So much of what we do is governed by the opinions of others, or out of concern for what others might think. However, there is something much more pervasive going on. There is a process operating in the lives of all human beings called “social proofing” which basically means that we derive most of our social values, morals, imperatives and taboos from those around us. In a more universal sense, this is known as Entrainment.
Entrainment occurs in a wide range of physical and biological systems. For example, if you place a number of pendulum clocks in the same room and set their pendulums moving completely out of synchrony, after a reasonable period of time, you can return to find all the pendulums moving in perfect synchrony to each other.
It is well known that large groups of women who live in closed communities, e.g. nuns or female convicts, will tend to have precisely the same menstrual cycle. If you have ever watched those wildlife films on TV, you may remember seeing an entire shoal of fish, consisting of thousands of individuals, moving and turning as a single entity. The same happens with certain species of birds in flight. Yet, there is no known way that the individuals in such groups can communicate such global messages in such a way as to affect the whole group simultaneously.
Not surprisingly, similar processes occur in human society, but often in areas where we believe we have conscious control. Think about it for a moment. How many of your social values, morals, and opinions did you consciously sit down and decide upon? If you are honest with yourself, you will have to admit that very few were a result of your own deliberate decisions. Most of it arises from “social proofing”; the beliefs and values of our friends, relations and work colleagues. In other words, many of the beliefs and values you cherish and might even die for had nothing to do with your own deliberate rational thought! You simply picked them up from elsewhere, literally without thinking!
Yet, it is so vital to take conscious control of these processes. To fail to do so is to behave like a robot, to live life half-asleep, and to seriously under-achieve compared to all you might be capable of. Here are just a few common examples of social proofing that many of us buy into without much thought.
(1) Marriage. Roughly half of all marriages end in divorce, often bitter and acrimonious, with severe financial/emotional consequences for one of both parties and any children that may have resulted. Of those that last the course, a large percentage are drab affairs in which the partners hardly seem alive at all. Yet we see in excess of 70-80% of the population cheerfully tying the knot to people that half of them end up despising within a few short years! Why? First, because of the expectations of society and of parents. Despite many changes, single people are still regarded as rather abnormal and deficient; and nobody wants to be thought of like that.
Second, in order to bring up children. But is this really the only way? Are there really no alternatives? Ah, but then we would get into even more social proofing; the social/religious “immorality” of children born out of wedlock……
(2) Religion. Whether you believe that God is indivisibly ONE, or three personalities within the ONE, or a huge number of separate personalities, or even if you don’t believe in God at all – much of it is a result of social proofing. Your beliefs of the intrinsic nature of God and the universe can literally depend on the accident of which country you happened to be born in.
Can you imagine the social consequences of a Moslem in Yemen or Saudi Arabia converting to Hinduism?! When Christians glibly assert the Triune nature of God, they have no idea how much blood was shed in the early Church for decades on just this subject alone. Bishops and their entire congregations were literally murdered by rival “Christians” owing to differences in opinion so infinitesimal that it defies belief today that it could have caused so much death and misery. Yet today, Christians the world over buy into the Triune nature of God as part of the package without ever exercising the kind of independent thought that the early church has to at least be given some credit for. Social Proofing again. So even our philosophy of the metaphysical is often determined by others.
(3) Politics. Whilst it is easy to be socially or financially entrained into voting for the same political party again and again, how many of us fail to see the wood for the trees when we don’t even once ask ourselves whether Democracy itself is a valid political system to begin with? Why do we simply accept it as the best or only system possible? Because the politicians and the media tell us it is! And nobody around us ever questions it either. In the age of global telecommunication, international commerce, and the internet, why do we still buy into the concept of Nation States – an outdated concept that originated with primitive tribes and chieftains countless millennia ago?
(4) Education/Career. Do you think education is a good thing or a bad thing? Do you believe that the smartest and best educated always end up the wealthiest, the most successful, or the most happy? Did you decide to go (or to not go) to university because you sat and deliberated over the pros and cons, or because everyone around you were either planning to go (or not go) themselves? If your father is a multi-millionaire, do you feel comfortable starting your own shoe repair business?
The list is endless. We could go on and on. Social Proofing is so pervasive and subtle that we are close to having to admit that very few of our opinions are actually our own. Yet, we make major decisions in all aspects of our lives based upon ideas, attitudes, opinions and beliefs that we imbibed from society without a second thought! No wonder so many people’s lives are unhappy or confused.
So what should we do? Get conscious! We need to question our most comfortable beliefs and opinions in all areas. For the truth is that whatever we believe, for good or ill, becomes our reality. We must take control of our thoughts and opinions or we will be in danger of remaining a comfortable conformist cog in an ever dysfunctional society, always looking to others to know how we should think, behave and act.
So learn to live outside the known and the norm. Take chances. Embrace the unfamiliar and the unorthodox. Try to examine your own cherished views and see whether they arise from your own rational thought processes or were imbibed from the social culture around you. Examine the situations and relationships that you now find yourself in. One good exercise to break the chains of conventional thinking is to ask yourself, “Knowing what I now know, if I had to do it again, would I do it?” This can apply to a relationship, work situation, anything. Asking this one question can set you free from a lot of unconsciously accepted bondage.
Whilst social proofing will always be with us, because it is almost impossible to view ourselves totally objectively, we can certainly learn to take conscious control and minimize its damaging effects. So take control of your thought processes and literally question everything you have grown up so comfortable with. By doing so, you can begin the process of giving yourself more choices and unshackling yourself from chains of bondage and conformity that you didn’t even realize you were wearing.
Copyright Asoka Selvarajah. All Rights Reserved.