The Ability to Choose
Posted by: Mark Nichols
05 May 2007
Imagine a classroom full of students. The teacher asks a question and a good student named Tim raises his hand and answers correctly. The teacher says, "Good job." In the back of the room, teenage angst is cresting inside of Johnny who thinks that Tim is just a suck-up who has conformed to the system. Johnny thinks, "Loser."
Guess what Johnny - pro-social behavior doesn't mean Tim is a full-fledged conformist (or a conformist at all). Tim's decision to participate in the situation at hand is a choice. Your decision to make assumptions about Tim's conformity is also a choice. But don't think that Tim is a robot just because he's acting inside of a predictable system where a teacher asks a question, a student responds, and everyone is supposed to feel warm fuzzies. And don't think that even in your own rebellion that you aren't being robotic in some way - you're not beyond predictability. Statistics say that you exist, and with enough information about you, they could probably pick you out of a room and forecast much of your life. Your current lack of experience, which lack you couldn't admit because you don't have any experience to know any different, lets you believe that no one understands you and thus, that you are unpredictable. Johnny - you're more understood than you know. (This beginning sounds bitter, but oh well.)
Most people think they're unpredictable
Part of my work involves showing people commercials and seeing how they respond to them. I've asked friends if they think advertising affects them. The typical response is no, and maybe they're right. I think if I asked the same question to a group of 100 people, they would all reply no (probably because they would be translating the question into the following wording: "Do evil companies attempting to change my thoughts and behavior ever succeed? No way!"). But if no one is affected by advertising, why do companies spend millions of dollars on it? The answer is, people are affected by advertising, but many just don't realize it. If people weren't persuaded in some way, I would be out of a job.
Some individuals might be aware enough to repel the effects of some advertising, but it's hard to deflect it all. For example, James has decided to buy a Lexus because he's always wanted a luxury car, and he's determined that BMWs are just way too pricey. But did he realize that a Lexus is basically a Camry with some extra bells and whistles? Since the car manufacturer isn't screaming this fact, and he's been told a million times that a Lexus is "up there" in quality (while a Camry is just plain common), he'd never know to research the similarities. But if James bought a Camry, he'd be saving a ton of wampum, and he'd have pretty much the same car he originally decided on.
Maybe that's not a very good example since I don't know that much about cars, but the point is that companies are inside our heads and it's not so easy to get them out (Toyota is in there screaming that a Lexus is a top-quality brand). If companies are getting information inside our heads, chances are that that information is affecting our decisions... which means we might be predictable. Predictability isn't necessarily bad, but not realizing we're being coerced into acting predictably might be. The best way to counter this coercion is to try and be aware and informed. It's not just to try and do the opposite of what you think is predictable.
Been there, done that
A little bit of experience can go way too far in creating a comfortable mindset. When people reach some goal (graduate from school, get married, obtain some level of financial security through employment, get to a certain age, etc.), they often think it qualifies them as experienced, knowledgeable, or deserving in other aspects of their lives. They close their mind down to new experience or information because they've "seen it all". Here are some examples:
- I have a high school diploma and have been able to support my family, so there's no need for my son to go to college.
(Reply: The world has changed. That may not be a good idea.)
- I've got my money in an interest-bearing checking account that has no fees! Most people don't have that! I'm such a financial genius!
(Reply: It's hard to find a checking account that has fees, even though it's still advertised like something novel. By the way, online savings accounts have way better interest rates, and there are tons of other ways to invest.)
- I'm 50 years old, so it's high time that people bend and conform to my will, because I've been doing it for the rest of the world up until now!
(Reply: It would be okay to listen and accept your ideas if they were right, no matter your age. It's important to know the difference between facts and opinions, realize which you are sharing, and realize you may not be the owner of all the pertinent information. An open dialogue will foster better relations than the idea that you have to force something down my throat.)
- I've been a parent, and there's no need to EVER punish a child! How dare anyone think of doing that!
(Reply: You and I are probably operating on different definitions of punishment. Those pesky semantics. According to my definition you have punished your child. Please see below* for more detail and let me know what you think. Thanks.)
A "been-there-done-that" approach to life does not allow you to keep an open mind to new experience. It cuts off your ability to learn. If you knowingly don't want to learn, that's okay. But if you're living this approach to life unknowingly, it's time to examine yourself and admit that you do not know everything ("search your feelings, Luke!").
People often don't realize how the world affects them. Imagine you have a wholesome and pure impression of an individual. That individual is a beacon of goodness in your mind. Then some unfavorable information is introduced that lessens that impression. Now instead of purity, there's a slight stain. But soon after hearing about the supposed stain, you learn that the information was fraudulent. Your impression should go back to one of purity for this individual... but it doesn't. Even if you accurately make a mental correction and restore purity to your impression of this individual, people as a group will not do the same. It's too bad people don't try to be more aware of their choices. (I realize I'm not providing good examples or evidence - you'll just have to trust me that this is a common situation.)
