KeywordsNonlinear Dynamical System Optimality Scenario Social Judgment Emergence Scenario Temporal Trajectory
Robin R. Vallacher
is a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University. He is also a research associate in the Center for Complex Systems at the University of Warsaw, Poland, and a research affiliate in the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity at Columbia University. He has been a visiting scholar at the University of Texas at Austin; University of Bern, Switzerland; Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research in Munich, Germany; and University of Montpellier, France.
Early Life and Educational Background
Vallacher was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1946—the first year of the baby boom generation. Because of problematic family circumstances, he moved several times during his childhood between Minneapolis and California. He spent his teen years in San Diego, where he graduated from high school in 1964—the first year the baby boom generation began to leave its mark.
Vallacher attended college at San Diego State University, in large part because it was tuition-free and thus affordable for a kid on his own working for minimum wage. He majored first in physics, then in philosophy, and finally settled on psychology, feeling that this discipline provided the bridge connecting the rigor of the hard sciences, the intellectual reach of philosophy, and the concern with social issues that defined California life in the 1960s. He earned a BA in Psychology, with a minor in philosophy, in 1969.
Vallacher attended Michigan State University for his graduate work in psychology, attracted initially by Milton Rokeach’s work on dogmatism, prejudice, and values. He soon joined the labs of Lawrence Messé and Bill Crano, who proved to be excellent mentors and with whom he became life-long friends. Beyond imparting their considerable expertise, Larry and Bill had the good sense to provide Vallacher space to develop his own theoretical interests, even when these were out of step with theirs. He struck up a close personal and collegial relationship with Dan Wegner during his MSU years, a connection that resulted in three books and a widely cited theory (action identification theory) within 10 years of earning his PhD in 1975.
Vallacher began his career at Illinois Institute of Technology in 1975, where he was awarded early tenure in 1979. In 1985, he accepted a position at Florida Atlantic University, where he helped launch the doctoral program in the Department of Psychology. He has remained at FAU for most of his career, but with visiting appointments at Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research in Munich, University of Bern (Switzerland), University of Warsaw (Poland), University of Montpellier (France), and Columbia University.
In the mid-1990s, Vallacher developed a collaboration with Andrzej Nowak, a Polish psychologist with a background in mathematics and physics, and with expertise in formal models and computer simulations of social processes. Together, they adapted the concepts, principles, and methods of nonlinear dynamical systems to the subject matter of social psychology in an attempt to provide a foundational science for a discipline that is widely viewed as in need of such integration. Their collaboration, funded in part by grants from NSF, the Polish Science Foundation, and the McDonnell Foundation, has produced four books and dozens of chapters and articles that articulate the principles of dynamical systems theory and demonstrate this perspective’s range of application to the diverse topical landscape of social psychology.
Vallacher’s research interests range from intrapersonal experience (self-awareness, self-concept, self-regulation) to interpersonal processes (social judgment, social interaction, social influence) and collective phenomena (social justice, conflict, social change). Although he saw value in investigating each topic on its own, Vallacher experienced dissatisfaction with the lack of theoretical integration for the field as a whole. This concern led to the two major perspectives for which he is best known: action identification theory and dynamical social psychology.
Action Identification Theory
This theory was based on an intractable problem identified by philosophers that was largely ignored by psychologists: the fact that anything a person does can be identified in many different ways. In studies of obedience to authority, for example, the participant’s action could be described by him or her or by others as “following orders,” of course, but it could also be seen as “teaching the learner something,” “hurting a fellow human being,” or simply as “pulling toggle switches.” The uncertainty of action is pervasive in everyday life, lending ambiguity to everything we do, from acts that are trivial to those with considerable significance for oneself and others. Social psychology focuses on a variety of constructs (norms, values, roles, etc.), but ultimately theorists and researchers are concerned with what people do. But if an action admits to diverse identifications, what exactly are psychologists theorizing about?
Wegner and Vallacher felt that the inherent ambiguity of action warranted serious attention, not because it posed a problem for theory construction but because it represented the key to understanding the relationship between mind and action—perhaps the most basic issue in psychology. They noted that the “act identities” for what one does can be arranged hierarchically, from lower-level identities that specify how the action is performed to progressively higher-level identities that specify why or with what effect the action is performed. They developed a set of principles that dictate what level is likely to be salient for someone at a particular time, the factors that promote change in this level, and the consequences of level salience and change in level salience for mental, emotional, and behavioral phenomena.
