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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

All folked up

Daniel C. Dennett, in his book, "Brainchildren", talks about a concept he calls "folk psychology". The idea behind folk psychology is simple. The "psychology" part of the phrase is generally comprehended -- just about everyone knows that psychology is the study of how and why people think. (Okay, it's likely that the majority won't really describe it that way, but however they put it, that's what they're actually trying to say.) To put the qualifier in perspective, Dennett first explains the "folk" part by explaining how the adjective is used in a more concrete frame of reference: "folk physics".

Folks physics, as Dennet describes it, is the kind of physics that the average person understands intrinsically: if you hold a stone in your hand, and then let go of it, it will fall to the ground, for instance. There are countless examples of physical laws that people understand perfectly well, with an intrinsic grasp of their workings based on their unconscious perceptions of how the world works.

There are, however, a great many examples of the laws of physics at work that seem to defy what people unconsciously expect to happen. And I'm not talking about far-out quantum level physics, or even electromagnetic effects. I'm talking about simple, Newtonian-type physics, used all the time, easily implemented -- the kind used by Roman engineers two and a half millenia ago. The classic example is syphoning.

Syphoning, when observed for the first time, always brings out the oohs and ahhs. It's cool enough that elementary-level science teachers feel a bit like magicians every time they demonstrate the effect. Why? Because, for all intents and purposes, syphoning looks like you're making water (or some other liquid) fall up instead of down. Think about it. If you put water in a tube, it falls out the lower end (assuming the lower end has any sort of hole in it). Furthermore, water in a bucket doesn't leave the bucket, because it falls to the bottom of the bucket, instead of up and over the sides. Yet all it takes is a properly primed hose, and you can get the water to flow up over the sides of the bucket, and down onto the floor (or another, lower-placed bucket, if you don't want a mess), without any kind of pump or other device. Seriously, it's kind of freaky.

Of course, anyone who understands the actual physical principles involved (pressure differentials, viscosity, the density of water, and the suction effect they produce when combined) understands how this can be possible, and the more jaded of scientists even fail to find it cool anymore. But syphoning is not something that people observe on a regular basis as they are growing up and learning about the world. It's not something that happens to them, personally (unlike gravity, inertia, heat, light, vibrations and other waves, or even leverage). So, syphoning goes against "folk" physics, the kind that everyone inherently understands.

Now that we understand what the "folk" modifier to physics represents, we can easily apply it to psychology. Thus, "folk psychology" is the intrinsic understanding people have about how and why other people (or they themselves) think. By using the adjective "folk" in regards to psychology, we automatically exclude those aspect of the science that run counter to our unconscious comprehension of the way people think.

So, what are some examples of folk psychology? Well, how about jealousy? Kids understand jealousy from an early age: brother or sister gets something that you don't get, so instead you get jealous. (And somewhere along the way, you "get" jealously.) It's straightforward cause and effect, based on the desire to get at least as much everyone else. (The root of this is, of course, a survival instinct -- jealousy drives you to obtain the same advantages as your societal competitors, so as to not be left behind. This survival analysis, however, doesn't count as part of the folk psychological understanding of jealousy. But then again, you don't have to understand how gravity works -- and no one really does -- to understand the effects of gravity in a folk physical sense.)

There are aspects of jealousy, though, that seem to run counter to our "intuitive" understanding of the emotion and the behaviours and responses it drives. For example, why do people get jealous for things they don't need, or already have? I've seen people display jealousy over punishments that other people receive. I've seen people be jealous of things that are way below their station: "I've got millions of dollars, but that poor person just got a second-hand pair of shoes, and that makes me jealous." To the folk psychologist (that's the everyday you and me), such exhibitions of jealousy seem petty and incomprehensible. In fact, it takes a deeper understanding of the workings of the mind, one that requires significant activity in either the studying or introspection departments, to understand that such behaviour is actually driven by a personal unhappiness, and what the person is really jealous of is, in the first case, the love that underlies the application of the punishment, and in the second case, the happiness evident on the poor person's face when they get something they really need.

In life, of course, you get much further when you strive to go beyond the folk-level understandings of the world around you. Be it physical or psychological, most of what we experience is far more complex than what can be understood via the framework we've built up from our subconciously absorbed observations.

And as an aside, consider what conclusion a combination of the physics and psychology described here begets:

Jealousy sucks.



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