Schismogenesis & Costly Honest Signaling

Gregory Bateson

I find myself trying to rectify two theoretical perspectives that I feel in many ways are saying the same things in different ways, so, by way of explaining, let me define my terms.  “Schismogenesis” is a term coined by anthropologist Gregory Bateson to describe “progressive differentiation” thru culture contact.  Bateson was an English anthropologist who integrated cybernetics & systems theory with ecological anthropology & homeostasis over the course of his collected works (see, for instance, Steps to an Ecology of the Mind, which is what I’m culling through now). 

Bateson's schematic for a theory of mind about a theory of mind (second-order cybernetics).

“Costly honest signaling” is also known as the “handicap principle” & often exemplified by invoking the peacock’s tail feathers.  The peacock’s tail feathers may have been sexually selected by females who somehow managed to be impressed with guys’ uncanny knack for not getting eaten by predators despite this big-ass bunch of feathers bogging them down.  Hence, it’s costly, as it takes energy to grow these things & carry them around.  They are honest because a lesser man-bird would doubtless not pull it off.  So the idea is that there are good genes that the female is glomming onto.

Conspicuous consumption (costly honest signaling) OF a peacock's tail feathers in Elvis' Graceland (I'm always trying to get good pictures of peacocks in zoos & took pictures of these but, alas, not good ones--these I stole off HowStuffWorks-Graceland).

My interest in schismogenesis relates to an effort to nest family process & signaling theory for a paper I’m revising about glossolalia (speaking in tongues) behavior among Apostolic Pentecostals.  With schismogenesis, there is symmetrical differentiation, in which members of different groups have the same aspirations & behavior patterns but are oriented differently with respect to these patterns.   Bateson says,

…Members of group A exhibit behavior patterns A,B,C in their dealings with each other, but adopt the patterns X,Y,Z in their dealings with members of group B.  Similarly, group B adopt the patterns A,B,C among them-selves, but exhibit X,Y,Z in dealing with group A.  Thus a position is set up in which the behavior X,Y,Z is the standard reply to X,Y,Z.

For instance, among Pentecostals in an upstate NY church (group A), congregants are like non-Pentecostals (group B) in wanting essentially the same things out of life–e.g., good marriages, educations, families, satisfaction, fulfillment–but the approach taken varies.  Pentecostals are friendly (A), welcoming (B), & trusting (C) in dealing with anyone who walks through the door of their church but adopt patterns of skepticism (X), standoffishness (Y), and otherworldliness (Z) in dealing with non-Pentecostals.  Non-Pentecostals treat each other with friendliness, open-arms, & trust but treat Pentecostals more suspiciously, critically, & hostilely.  You can see how this would escalate, & on a larger scale is essentially an arms race or runaway selection.

The similarity between schizophrenia & schismogenesis is not accidental, as what Bateson is representing is a blossoming fracture of relations between two cultures in contact.  This can occur within cultures too, which he terms “complementary differentiation.”  This is when two groups of people within the same group have differing interests, such as among social classes or, to use Bateson’s example, between assertive & submissive groups of people.

When schismogenesis occurs, the fundamental misunderstandings between two groups naturally grows.  This concept seems rather intuitive, I know.  I am generally against the use of obfuscating words–doh!–I mean, words that obscure meaning rather than clarify it–but I am interested in the potential elegance of systems theory for modeling behavior. Sometimes one term is more useful for a concept than repeatedly explaining it metaphorically.

Why this is significant is in clarifying the sometimes muddle of ethnographic encounters where, for instance, one person in a church does something wrong within a complementary frame–his interests were at odds with the rest of group A.  In some respects, he shared interests with both the Pentecostal & the non-Pentecostal group (okay, he wanted to achieve success by sleeping with other women, which is not really a Pentecostal thing–we could argue about whether it’s a non-Pentecostal thing, but not right now).  His wife, on the other hand, was from a non-Pentecostal group & her mistakes were due to the schismogenic rift of misunderstanding between groups A & B.  She misunderstood the Pentecostal orientations toward A,B,C &, in attempting them, got them wrong.  As a consequence, she was still treated as though she were in group B (or worse), when she wanted to be accepted into group A, at least for her husband’s sake.

How does this relate to signaling theory?  There is no code book for the behavioral orientations that develop for each separate group.  How do I know you are a member of my group?  You act like a member of my group.  How does one act like a member of my group?  I don’t know, but I’ll know it when I see it.  Anthropologist Rich Sosis has formulated this, at least with regard to religion, as the 3 B’s–behaviors, badges, & bans–what you do, what you wear/show, & what you don’t do.  So in coming from group B, the wife did not know the 3B’s of group A, which developed independent of group B, because of the schismogenic rift.  Non-Pentecostals tend to think Pentecostals & other Charismatics are weird, because of their “Holy rolling” tendencies & their speaking in tongues, & the Pentecostals have internalized this.  They brandish it indignantly, reinforcing the rift, reifying the progressive differentiation despite the shared goals.  So where was she gonna learn this stuff?  Nowhere.  What is the upshoot?  When she tries to be all A,B,C to group A, they naturally respond all X,Y,Z &, well, that pisses her off so she flips the bird (she didn’t really) & storms off (she did do that).

So signaling is important to mediate between groups with shared interests & within groups with conflicting interests, essentially, when communication is necessary.  As Rebecca Bliege Bird & Eric Alden  Smith laid out in their 2005 Current Anthropology paper:

  1. Members of a social group vary in some underlying attribute (physical condition, resource endowment, need motivation) that is difficult or impossible to observe but could in principle be reliably signaled.
  2. Observers stand to gain from accurate information about this variation in attribute quality.
  3. Signalers and recipients have conflicting interests in the sense that successful deceit (e.g., appearing to be a fleeter prey, a more dangerous adversary, or a more attractive mate than is in fact the case) would benefit signalers at the expense of the recipients.
  4. Signal cost or benefit (to the signaler) is quality-dependent (i.e., the marginal cost of the signal is negatively correlated with the signaler’s quality or the marginal benefit is positively correlated with the same).

When these conditions are met, we can expect one or more “design forces” (i.e., decision making, subconscious learning, natural selection, or adaptive cultural transmission) to favor a system of communication conforming to the costly-signaling framework.

What does this mean?  I think #1 conflates symmetrical & complementary schismogenesis, so that is a nice distinction Bateson has made.  In my case, the husband & wife are clearly from different social groups but trying to make it work.  Re #2, she & the church want reliable information from him, but he is pinch hitting for group B & being deceptive, which is undermining his signaling, & it shows (more on that later).  The church stands to benefit from accurate information about her, as she wants to join & reap the benefits of the church, but is she committed or just a free-rider?  #3, the husband wants his cake (to remain a member of his church & be married) & to eat it too (to sleep around), while the wife wants to be an accepted member & come eat at fellowship dinners & get social support but not have to take on a lot of work in the church (I’m just imagining this, as I couldn’t get hold of her for an actual interview).  #4 both husband & wife were sending signals like crazy, which were a total muddle to me but held a lot of meaning for others that surprised me. 

Hence, my whole purpose here is to try to sort out the meaning of the variations in quality & content of the signals they gave.


Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he founded the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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