Two basic scenarios were derived from the theory. In the optimality scenario, people converge on a level of identification that is optimal for action performance. For relatively difficult or unfamiliar actions, the optimal level is relatively low level, promoting conscious concern with how to perform the action. By the same reasoning, low-level identities are optimal for actions that are about to be performed, provided the actions are somewhat complex and thus require attention to detail. People can adopt a nonoptimal level of identification, however, if there are factors in the action context that make such identities salient. Incentives (e.g., money) and competition, for example, can promote corresponding high-level identities (“earn money,” “beat the opponent”), which can supplant the low-level identities that are necessary to perform a difficult, complex, or imminent action. Factors can also promote heightened salience of the lower-level identities of an easy or overlearned action and disrupt an action that could be performed fluently under the guidance of a higher-level identity. Impaired performance despite the optimality tendency, in other words, can reflect “choking under pressure” (nonoptimal high-level identification) or “overthinking” (nonoptimal low-level identification).
The emergence scenario assumes that people prefer higher-level identities because of the comprehensive understanding they provide for one’s action. When people have a high-level identity for their action, they are resistant to alternative high-level identities made available by the action context or through social sources (e.g., new information, persuasion, social feedback). New high-level identities are readily embraced, however, if people are first induced to adopt lower-level identities for their action—in effect, the new high-level identity reinstates the comprehensive understanding that was surrendered by movement to the lower-level identities. Because act identities provide the template for action, the emergence scenario is the basis for changing behavior that might otherwise appear resistant to change.
Research has established a wide range of application for both scenarios. The optimality scenario is the basis for skill acquisition, intrinsic motivation, the feeling of “flow,” and habit formation, while nonoptimality lends itself to self-consciousness, performance anxiety, and poor action performance. The emergence scenario is an important mechanism of social influence that has been established for a wide variety of phenomena, including breaking maladaptive habits, overcoming addiction, self-concept change, and influencing judgments of responsibility for immoral and criminal activity. Considered together, the optimality and emergence scenarios reframe the person x situation controversy, the basis of individual differences in personality, the mechanisms responsible for stability and certainty of self-concept, and the mental dynamics associated with mindfulness.
Dynamical Social Psychology
This perspective, developed in collaboration with Andrzej Nowak in the mid-1990s, was inspired by developments in the physical sciences emphasizing self-organization and emergence, internally generated (“intrinsic”) dynamics, nonlinear change, and the potential for multiple equilibrium tendencies in the behavior of nonlinear dynamical systems. Vallacher and Nowak felt that these basic principles might have application to social psychological processes of all kinds, providing an integrative platform for the diverse topical landscape of a field sorely in need of integration. This vision has been embraced by many others in recent years and is emerging as a major paradigm for the field, with a host of theories and research agendas focusing on the complexity and temporal evolution of processes at the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and collective levels of psychological reality.
Vallacher did not realize it at the time, of course, but the principles of action identification developed with Wegner have a natural resonance with the principles of dynamical social psychology. A key feature of nonlinear dynamical systems is the potential for repeated assembly and disassembly of higher-order states and properties that provide integration for the elements comprising the system. In analogy to the emergence scenario of action identification theory, the system’s elements (lower-level identities) become progressively integrated to promote the emergence of a global state or property (higher-level identity) that then constrains the behavior of the system. In analogy to the optimality scenario, if the emergent higher-order state is sufficiently perturbed, the system loses its coherence, and its behavior reflects the independent functioning of the lower-level elements. From this disassembled state, however, the system is primed for emergence to a new higher-order state that may provide a different organization of the elements.
The adaptation of dynamical systems concepts and principles to social psychology called for new methods to track the complexity and temporal trajectories of personal, interpersonal, and collective processes. Rather than focusing on simple cause-effect relations involving one-step processes, the dynamical perspective advanced by Vallacher and Nowak emphasized the interplay of multiple factors that promote temporal patterns of change on various timescales. Vallacher and Nowak developed two strategies to capture and identify these patterns.
