Every decision humans make is colored by their past. Despite vast progress, we are still prey to the oldest tool of learning: social conditioning and the pressure of the group.
What was once a key to survival follows us into the modern age. It shapes our decisions, the careers we choose, and at times even forces us to act against our better judgment.
But we can break free and shape our own decisions. That is the gift of self-awareness. It begins with recognizing something most of us would rather discount; the effects of social conditioning.
Recognizing the prevalence of social conditioning within society and ourselves…
Real freedom from social conditioning begins with accepting and recognizing that we are influenced by social pressure.
Solomon Asch, a social psychologist in the mid 20th century, set out to create an experiment that would test humanity’s propensity to conform to the group.
The experiment itself was carried out by selecting 50 individuals and subjecting them to a small vision test among a group of their peers.
All the participants had to do was simply look at two cards, one with a single line drawn on it and another with three lines drawn. Then participants chose which line on the second card was the same length as the single line on the first card.
The entire test was crafted to be as unambiguous as possible with an obviously correct answer in each experiment. All the participants had to do was say the obvious answer out loud after each of their peers had given their answer.
Unbeknownst to the participants, this was the true experiment. The group of “peers” taking the vision test alongside them were in on the experiment. Their mission was to unanimously give the wrong answer.
This caused the actual participants to face the choice of going against the group even when their judgment told them the group was obviously wrong.
And contrary to Asch’s own hypothesis, participants caved to pressure and gave the wrong answer along with the other members.
After all was said and done, Asch noted that nearly 75% of participants gave the unanimously wrong answer at least once each test. Nearly a third of participants always followed the lead of the group.
By the conclusion of the experiment, one thing was clear; individuals who otherwise believed themselves to be independent, when subjected to social pressure, acted against their own judgment.
This brought to light the human propensity for conformity when faced with opposition to our own beliefs and judgment.
Though nearly seventy years have elapsed since Dr. Asch’s test, we still see this effect within society and within ourselves.
We see it within individuals who wish to remain unnoticed, choosing to blend in with the crowd. Rather than follow their passions and risk becoming a unique individual, they select the path of others as to not stand out.
It’s present in the fear individuals feel when going against the mold and deciding on a life that may not fit the boundaries acceptable to society.
The large house, the respectable career, the large bank account, the vacation to Paris, the perfectly toned body.
How often do we truly desire these things, versus following the crowd?
Perhaps, right now, you’re thinking, ‘But I want one of those things and it isn’t due to any pressure, I simply just want it.’
Of course, that is often the case. Some things are popular for a reason. The trick is finding that area of your life where you go through the motions, but don’t really know why.
How can we be certain that the things that we want are truly what we desire and not the effects of conditioning?
Let’s look to another great mind of the 20th century.
In the mid-twentieth century, a philosopher sought to bring the spirituality of Eastern philosophies together with the advancements from the Western world. Alan Watts began asking students in universities one simple question, “What do you desire?”
With that question, Watts sought to bring people a better understanding of themselves, one that was not based on what they should be but based upon on what they wanted to be.
Not long after Asch proved our predisposition to conformity, Watts offered individuals a way out.
It’s that question, “What do you desire?” that will be the starting point of discovering whether or not the things we aspire for and work for, are truly our decisions.
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So, let’s start there.
Pick an aspect of your life, say perhaps a career or goal you would like to attain. After finding it, begin asking yourself:
- Why do I want this? Is this a passion that I cannot live without, something I need in my life?
- How long have I wanted this? When did I first start gravitating towards this? Is this a new desire or years in the making?
- Is there a particular person that sparked this interest and passion? What was the cause of that spark? A shared interest or a new discovery with a friend or family member? An opportunity with a colleague?
- What do I gain in achieving this? Happiness? Recognition? Love? Money? Is there anything at all to be gained or do I simply want to do for the sake of doing it?
- Is this a means to an end or the goal itself?
- If there was the possibility that this would fail, would I still want to try attaining it? How many failures am I willing to endure?
- If no one were to know that I obtained this, would I still want it?
- What am I willing to give for this? Is it worth losing friends or leaving family? How many years can I give to pursuing it?
These questions can help you get a better understanding of your desires. But the path to understanding yourself and finding freedom does not begin with following someone else. Treat these questions as a jumping off point to start the process, or create your own litmus test. Consider the unique aspects of your situation and desires while applying it to your life.
Staying the course through pressure…
Understanding yourself also helps to push towards your true desires despite what society, friends, coworkers, and family think.
That is where the true challenge lies, following the beat of your own drum even when others around you cannot hear it. At first it may be easy. But when failure inevitably comes, will you continue through the pressure?
To prepare, ask yourself each morning “Am I ready to follow through with the path I have chosen?” and each night “Have I done all I can to make my path easier to follow? Has any outside force changed my vision for my life at any point today?”
It is only through constantly reorienting yourself that you can continue to pursue your unique path to true freedom without straying off course.
You don’t have to play by the rules of the corrupt politicians, manipulative media, and brainwashed peers.
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