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  • Writer's pictureMiriam Verbeek

Determinants of human functioning: Blog 2 of 4

  1. Symbolising capability – we can think in symbols and we can share symbols. For example, words in a language are symbols (or representation) of some thing which we can share with others who understand the language. By using and understanding symbols, we can store, process and transform our experiences into something (called a cognitive model) that can help us think through decision-making processes or problems. In language, we further translate the word symbols we speak into 'written' symbols that we transfer to people without having to use sound.

  2. Forethought capability – with this capability we can think ahead, weighing up consequences. We often use our capacity to symbolise to do so. A very obvious use of forethought is when planning the next move in a chess game, but any planning activity needs the use of the forethought capability.

  3. Vicarious capability – we can learn a behaviour by observing the actions of others and the consequences of those actions. We don’t have to learn something by trial and error. Getting an education at school is about using this capacity. This capacity means that we don't have to learn things by self-trial and error.

  4. Self-reflective capability – this is the capacity to evaluate our own behaviour and make adjustments according to the consequences of the behaviour and how it agrees with our own and/or with society’s standards.

  5. Self-regulatory capability – we use a combination of personal and social standards to evaluate our own behaviour and change it as necessary (more on this in the third blog of this series). These five capabilities let us learn from the experiences of others (vicarious learning), and use our own experiences and those vicariously learnt to anticipate (forethought) what might happen as a consequence of a contemplated action. It is our self-reflective capabilities that help us to evaluate the impact of an action on others and on our selves, and then to use that evaluation to guide our future behaviour. BUT, capabilities don’t always work well; all sorts of things can go wrong with capabilities: they may not be developed; they may be incapable of being developed; or they may be developed in a particular way. I’ll give examples of difficulties with development below but now a little sidestep: When we are uncertain about how we should behave or if we can do the right thing – in other words, when we have low self-efficacy – or we don’t think we are in charge of our own behaviour – in scientific jargon this is called 'low agency' – we either don’t go ahead with the action or we look for help. Sometimes, a person gets the help of (or is directed by) an individual or an institution. The person who we look to is called a ‘proxy models’. In the case of an assisting group, the term is ‘collective agency’. For this series of blogs, I'll collapse these two categories into proxy models for each of description in these blogs. There’s an interesting interaction between proxy models and self-efficacy: we are choosy about who we look to as proxy models. Perhaps you've noticed situations like a child taking on the behaviour of another child rather than the behaviour of an adult; or people who have a medical problem rejecting the advice of a doctor but accepting the advice of a neighbour; or a farmer taking advice from another farmer rather than an academic 'expert'. There are myriad factors influencing who we accept as proxy models, including social class, financial means, gender, education, age, mobility, culture and religion. These factors boil down to a judgement we make based on our self-efficacy: “can I do (or think) that?” If the modelled behaviour is too challenging, we’ll look for a model that exhibits behaviours and/or lessons that are closer to what we believe we can achieve. Now, back to the issue of why capabilities may not work well:

  6. Our symbolising capability might not be developed for us to face a particular challenge, for example, we don't speak the language. Another example is the symbolising capability divide between Baby Boomers and Millenials - Baby Boomers struggle to master the symbols of modern technology so glibly absorbed by the Millennials.

  7. Our forethought capability may not work well because we don't have relevant knowledge or we haven't had relevant past experiences. Another reason might be that we have poor symbolising capacity. Forethought can also be influenced by the group or institution we belong to (collective agency issue), which might determine ‘how’ we need to behave - this is especially the case if we have low self-efficacy.

  8. In order to learn vicariously, a person needs to be able to

  9. pay attention to the lessons

  10. retain lessons

  11. reproduce lessons (this sometimes means having motor skills and/or thought process to do so – refer to my example of Baby Boomers and Millennials above), and

  12. must have the motivation to learnSelf-efficacy has a significant influence on whether such learning occurs. If self-efficacy is low in any of the four needs for vicarious learning, then the person is unlikely to make much of a fist of learning. If there is no useful proxy model, then the person is in an even worse situation.

  13. Self-reflection, of course, needs the other capacities to be in good working order. The capacity to self-regulate depends upon the working order of other capacities. I’m going to talk more about self-regulation in the third blog in this series. If you are trying to influence behaviour – your own or other people’s – you need to examine which of the capacities are going to get in the way of achieving a good outcome – as well as examining the influences of agency and self-efficacy. In the first blog in this series of blogs, I noted that merely providing information to people is a poor way of influencing behaviour. I hope now you can see why. Printing or lecturing on facts and figures or explanations is, actually, only providing ‘data’ and probably ‘meaningless data’ to people who are not in the frame of mind to accept it as ‘information’. For data to become information, it needs to jump the hurdles of symbolising, vicarious learning, agency and self-efficacy. In the next blog, as I’ve already flagged, I am going to return to the question of why power corrupts. This has to do with our self-regulation capacity and how we can, through our own thought processes, do away with those standards that make us behave in socially responsible ways – and lead us down the slippery slope towards corruption.

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