Formal models, implemented in computer simulations (e.g., cellular automata, attractor neural networks), were developed to track the progressive self-organization of elements as the system develops structure and functional stability. Depending on the process at issue, the elements could correspond to individuals (e.g., in the emergence of group or societal norms and opinions) or to specific thoughts and feelings (e.g., in the emergence of a person’s social judgment or self-concept). The nature of the process also dictated the timescale associated with the system’s dynamics. Societal processes (e.g., the emergence of norms) might evolve over months, years, or decades, whereas intrapersonal processes (e.g., the emergence of self-esteem) and interpersonal processes (e.g., the evaluation of an acquaintance or a public figure) might evolve in minutes. In each case, very simple rules of influence among system elements proved sufficient to promote the emergence of theoretically meaningful properties at the global level.
The other strategy involves timeseries measurement. To track the temporal trajectory of self-evaluation, for example, participants are asked to verbalize their stream of thought as they think about themselves for a 2- or 3-minute period. They then listen to a recording of their verbal protocol and use a computer mouse interface to indicate the moment-to-moment evaluation in the protocol. The resultant temporal trajectories of self-evaluation are then assessed for dynamic properties, including convergence on fixed-point attractors (i.e., stable positive or negative states), instability (e.g., speed of movement between different evaluative states), and fractal structure (e.g., self-similar patterns of change embedded in a hierarchy of timescales). These properties are then compared with self-report measures to determine the dynamic underpinnings of familiar constructs (e.g., self-esteem, self-concept certainty, level of personal agency) and the dynamic expression of various states (e.g., anticipation of social interaction, reaction to positive or negative feedback).
Beyond providing insight into the dynamics of psychological processes, dynamical social psychology is an attempt to provide a foundational science for the field. Distinct phenomena (e.g., self-concept, group dynamics) warrant consideration in their own right, of course, but research tailor made for each creates a topical landscape that lacks integration and contributes to the proliferation of mini-theories with unclear common ground. By framing diverse phenomena as specific manifestations of a common set of dynamical principles, it is possible to appreciate both what is unique about each topic and what they have in common.
To date, the promise of dynamical social psychology has been realized for a host of otherwise distinct phenomena, including self-concept organization, self-regulation, social judgment, social interaction, close relationships, personality development, social stability and change, minority influence, intergroup conflict, belief in free will, mindfulness, and societal implications of the enhanced interrogation techniques that have been employed during times of national threat. This perspective is also proving useful in identifying the relationships between micro- and macrolevels of social reality (e.g., the emergence of group behavior from the states of individual actors). Vallacher and his colleagues—and many others worldwide who have embraced the dynamical perspective—are working toward the goal of creating a unified view of social psychology, one that honors the uniqueness of human experience while finding common ground with other domains of science.
- Vallacher, R. R., & Wegner, D. M. (1985). A theory of action identification. Hillsdale: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
- Jarman, M., Nowak, A., Borkowski, W., Serfass, D., Wong, A., & Vallacher, R. R. (2015). The critical few: Anticonformists at the crossroads of minority survival and collapse. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 18(1), 6 .http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/18/1/6.html CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Michaels, J., & Vallacher, R. R. (2009). The ghost in the system: Where free will lurks in the human mind. In-Mind Magazine. http://www.in-mind.org/.
- Nowak, A., & Vallacher, R. R. (1998). Dynamical social psychology. New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
- Nowak, A., & Vallacher, R. R. (2005). Information and influence in the construction of shared reality. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 20, 90–93.Google Scholar
- Vallacher, R. R., & Nowak, A. (Eds.). (1994). Dynamical systems in social psychology. San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar
- Vallacher, R. R., & Nowak, A. (Eds.). (1994). Dynamical systems in social psychology. San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar
- Vallacher, R. R., Read, S. J., & Nowak, A. (Eds.). (2017). Computational social psychology. New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
- Wong, A. E., Vallacher, R. R., & Nowak, A. (2016). Intrinsic dynamics of self-evaluation: The role of self-concept clarity. Personality and Individual Differences. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.05.024.Google Scholar