is based on ephemeral “personality” traits rather than signals, which are much easier to quantify, analyze, and observe.

A semiotic or signal-based interpretation of narcissism allows us to base analysis on its most prominent feature—simplicity.

The simplest definition of narcissism is “narrow or reduced interpretation(s) of psychological signs.”

This is a functional definition that provides insight into a wide range of human psychological reactions. (Narcissism, a semiotic interpretation)

This definition explains why a wide range of humans display narcissistic traits, including small children, old people, alcoholics, those with brain injuries, dementia, and in many ways all of us to some degree at one time or another.

Narcissism forms and persists because it is a simple semiology that works. Drunks use it, angry people use it, advertising uses it, cultures all use it, even religions use it.

If we understand that narcissism is characterized by a “narrow or reduced interpretation(s) of psychological signs,” we can expect to find relief from it by widening and augmenting the sufferer’s use of psychological signs.

As for the three problems described in the study, these can be answered in this way:

Q: What are the key features of narcissism?

A: Simple semiology, me first

Q: How are they organized and related to each other?

A: Zero-sum, one-way street, malice, impression management

Q: Why are they organized that way, that is, what accounts for their relationships?

A: The narcissistic system (me first) works better than any other the person knows of. It is organized to be efficient and easy to use. See Zero-sum, one-way street, malice, impression management for more on this.

 

Can’t see the trees for the forest

Examples of not seeing the trees for the forest are flyover assessments of sociological  regions or general assessments of human psychology.

A more detailed example of this pertaining to psychology might be the following description of Borderline Personality Disorder:

People with borderline personality disorder are unstable in several areas, including interpersonal relationships, behavior, mood, and self-image. Abrupt and extreme mood changes, stormy interpersonal relationships, an unstable and fluctuating self-image, unpredictable and self-destructive actions characterize the person with borderline personality disorder. These individuals generally have great difficulty with their own sense of identity. They often experience the world in extremes, viewing others as either “all good” or “all bad.” A person with borderline personality may form an intense personal attachment with someone only to quickly dissolve it over a perceived slight. Fears of abandonment may lead to an excessive dependency on others. Self-multilation or recurrent suicidal gestures may be used to get attention or manipulate others. Impulsive actions, chronic feelings of boredom or emptiness, and bouts of intense inappropriate anger are other traits of this disorder, which is more common among females. (Source)

I have no doubt that this general description of the “forest” of BPD is somewhat useful as a flyover take on a psychic region that seems to have its own reality within American culture. The same link concludes that “there is hope” for personality disorders if we come to “understand that they are illnesses.”

Thus, a general remedy is assigned to a general “illness”; a semiotic contortion is assigned to the category “hope.”

TBH, as a Buddhist  I must say you really should “have difficulty with your own sense of identity” because there is no such thing. Sentience in all its guises is dynamic and ever-changing.

You actually do not need a “self-image” at all. So if the one(s) you keep trying for are “unstable and fluctuating,” you are probably seeing reality more clearly than people whose “self-images” are stable and not fluctuating!

The fundamental problem with BPD and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, two of the most difficult disorders to cure, is in the trees. It is good to see the forest and know where it lies within the terrain of the sufferer’s culture, but the problem of any individual suffering from either of these disorders is always going to be in their trees.

So what are the trees? They are the actual signals received by the person, sent out by the person, and used internally by the person.

Those are the units that best describe what a sentient being is and does. If you can’t fix the trees or treat the trees, the forest will never be healthy.

Poor precision in communication distorts motives

And distorted motives warp human interactions, which in turn degrade individual psychology.

There is no way around it—the ways almost all people communicate are much cruder than their brains are capable of.

And that is the cause of most of what we now call (non-biological) “mental health” problems.

Here is an example: I want to say something very complex to my primary care doctor. I can give her the gist in a minute or two but I do not want to have that go on my medical record.

So I ask her if I can start a discussion that she will promise to keep off my record.

She says, “I’ll think about it.”

A week later I get a letter from her nurse saying she is not willing to do what I asked.

No reason why was given. Do rules prevent her from doing that? I have heard of doctors allowing patients to keep some concerns off the record, but who knows what the reality is? Do you?

If I insist, will that go on my record? Did what I asked in the first place go on my record? My doctor is trapped within or is voluntarily following some guideline that is most decidedly not in my best interests.

This same sort of thing can happen interpersonally. If I raise a topic that is psychologically important to me with even a close friend, I have to wonder will they understand? Will they allow me to expand the subject over a few weeks or months or longer? Will my initial statements change our friendship?

The basic problem is how do you discuss complex psychological subjects with others?

One of my friends works in alternative health care. She knows what I want to bring up with my doctor and admits that even in her professional setting where patients have an hour to open up, there is not enough time.

Back to my primary care doctor. I saw her again a year later and she asked if I remembered her. I said, “Of course I remember you.” She said no more and neither of us raised the off-the-record topic. An intern was with her.

