“The great project of the twenty-first century—understanding how the whole of humanity comes to be greater than the sum of its parts—is just beginning. Like an awakening child, the human superorganism is becoming self-aware, and this will surely help us achieve our goals.”
N. Christakis & J. Fowler, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks
Can We Make the Shift From Egoist to Altruist?
Today, we all start to see the connections that link the entire world to a single network. We are realizing that this network is a natural creation of evolution, which moves from simplex to complex and from separation to integration. This network of connectedness necessitates that mutual guarantee—give all that you can and receive what you need—be the formula by which all life sustains itself. So, if humanity wishes to thrive, we need to apply that modus operandi to ourselves.
The question, then, is not why this should be done, but how. Indeed, how does society, or even an individual within society, shift from an inward focus of caring only for the self to a more external focus of caring for all? Stated differently: How does the shift in mindset from “me” to “we” take place? Moreover, how can such a shift in mindset become a lasting transformation and not just an occasional thought?
How to Benefit the Most From Your Social Environment
The way to achieve this transformation is by changing our social values. If we deeply examine the reasons for our behavior, we will discover that quite often we act in certain ways in order to gain social approval from those around us. Being appreciated by those in our social environment gives us confidence and high spirits; whereas, the lack of appreciation pains us and evokes many negative emotions, including: dejection, insecurity, shame, anger, and much worse. For this reason, consciously or not, we tend to conform to society’s codes of behavior and values.
During her career as a blogger for Scientific American, Maria Konnikova—psychologist as well as esteemed writer—wrote about our need to conform to society’s codes of behavior:
“We tend to behave quite differently when we expect to be observed than when we don’t and we are acutely responsive to prevailing social mores and social norms….When we decide to do something, should it matter to us whether or not someone else is watching? While theoretically, it’s easy to argue that it shouldn’t, that the same behavioral norms apply no matter what, in practice, it usually does. This goes for minor behaviors (Will you pick your nose in public? What about if you’re pretty sure no one is watching you?) as well as much more important ones (Will you hurt someone, be it physically or otherwise, if others are observing your interaction? What about if you’re fairly certain the misdeed will never go beyond the two of you?).”
Thus, we can see that a transformation in our environment—that is, a transformation in society at large—is needed to bring about lasting change. If our society places mutual guarantee and caring for each other at the top tier of its values, then we as individuals will change accordingly. When society values individuals according to their benefit to the society, according to what extent they benefit others, then of course everyone will want to do the same, for the sake of being appreciated. If respect and social status are given to those who improve the overall wellbeing of society—whether financially or in some other form, then everyone will begin to contribute to society in that constructive manner, rather than choosing the previous—but now unappreciated—form of excellence in financial “engineering”—whose destructive consequences are still being felt.
A Shocking Discovery About the Influence of Our Social Environment
The effectiveness of environmental influence was scientifically proven decades ago. In 1951, Solomon Eliot Asch—a pioneer in social psychology—conducted one of the most renowned studies on this subject. That study became known as the Asch conformity experiments.
These experiments showed that, on average, about one third (32%) of the participants conformed to the clearly incorrect majority; whereas, in the control group—with no pressure to conform, the error rate was less than 1%. Overall, 75% of the participants gave an incorrect answer to at least one question, often matching the incorrect response of the majority.
Why did the participants conform so readily? In interviews following the experiment, most said that although they did not really believe the majority’s answers, nonetheless they went along with the group for fear of being ridiculed or thought peculiar. Only a few of them said that they really did believe the group’s answers were correct.
Apparently, people conform for two main reasons: either because they want to fit in with the group (normative influence) or because they believe the group is better informed than they are (informational influence.)
A newer study proves a rather Orwellian notion: that the influence of one’s social environment can even change one’s memories. Scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science sought to determine to what extent people’s memories could be altered through social manipulation.
They concluded that there is a link, a connection, between the social and memory processing parts of our brain; specifically, that “Its [society’s] ‘stamp’ may be needed…to give [memories] approval before they get uploaded to the memory bank. Thus, social reinforcement could act on…our brains to replace a strong memory with a false one.”
Thus, we see how our environment affects our views. Now, let’s examine the issue from a practical, educational angle—the angel of our media. The impact of the media on our views, even physically on our brains, has been documented and recognized more than once. Headlines such as “Violent Video Games and Changes in the Brain,” “Norwegian Retailer Pulls Violent Games In Wake of Attack,” and “Mass Shooting in Germany Prompts Retailer to Drop Mature-Rated Games” indicate that we are well aware of the harmful effect of violent and aggressive media. Yet, for all of our awareness, the media not only continues to show these offending images, but even increases their frequency and explicitness.
The Simplest Way to Thrive
“It is not neutrality for which we are demanded, but rather unity, unity of common guarantee, of mutual responsibility, of reciprocity…This is where our work in education among our youngsters aims, and even more so with the adults.”
Martin Buber, philosopher and educator — A Nation and a World: Essays on Current Events
More and more, contemporary research proves that “my environment today is me tomorrow.” Our environment builds us as human beings; and because we are products of our environment, every change that we wish for ourselves must first be absorbed into our environment. Therefore, when we build an environment in which the value of mutual guarantee is endorsed and deemed praiseworthy, that value will be praiseworthy in our own eyes as well; and with this value, we will all thrive.
Written by Michael Laitman
Michael Laitman is a global thinker dedicated to generating a transformational shift in society through a new global education, which he views as the key to solving the most pressing issues of our time. He is the Founder of the ARI Institute, Professor of Ontology & Theory of Knowledge, PhD in Philosophy, MS in Medical Cybernetics. You can find him on Google+, YouTube and Twitter