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Last week’s post introduced Social Reinforcement and how you can use the principle for good. This week, I’m going to take a short detour. Before continuing that series, I think it’s important to understand why we’re susceptible to this kind of influence.
It’s not any of our fault… it’s all of our fault, cultivated over millions of years.
Humans are social creatures. Hell, we evolved to be this way: we want to be recognized and rewarded, which opens us up to social influence. This deep seeded desire for recognition is rooted in evolutionary psychology.
Before humans were “humans”, we were many other things (homo rhodesiensis, homo erectus, etc.), and this progressed for literally millions of years. Modern homo sapiens have only existed for about 200,000 years. And, like everything else, we are the sum of all that has come before us. We’re slaves to our history.
Jared Diamond touched upon this in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Our ancestors were largely nomadic. Climate changes and the availability of resources forced us to move in order to survive. This lasted until about 10,000 B.C. when humans began developing basic farming skills, and made the transition from hunter-gatherers to growers and harvesters.
That was a key moment in our history. Without stockpiles of seeds and enough food to last the winter, tribes spent a great deal of energy simply not dying: hunting, fishing and savaging are hard work.
In today’s Westernized societies, we’re free to pack ourselves into densely populate cities and wolf down a Big Mac while browsing Google on smartphones. But this Big Mac eating, apartment-having time has been incredibly short. Humans have functioned in stationary societies for a mere 0.02% of our history. In this context, social recognition has always been about survival.
In nomadic cultures, the tribe could pick up and move with very little notice. Knowing your fellow tribesmen at least knew who you were was important: you probably wouldn’t be left behind to die. Being unknown could be a death sentence.
It’s theorized that this is why negative attention is preferable to being ignored. Simply being around others and having them pay attention to us causes our brains to release dopamine; a neurotransmitter originating in midbrain associated with reward, attention, and movement. Based upon some studies, up to 50% of our population may be highly attuned to seek out social situations and novel behaviors that stimulate this part of the brain. Alternatively, the 2-10% of the population with social phobias have been shown to suffer from a dysfunction in dopamine reuptake sites.
Children, and our immature friends, act out in a desire to be recognized; even if that recognition is delivered as a rebuke or reprimand. Attention – any attention – is a vital form of feedback. It tells our brains “you won’t be left here to die”, and more relevant to today’s world: “you matter”.
Developing a sense of self
Throughout human history, as our species has faced the frightening, terrorizing fact that we do not know who we are, or where we are going in this ocean of chaos, it has been the authorities — the political, the religious, the educational authorities — who attempted to comfort us by giving us order, rules, regulations, informing — forming in our minds — their view of reality. To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness, chaotic, confused vulnerability to inform yourself. – Timothy Leary
Life can be an ephemeral, uncertain, scary thing. The idea that there are very few natural laws actually limiting this experience, creates a deep desire to define structure, to define rules, and create order from the chaos.
It’s said that the job of an infant is to “eat, sleep, cry, and poop”, frequently attempting to do two of these tasks simultaneously. At least, that’s how my sister describes my nephew…. I would herald that a baby’s real job is to observe.
A baby’s brain is designed to be highly receptive to experiences. We learn the patterns of the world and how it works by constantly watching the chaos around us. Everything we know, and everything we do at this age is in reaction to something else. In fact, we don’t even realize that we are our own unique person. That comes somewhere between 6 and 18 months of age.
Once we recognize ourselves, and realize that we too are a person, our brains progress to figuring out what we should know and how we should act. From around 18 months until about 4 years old, we begin to test our environment. These are the “terrible twos”. We ask a lot of questions, act out, and throw temper tantrums. We push and test everything. It’s a frustrating time for parents, but it’s easy to forget that your children don’t know any better. This is literally how they learn.
The best analogy I’ve heard is that a two year old is like a blind person entering a room for the first time: they’re going to bump into things, they’re going to stumble around aimlessly, and push at every wall, every surface, and every structure in an attempt to define their reality. How we react to our children during this time teaches them about social conventions, about boundaries, and about themselves.
Personal development through influence
So, people are receptive to attention because its how we learn, and how we didn’t die. As society has progressed, so has the way in which we utilize feedback, but the underlying mechanism – the neurological responses to attention – have remained the same.
Who we are begins as an amalgamation of the people around us. Even when we strike out on our own, we never lose that receptiveness; it just evolves. As we mature, we are influenced less and less by casual interactions, and more and more by those who we consider friends. See: Communities, Memes, and Influence to the 3rd Degree for an explanation of that process.
If we’re lucky, our desire to know more and ask “why” will never go away. Our brains develop by incredible amounts through infancy, but development should never stop.
Lead-in photo credit: Fadzly @ Shutterhack