I wonder what she thinks of me. Did she interpret my slightly nervous behavior when I first asked as a “sign” of something? Does she think I am volatile or bipolar or just nuts? (I am not.)

I am 100% sure that she cannot possibly know what I wanted to bring up with her. In this case, I have all of the information and I want to give it to her but she cannot or will not allow that unless my initial fumblings toward a complex subject are made public.

Even a  close friend could find themselves in a similar position. And I wonder if I have done that myself to someone. Most people most of the time are not able to scale those walls that divide us.

On either side of the wall is a complex person capable of complex understanding, but one or both persons cannot scale the wall. My doctor is smart enough to have become an MD and yet I cannot tell her about a complex medical condition that is of great importance to me.

I know that I do not want to open the subject and risk a shallow public label (a common hindrance to many potential communications). I honestly do not know what my doctor is thinking. Maybe I will try again the next time I see her.

Basic signaling and some things it explains

Basic signaling can be described or explained as follows:

  • A signal is information sent from one place and received at another.
  • A signal can be big or small.
  • A signal can be true or false.*

These are the most basic features of all signals. More complex signals contain these three basic features and also exhibit other features, such as:

  • having complexity or context
  • being conscious or not
  • being consciously designed to have an effect

From the three features of basic signaling, we can say a lot about human signaling.

The first feature of basic signaling simply defines what a signal is. I can signal to myself or I can signal to you. A simple example is I check my hair in the mirror (signal to self) and then present myself to you (signal to you). Insofar as my hair signal to you has a conscious element of how my hair looks or doesn’t look (sloppy, messy), the hair signal I sent to myself via the mirror is now being sent to you via my imagination.

This hair signal can also illustrate the second feature of basic signaling—how big or small the signal is. My hair signal may be important to me while I am looking in the mirror (big signal) or not very important (small signal). In like manner, my hair signal may be big or small in your mind.

This hair signal can also illustrate the third feature of basic signaling—its truth or falsity. If I have dyed my hair, in some sense I am sending a false signal. If I have not dyed my hair but you think I have, then you are receiving a false signal.

One could also say that dyed hair is not a truly “false” signal because it is common for people to dye their hair. Similar arguments can be made for combing or cutting hair or anything we do with our hair. The truth or falsity of many human signals is open to interpretation in this manner.

Normally, we use the three basic features of complex signals described in the second bullet list above to decide which interpretation to use. Changing the context and complexity upon which our interpretation is based will tend to change our interpretation of the signal.

Notice how many signals achieve their effects primarily by being big. Big signs, bright lights, loud music, heavy make-up, loud sexual signals, perfume, odor, big muscles, fake boobs, expensive cars, big houses and yachts, etc. all work in part by being big signals. Bigness or smallness is point two in the list above.

Bigness alone can explain why people lie, slant, or falsely accuse. As long as a signal is big, some people will be attracted to it and come under its spell. If someone accuses you falsely of something and spreads their accusation around, you may be faced with a big problem. If the lie is big enough and artful enough, you now are forced to defend yourself. If you do not even know what is being said about you, you can’t even do that.

Another version of the effectiveness of a big false accusation is one made to your face. As soon as it is uttered, the scene and context will shift dramatically. You are normally required to immediately defend yourself, derailing whatever rational exchange of ideas preceded the accusation.

We can see how this works in interpersonal communication and we can also see how it works on a larger scale. When nations go to war, they invariably lie about each other. Politicians lie, cultures lie, groups lie, religions lie, sports fans lie, and so on.

Lies or false accusation work because they send big signals that require a defense and, since they are lies, can be hard to defend against.

To me, this is a depressing side of human communication. Lies and false accusations very often win against the truth.

Simply stated, false accusations are aggressive lies, but we also know them in milder form as spin, slanting the facts, one-sidedness, tailoring the message, and so on.

Note: I got the idea of the importance of false accusations from a book I am reading on alcoholism: Vessels of Rage, Engines of Power: The Secret History of Alcoholism.

The author of this book, James Graham, makes the claim repeatedly that alcoholics very often engage in false accusations. In discussing this book with my partner, we came to conclude that Graham is right about this—false accusations do seem to be common among the alcoholics we both know.

Since I like to break things down into basic principles, my partner and I came up with the principles outlined above.

A false accusation sends a big signal into a social group while at the same time protecting the alcoholic from criticism. It allows them to say, “You see it is not me or my drinking that is the problem here, she is the one who is crazy!” Or, “Can you believe what he did to me?” Of course, he didn’t do anything but to a drunk, the accusation feels good and often works with others because it is big.

On a larger scale, false accusations in public today often take form as PC dictates. That’s “racist,” “sexist,” “micro-aggressive,” “privileged,” “homophobic,” etc. Just knowing that we might be accused of one of these attitudes has been enough to keep most people from saying anything that could even be tangentially interpreted in that way.

Note two: FIML practice entirely removes false accusations and any basis for them between partners. No FIML partner should ever say, “You did too mean that!” Or “I know why you did that!”

