How much are we influenced by others?

How much are we influenced by others?
The simple answer is “Quite a Lot”

In the African Bantu language, the word ubuntu means that a person becomes a person only through other people (Interview of Desmond Tutu, New Scientist, April 2006).

Neuroscientists endorse this view that our brains are continually reshaped by our interactions with other people. We can easily visualize that the physical presence and even the mental image of another person influences our brain, our behavior and our attitude. While our social interactions are mainly through our communication in all its forms, they also include cooperation, competition, imitation, helping, playing, informing, questioning, negotiating, bargaining, bluffing and so on. These interactions are strongly influenced by our own personalities, our own developmental history, stereotypes we wish to imitate, our own concepts of how things operate in our environment etc. Also “social emotions” such as pride, envy and regret influence and drive these interactions.

Herb Kelleher, cofounder and CEO of Southwest Airlines, was hailed as the most beloved leader of our time and Fortune magazine voted him as “Perhaps the best CEO in America”. Neuroscientists studied the firing of social neurons in various participants while analysing a video of Herb Kelleher. When Herb Kelleher was strolling down the corridors of the airline’s hub, the researchers could practically see him activate the mirror neurons, oscillators, and other social circuitry in each person he encountered. He offered beaming smiles, shook hands with customers as he told them how much he appreciated their business, hugged employees as he thanked them for their good work. Typical was the flight attendant whose face lit up when she un-expectedly encountered her boss and she gave him a big hug.

Psychologists define “Theory of Mind” as our ability to interpret the mental states of ourselves and that of others which enables us to come up with reasonable explanations of behavioural patterns of others. Psychologists explain that we become aware of others only because our brains can apply this “Theory of Mind”. Part of “Theory of Mind” consists in thinking about what other people are thinking about some other people. As an example, “What does Kumar think about Joseph’s behavior towards Ahmed, given that Ahmed is already upset about his father’s illness?” This is a very complicated kind of mental ability and is unique to humans. It is interesting that evolutionary anthropologists contend that our brains have evolved over the years to become as big as they are today for a reason. It is for enabling us to increase our deep intellectual abilities so that we can manage our relationships with other people more effectively.

The importance of human social connections cannot be overemphasised. Prof John Cacioppo of Chicago University has researched loneliness for thirty years. He has shown quite convincingly that lonely people are unhappier, live shorter lives and are more likely to be depressed. He explains that loneliness is an evolved mechanism that alerts us to a lack of social connection and social support. This is somewhat similar to hunger alerts that we feel when we need food. As a corollary, he claims that as a fundamental component of wellbeing, human beings require good quality social connections with other people and more importantly with close friends and family members. He also found that the frequency of interactions and the feeling of being connected to larger groups such as clubs or nations are also important factors in warding off loneliness.

It is worth noting that the social norms that guide our everyday behaviours and create social influence are mainly derived from our culture. We can look at culture as representing a group of people, normally living within a given geographical region, who share a common set of social norms, including religious and family values and moral beliefs. The culture in which we live also affects our thoughts, our feelings, and our behaviour. It is our culture that defines our lives as much as our evolutionary experiences.

We would like to think that we are largely in control of our day-to-day lives, yet most of what we do, from what we eat to who we sleep with, and even the way we feel, is significantly influenced by those around us and also those around them. It may surprise us to know that our actions can change the behaviours and the beliefs, and even the basic health of people that we may have never met.

Social media is a more recent phenomenon which has projected us into an age in which people are encouraged to express whatever they know, think, and feel. This means that, apart from information and opinions, emotions are also spread all over the net world.

A fascinating study by the New York Times Consumer Insight Group revealed various motivations that drive participants to share information on social media. These include a desire to reveal valuable and entertaining content to others, to define themselves in desirable ways to others, to grow and nourish relationships and also to speak about brands and causes that they like or support.

The use of social media has skyrocketed over the past decade and a half. Only five percent of adults in the USA were using a social media platform in the year 2005. This number has jumped to more than seventy percent today. Media psychology researchers are trying to understand how the time spent on social media is impacting our day-to-day lives.

Looking at the benefits of social media we can see that it is particularly helpful for those with family members spread out in different parts of the world, or perhaps people trying to make a long distance relationship work. We can easily relate to how we communicate despite time differences and distance by simply texting or phoning someone. By having the power to upload photos and send messages at ease, we manage to stay in each other’s lives despite being hundreds, or even thousands of miles apart. When we think about how far we have come since having to send letters and postcards, it is indeed pretty amazing. The addiction to social media and its serious consequences have been subject of lot of discussions everywhere and is not covered here.

