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Re: [xmca] further thoughts on layers and stages within socioculturally situated practice

You mention a lot of very interesting examples regarding the role of belief in behavior, Rod. The placebo effect, proven to be important in a wide range of medical, dental and psychiatric treatments, is an especially dramatic demonstration of the role of belief. There is also the 'nocebo' effect - inert treatments that patients believe would have a negative effect on their treatment - and consequently do. Along with the questions Eugene Subbotsky asks about effects of believing in magical and/or physical causes on behavior, Vygotsky's insights into the relationship between higher and lower mental functions comes to mind as well. So many layers to keep track of!

- Steve

On Jun 24, 2010, at 1:11 AM, Rod Parker-Rees wrote:

Steve, I have to confess that I haven't read the Subbotsky paper yet but reading your summary made me wonder whether we should be looking at what we mean by 'believe' rather than at the differences between 'magical' and 'scientific' thinking. What we do when we believe in magical processes (saluting magpies, avoiding opening umbrellas indoors and other superstitious acts, for example) and what we do when we believe in scientific processes (trusting that our aeroplane will stay up or that a medical procedure won't harm us) may be significantly different ways of coping with our usually dim and unconscious awareness of probabilities but there is now strong evidence that belief, even in scientifically unfeasible things, can have real effects (e.g. the placebo effect may account for much of the genuine effectiveness of acupuncture for some conditions). When someone buys a lottery ticket knowing that the odds of winning are about 14million to one should we see this as magical thinking (I will become rich without having to go through the usual channels of causality) or as a small investment in optimism - a relatively cheap way of making the imagining of a wealthy lifestyle feel a bit less imaginary. Violation of the laws of physics is of course freely available to us in talk, fiction, imagination and dreams (and in play with toy figures) and the process of imagining impossible events can have 'real' consequences - not least in driving invention as people try to apply scientific knowledge to the realisation of their magical imaginings.

It strikes me that the use of the word 'survives' in Subbotsky's title raises interesting imaginable scenarios - we can imagine a world in which all magical thinking has been expunged in favour of rational thinking but we can only do this because we haven't yet expunged all magical thinking.

Everyone should read Leo Lionni's brilliant picture book 'Frederick' which tells the story of a mouse who 'fails' to join his family in gathering food for winter, being too busy admiring the world around him - when winter comes and the supplies of food run short, Frederick is able to share what he has saved and his stories about the warmth of the sun and the colours of flowers lift his family's spirits and help them to get through the winter. 'Useless' processes (and people) may survive because they are actually rather useful when seen from a different angle.

All the best,


-----Original Message-----
From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu [mailto:xmca- bounces@weber.ucsd.edu] On Behalf Of Steve Gabosch
Sent: 24 June 2010 00:33
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] further thoughts on layers and stages within socioculturally situated practice

For sure, the paper by Eugene is quite interesting.  Below are some
passages from the paper Mike just posted, "The Ghost in the Machine:
Why and how the belief in magic survives in the rational mind" by
Eugene Subbotsky.

A key theme is that scientific and magical thinking co-exist in all
individual modern people.  This is also the key theme in that 1993
article Mike and Eugene wrote Mike also mentioned the other day.  I
certainly agree with that theme.  Magical thinking is everywhere
today.  (Even Marxists cuss!  LOL)    Eugene's paper suggests a number
of ways this can be explored scientifically.

One question Eugene's paper raises for me is just exactly what **is**
the difference between "magical thinking" and "scientific thinking,"
two enormous "layers" of human thinking and culture that impact modern
people in every way.  Eugene suggests they are both forms of
**causal** thinking, which I agree with.  However, I am perplexed by
the way Eugene counterposes science versus magic, and "physical
causality" versus "magical causality," in this passage:

Eugene explains "... the ideas associated with science and the ideas
associated with magic are conceptual opposites that condition each
other. Whenever we think of physical causality, we inevitably (and
usually subconsciously) imagine the possibility of its violation, and
this violation by definition, is magical causality. For example, we
know that in order to erect a building we need to have three
components: the wish to erect a building of a certain kind, the
materials (concrete, steel and glass) and human labor. When we imagine
that the building is erected with one or more of these components
absent (i.e., we wished to erect a building and the building
appeared), we understand that physical causality has been violated and
that we have witnessed the effect of magical causality."

While thinking about "magical causality," its relationship to
imagination, and whether magic is the "conceptual opposite" of
science, here are some other interesting points Eugene brings up, to
give people a feel for the article.

Eugene advocates developing " ... a new discipline: the cognitive-
developmental science of magical thinking and magical beliefs in
modern humans. This discipline may potentially link together phenomena
that thus far have been studied separately from one another ..."

This investigation can help explain things like beliefs in the
paranormal, and such things as ...

