Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Problems with Social Depth Psychology

Originally posted on June 20, 2013

To begin with, let’s clarify the terminology. Sociometry has been used in the field of psychodrama to describe, in a more narrow sense, the method, mainly involving making explicit those preferences that are generally not explicit. In a larger sense, the word talks about all the dynamics involved in this process, and I think it might be better to call this larger sphere “social depth psychology.”

I’ve been thinking about these dynamics for decades, and more, recently. Several articles can be found on my website under the terms “sociometry” or “tele.” Google Blatner sociometry.

Social depth psychology deals with the way people feel deeply about others, and respond deeply to how they sense others feel towards them. If it is positive, tele or rapport tends to build. If it is negative, people can enter a spiral of unconscious moving away if not rejection. In addition, they begin to build unconscious fantasies. A lonely person may feel that a smile from an attractive other indicates romance—and this over-reading can lead to terribly hurt feelings. A sensitive person may read a somewhat neutral response as rude rejection and build onto this a whole fantasy of why that person isn’t more positive, such as thinking, “She’s just jealous.” In fact, that neutral other might well have become a friend but perhaps was distracted or not warmed up at the moment.

Psychoanalysis has ventured into this sphere a little—especially some later workers such as Harry Stack Sullivan or the inter-subjective pioneers. But these innovators haven’t sufficiently attended to the interactional dynamics, the way a little cue might turn the dynamic more towards the positive or negative. This in-between state that I call Social Depth Psychology looks at such interactions, and especially considers the contextual cues of what roles the people are in.

Role involves expectations, context, intent, behavior—it offers a matrix for analyzing misunderstanding. Role is a relatively good language, better than most sets of terms in either sociology or psychology. Also, role reaches into many other contexts—culture, cross-cultural themes, body-mind habits, etc. (I find the role concept to be the basis for a good language for intra-psychic dynamics, too!)

Sociometry as a method simply makes explicit—by putting it out there where all can see—what is generally left implicit—and therefore subject to distortions of misunderstandings, cultural bias, and so forth. Generally it puts it out there in the form of a chart. Modifications have people stand at various distances and in certain postures. Small toys and objects can also substitute—each modification may have indications and contraindications, advantages and disadvantages.

Sociometry as Threat

Doing sociometry may be perceived as a threat, more so as people realize unconsciously what it’s about. (At first it’s deceptively easy!) Really working with the questions involved involves making quite clear, expressing outwardly, on a diagram, something most folks would rather not know about explicitly, nor be confronted with externally. In short, sociometry is a tool that brings to the surface what I call “social depth psychology.”

Consider the ambivalence stirred up by having to face the following choices:

Whom do you prefer to be close to? It’s neutralized a bit by having some names to choose from, and a criterion for choice, but it strikes close to every mother having to choose between her children. We’re afraid of hurting those we love or need by admitting that they’re not our first choice. And the mind is such that even thinking this explicitly means that they’ll know and be hurt.

Whom do you prefer least? Yuck! It brings up the unconscious basis of why you don’t prefer or even dislike or even hate some people—and many of these feelings are tied up with what you hate about yourself. It brings up primitive prejudices born of ignorance—or it borders on those feelings. We tend to feel guilty about not only hating, but even not-preferring others. We just edge away and let it be unconscious.

This also fits for groups. If you feel that a group doesn’t like you all that much, one way of coping with the humiliation, the “narcissistic injury,” is to not like them that much either. This tends to operate unconsciously and is easily rationalized. “Oh, I’m busy that night.”

Moreno was a little blinded by his own narcissism so that he couldn’t see how touchy people were, how vulnerable, so they couldn’t even recognize how hurt they were when they preferred someone who did not reciprocate equally. This touches on deep realms of interpersonal tenderness often sensitized by old wounds.

Yet Moreno was right in a way: It would be better if people could be more rather than less conscious about all this. Often—really quite often—our sensitivities, our wounds, are generated by artificial expectations and mistaken interpretations.

Mary holds resentment towards her sister-in-law, Sarah, and maybe—maybe not—can bring into consciousness the complex of the perception of Sarah’s scowling at her across the room at the last family get-together. In fact, Sarah wasn’t scowling at Mary, but rather reacting to an inner gas pain. Or maybe she saw something behind Mary that she didn’t like. The point is that this kind of getting an impression—a mistaken impression—and being wounded by it—happens all the time!

