Friday 23 September 2011

The nature of influence


How can we understand influence in modern society? How does an individual influence society; how does a society influence an individual? How can influence be reconciled with Free Will?


Usually we think of influence as chains of causes, or perhaps chains of communications (like memes). And one can affect many - as with an epidemic: an epidemic of ideas.

And the evolved psychology of the individual affects what kinds of ideas get noticed, remembered, passed on.

To this can be added some chaos theory, to emphasize the unpredictability of it all.


But these are all metaphors or models, inevitably; and another model of influence and cause comes from my current re-reading of Rupert Sheldrake, which is that these influences can be conceptualized in terms of fields - like electro-magnetic fields or a gravitational field.


Fields organize and orientate entities in their range, like a magnet organizing iron filings, or gravity between the sun and planets organizing the solar system, or electromagnetic waves organizing the inner workings of a radio to generate music.


A person might be like a magnet in a magnetic field made from other magnets.

A magnet will always have influence when placed in a larger magnetic field - although that influence may be very small, may be hard to detect from background - but there will be influence, inevitably.

This metaphor differs from the current idea that people have to strive for influence, or need luck for influence - we ask whether X has had influence with the baseline assumption that zero influence is assumed, and any influence must be proven.

But the field metaphor this assumes that there is influence and then concentrates on understanding its nature and magnitude.


A person might be like a strong magnet (a Saint or genius or demonic individual) - a strong influence, having widespread influence.

Influence may or may not lead to observable change, but the influence is there - like a magnetic field is there whether or not it moves the iron objects within its influence (they may be glued down, but they still experience the magnetic field).

Or there might be many weak magnets orientating together (a political party, participants in the mass media), and these might have a big influence.

And if the large field organizes magnets within it, this will change the situation further.


We all live in society, we all feel the magnetic influence, we all exert a magnetic influence and these interact.

But we need to add to this picture Free Will. We feel the influence, but we can say yes or no; indeed we must say yes or no - before we are moved by the field there is always an act of consent, a loosening of resistance.

A Good society exerts on kind of organizing force (which may be consented to or resisted) and an evil society likewise.


The benefit of living is a Good society is the nature of the field operating, but consent or refusal are operative just as they are in an evil society.


An individual may generate a strong field, and this may (tend to) organize those around him - and this may be for good or ill.

But when understanding this influence we may not look at chains of causes and effects or chains of communications (who met who, where and when, what did they say?) - instead we conceptualize it as a field of organizing.

On a field metaphor, for X to influence society does not require that X meets lots of people,

or that we measure and trace the explicit widespread communications between people;

fields operate at a distance and often invisibly and undetectably - we may study them by studying the patterns of action of fields, and inferring the origin, focus, shape, tendency of the field as revealed by its effects.


(And there may be a field operating even when effects are not measured - only when a susceptible entity is introduced can the field be detected. so, the nature of a societal field may only be apparent from its effects on certain types of person.)


For the field of society to influence individual X likewise does not require that they reveal influence; the influence may be felt in terms of the resistance necessary to prevent a response.

Thus the power of a magnetic field on a magnet may be measured in terms of the strength of glue necessary to prevent the magnet from moving.



The Continental Op said...

A Chesterton comment: "A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it."

Life is like a stream. If you are dead, you just submit to where it carries you.

If you are alive you can resist the flow.

Bruce Charlton said...

"If you are alive you can resist the flow."

True; but of course, you may die in the process.

Anonymous said...

Few magnetic personalities persist today, and even those who are supposedly magnetic lose their “pull” quickly. I watched, with alarm, the magnetic pull Obama had over college students and minorities in my country. Now, it’s mostly gone. His magnetic force seems spent.

What happened? Surely, Obama hasn’t changed – his rhetoric and demeanor are the same. Even his enthusiasm seems as fever-pitched as before, particularly at the last State of the Union address. And, similarly, American youth haven’t changed; they are as reckless and feckless as youth tend to be.

What changed is the response of the “cloud” that surrounds Obama, those most closely drawn to his magnetism: the media, legislators, bureaucrats and such. But then again, maybe this is wrong. The media are the holdouts, still enthralled by Obama. Ordinary people on the periphery of his magnetism – in this case, voters – were more quick to intuit that his magnetism was just that -- mere magnetism. The media haven’t figured this out … yet.

As an aside, I find it curious that you stress the response and responsibiity of the magnetized, not the magnetizer. A person with a "magnetic personality" or field of force can willfully choose to exercise his magnetism in a moral and good manner, just as those under the spell of his magnetism are responsible for their behavior. Images of throngs of Germans saluting their dictator, or American youth and minorities swooning at the feet of Obama, are disconcerting, to say the least, but the responsibility to appropriately respond to magnetism, even our own, is universal. That’s the freewill argument in a nutshell; that we are responsible for our magnetism as well as our response to magnetism.