Partners who have established a habit of frequently checking their interpretations of each other should experience very few occasions to feel that their interpretation of something their partner signaled is better than their partner’s interpretation.

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*A false signal that is not conscious might be a non-poisonous snake or insect that has evolved to look like a poisonous one.

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First posted 01/10/16, slightly revised 09/28/17

Consciousness as reality itself

In Buddhism the idea that consciousness is reality and reality is conscious is called “mind only” or Yogachara.

David Ray Griffin, a process theologian, has come to similar conclusions—that reality is fundamentally conscious.

As has Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at UC Irvine.

Hoffman came at this subject from a mathematical angle, but arrived at a similar conclusion to Yogachara Buddhism. Hoffman says:

As a conscious realist, I am postulating conscious experiences as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredients of the world. I’m claiming that experiences are the real coin of the realm. (The Case Against Reality)

I tend to reach similar conclusions when I think about everything in terms of signals.

The advantage of thinking in terms of signals is we get a good picture of “reality” without needing to say what is real beyond the signal itself.

This kind of thinking is helpful for metaphysics but it is also extremely practical when it comes to human psychology.

Rather than posit personality types and what goes wrong or right with them, we analyze how people send and receive signals instead.

In thinking along these lines, I have come to the conclusion that most psychology as most people understand it uses “arms-length” language, the language of meso and macro signals rather than the much more precise language of the micro signals that actually comprise our shared “realities.”

The difference can be illustrated in this way: Rather than explain your most recent signal (sent or received) in terms of personality, explain it by accessing the micro-signals of short-term memory to find its true antecedents.

If you do this again and again by using a game such as FIML, you will probably come to conclusions similar to the above—that there is no deeper substance to psychological reality than your consciousness of it.

A good example of fake news

Follow-up 7/25: Wasserman-Schultz IT Aide Arrested While Attempting To Flee Country, Charged With Bank Fraud

Just a day after reports emerged that the FBI had seized a number of “smashed hard drives” and other computer equipment from the residence Imran Awan, the IT aide of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, we learn that Awan has been captured at the Dulles airport while attempted to flee the country. According to Fox News, Awan has been charged with bank fraud.

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Buddhism, as do most ethical systems, recognizes that “false speech” also includes not saying something that is true when you should say it.

If you are a news organization that means not reporting an important story.

Here is an example of an important story that has studiously not been reported by American mainstream news: EXCLUSIVE: FBI Seized Smashed Hard Drives From Wasserman Schultz IT Aide’s Home.

Not reporting on that story, and especially not reporting on it ever, is a glaring example of fake news.

It constitutes a deliberately conjured negative hallucination wherein the public does not see something that is visible and of great importance to the nation’s well-being.

Microaggression as a crude measure of interpersonal ambiguity

I do not doubt that microaggression exists in human communication.

The problem is ambiguity exists in all the same places, so you can never be sure what is aggressive, wary, weirdly friendly, just weird, or nothing at all.

A recent paper on microaggression has this to say:

The microaggression concept has recently galvanized public discussion and spread to numerous college campuses and businesses. I argue that the microaggression research program (MRP) rests on five core premises, namely, that microaggressions (1) are operationalized with sufficient clarity and consensus to afford rigorous scientific investigation; (2) are interpreted negatively by most or all minority group members; (3) reflect implicitly prejudicial and implicitly aggressive motives; (4) can be validly assessed using only respondents’ subjective reports; and (5) exert an adverse impact on recipients’ mental health. A review of the literature reveals negligible support for all five suppositions. (Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence)

I think we can assume that intercultural interactions will often involve many prejudices and assumptions founded on cultural norms and that microaggression will sometimes be one of these. But that is very hard to study, quantify, and identify.

In public situations—jobs, organizations, many private settings—just follow public norms and forget about microaggression. Your looking for it will itself constitute a kind of microaggression.

In private, you can and should do something about all kinds of interpersonal micro ambiguities.

The way to do this is FIML practice.

I found the study cited above in this essay, Micro-aggression and Hyper-sensitivity, which discusses the study.

Here are a couple of relevant posts on ABN on this topic: Triggers and microaggression and Microaggression and FIML.

Dynamic patterns that change over time

Signal networks should be conceived of as dynamic patterns that change over time.

A psychological example of this might be a short exchange between two people during which one person interprets a small signal coming from the other.

The signal might be a fleeting expression. The person who sees this signal is likely to interpret it and remember (weakly or strongly, for some period of time) what that interpretation is.

As something held in memory—short or long term—that interpretation of the fleeting expression has become both itself a signal and part of a signal network that is changing over time, changing in part due to that new signal.

Of great importance psychologically for both persons described above is the fact that neither knows how the other interpreted the fleeting expression or if it was interpreted or sent or received. Or remembered or for how long. And almost never do they know how to get that information.

This is a micro example of human communication as it happens in time.

If this micro signaling network is held in the mind and analyzed correctly by the two persons described above, much will be revealed to both of them about how their psychologies actually function in real life and real-time.

FIML practice is designed to get them to that point.