I recently watched Mentalist Derren Brown’s program Pushed to the Edge. The premise of the show is that getting someone who is easily influenced by others to comply with gradually bigger requests, you could get them to kill someone by pushing them off a building.
You can watch the entire episode here if you want:
The Extremes of Social Influence
The experiment shows how 4 people were asked to do things from carrying people’s belongings, mislabeling food, and escalates to carrying, hiding what they believe is a dead body and telling other lies.
They found these people by having them go into a room to sign some paperwork where actors would stand up and sit down whenever a bell rang and nobody was told why. People who copied the actor’s behavior without even knowing why were seen as easily influenced and the participants for the show were chosen from them.
Spoiler alert, of the 4 people participating in this experiment, 3 actually pushed the old guy off the building to comply with the social pressure!
It’s amazing. It’s not only great entertainment, it exposes how dangerous social pressure really is. How many things on TV actually make people think?
I wish everyone could watch this and realize what could easily happen to them. Everyone should realize how easily they could be manipulated to commit murder, genocide or destroy the entire planet.
This is a Recurring Trend in History.
A dictator comes into power, otherizes some outside group and convinces people to demonize them.
Social pressure has the potential to both create a great society and be extremely destructive. Let’s look at Japan as an example. A Japanese man recently pointed out to me that during peace time, Japanese are extremely peaceful, but during wartime they are extremely vicious. Because when they are given a command they will generally follow it as precisely as possible no matter the consequences. Loyalty to leadership and social norms is a virtue in Japan.
And this is pretty obvious. During World War 2 the Japanese military killed, raped, tortured and dehumanized millions all over Asia, all for the glory of The Emperor. They still get a lot of hate from their neighbors for it, even though now they are quick to point out how peaceful they have become as a nation. There are currently debates going on about whether they should be able to have an official military again or not.
Many people think that’s a bad idea as military combined with such an extreme level of loyal social compliance is too dangerous a power. But we will see what happens when Japan does get its military back. And I suspect it will.
As we can see, this level of loyalty has the potential to build something amazing, or destroy the progress of the entire planet to seek liberty and peace.
Why do we have social compliance?
The obvious answer is that our primitive ancestors relied on other group members for survival. People who were unaware of the rules of how to behave were often kicked out, killed, or somehow punished.
Gaining the acceptance of other people has always been a prerequisite for survival.
Humans had to work as teams to hunt, gather resources, and protect each other. Anyone that was too weird or inconsiderate of social norms put the group in danger.
But does violating social norms put us in as much danger as it did our ancestors?
The easiest answer is that it depends on the norm. If you are a man and you go talk to a cute girl you see during the day, as long as you have a positive nonthreatening vibe and live in most countries of the modern world nothing bad could possibly happen. Worst case scenario she just walks away because she’s too shy or isn’t interested for whatever reason.
But if you did the same thing within a primitive society the consequences could likely be much more severe.
Imagine for a moment if you decided to walk down an area with lots of people while talking to yourself what would happen to you?
Do you feel that sense of being unable to do that in your gut? That’s social compliance right there.
If you’ve already decided you would never do that, you likely tell yourself it’s for one of the following reasons:
“I don’t want to look crazy”
“I’m uncomfortable with people looking at me.”
Well, what does that say about you?
It says you are just as prone to social compliance as the people who pushed the old guy off the building in Derren Brown’s experiment.
Social acceptance drives you just as much as it drives everyone. Deep down you are worried about being kicked out of the tribe, even for something as meaningless and benign as talking to yourself in public.
Social Influence and Your Behavior
What would happen if you walked around for a while talking to yourself?
Probably nothing. Maybe some curious person asks you, “Who the hell are you talking to?” But even that is not life threatening. In most modern countries you wouldn’t starve just for violating some social norms in ways that don’t harm anyone.
I was on a train the other day and a lady kept talking to herself and yelling loudly. Everything she said was incoherent. Of course a few people looked at her, but no one complained, talked to her or kicked her off the train.
People whose behavior challenges the norm were probably eliminated, thus we are still full of genes that make us prone to seeking acceptance of the group.
So the point of this article is to get you to take a moment and think about how much of your behavior is dictated and influenced by social pressure rather than your desire to do what you actually want.
