Strategic Usurpation: One Reason Social Analysis is always Potentially Complex

[Both behavior analysts and social psychologists give far too simplistic analyses of social behavior.  There are many ways in which social behaviors are complex but here is one to think about.  More importantly, try and learn to observe these in real life.]

We can find patterns in social behavior and uses of language and analyze their functioning within the context.  However, for any pattern of social behavior that is being maintained, and for any language pattern that is being maintained, with humans you can always find these patterns ‘usurped’ (usurpação) into other contingencies–but they can look just the same.  There are many ways this can be done.

First a simple(ish) example:  A common pattern now is to meet someone new and give them a peck-on-the-cheek kiss (this has a longer history in Europe). This behavior has its place and functioning in showing personal closeness-but-not-too-much and safety.  But once it is reasonably established it can be used in other ways and it might look exactly the same in your observations unless you are contextually observing for strategic usurpation.  I can:

  • give a longer or exaggerated peck on the cheek to try and show more intimacy to an observer (when there might actually be no intimacy)
  • use the peck on the cheek kiss as an excuse to get close for nefarious reasons
  • refuse a peck on the cheek to socially snub that person
  • try and initiate the peck first to show your eagerness (to that person or to observers)
  • use the peck on the cheek to make someone you are close to jealous
  • do the peck on the cheek but in a form of sarcasm or parody

A language example: The Father every night at dinner says, “My Son, can you please pass the salt?” (already there are complexities as to why it has been put in this form and whether I am parodying Skinner).  The son might one day then say, “My Father, can you please pass the sausages” and while it could be simple modeling built around the father’s behavior, more often in real life I would be carefully observing to see if:

  • it was actually a joke for the other siblings to laugh at
  • a parody on the Father
  • a dare from the other siblings
  • an attempt to stop the Father saying it ever again
  • getting revenge on the Father for something else he did, etc.

The point of all this?

If you just observe the raw actions without the full contextual observations, you will miss all the complexities of strategic social behavior, and life will seem simple: just a normal, simple peck on the cheek, and a son modeling his behavior on that of his father…

Where can I read more? Gregory Bateson wrote like this about ‘play’; Speech Accommodation research in sociolinguistics has a lot; any books about strategy; the use of familial terms transferred into other arenas (bro; man; my man, hey sis; hey cuz; dude, you’re my man!); Monty Python; any sarcasm or parody; politics has heaps in both actions and language uses, especially when they are campaigning for election.  Finally for now, the best hypnotherapy inductions use the simple language patterns of everyday life in ways to stop the oppositional/ critical language patterns so people listen for a change

More importantly, begin to observe in this way.  See some functioning and then ask yourself; could that be a formal segment that is being utilized or usurped for another contingency, used in another functional way?

Warning: A large number of uses of strategic usurpation these days occurs in marketing.  They find some everyday pattern that is bonding or nice or attractive, and then use it in their slogans or campaign to give the impression that they care about you and they are really your friend.

Note: the use of the pretentious term “strategic usurpation’ is a parody of academics who like doing this–I use it to make another point…


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