Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of our social nature can save us a lot of money.
We are social creatures. We influence, care about and follow one another, and can cooperate and act as a team.
We’re also cultural creatures. We learn from one another and learn most effectively by watching other people. 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.
This works extremely well for much of what we do.
Indeed, our social nature underlies much of our resilience and success as a species.
For small bands of hunter-gatherers – what mankind was for most of our existence – this social nature is essential for survival and flourishing.
But our social nature can also steer us in a bad – sometimes disastrous – direction.
For instance, it can be used against us to manipulate us into accepting, doing or buying things that are contrary to our deepest values. This can lead to regret – or even tragedy.
The madness of crowds has led to the most ridiculous 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’s in short supply.
Our social nature can also make cults possible; it makes the most murderous regimes and criminal gangs possible. It also allows us to be passive when emergency action is necessary.
Like most of our nature as human beings, our social qualities are not inherently good or bad. But they aren’t something to embrace unthinkingly, either, considering the ramifications can be horrific.
That’s why it’s a part of our nature that we need to master: to bring consciousness to it, 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 how we can bring a degree of mastery to them…
- We tend to look to others for signs of what to believe or how to act in a situation – especially during moments of uncertainty. This is why we often see a group of bystanders fail to take action when someone needs help. It’s not because the group is made up of bad people. Rather it’s because members of the group see that nobody else is doing anything, and the situation is ambiguous enough that they’re drawn to do what others are doing: nothing.
- 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 usually acknowledged. “If Johnny jumps off a cliff, are you going to jump off a cliff too?”
- 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 agreed to administer what they thought was a life-threatening dose of electricity to 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.
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. Others obey the rules of the road; we obey the rules of the road. Other people are less violent than our ancestors; we follow suit.
And during the study of obedience I mentioned in the list above, when participants saw someone else refuse to administer the electric shocks, only 10% went on to comply themselves.
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 sitcoms causes us to think things are funnier than they are just because it sounds like everyone else is laughing.
They can manufacture fake authority too. For example, one cough syrup commercial featured a soap opera actor wearing a lab coat. “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV,” he said. This actually worked.
Part of what makes us fail to take necessary action when others are doing nothing 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 no one seems to be responding. 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 that they see danger that you don’t. So your tendency will be to do what they do or at least to wait to see if what’s needed becomes clearer.
The best counter to this tendency is to decide – in advance – that you will be the one to offer help if somebody needs it. Make that decision in advance, and practice a few possible scenarios in your mind. You’ll be in a different mindset when it comes time to help others, and you’ll be better able to act when others don’t.
As I said above, the most important thing we can do to counter the negative effects of our social nature is to be aware of it.
Recognizing that we influence one another significantly, and bringing deliberate vigilance to that knowledge when we’re in any circumstances in which we might be manipulated, 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 them.
Think of any social influence that you regret having followed in the past… and practice in your mind what you will do differently the next time you’re in a similar situation. Then practice doing that when the opportunity arises.
Yes, our social nature is one of our strengths as human beings. But another is our ability to think independently and critically. The key to mastering these is knowing when (and how) to use each well.