Humans are social beings; this is how nature created us. As such, the society we live in has a decisive influence on us. We already know about mirror neurons and other mechanisms of social influence, but there are other forms of social influence, as well.
For example, there is the idea that all people are six or fewer social connections away from each other, aka six degrees of separation. Yet, this is true not only of familiarity, but of every aspect. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler write in their celebrated book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives—How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do, that good behaviors—like quitting smoking or staying slender or being happy—pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses.
Even more surprising was their discovery that these infections can “jump” across connections. It turns out that people can influence each other even if they have never met or even heard of one another. Moreover, Christakis and Fowler found evidence of these effects even three degrees apart (friend of a friend of a friend).
Since we are all connected, we are all affecting one another.
Everything we do, say, or think, inescapably affects everyone else.
Moreover, we already know that the entire planet is one ecosystem, and any change in any part of it affects all the other parts. As a result, any change in human society affects not only all of humanity, but the entire planet. And the opposite is true, as well: Any change in any part of nature, on any level, affects all other parts of nature, including all of humanity.
Even if we are unaware of it, we feel our connectedness. This is why wherever we are, we want to “fit in.” To feel secure, that we belong, and to guarantee that the environment accepts us, we adapt ourselves to the social norms and values around us. If we do want to stand out, we first check what the society around us appreciates, and then try to stand out in these activities or values.
Even the most negative values in our eyes today can seem perfectly acceptable and even desirable in the eyes of others, or even in our own eyes at different times and different circumstances. The Nazis, who perpetrated the extermination of European Jewry, were not born genocidal; their values changed as their social environment had changed and molded them into what they eventually became.
The same process took place during the notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, where volunteers were chosen after assessments of psychological stability, and then randomly assigned to being prisoners or prison guards. The plan was for the experiment to last two weeks, after which the results would be examined. Instead, the volunteers selected to be guards quickly became so brutal and abusive that the experiment had to be terminated on the sixth day.
Because the environment has such a critical effect on people, we should dedicate the majority of our efforts into creating a positive social environment, which creates socially positive people. With narcissism constantly on the rise, and with people’s self-absorption running amok, the global society is heading toward a very negative place.
We cannot influence every person, but we can influence the social environment that we create around us. We can monitor the media we consume, the people we hang out with, and the people that our children hang out with. We can also select the educational programs where we place our children, and the values we live by at home.
The reason for the growing frustration and depression in all parts of society is that we are trying to succeed alone. If we realized that we are all dependent on each other, and began to work on bettering our social environment, we would be in a completely different place, both personally and socially.