Thursday, 8 April 2010

The power of suggestion

This morning, I put on a sweatshirt and some jeans. I did not put on a kimono, military uniform, a bear costume or a spacesuit. Had I really wanted to, I dare say I could have acquired and worn any of these items. They have all been invented and (save perhaps for the spacesuit) are all within my price range. I could have bought a fancy dress spacesuit. So why didn't I?

We are all creatures of habit. If we thought long and hard about every single action in the day living would become so bogged down with endless decision making about matters which are of little consequence that it would perhaps not be worthwhile continuing to exist. So we create habits to allow us to sail through most aspects of life without really having to think about them at all.

But there is something else at work here. The society in which I live has dictated that I should wear something like jeans and a sweatshirt on a spring day when not at work. Had I been born into the life of a geisha, a kimono would have been the right choice. Had I been born into rural Siberia, I imagine something very warm and hard wearing would be in order. In the Tudor court, perhaps a gown made from some expensive and intricately woven fabric would be best. The time and place make us accept almost unquestioningly the fashions, the social conventions, the morals.

Seeing our peers behave in a certain way makes us staggeringly more likely to follow suit, even if their behaviour appears irrational to the casual observer. A good example might be Chinese foot binding, or smoking. The foods we eat, the religion we follow, the morals we believe in are highly likely to be the same or very similar to those of our close relatives and friends.

This seems to be a basic trait of human nature: not all humans follows these trends, but the vast majority do. What is an existentialist to make of it?

We could despair at the willingness of humans to be led into oblivion like sheep, sauntering after one another, happy to allow others to make all our choices and blame the outside world for everything about ourselves and our lives which we dislike.

I have a better idea: use this tendency to become what you want to be. Put yourself into social groups, places and positions which are full of the characteristics and activities which bring you closer to what you want to be. Fill your life with French people and French textbooks, and you'll probably pick up French. Hang around with athletes and you'll get fit and slim. Start doing yoga and you'll probably learn to meditate.

Your subconscious might pick up the habits of others like five-year-olds pick up headlice, but there's no reason to see this as a negative.

My aims:

Cook proper meals (so position lovely cookery books around my flat)

Keep challenging my beliefs (so spend more time with the friends whose outlook is both admirable and different to my own)

Read better books (so spend more time with people whose knowledge of the classics puts me to shame)

1 comment:

  1. Are you sure though that it is entirely a question of being influenced by people around us, and not that we might seek out and befriend those people whose ideas and habits tally with our own? I mean, if I have a major passion for playing netball, I will naturally gravitate towards a team, probably hang out with those of them who share my drive for the sport. Same if my interest is singing, I may join a choir and aquire new friends that way.

    I think a more interesting point would be to look at how we differ from our friends. I, for example, don't smoke and am religious, and yet I hang around with a lot of people who do smoke and don't believe in God. However, we are all drawn together by a mutual love of geekery of the RPG/Gaming variety. I don't like RPGs because I hang out with them, I hang out with them because I like RPGs. And despite knowing them for several years now, I still haven't developed a desire to smoke.

    Not saying that you're wrong, just that it may be a two-way street. :)