A newspaper is more than a text: it is a social object. Some call this a ‘badge’. Cars act as badges in the same way. Activities like branding and advertising rely very heavily on the attributes & significance of social objects to increase their desirability. Some things, like cleaning your teeth have social value yet are not direct badges – they cannot be instantly observed by others and so are not social objects.
A social object says something about you to others. It also stimulates messages to you about yourself. As we can see in the cartoon, social objects are things you can talk about, direct others to, comment on and adopt. In this way they are vital to maintaining one’s identity in today’s world.
Broadly, social objects have the following characteristics:
They acquired their presence in your life based on a mixture of precipitating events (your dad may have read the newspaper you now read), your self-perception, your understanding of the norms of behaviour, your sense of your status (actual or aspired to) in the group. Usually the key to this adoption is a form of copying or mimicry of someone else’s behaviour.
Once a social object has acquired desirability, we initiate the process of building a habit or repeated behaviour with regard to it. That habit is based primarily in the early days on a Governing Belief.
Typical Governing Beliefs about the meaning of the social object like a newspaper might be: makes me look smart, makes me feel empowered, makes me appear well-informed, makes me look part of the elite, singles me out from the crowd. A car says that you’re devil-may-care, conservation conscious, rich, steady, fast, depending on which you choose.
However, these beliefs are not Absolute Facts: they are contingent. Being social animals and responsive to others’ view of us, we seek out confirmation of our beliefs and signals. This is done by a process that looks like this:
These things change over time too: in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s cigarette smoking was regarded as evidence of sophistication and social grace. Increasingly thereafter, smoking came under attack on health-related issues as the links between cigarettes and lung cancer became clear. So the governing belief that smoking was cool came under more and more attack from new information. Ultimately that led to a paradigm shift – smoking came to be seen as the opposite of cool – as foolish. That paradigm shift is still not universal: in places disconnected from mainstream medical influence, smoking is still seen positively. In poorer parts of our communities too, smoking is more prevalent.
If you are asked to explore habitual or repeated behaviour, like shopping, reading a paper, going on holiday, travelling to work, going for a pizza, this model can really help to explore where the possibilities and problems lie. The double-loop allows you to see how a habit, even though established, can be gradually undermined by changing norms and governing beliefs. These shifting perceptions can be based upon many momentary impressions, particularly of other’s reactions to you, or realizing that you are not getting enough functional value even though your social object is cool in image terms! For example, if your cool, fast car is uncomfortable and burns petrol like a bonfire, you may find it hard to justify to yourself and others. In this way the value of social objects is constantly changing as the beliefs and values of society change.
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