A study has discovered that the average person checks their device 85 times a day, spending a total of five hours browsing the web and using apps. This equates to around a third of the time a person is awake, and is twice as often as many people realise (stock image)

Schadenfreude is a German term composed of Schaden, that means ‘harm’ and Freude which means ‘joy’. So the word Schadenfreude refers to the pleasure at another’s misfortune. The Japanese have a saying: ‘The misfortunes of others taste like honey’. The French speak of joiemaligne, a diabolical delight in other people’s suffering.

Psychologists found that when the Dutch team missed a goal, the smiles on German fans appeared more quickly and were broader than when their own German team scored a goal. Let us not fool ourselves. When it comes to making ourselves happy, we humans have long relied on the humiliations and failures of other people. The more we envy someone who is better off than we are, the greater is the pleasure that we feel when they fall down.

It is relevant in this context to talk about Social Anxiety. Virtually all of us have experienced concerns about being judged negatively by other people from time to time. Being concerned with other people’s opinions of ourselves is something we learn to live with from childhood onwards. For some individuals, however, these concerns about negative evaluation are so extreme and frequent that they impair everyday social life and becomes psychopathology, called Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD).

Social anxiety disorder is also known as social phobia. Anxiety is a fear that arises in anticipation of an event whereas phobia is an irrational fear of certain objects or situations.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that twelve percent of adults in the United States experience social anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime. It is more common in females than in males.

We can not but talk about sympathy, empathy and compassion when we are looking at any society. Sympathy means that we can understand what the other person is feeling. Empathy means that we actually feel what the other person is feeling. Compassion on the other hand goes beyond sympathy where we are willing to relieve the suffering of another.

Thanks to the mirror neurons in our brain, empathy may arise automatically when you witness someone in pain. Research indicates that empathy has a genetic component but is also influenced by parenting, the schools, the community, the environment and the culture.

Prof Paul Bloom of Yale University, makes the case for rational compassion rather than just empathy. He argues that empathy is counter-productive because it enmeshes us in the feelings that are not our own. Instead of taking on the problem as our own, having compassion means we understand where the person is coming from without adopting the emotion ourselves.

By the way, empathy is not reserved only for unpleasant feelings. We can feel empathy when we witness joy, too. When someone walks into our room smiling, we ourselves tend to smile.

When we are sympathetic, we are not really experiencing the feelings of another. Instead, we are able to understand what the person is feeling. For example, if someone’s father has passed away, we may not be able to physically feel the pain that the person is undergoing. However, we can understand that our friend is sad. This explains why we send sympathy cards when our friend’s loved one has passed away. we are not feeling that person’s pain, but we want our friend to know that we are aware of her suffering.

Dr Thupten Jinpa associated with Dalai Lama posits that compassion is a four-step process:

  1. Awareness of suffering.
  2. Sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering.
  3. Wish to see the relief of that suffering.
  4. Responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering.

We all experience emotions all the time. Emotions are a defining aspect of the human condition. They pervade our social and professional lives, influence our thinking and behaviour and profoundly shape our relationships and social interactions.

We need to recognise that emotions are ‘intentional’, in the sense that they are always ‘about’ something: they have an object, and that object is very frequently social. It could be a person like a rival for our loved one’s affection. It could be a social group like an organisation that does inspiring work in developing countries. It could be a social event like India winning the cricket series in Australia. It could also be a social or cultural artefact like a piece of music. Of course, we sometimes experience emotions in response to non-social stimuli like fear of heights or of spiders, but social objects are much more likely than non-social objects to be the source of our everyday emotions.

Many emotions are either inherently or functionally social, in that either they would not be experienced in the absence of others, or they seem to have no other function than to bind us to others. Emotions such as compassion, sympathy, maternal love, affection, and admiration are ones that depend on other people being physically or psychologically present. Fear of rejection, loneliness, embarrassment, guilt, shame, jealousy and sexual attraction are emotions that seem to have as their primary function the seeking out or cementing of social relationships.

We tend to share our emotional experiences, some of which may be painful or shaming, with intimate people because we trust them not to share our secrets with others. And yet these people are the very ones who are likely to empathise with us and therefore will experience the emotions themselves listening to what we divulge. This makes it likely that they will in turn engage in secondary social sharing.

For technically minded, neural basis for social influence has been subject of research by many neuroscientists. It is found that persuasion directed toward social norms specifically activates a set of brain regions including temporal poles, temporo-parietal junction, and medial prefrontal cortex. Persuasion against an accepted norm, on the other hand, specifically uses the left middle temporal and supramarginal gyri. Moral judgment has been associated with the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, vMPFC, and the striatum.

1 thought on “How much are we influenced by others?”

  1. Thank you sir for the excellent insight into human behaviour. This reminds me of the bible verse “Be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.” If we practice this, we can practice compassion in everyday life.

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