This past weekend, for the umpteenth time, I cracked open Matthew Lieberman’s book Social: why our brains are wired to connect (2013). I skimmed through it like I normally do with non-fiction books. I picked out bits and pieces – like an uncle foraging through a Sunday smorgasbord – finding things that I find intellectually appetizing (AKA things that confirm my bias).Among the many gems outlined in this marvelous book, one passage in particular stood out to me. The author refers to Neitzsche, who argued that:
“…our sense of self is typically something constructed, primarily by the people in our lives, and that the self is actually a secret agent working for them more than for us.”
We humans are herd animals. We respond to signals from those around us; the world around us. We see this behavior play out, for example, in how we respond to cultural trends. Here’s an example.
SKINNY JEANSRemember when skinny jeans first emerged on the fashion scene?
I said, “Yuck. No damn way.” A few months later, I was… “Well, maybe…”
Now I have three pair. For some reason, skinny jeans became a palatable fashion choice for me.
So, what’s that all about?
We are influenced by those in our close personal networks. Our nature is to elevate and preserve the status we have (or aspire to have) within our social ‘herd’. This means that we need to abide by the collective rules of that social network. If necessary, we will go to great lengths to protect a position. This is reflected in our “conforming” behaviors (see Christakis and Fowler 2009). We pick up on social cues (behaviors) of others to know if and when we have “fallen out of favor” or crossed the boundaries of social norms. When it appears that we have broken away from “what is acceptable”, we risk being penalized by our network. Whether we care to admit it or not, we are highly influenced by the people around us, our environment (work, etc). This influence frames our behaviors, thoughts, perceptions, and opinions. And even what we choose to wear.
When it comes to fashion, I have always been “fashionably late”; slow to respond to changing trends. I eventually get there (well, somewhere in the vicinity anyway). As for skinny jeans, I’m not going to die on that fashion sword. But knowing me, it will take a while to move onto the next trend. And the ‘nudge’ will inevitably come from the people around me.
Suggested things to read, see, and listen to:
- Brown, Brene. (2012). “Listening to Shame.” TedTalk.
- Christakis, Nicholas and James H. Fowler (2009). Connected: the surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives. Little, Brown & Company.
- Christakis, Nicholas. (2010). The Hidden Influence of Social Networks. TedTalk.
- O’Reilly, Terry. (2013). “Shame: The Secret Tool of Modern Marketing.” Under the Influence. CBC.
- Popova, Maria. (2013). “The Science of Why our Brains are Wired to Connect.” BrainPickings.
- Rutledge, Pamela. (2015). “Shame on Social Shamers.” Psychology Today.
- West Virginia University – Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. (2015). “Social shaming and the search for validation.” ScienceDaily. 16 April.