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The personal is social

How we feel — how we see ourselves, others, and our environment — is a product of our social context…

In the previous post, I explained that our emotions and moods matter because they are literally how we see the world. How we feel and how we see reality is the same thing. Our moods in particular present us with a world full of problems we need to solve, threats we must avoid, and opportunities we must take to meet our needs with ever more certainty and security.

In this post, I want to consider where our emotions and moods come from. How do we develop strategies for predictably meeting our needs?

It is tempting to think we mostly figure it all out by ourselves – we are rational, independent, autonomous beings after all. In response, I want to suggest that this is a very inaccurate picture of how things are. Instead, we look at what those around us are doing – in particular, those who we believe are most like us.

This alternative view – that how we feel is largely influenced by our social context – has support from a large range of empirical research. From the study of social networks, we know that who we are friends with (and friends of friends with) is one of the largest predictors of many traits and behaviours, from how happy we feel to how likely we are to commit suicide. The best way to lose weight? Hang out with people who are thinner than you. The best way to do just about anything? Choose your friends wisely.

From the Situationist literature (briefly discussed in this post), we know that, within any given situation, how we behave is often influenced by the behaviour of others rather than any stable personality traits we might have. For example, the Bystander Effect refers to our tendency to not help people if nobody else is happening to do so. We look towards those around us to see how we should act.

Many people interpret these kinds of behaviour as stemming from our desire for social status or conformity. We want to be better than others, or at least we don’t want to be worse. One way to avoid being worse is to fit in – if we can’t do better, simply do as others do. Although I think our desire for status and conformity are very real, I do not think they are the main drivers of our behaviour. Instead, I think we primarily look towards what those around us are doing in order to figure out what is possible.

We are social animals for a reason – our survival depends on the social relationships and groups we are a part of. How well our life goes is largely a matter of our social context. Children who grow up in poverty are less likely to go into higher education. Members of less equal nations are more likely to be obese. People of low socioeconomic status are less likely to live long and healthy lives. We may think we are largely in control of our lives, but our circumstances reflect a myriad of societal factors that have influenced where we are today. This is how we can know how someone is likely to vote or feel about a particular issue simply by looking at the postcode they live in.

This is not an irrational feature of human behaviour. Our social context really does determine how our lives are likely to go. On a global scale, the country someone is born in is by far the strongest predictor of whether they are likely to either go to university or to die of a preventable illness. It is no surprise that we look towards those around us to figure out how to predictably meet our needs – what is possible is a social matter.

This is why our early years and attachments are so formative of our personality and ways of seeing the world. It is from our primary caregivers that we discover what is possible – Is it safe round here? Can people be trusted? Will I predictably meet my needs from expressing myself or by being independent? Our emotions and moods develop out of these early attachment relationships and form the foundation from which we see ourselves, others, and our environment.

As we grow older, and enter into a wider community, we do not simply look towards those around us to discover what is possible. In addition, we look towards those who are like us.

On an individual level, within seconds of meeting someone, we judge the extent to which they are like us via a complex array of visual and behavioural cues – from the clothes they are wearing to the ways in which they mimic our physical gestures, facial expressions, laughter and tone of voice. With a sufficient amount of mimicry, we unconsciously feel they are warm, safe, predictable, one of us.

On a societal level, we pay much more attention to the testimony of those in “our tribe” than to those who belong to “the other side”. We are less likely to challenge the views of people who hold the same moral and political values as us, look for alternative information, and so on. Conversely, we are more likely to explain away contrary facts presented to us from people who hold different values to us. Informed opinion matters much less than who is saying it.

The upshot is that we don’t necessarily see things for how they are. It is more accurate to say that we see things in the same way as those who are like us. We figure out what is possible and what to care about by looking around at those who seem to be in a similar situation.

Once we understand the huge influence our social context has on our lives – and literally the way we see reality – it is very hard to continue blaming or praising people for their beliefs, values and behaviour. We’re all trying to figure out how to live, and looking towards those who are like us for the answers. What is actually right or wrong, or good or bad, rarely comes into it – we often don’t have access to that kind of information. Instead, our predominant source of information is the people we feel we can trust.

This is why the personal is social. What we feel is largely determined by our model of reality. And this model has been created from those around us who seem to be in a similar situation. Although we can often see this tendency in others (“How can they possibly believe that?”), we very rarely see it in ourselves (“I believe what I do because it’s true!”).

The result is that what we think we should do, and what people like us think we should do, is often the same thing. How we predictably meet our needs for survival and connection is a product of our social context.

3 suggestions for further reading:

  • Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler: Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives

  • Jesse Prinz: The Emotional Construction of Morals

  • Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier: The Enigma of Reason

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