Social systems can be defined as autopoietic networks of distinctions and rules that specify which actions should be performed under which conditions. Social systems have an enormous power over human individuals, as they can “program” them to sacrifice resources, happiness, loved ones and even themselves to the perpetuation of the system—as exemplified by religious celibacy, honor killings and suicide bombings. Such overriding of the biological instincts of survival and procreation demands powerful control mechanisms. The present paper surveys some of the basic neural and behavioral mechanisms used for programming within social systems, and is followed by another paper surveying emotional and structural mechanism. Basic conditioning happens through rewarding or reinforcement of socially sanctioned actions. Its power is extended by the conformist transmission of narratives that promise as yet virtual rewards, and by ritualized behaviors that suppress non-conforming beliefs through cognitive dissonance. Through such mechanisms, social systems commonly impede individual emancipation, self-actualization and societal progress.
It should be noted that similar mechanisms are also useful for promoting cooperation and limiting selfish behaviors.