Let’s start with some more obvious examples. In some countries people choose their university major not based on interest, but on what their parents approve of. How insane is that? Your university major could determine the course of the rest of your life and you aren’t even allowed to choose something you actually want to learn about.
What about the clothes you wear? I don’t know you, but ask yourself how you choose the clothes you wear. Does it have anything to do with how everyone else around you is dressing? I’m really curious. Everywhere I go I see people who dress similarly. In more fashionable societies this is at least pleasing to the eye, but in other places not so much.
What about the music you listen to, your opinions on politics, war, spirituality and people?
What about the “proper” way to behave in public? Should you just be silent, have no facial expression and interact with no one?
Is it acceptable to sing when you are in a good mood? No? why not? Because someone will be annoyed at my shitty singing? Well I’m annoyed no one else is singing.
Here’s a list of even more social norms to break in order to build your confidence and diminish the effect social compliance has on you and your life:
• Speak very loudly when doing something normal in public. Go to a café, and when you order your drink speak very loudly and don’t worry that people’s attention might be on you as your voice is audible to everyone. Lean into that social pressure/awkwardness
• Order a bigmac at mcdonalds
• Give random people compliments
• Yell, “I’m naked” in a public place
• Go into dressing room of a clothing store and after a minute yell, “hey there is no toilet paper in here!”
• Walk up to someone and just start telling your life story
• Tell someone they have a spider in their hair
So how many of these are you willing to do? These things are a form of self-development training that could change your life. And if you aren’t willing to do any of them, then you are just afraid of what people think of you.
The least you can do is the first one and make an effort to speak more loudly in public. And whenever you encounter a socially awkward moment ask yourself why you feel it’s awkward and then lean into that awkward experience.
When you see awkwardness as taboo you are allowing social pressure to run your life. When you see awkwardness as fun you enhance your confidence and become the influencer rather than the influenced.
Since we’ve convinced to step out of your box and challenge some norms just for the fun of it, it’s important to mention a concept called congruence.
Congruence basically means you really believe everything you say and do. So in the examples of things to do to challenge social compliance, you could yell “I’m naked,” or whatever phrase you personally find entertaining in public.
Maybe somebody will look at you! Oh no! Someone is jealous of your ability to behave free from the social matrix! Quick run and hide before they kill you!
But some people will also find it funny. And you know what, many people won’t even look at all because they just don’t care.
To be congruent when you shout some silly thing in public, you must believe it is completely acceptable to do so. You don’t need other people’s approval to do it, you only need your own approval. And this may be difficult to describe in writing, but when you shout something with the solid belief you are doing something completely acceptable, people can hear it. You sound loud and confident. There was no hesitation in your voice.
But if you did hesitate, it’s more likely someone will come challenge you. Some jerk might yell, “You think you are cool! Stop being stupid!” They heard the weakness and fear in your voice and they attacked it. They felt they needed to throw you back into your place.
When you speak with congruence, it’s assumed you know what you are doing and what you are talking about, there is nothing to attack at all.
But no matter what you do, the majority of people just don’t care what everyone else is doing. If somebody does something unusual it’s normal to pay attention to figure out if you should make any adjustments to your behavior as well. Because everyone’s priority seems to be gaining the acceptance of others. They want to know if they are doing the socially acceptable thing.
I saw an example of this on a Japanese prank show in which a group of actors froze in time while crossing a street at a crosswalk. The actors crossed the street at both sides and at an agreed upon moment just stopped in their position. They did this several times as different people crossed the crosswalk. One lady didn’t show much of a reaction and just kept walking. Everyone else showed some kind of reaction and seemed really confused and stopped moving for a brief moment before moving on. At least one guy froze with everyone and just stood there without moving for at least 10 minutes. And then when the actors got the signal to run away, he ran with them! In the opposite direction that he had just come from! They asked him why he did it and he said it was the Japanese thing to do to just follow what everyone else is doing.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find a like to this video, but it’s on youtube somewhere so if you know of it please link to it in a comment.
So why did he just follow what everyone else is doing? Well like the socially compliant followers in Derren Brown’s experiment, some people are just used to following the norms of what everyone else is doing.
Their belief is that their behavior must always be filtered through a lens of what is acceptable by society.