"... the phenomenal financial success of such magical masterpieces of
the entertainment industry as Rowling's "Harry Potter", Tolkien's
"Lord of the Rings" and Cameron's "Avatar". In the modern industrial
world both children and rational adults are tempted by the enchantment
of magic, and this temptation is powered by their subconscious magical

Eugene suggests:

"The results summarized above suggest a new view on magical beliefs in
modern industrial cultures. This view proposes that modern educated
adults cannot be divided into those who believe in magic (i.e.,
superstitious individuals) and those who do not. Rather, everyone is a
believer in magic, and individual differences exist only in how deep
in the subconscious magical beliefs are buried and how strong the
psychological defenses are. Consciously, an individual can consider
himself or herself to be a completely rational person and deny that he
or she is a believer in magic; subconsciously, the person can still
hold the belief in magical causality."

One final passage.  Eugene points out that obedience to suggestion and
persuasion due to magical thinking may not have changed in modern
societies, even if these societies purport to be based on science and
rational logic.

"People believed that the pharaohs, kings, priests and other persons
of power had a special link with gods and thus possessed the "divine
right" to be obeyed. In the course of history, these social phenomena
have changed their appearances.  In a world where science reigns, they
disguised themselves through dropping their "old skin" (the belief in
the magical powers of gods and spirits) and taking on a "new
skin" (the belief in the powers of society, evolution, and natural
selection). On the seat of power, presidents, medical doctors and
psychology  experimenters replaced kings and priests. However, to a
large extent, our impulse to go along with suggestions, to conform and
to obey is still powered by the subconscious belief that the commands
come from entities with supernatural abilities. Stripped of its
original sacred context and renamed suggestibility, ward communicative
magic survives in societies that otherwise strictly adhere to science
and rational logic (for more on this, see Subbotsky, 2010, Ch. 9)."

- Steve

On Jun 22, 2010, at 10:33 AM, mike cole wrote:

I need time to absorb all that Larry and I may not be alone.
Meantime, here
is a paper by
Eugene Subbotsky that he said I could pass along and that he believes
relevant to the issue of
layers and stages. His work is always interesting!

On Tue, Jun 22, 2010 at 6:13 AM, Larry Purss <lpscholar2@gmail.com>

Mike and others reflecting on layers/stages
I wasn't sure if I should add to your post on definitions and the
role of
superordinate categories as imlpicated  the increasing
of formal definitions. I decided I should  start a new thread.
As the article states, the cognitive ability to generate
abstract FORMAL definitions is considered a cental ability for
persons into IQ subgroups. Acquiring this ability is often viewed
as a
hallmark of individual diplays of intelligence and an excellent
tool for
creating "ability groupings" and people who "lack this innate
ability" are
viewed as "lacking" intelligence.
Therefore, if it can be shown that this "ability" is not an
attribute but rather a culturally valued bias implicit in the
traditions of formal schooling, it raises fundamental questions
about our
notions of IQ and what is measured. Every school psychologist as
part of
there professional education should be required to read AND grasp
the ideas
in this article. Thank goodness the sociocultural turn in
psychology is
challenging the basic assumptions in this cognitive model.

"Developing" decontextualized definitions and abstract ways of
a sociocultural perspective is a matter of practicing generating
definitions" in institutional structures which value this
particular genre
as a  performance.

This article's focus on the centrality of practice can also be seen
another example  that can be used to capture the tension in the
accounts of the layering/stages antinomy.  If  the culture values
decontextualized ways of thinking then this "ability" will be
over more concrete ways of thinking and  be labeled as "higher".
as the article points out previous ways of constructing are not
or sublated. Our horizon of understanding expands to include our
capacity to use formal definitions as an often more efficient
especially in the "assembly-line" institutional structures of
FORMAL school
settings. However, as B. Rogoff reminds us, assembly line practices
are not
ALL pervasive, even in formal school settings. Other models of
co-exist with the assembly line practices. However, the dominant
is formal and the formal tests of vocabulary development capture
who are
efficient in these particular situated genres.

In the spirit of considering the layering/stages antinomy I want to
another "skill" that is often judged to be  foundational for
persons into ability groups and is often theorized as "innate
This "skill" is verbal expression which is of central importance in
American  culture.  I want to suggest this is another example of
cultural values [biases], which are historically situated, but are
often theorized as a universal developmental dynamic.  I will be
Suzanne Kirschner's account of "verbal expression" as articulated
in her

"The Assenting Echo: Anglo-American Values in Contemporary
Developmental Psychology" (1990) in the journal SOCIAL RESEARCH,
vol. 57,