I recently discovered your blog. Thank you for putting your thoughts to paper. I have benefitted greatly from you effort, Sir.

Kristen from Colorado

Gabe Ruth said...

I was a little put off by the idea of explaining metaphysics with theoretical physics you mentioned earlier, but I think the field idea has merit as a model for social interaction.

It fits well with ideas about subsidiarity and human scale society. Also highlights the importance of family as the primary field, which can keep you set straight if it is strong enough.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GR - I felt the same way, but then I realized my thinking was being constrained by an unhelpful metaphor: Sheldrake supplied a good alternative.

It was commenter Kristor who got me reading Sheldrake again, after a gap of a couple of decades. I'm very pleased he did!

The Crow said...

Is it a field that draws lemmings to their doom?
Is it the ease of acting like other people act, that spells the demise of society?
Is it the mindless subscription to uniformity that can only end in the ruin of Europe?
I find my own life frequently difficult, in that whenever I encounter a field, I see at a glance, its alignment, polarity, and consequence.
If it ends badly - and I can see that future consequence - then I am unable to subscribe to it.
Most people, it would seem, are more than willing to go along with what everybody else is doing.
I am easily able to perceive the flow of life.
But equally able to perceive when the flow of human life is counter to that.
As in deep water sailing, it serves to stay away from counter-currents, if you have any hope of getting to where you had planned on going.

Cantillonblog said...

Napoleon Hill, in his book published after his death - Outwitting the Devil - speaks of the importance of having a strong set of goals and intentions to avoid getting caught up in what he called 'hypnotic rhythm' - something like the rapids of Niagara Falls which seem to draw the attention of the spectator and make him, against his will, jump to his death.

Cantillonblog said...

"Few magnetic personalities persist today, and even those who are supposedly magnetic lose their “pull” quickly".

Gustave Le Bon speaks of prestige (which means something like charisma in this context). Prestige means that the object of admiration ceases to come into question. He says that prestige won by success can easily be lost by a single prominent failure.

As to the question of why Obama developed such prestige so quickly, and why all of a sudden it is falling away, one may need to study the ebb and flow of some other kind of field.

If one studies society carefully one can see revealed the presence of different kind of fields. One of these is the phenomenon Robert Prechter (of Elliott Wave fame) speaks of as the social mood. He takes this single field to the limit of what makes sense and perhaps a little beyond, and it is by no means the only such field. But it is a very nice place to start because it is reflected in financial markets, for which a large amount of data are available, as well as developments in art, society, politics.

Arakawa said...

My apologies for adding to this discussion long, long after the fact. Reading this post, it struck me that the purposive evil viewpoint has potential explanatory power in the question of what happened to Obama's charisma.

Let's assume that if a person even nominally puts their faith in God and is not beset by temptations from a legion of tempters, they will quickly be led on the path towards spiritual development, and perhaps even sainthood. It takes copious efforts from the Junior Tempters in Screwtape's office to pervert God's creation as much as they do.

Hence, all the coordinators of hell had to do was tell the rank-and-file staff in charge of Obama to ease up on his insecurities, for a while. The result was the sham-saint of the first election, a person of undeniable personal magnetism and charisma. After the election, of course, they had no further use for a President-saint, so they went back to their prior regime of temptation. Obama, lacking the hard-won spiritual discipline to oppose them, very quickly and very noticeably went back to being the strangely uninteresting man so well-documented by Steve Sailer.

The best thing (from the Screwtapian perspective) about the sham-saint (as long as the demons don't let him off the hook too long and allow him to become the real thing) is that it is so difficult to detect the deception. Obama's oratory was the real deal. His charisma was not demonic, but came from his being (just like any man) in the image of God. That he was foolish enough to use this power for the presidency in the way he did, perhaps was the demonic thing. I do not know. It would have taken great wisdom to discern the precise mechanism during the actual election.

I have no idea what it was the forces of Hell wanted with President Obama. He does not strike me as the worst candidate for the job, and I am scarcely qualified to pronounce a better candidate. Perhaps he was chosen as the most _disappointing_ to the largest amount of people -- promising enough to give the supporters high hopes, then continuing business as usual once actually elected. Perhaps political power was not the issue, and the Presidency was merely a side concern of some project merely meant to tempt a large number of people at once into the sin of idolatry. (Have you felt it, I wonder? When you confused an image of God, in some minuscule measure, with the real thing, and then found that your mind had actually closed around an emptiness? It's a disconcerting feeling to find that you've done it.)

The only real reason I'm allowing myself to analyze Obama like this is because this theory illustrated a particular fact of life to me in a very sobering way. Namely, any sudden and unexplained rise in one's own charisma, or any other saintly quality, is something to be wary of. It might be a temporary respite meant to allow you to be a bad influence.