I believe these limits are part of human evolution, necessary to the process of keeping society coherent as we develop it into something much grander than we can even imagine. And as we get closer to that ideal society we will have less and less fear and inhibitions to worry about. Eventually we will be able to express ourselves any way we want.
I wish I could live in that perfect world. But it doesn’t seem we are quite ready for it yet.
What would happen if we all suddenly didn’t crave the acceptance of others and chose to live exactly as we wanted?
Well obviously there would be a lot of good to come of this but also a lot of potential dangers.
You wouldn’t need to care if being honest to people would hurt their feelings. You wouldn’t need to pretend to like things you hate. Next you can criticize things deserving of criticism and this would inspire improvements as people are allowed to have higher standards.
But then some people would take it too far depending on their level of psychological development.
Let’s look at the spiral dynamics model of psychological development by Clare Graves and Don Beck.
At stage red people first start developing the ego. This stage is associated with mafia, crime, gangs and very masculine cliques that care very much about acquiring as much for the self as possible by any means necessary even if it means hurting people. People at this stage potentially steal, lie, and engage in other dishonest activities as they are seen as the most effective means of acquiring more for the self. Not everyone at stage red does such things, but they are primarily concerned with the self over others. So what would happen to people at this stage if they completely lost the concern for others? Well in many ways they already have, but to be even less concerned with other people would devastate anyone around them.
Next we have the blue stage, at which governments and churches sprang up to apply rules to people’s lives to tell them what they can and can’t do. This is very much a reaction against the red stage as selfish individuals take from the society as a whole without giving much in return. This is where ideas of morality really emerge. It seems blue is concerned with the whole of society, but it is very restricting. When people and institutions at stage blue have no concern for the approval of others, then they completely control your thoughts, beliefs, and every aspect of your life. It is still dangerous to express individuality and break social norms at this stage.
At blue, social compliance is the most effective tool to controlling the behaviors of others. Religions threaten their followers with eternal damnation for lying, stealing and criticizing god.
As a reaction, the self reemerges with a more mature perspective into what is called the orange stage. In this stage the individual is concerned with success, progress, competition and creativity. They may engage in some borderline unethical behavior, but generally respect the rights of others and don’t pursue self-satisfaction with an extreme indifference to how the consequences affect others. Now what would happen if at this stage you didn’t care what other people thought of you? well, perhaps you go back to stage red. Because at this stage you still do not care enough about other people to positively affect their lives as much as you want to improve your own. And this is obviously a broad generalization of course. Not everyone fits neatly into this spiral.
The next stage is green, which is more concerned with doing what’s right for everyone. At this stage people pursue equal rights for all groups. Woman’s suffrage is an example of this. People are seen as human beings and aren’t defined by social constructs like nationality and race.
It’s at the green stage that concern for the approval of others first starts to diminish as social norms are challenged to facilitate equality. The accepted norms are deconstructed in the hope of being replaced with something more fair and just.
The second tier stages of yellow and Turquoise and more concerned with moving into a holistic mindset in which everything is integrated, there is concern for other people but it’s also balanced with self-expression. Very few people have made it this far. But we can imagine that as we get closer to this stage we become increasingly capable of expressing ourselves without fear of being kicked out of the tribe. I predict that boldness will become the norm and that at the Holistic stage. There won’t be any reason to selfishly attack, or take from others because will be satisfied with the abundance already available to you. and more importantly, compassion for others will be a more universal norm.
Of course this is just speculation, and that world could be thousands of years in the future, if we even make it that far. Or we could end up with a great world that’s completely different than what I or others have guessed at.
If you don’t care about the future of the human race, it’s not bad, it just says something about your level of psychological development. But I do hope you are concerned by how much society is influencing your behavior. If you are completely fine with all your behaviors, then good for you. I admire your loyalty to your role in whatever capacity it contributes to humanity and its future. Hopefully you will never push someone off a building just because you were told to.
I’m not suggesting your completely break yourself out of the matrix of society and go live in the forest as a hermit. That would be an extreme, but the opposite end of that spectrum is easily observed in the world. People hurt each other every day because it seems like the right thing to do. And to them the right thing to do is whatever wins the approval of others. It’s scary what people will do under social pressure.
And at the same time that means you are just as capable of exerting that social pressure on others. Use this power responsibly.
Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Overcoming Shyness and Social Inhibition
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