“I’m unique. Just like everybody else.”
When I read that on a t-shirt many years ago, I was amused by the subtle jab that it took at our naivety as human beings.
Most of us think our decisions come from free will, but people have a much stronger influence on our decisions than we even realize.
We like to mimic other people in our attire, musical tastes, attitudes, religion, political views, or hobbies – it’s our natural desire to be part of a group.
Social influence can make us imitate others, change our personalities, and even perpetrate genocide (yes, that did escalate quickly).
The Power of Others, by Michael Bond, discusses peer pressure, group think, and how we are influenced by the people around us without even knowing it.
Your friends can make you depressed.
Studies show that having more friends increases your lifespan.
If we have more friends, we tend to be happier, healthier, and live longer. However, this is only true if our friends are happy people. If they’re cynical and negative, we’re more likely to become the same way.
This is due to social mimicry and our knack for adopting the moods and mannerisms of those around us.
This has major implications at work, as greater connection and communication between workers generally correlates to higher productivity and morale.
This is one reason why many employers prefer to hire a candidate with communication skills rather than one with only technical ability.
If we are around happy, positive people, we tend to be happy and positive as well.
You and Adolf Hitler have a lot in common.
Heck, you’d probably get along real well – maybe even be BFFs!
But don’t take my word for it – it was the Dalai Lama that said “we are basically all the same,” though I’m not sure this was the comparison he had in mind.
The point is that we like to make evil people seem like insane abominations of nature in order to distance ourselves from them psychologically.
But we’re really not as different as we’d like to believe.
During the examination of Adolf Eichmann, one of Hitler’s right-hand men, people expected to see a ferocious, perverted sadist seething heinously from the defendant’s chair.
However, they were shocked and confused to see that this mass murderer was not the face of evil but rather an undeniably ordinary man with humanistic mannerisms and behaviors just like their own.
The truth is, Eichmann was a product of social influence – group think of the highest order.
As Bond writes, “the key to understanding Eichmann lies not in the man, but in the ideas that possessed him, the society in which they flowed freely, the political system that purveyed them, and the circumstances that made them acceptable.”
So as much as we want to make criminals out to be deranged, psychopathic spawns of Hell, this is rarely the case. We often neglect to consider the harsh social conditions under which they made their decisions.
On the up side, this thinking is true for heroes as well – they’re often mild-mannered, ordinary individuals not so different from the rest of us peons. It’s not impossible nor implausible that you too could be a hero.
The bottom line is that people are shaped by circumstances and behave according to context. We too can fall victim to negative or positive social influence even without realizing it.
“Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing more difficult than to understand him.”
Fear distorts our view of the world.
When we are threatened, we draw closer to our social groups and become more aggressive and intolerant toward outsiders.
That’s why terrorist attacks make the citizens of a nation unite and causes them to hatefully dehumanize and demonize the enemy.
When we condemn other people – criminals, thieves, smokers, bullies – we may simply be fearful of them.
I’m not trying to condone their actions; I’m saying that our fear likely stems from a lack of understanding of the situation, other people, and of our own human nature.
Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.
The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem.
Once we come to terms with our fallible nature, we can start to become…less fallible.
One key suggestion from the Power of Others is to ask yourself the question: “am I doing this because it’s right, or because others around me are making it feel right?”
Research shows that simply having an awareness of our susceptibility to social pressures helps make us more resistant to it.
When we remind ourselves that we are all pretty much the same in nature but subjected to different circumstances, it can help us be more understanding, tolerant, and empathetic toward other people and avoid falling into the irrationality of groupthink.
Hypocrisy and morality, love and lust, cruelty and compassion, honesty and deceit, modesty and hubris, bigotry and tolerance … can coexist in each of us.
From the book Out of Character
***To learn more about peer pressure and how it affects us, check out The Power of Others, by Michael Bond.***
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