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IIID   Expert Forum for Knowledge Presentation
Conference   Preparing for the Future of Knowledge Presentation

 
 

Neil J. MacKinnon

 

Symbolic Interaction and Knowledge Presentation: from cognitive to affective models

© 2003, Neil J. MacKinnon
 

 
    Conference Presentation Video
Keywords
  Symbolic interactionism, affect control, measurement of emotion and meaning

 
Keynote Address
 

When last October I was asked to give a keynote address at this conference, the old aphorism - "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread" immediately came to mind. After all, what did I know about the field of information design? What would I have to offer to practitioners in this field? Why would they be interested in affect control theory, the area of social psychology in which I work? However, a lengthy telephone conversation with Peter Storkerson and Elka Kazmierczak, and correspondence with them gave me a shotgun introduction to the field of Information Design and showed me the relevance of affect control theory to information designers and design educators. If, as they suggest, information design is "a construction of socially bound interaction via symbolic means," then affect control theory should be relevant to information designers. This is because the theory deals with social interaction as symbolic interaction and as a construction of cognitive and affective processes. Moreover, it offers a methodology for empirical research and a mathematical model and computer program for simulating social interaction or, as I address later, interaction between a single actor and an inanimate object as well. Peter and Elka suggested that the most important thing for me to do is to open the door to our perspective in social psychology, both conceptually and operationally, leaving it to you to make the relevant connections and inferential leaps. To return to the above aphorism, if their reassurance has not elevated me to the status of an "angel," as evidenced by my presence here today, it has at least made me feel like a more knowledgeable "fool."

I begin this address with a concise summary of the social psychology of George Herbert Mead, the intellectual exemplar of symbolic interactionism in contemporary social psychology. The cognitive, rational perspective of Mead and symbolic interactionism provides the background for introducing affect control theory. Although the theory has its roots in symbolic interactionism in sociological social psychology, it differs in two important ways. First, while symbolic interactionism has been widely criticized for failing to operationalize its major concepts and propositions, affect control theory is a conceptual and mathematical formalization of symbolic interactionism (MacKinnon 1994). Second, while symbolic interactionism has been criticized for ignoring emotion, affect control theory focuses on the affective meaning of objects and the construction of social interaction through affective reaction and control. At strategic points in my concise summary of the theory, I will illustrate its procedures for measuring the affective meaning of objects and its computer program for simulating social interaction.

Mead's Cognitive Social Psychology
   

In order to develop a genuinely social psychology, one that could deal with human intersubjectivity and social interaction without disintegrating into individual psychology, George Herbert Mead searched for a universal, objective principle that transcends individual mind and consciousness. He found this principle in language. For Mead, an individual escapes the boundaries of individual consciousness when, through communication, he or she finds that others share the same world. The universal, objective nature of language lies in the symmetry of response that significant symbols or words arouse in symbol-user and recipient. As Mead has forcefully put it, "a person who is saying something is saying to himself what he says to others; otherwise, he does not know what he is talking about" (1934: 146-147). To cite a dramatic example, shouting "fire" in a crowded theater creates a shared cognition and a behavioral disposition to flee in the person announcing the danger and those hearing the warning. Thus, significant symbols are universals of discourse, creating common objects of consciousness (ideas or concepts) and predispositions to act in people speaking the same language, and these social cognitions are the basis of human intersubjectivity and social interaction. In short, by establishing his social psychology on the bedrock of language, Mead hoped to buttress it against the dangers of solipsism that haunted other contemporaneous attempts to develop a truly social psychology.

Unfortunately, Mead restricted the natural, social function of language to cognitive communication, because in his view emotional expression lacks the symmetry of response characteristic of cognitive communication. For example, one person's expression of anger might induce fear rather than anger in another. Although he acknowledged that language can sometimes arouse the same emotions in self and others, as in poetry or the theater, he argued that generally "we do not deliberately feel the emotions which we arouse [in others]. We do not normally use language stimuli to call out in ourselves the emotional response which we are calling out in others ... as we do in the case of significant [cognitive] communication" (1934: 148). Because of his view on the asymmetrical nature of emotional communication, Mead relegated emotion to individual subjective experience. As a consequence, there cannot be a social psychology of emotion and emotional communication so long as one remains within the cognitive conceptual framework of Mead.

Mead's cognitive view of language had serious implications for his interrelated concepts of mind, consciousness, self, and social interaction. Because he defined mind as an "internalized or implicit conversation of the individual with himself' (1934: 47), while restricting the natural function of language to cognitive communication, he was compelled to define mind in exclusively cognitive terms as well. In effect, the human mind, at least that part of which is social, becomes coextensive with cognitive processing; and human consciousness becomes coextensive with reflective consciousness, the cognitive awareness of meaning. Emotion is relegated to a second kind of consciousness, a residual category associated with bodily sensations and other subjective experiences. In short, the kind of consciousness wherein cognition dwells is social and objective; that wherein emotion dwells is individual and subjective. Like mind and consciousness, Mead defines the self in strictly cognitive terms. In his words, "selfconsciousness, rather than affective experience... provides the core and primary structure of the self, which is thus essentially a cognitive rather than an emotional phenomenon" (1934: 173). By implication, social interaction becomes cognitive, symbolic communication between individual selves sterilized of affect. Again, one cannot develop a social psychology of emotion and emotional communication within Mead's cognitive framework.

