Our social nature has huge benefits, and underlies much of our resilience and success as a species. But it can also steer us in bad, sometimes disastrous directions, and can be used to manipulate us.
We are social creatures. We influence one another, we care about each other, we follow each other and are able to cooperate and act together as a team.
We’re also cultural creatures. We learn from each other – and learn most effectively by watching what other people do. It matters to us what other people say and think and do. The accumulated knowledge and habits and standards of the ages become part of our own self-concept.
For much of what we do, this works extremely well. For small bands of hunter gatherers, which is how mankind has spent most of our existence, it’s been essential for our survival and flourishing.
And yet these very qualities can be used against us to manipulate us into accepting, doing, and buying things that work against our deepest values, that we can come to regret, and that sometimes can lead us into horrible tragedy. They make cults possible; they make the most murderous regimes and criminal gangs possible. They allow us to be passive when emergency action is necessary.
The madness of crowds has led to the most ridiculous of buying fads – the Tulip Bulb Craze in Holland in 1636, stock buying and selling frenzies, and desperate mobs fighting to get a fad Christmas gift that are in short supply – often deliberately so (the toy we promised isn’t there, so we buy something else more expensive to make up for it, then we go back in January to get the initial toy we had originally promised. – it’s very effective).
Like most of our nature as human beings, this quality is not good or bad in itself. It isn’t something to reject whole cloth – living a hermit’s life is a recipe for misery. But our social nature also isn’t something to embrace unthinkingly – its dangers can be horrific.
This is a part of our nature to master: to bring consciousness to, to be aware of our own tendencies, and to be vigilant of going off the rails into groupthink.
To this end, let’s look at some specific tendencies, and then how we can bring a degree of mastery to them.
- We tend to look to what others believe or do for signs of how we should believe or act in a situation. When we see evidence that other people are doing something, we are more inclined to do that ourselves.
- We’re also more inclined to follow the crowd when the crowd is big.
- We are much more influenced by people who are similar to us. This is the power of peer pressure, and it’s more powerful than we usually acknowledge. “If little Johnny jumps off a cliff, are you going to jump off a cliff, too?” Well, actually, you’ll at least be tempted – especially if Johnny and all the rest of your friends do it.
- We’re also vulnerable to obedience to authority, as Stanley Milgram found in his famous experiments. Fully two-thirds of participants from all walks of life administered a seemingly life-threatening dose of electricity to – what they thought were – subjects in a learning and punishment experiment. If you don’t think you’d be among those folks, guess again. Two thirds of you reading this would likely do the same.
- BUT, when participants in that same study saw someone else refuse to comply, only 10% went on to comply themselves. So what we see others do can also have a very positive influence as well.
- We’re more vulnerable to social influence when we’re uncertain. We look around for clues of what others are doing when we’re not sure what to do ourselves. This is why we see a group of bystanders failing to take action when someone may need help. It’s not because “those are bad, cowardly, uncaring people,” it’s because they see that nobody else is doing anything, and the situation is ambiguous enough that we’re drawn to do what others are doing – which is nothing.
In order to counter these tendencies, it’s important to remember that in most situations they actually serve us fairly well. Other people brush their teeth, we brush our teeth too. Other people obey the rules of the road, we obey the rules of the road (most of the time). Other people are less violent than our ancestors, we’ll do that, too.
The trouble comes when someone is using this tendency to manipulate us, or the situation calls for bold, independent action.
Advertisers and other media can drum up what looks like social influence. The canned laughter on situation comedies actually gets us to think things are funnier than they are – even knowing that it’s fake – because it sounds like everyone else is laughing.
They can manufacture fake authority – the soap opera actor wearing a lab coat, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV…” This actually worked very well.
Part of what makes us fail to take necessary action when others are doing the same is that to act against the crowd takes courage. Courage requires two main things: managing fear, and deciding to act.
Let’s say you see someone who may need help, but nobody else seems to be responding as though they need help. You feel awkward and uncertain, because surely if this person needed help, someone would’ve stepped up. To act against the group may mean ridicule or it also may mean that they see danger that you don’t. So your tendency will be to do what they do, or at least to wait awhile and see if what’s needed gets clearer.
The best counter to this tendency is to decide in advance that if somebody needs help, you’re the guy or gal that will offer it. Having made that decision in advance, and practiced a few possible scenarios in your mind, you’ll be in a different mindset if you find yourself in a situation where you could offer help, and you’ll be better able to act when others don’t.
The most important thing we can do to counter the negative effects of our social nature is to be aware of it. To master anything, the truth needs to be our friend. This is part of who we are; we influence one another significantly. Recognizing this and bringing deliberate vigilance to it when we’re in any circumstances where we might be manipulated, or could be drawn to follow the crowd in a dangerous or unhealthy way, is the primary skill to hone.
As with any skill, we strengthen it through practice. Look for the manipulations in advertisements, and notice when you feel affected by them – then decide what you want to do about it. There’s nothing wrong with advertising of course, fundamentally it’s letting us know what’s available; but you get to choose what you value, and what you’ll buy.
Think of any social influence that you regret having followed in the past, and practice in your mind what you would do differently the next time you’re in a similar situation. Then practice doing that when the opportunity arises.
Part of our strength as human beings is our social nature. Another part is our ability to think independently and critically. The key to mastery is knowing when and how to use each well.
PS: I currently have some openings available for life coaching. Go to https://drjoelwade.com/coaching/ to sign up for a free 30-minute initial conversation.