Suzanne's article highlights how Freudian ideas [and ideals] when
transported to North America, are culturally transformed when
into a new cultural tradition. The hermeneutical process she
when giving an historical account of psychodynamic developmental
theory in
America is another example of the sociocultural embeddedness of all
theories [including developmental theories]. If one rejects the basic
premises and assumptions of psychoanalytic accounts, then reading an
historical account of how these "invalid" notions could so profoundly
influence cultural notions of development becomes a hermeneutical
that highlights how historically situated sociocultural processes

Suzanne points out that American tradition values and  articulates 3
dominate themes when reshaping,  reframing and reconstituting
theories from an American cultural imaginary.  Her article
documents the
translation  of  pyschodynamic developmental theory when these
notions were TRANSLATED in America.  However,  the historical
process she
articulate in her article specifically for psychoanalytic
theory is relevant to the translation of other developmental
theories as
they are "borrowed" from other cultural traditions and become
elaborated in
the American cultural imaginary.

The 3 American values which Suzanne suggests are often implicit in
versions of developmental theories  are
1) Self-reliance  2) Self-direction and 3) verbal expression.
Suzanne believes these 3 values are central and pervasive in American cultural imaginaries. The perceived "lack" in an individual of these
values is often theorized  as an indication of a lack of maturity or
becoming stuck at an earlier developmental stage. By examining the
assumptions implicit in the cultural biases of developmental
theories that
posit particular human expressions as  "lacking" in the person's
we can glimpse the pervasive constraints of cultural traditions on

Suzanne points out the lack of "self-reliance" is viewed as being
stuck in
DEPENDENCY.  Takeo Doi a Japanese psychiatrist points out there is a
cultural assumption in America that others can help a person ONLY
THE PERSON HELPS HIM OR HER SELF.  To help a child become
independent "is
probably the single most important goal of American
parents" [Kirschner]
overdependence is seen as a lack of development.  Developmental
progress is
viewed as displaying increasing self-reliance and detachment from
relationships. The goal of development is the achievement of
autonomy and
the ability to regulate a life of ones own choosing.  Suzanne
with this bias to valorize self-reliance is a sense of
"separateness" and
"detachment" as one focuses on the capacity to improve ones own life

The 2nd cultural ideal is the developing capacity for SELF-
cultural ideal assumes one should know what is in ones heart and
mind and
that one should make choices and live in accordance with these inner
and feelings.  It is by examining the perceived negative qualities
of the
LACK of self-direction that the cultural value of "self-direction" is
implicated in our developmental theories.  The opposite of self-
COMPLIANCE with someone else's desires which distorts, constricts, or
suppresses one's true self.  If  one is seen as compliant and ones
becomes inaccessible then development is seen as stuck or
"arrested" at an
earlier stage of development where one lacks autonomy. Again the
"lacking autonomy" is being DEPENDENT on others to give direction
to ones
life. Robert Bellah in "Habits of the Heart" describes "finding
being faithful to that self in one's lifestyle as central values of
cultural values. [what Bellah calls expressive individualism]

The 3rd cultural ideal which is implicit in developmental theories
is the
ideal of SELF EXPRESSION.  There is a cultural bias to encourage
language as a means of expressing ones own opinions and feelings.
references Joseph Tobin's study of preschool in 3 cultures [Japan,
and the United States.] Tobin reported dialogue from an American
school in
which the teacher asks
"Do you want juice, Rhonda? Milk? A cracker? What do you want?
Don't just
keep shaking your head. How am I supposed to know what you want if
tell me?"
Kirschner points out 2 assumptions implicit in this exchange. 1)
entitled to freedom of choice and a variety of options 2)You CANNOT
explicitly. In other words you cannot DEPEND on another person to
your needs.  Takeo Doi in Japan documents a different cultural
of development.  In Japan  the cultural ideal is to be able to
anothers needs intuitively and it is rude to wait until the other
an explicit need. In the American context to communicate verbally is
highlighted as a sign of higher development. "EMPATHIC
OTHER" [kirschner]

As Kirschner summarizes in her article, these 3 cultural ideals
imply a
tradition of hyperindividualism which Kirschner traces to the
situation of America's radical Protestant heritage and its secular
offshoots.  She suggests developmental theories in America have
along similar lines in their idealization of the self-regulated and
self-reflective autonomous individual.  In the context of our
discussion on
layering and stages the idea of layering allows recognition of the
and is
capable of valueing both sides of the tension.  In contrast the
concept of
stages idealizes one side of the tension and views dependency as a
of  development.  Seeing human needs as "immature" and "lacking"
because of
being embedded in relations of DEPENDENCY which the person must
from has parallels to the account of developing decontextualized
As a psychological tool decontextualization and decentering are
ways to
expand a person's horizon of understanding BUT NOT AT THE EXPENSE OF
RECOGNIZING EARLIER WAYS of being at home in the world.

Mike, this is another reflection on the discussion of layers/stages
and the
implicit values and judgements within accounts of development.

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