If I smile and am nice to someone, there is a good chance that they will like that and give me some kind of positive feedback either verbal or nonverbal. If I am mean to someone, chances are good that they will express thier displeasure in some way that I can notice. Given that these things happen, why do they not have a conditioning effect and therefore produce a society of nice/kind people?
My friend says it is because personality and social relating style is imprinted young and does not change much. However, I am much different than I was when I was a child. I was a mean little kid and now I try to be nice and fair for the most part and have no inclination to be mean. This would seem to dispute the nature argument as well.
I really do not know the answer but I am interested in hearing your ideas.
Nitpick: It would actually be more appropriate to talk about positive reinforcement and punishment. Negative reinforcement would be the removal of a stimulus in order to increase the likelihood of a desired behavior (like if I turn off a noxious sound whenever you raise your right hand, if I wanted you to raise your right hand again in the future).
However, the myriad interactions we have in the world are a bit more complicated than positive reinforcement alone can account for. Furthermore, getting what we want has a much higher salience for most people than having others be kind. Sure, we’d like both, but we are going to be reinforced by obtaining a desirable goal, which generally does not necessarily involve others being kind.
In turn, being kind and nice would be reinforced by routinely getting what we want when we are kind and nice, but there’s no particular reason why this would generalize across people to result in societal change. Not everyone is going to get what they want every time they are kind and nice.
Your friend’s observation is a little off-base, but individual differences do come into play. There is a range of kindness, and not only will people vary from one another in how kind and nice they are, but individuals will vary over time in kindness as well.
In general people are usually nice. When I come into work, I say “hi” to people I pass and they say high to me. I’ll exchange Simpson’s quotes with the manager next to me, make a joke with one of my fellow project leads about out client, flirt with one of the girls in accounting, exchange pleasentries by the water cooler and so on.
Am I nice on the street? Usually not. I’m not a dick but I, like everyone else, am in a hurry and am usually focused on where I’m going. Most people will give people directions if asked though (excuse me, do you know where Rockefeller Center is or should I just go ahead and fuck myself?).
But sometimes people aren’t nice because there are positive reinforcements for not being nice:
-driving away people you don’t want to deal with
-motivating someone to perform some particular action out of fear or desire to not be berated
and so on.
There are also negative reinforcements for being nice:
-Encouraging people to take advantage of you
-Attracting the attention of a reciprocating saw wielding maniac
My take is that the pleasure gotten from dominating other people through bad behavior is greater than the positive reinforcement gotten from being nice to them, and is worth the cost of the punishment for being mean.
Malienation, I don’t think that’s true – certainly not for everyone. But as a general principle, people had rather have negative feedback than to have no attention at all. Being ignored is what really hurts.
One problem is that neurotic people, almost by definition, simply don’t respond normally to the usual reward/punishment cues ordinary people do because everything they experience is filitered through a maladapted emotional system. For example, someone who is paranoid or has deep self-worth issues will regard friendly overtures with dismissal or suspicion.
In addition, there’s something of a feedback loop as far as social dickheadedness is concerned. If someone is a prick to you, you may publically reprimand them, but you’re also more likely to be vaguely pissed at the world and have that expressed to those around you.
This can act to amplify the rudeness that already exists for the other reasons given.