Despite his cognitive bias, Mead's identification of language as the universal objective principle upon which to build a social psychology remains one of his greatest contributions. A second major contribution to social psychology is his conceptualization of human behavior as a process of cybernetic feedback and control. Indeed, Mead's articulation of this idea foreshadowed the development of modern systems theory by several decades. For Mead, the human capacity for reflexiveness - "the turning back of the experience of the individual upon himself' (1934: 134) - is the defining feature of the human mind and consciousness. By drawing upon the reflexive nature of mind and consciousness, Mead was able to explain purposive human behavior without resorting to the mysticism of teleology and final causes. That is, human goals are realized through successive adjustment of behavior in response to the negative feedback of the mind's anticipatory states, drawing one closer and closer to a desired goal - analogous to modem mechanical systems such as a thermostat or guided missile.

For Mead, however, this cybernetic control model of human behavior is strictly cognitive. As a consequence, his exclusion of affect from human purposive behavior leaves unanswered the question of what motivates the individual to initiate goal-oriented or purposive behavior in the first place, and to sustain such behavior until a goal is realized. The fact of the matter is that human motivation consists of two components: first, the energization of behavior; second, its direction. While Mead's cognitive control model accounts for the direction of behavior, it cannot account for its energization. That is, objects or goals must be desired or wanted, invested with affective significance, before they energize and mobilize behavior. By extension, Mead's cognitive control model also fails to explain the motivational basis of social interaction.

We turn now to affect control theory. As we shall see, affect control theory accepts Mead's focus on language and cybernetic control, but extends his cognitive social psychology into the realm of affect and emotions.

Affect Control Theory  

Affect control theory (Heise 1979; Smith-Lovin and Heise 1988; MacKinnon and Heise 1993; MacKinnon 1994) was initiated by David Heise, Indiana University, in the late 1970s, and developed since then in collaboration with Lynn Smith-Lovin (University of Arizona), Herman Smith (University of Missouri), and myself, along with second and third generations of younger researchers. Affect control theory formalizes Mead's (1934) model of mind as an internal process of cybernetic feedback and control, and his conceptualization of social interaction as an ongoing process of mutually adjusted response among interactants (MacKinnon 1994). In addition, the theory accepts Mead's premise that language creates shared objects of consciousness through social categorization, and that these social cognitions are the basis of intersubjectivity and coordination in social interaction. However, contrary to Mead's view that emotion is individual or idiosyncratic rather than social, affect control theory views the affective associations of cognitions as more or less shared by members of the same culture or subculture. Moreover, the theory recognizes that people communicate their emotional experiences to one another through emotion-displays and narratives, evoking (at least potentially) a symmetry of response between sender and receiver that is the essence of cognitive communication according to Mead. In other words, affect control theory maintains that emotional communication, like cognitive communication, is social. Cultural sentiments rather than social cognitions provide the data for affect control theory; and, in contrast to Mead's cognitive social psychology, the theory begins with affective rather than cognitive processing.

Because "affective associations to social categorization generally are recognized as 'attitudes,' " (Heise 1979: 179n1), affect control theory draws heavily upon attitude theory and research for insights into affective processing. In this regard, the theory measures cultural sentiments by capitalizing on the EPA (evaluation, potency, activity) structure of meaning established by the psychologist, Charles Osgood, and his associates (Osgood, Suci, and Tannenbaum 1957; Osgood, May, and Miron 1975). According to Osgood, EPA captures the connotative aspect of meaning, "the 'feeling tones' of concepts as part of their total meaning" (1969:195). Evaluation and potency, respectively, have been identified with the sociological dimensions of status and power (Kemper and Collins 1990); and, depending upon context, activity has been associated with the emotional energies of actors (Collins 1990), the expressiveness of identities and roles (Heise 1988:6), or the agency of participants in social interaction.

Affect control theory measures the affective meaning of social identities, interpersonal behavior, and other concepts with three scales. The evaluation scale is anchored by "bad, awful" to "good, nice"; the potency scale, by "small, weak, powerless" to "big, strong, powerful"; and the activity scale, by "slow, old, quiet" to "fast, young, noisy." Calibrated from -4 to +4, each scale captures a wide range of negative to positive valence, from infinitely "bad, awful" to infinitely "good, nice," for example. Actual values generally fall between ±3, with a ±2 considered a large (positive or negative) value. In affect control research, individual scores on EPA scales are aggregated to estimate the cultural sentiments of concepts. In more recent years, we have moved from paper and pencil to electronic collection of EPA data, employing Program Attitude designed for this purpose, and more recently still, to collecting data via the Internet (Heise 2001). Examples of mean EPA ratings for various concepts are illustrated in Figure 1. EPA measurement has been used successfully to study the underlying meaning of occupational prestige scores (MacKinnon and Langford 1994); gendered traits (Langford and MacKinnon 2000), and intergroup relations (MacKinnon and Bowlby 2000).

Figure 1: Examples of the EPA Measurements of Social Concepts
   

IDENTITIES
 
U.S. Male Cultural Sentiments (EPA)   U.S. Female Cultural Sentiments (EPA)




 



 
E
P
A
 
 
E
P
A
 
2.00
2.00
2.00
2.00
2.00
2.00
• myself
(Indiana University 1994)
2.48
1.74
1.83
 
• fireman
2.19
1.89
1.54
• winner
2.48
1.74
1.83
 
• boyfriend
2.34
1.62
1.68
• athlete
1.54
2.15
2.04
 
• heroine
1.58
1.76
1.55
• champion
1.43
2.57
2.04
 
• hero
2.16
2.42
1.13
• superstar
1.12
2.25
1.84
 
• I, myself
(Indiana University 1994)
• brain
1.79
1.83
1.04