People get their feelings hurt and the offender often doesn’t mean any harm and didn’t know even that they did anything wrong. So sociometry partakes of the realm of, first, registering more sensitively that one gets impressions, second, admitting that they are vulnerable to being bothered, and third, bothered enough to ask what the behavior that was offensive was about. These acts show that the person cares, which proves (they think) that they’re childishly dependent.

“I don’t care what you think” is still a widespread theme, sometimes expressed openly, sometimes to oneself.  It’s mostly a lie. I may be able to generate enough confidence to barrel past that negative feedback, and this feels like strength, and what I need to do, but it goes too far, is generally untrue, that the perception of disapproval or weak approval or mere tolerance is not subtly bothersome. So the whole keeping up a facade rests on the automatic suppression of negativity. (Another word for automatic, unconscious suppression is “repression”—the person doesn’t even know she’s suppressing, and therefore can’t choose not to!)

There’s a whole category of interpersonal relations in which one allows oneself to be a little vulnerable and asks, “Excuse me, what did you mean by that?” What is referred to can be a turn of phrase, a tone of voice, a non-verbal communication. They expose themselves to further scorn if they ask. They turn the other cheek. What is weird is that a goodly part of the time the person who has offended—get this!—did not mean it! Often she had no idea that she was being hurtful! She may even be eager to make amends!

Sadly, this is not based on a degree of hypersensitivity that is unusual. This degree of sensitivity, touchiness, is often the norm. Moreover, the person being hurt may not even notice that they are hurt. If they do notice the cues: Spontaneity dries up. Imagination shuts down. They lose their train of thought. They get quiet. They don’t know what hit them. If they are asked, “You became quiet all of a sudden. What’s wrong?” Most of the time they’ll answer, “Nothing,” and mean it. The hurt and the transaction is repressed. It might not even be that bad of an offense.

The unconscious wounding roughly correlates with how much the person became trusting, open, wanted something from the other—love, validation, support, attention. What’s at stake is getting in touch with this vulnerability, this wanting, the disappointment—all of which in our culture tends to be associated with being a naive puppydog.

Soldiers are trained to toughen up to the cues of physical discomfort; to be hard. They’re trained to kill and to believe almost automatically that others want to kill them. If they’re trained well, it takes a long time to lose this shift of basic interpersonal threshold. But ordinary people learn through the modeling of popular songs and television similarly to be tough, not to care, not to show it if you do, not to even know that you are vulnerable. This is seen as a strength but in fact it is maladaptive for the need for better communications in the 21st century.

(This touches on innumerable examples of “overshoot” in a changing culture, so that, for example, an emotional stance such as being stoical is considered strong in one era and “up-tight” in the following era.)

Building an Infrastructure

The challenge reminds me of the considerable effort it requires to convince the general population to wash their hands after using the toilet; to eat better or stop smoking; to follow the rules of safety in driving and other activities. It’s not just determining what has to be done, it’s also convincing people that they can’t get away from dismissing this or that bit of hygiene. It may take years of consistent education.

The very idea that we are more vulnerable than we pretend to be, and that untold conflict comes from not having the courage to check out perceived affronts—this is new. People feel they are fair and what they observe is indeed as they take it to be. That misunderstandings occur is clear, but yet that doesn’t apply to them! Others have illusions, make foolish mistakes, are vulnerable to the blandishments of demagogues. Oneself? Well, the illusion of coherence—it makes sense to me!—is as misleading as the illusion that the world seems flat so it must be flat.

It may take generations to recognize that psychological illusions are as pervasive—far more pervasive—than the tricks of the magician or the books on optical illusions. Only fools are fooled, right? And you’re not saying that I’m a fool, are you? (I don’t even need to look at you severely or raise my hand—the question itself has a pugnacious edge!)

Along with this gradual breakthrough, and perhaps working with it, is the spread of social and emotional intelligence, knowing ways to solve problems, correct mis-communications, understand oneself better, etc. (Actually, this arena is the most promising for the application of role training and the use of psychodramatic methods—in spontaneity and relational skills training!)

In summary, sociometry is only the tip of the iceberg. It is a method that is not known well, and may yet be capable of significant refinement. Some of these refinements may have already begun in the realm in social network analysis. But they turn again to the problem of what to do with the information, with the deep self-management skills, the social-depth-psychology that this method brings to the surface.

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