I'm above average - aren't you?
It's long been known that people in general consider themselves above average. Ask a group of 10,000 people to rate themselves on some task and the average of their ratings will exceed their average actual ability. Maybe that's good for self esteem purposes, but it's not accurate judgment. This tendency to overestimate personal ability is related to people's lack of experience. If they could admit to themselves that they were less experienced, that what they've done once others have done hundreds of times, then maybe people would not be held hostage by their ignorance. Choose to be open-minded! Imagine a world where you aren't the greatest person alive!
The difference between what we do and what we believe is called "cognitive dissonance". If 10,000 people run 100 meters, I may think I'll place 8th. In reality when I finish 2,000th, the tension that's created in my mind is uncomfortable. This dissonance needs to be resolved. I could open my mind to the fact that my judgments about myself were wrong, or I could make excuses that I didn't get a good night's sleep, or that when I ran the wind was blowing fiercely against me. It's sad how few people choose option number one.
Another example of cognitive dissonance could deal with an individual's moral beliefs. Someone may believe it's wrong to gossip, but when that person gets involved in a conversation that includes gossip, instead of the behavior changing to conform to the belief of not gossiping, a new belief forms along the lines of, "Well, if the person were here I would be saying the same things, so it's not really gossip." People frequently change their beliefs instead of changing their actions, and in so doing disrespect their previous choices. If it's truly a poorly conceived belief, then go ahead and change it, but don't change just because your current actions make you uncomfortable. Be aware of what you are doing and what is going on in your head.
(As an aside, new beliefs are also created when two conflicting thoughts exist (not just a conflict between behavior and thought). "I believe an alien spaceship will carry me away tomorrow," and "the person who told me this is all-seeing." When tomorrow comes and goes with no alien spaceship, something's out of whack. Typical results include the formation of new beliefs such as, "The spaceship is still coming, it's just that we must have been using the wrong calendar system." That may be all well and true, but just realize that this case is still a textbook example of cognitive dissonance.)
He made me do it!
People are very prone to give away their responsibility. If a driver is weaving in and out of traffic constantly hitting the breaks and then accelerating (and talking on a cell phone), one might be prone to honk and be angry at that driver. If the honker were to give a reason for his anger, it might go something like this: "That guy is driving like a lunatic. He's making me angry." But in a lot of cases (and I would argue that this is one of them), we choose to be angry. Someone else's choice doesn't have to affect our own. The real explanation should be, "I'm choosing to be angry, and I'm assuming that person doesn't care about anyone else; that he doesn't care about the traffic jam he's creating that will affect thousands of people." (But don't rule out that what seems to be lack of deference for the rest of the world could be a one-time occurrence where the guy is rushing to the hospital to see his critically ill wife.)
Don't give away your agency. Yes, there are some things we can't control, but for those things we can control, let's try not to let our own ignorance choose our path for us. In a paraphrase of the Rush song, failing to choose is still a choice. So choose to try and become informed and open to new ideas.
* Notes on punishment and parenting
A lot of parenting is centered around "operant conditioning". Fancy phrase, not so fancy definition. Basically it means that when a behavior occurs, a stimulus that occurs right after will serve to increase or decrease that behavior. In psychology it's fun to diagram this as R -> S -> R, which stands for Response -> Stimulus -> Response. Applied to children, the first response might be a bed that's made. As a parent it's important to follow that up with a stimulus to encourage that behavior. Such a stimulus could be an extra cookie for dessert at dinner. The follow-up response from the child will be a propensity to make his bed more often.
There are four ways that this operant conditioning thing pans out:
1. A behavior occurs followed by the application of a pleasant stimulus in order to increase the occurrence of the behavior. (Example: Kid makes bed; give him a cookie so he makes it more often.)"
2. A behavior occurs followed by the removal of an unpleasant stimulus in order to increase the occurrence of the behavior. (Example: Kid finally plays nice with classmates at recess so his name comes off the board, encouraging him to play nice more often.)
3. A behavior occurs followed by the application of an unpleasant stimulus in order to decrease the occurrence of the behavior. (Example: Kid writes on the desk at school; you make him wash all the desks after school so he won't write on them again.)
4. A behavior occurs followed by the removal of a pleasant stimulus in order to decrease the occurrence of the behavior. (Example: Kid gets an F on a test; you take away the Nintendo Wii for a week so that fewer Fs will occur in the future.)
Numbers one and two are both examples of reinforcement. If the purpose is to increase the occurrence of a behavior, you want to reinforce it. Numbers three and four are called punishment - the purpose is to reduce the occurrence of a behavior. The reason I believe every good parent has used punishment is because every child does things he shouldn't. And a good parent will say or do something to discourage that behavior. That's punishment. Punishment is not synonymous with meanness, but is meant to help a child behave well. (Although I will not delve into these conditioning processes further, there are more aspects to their successful application that I've ignored here.)