How the People Around Us Affect Us

Written by
Michael Wells

How the People Around Us Affect Us

And Why It Matters So Much

Written by
Michael Wells

How the People Around Us Affect Us

And Why It Matters So Much

Written by
Michael Wells
QUESTION
You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.
          - Jim Rohn, Motivational Speaker

When I was a kid, I remember wanting to do something unusual with my friends.

It wasn't anything particularly crazy or risky, but it was not something I'd usually do. Mostly, I wanted to do it because my friends wanted to do it too.

Honestly, I cannot remember what it was that we wanted to do... but I do remember exactly what my mom had to say...

"So, if your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump off the bridge too?"

For clarity- mom's not talking about bungee jumping here. She's referring to taking a dive off of a perfect good bridge into a very risky situation- one which could easily result in injury or death.

That question annoyed the heck out of me, because of course I would never jump off a bridge. What, did she think I was crazy? I felt a bit insulted.

C'mon, mom - that would be just stupid, and I was not a stupid kid.

Still, the point she was trying to make was clear...

Beware of peer pressure.

This week, I was reflecting on how significantly other people affect us, at a deeply subconscious level. This fascinates me because it raises a question about behavior, emotion, and even thoughts...

Which emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors come from us... and which come from others? And... how can we tell the difference?

The deeper I delve into psychology- particularly evolutionary psych and the psychology of emotions- the more I discover that astounds me.

I think mom knew more about this bridge deal than she let on.

Let's Do a Thought Experiment

Imagine right now that you're walking onto a bridge. It's high, There's a river down there but it's way, way below. Probably, you would not survive a jump.

Scenario #1

As you approach the halfway point on the bridge, you see a guy walking towards you, and suddenly, he turns and faces the edge of the bridge, and leaps over the railing, plummeting to his fate.

What would you think?

What would you feel?

I imagine that my first reaction would probably be something like this...

[shock] Oh my god, why did he do that? What is he thinking? Is he OK? What should I do? Who do I call for help? Oh my god.

Scenario #2

Now imagine the exact same situation, except two people are walking towards you, and both jump off the edge at the same time.

What would you think? How would you feel?

[shock] Oh my god, why did they both do that? That's crazy! Are they OK? What should I do? Who do I call for help? Holy crap.

Scenario #3

Let's increase that number.

  • First, to... 10 people.
  • And then, to... 100 people.
  • And then, to... 1,000 people.
  • And then, to... 10,000 people.

Imagine each of these scenarios as though you were there.

What would you think, and what would you feel in that situation?

At what point would you begin to feel...

[shock, horror, panic] Oh my god!!! What do they know that I don't? Should I jump too? Holy f*ck!!!!!! [panic]

If you reflect carefully on this, I'll bet that you can identify a point where you would feel compelled to jump too.

It will hit as a deep-seated reflex. Not a thought, precisely... almost an automatic reaction to seeing everyone else leap over that railing.

On some deep subconscious level, you would want to do the same.

And at what point would you not even hesitate?

Compulsive Social Behavior is Real

With the possible exception of psychopaths, who do not follow the typical pattern of emotional wiring, I believe that there is a certain point at which any human would feel absolutely compelled to jump, with nearly zero hesitation.

With a sufficient emotional trigger, the rational mind wouldn't even be involved.

You wouldn't get the chance to pause, and ask why. You wouldn't even rationally be aware of the madness of that compulsion. You would just react.

And probably... you would jump.

That's right... we're all lemmings, ready to jump off a cliff the moment our nearest 10,000 friends do.

Welcome to being human, you lemming.

Real-World Examples

I can hear some of your saying...

"Hey Mike, this isn't a real-world situation! I mean, c'mon, really? When would that ever happen?"

Ok, that's fair.

Let's look at some real world examples here.

Here are some examples I'm seeing of how people are deeply, deeply affected by the people around them, in ways we can visibly see.

  • Cults. Any cult is a great example of how powerful peer-pressure can be, even in relatively smaller family-sized groups. What causes nearly 1,000 people to decide that they should commit mass-suicide, including their children?
  • Terrorists. What causes a suicide bomber to believe that their own fiery death, and hurting a lot of people, is the greatest idea since sliced bread?
  • Mass Riots. What causes normally sane, everyday Minneapolis citizens, to suddenly start looting businesses and attacking each other?
"But... ! Those people are just crazy. They're not at all like me, and I'd never do those things. I can't relate."

Really. Are you sure? Because that's exactly my point here.

It's the fact that these types of incidents can occur that raises deep questions about our brain and how we're impacted by the behavior and emotional state of the people around us.

Why is is that when you're in the USA at a baseball game, and the Pledge of Allegiance starts, you feel compelled to stand and sing along? And why is it that despite this intense compulsion, no one would ever, ever want to randomly stand during the middle of the game and sing the pledge all by themselves- with everyone looking at them strangely?

We are deeply, deeply wired for herd behavior and groupthink.

Let's look at some more everyday things that seem entirely "normal" to us, just because everyone else is doing them...

  • Paying 30% of your income as taxes to people you don't see who are spending it on things you might not approve of.
  • Paying 10% of your income as tithes to a church.
  • Getting into a car, and driving down a motorway at 100kph, with lots of other people driving at 100kph, and just feeling ok assuming that they're all sane, sober, and skilled enough to not kill you.
  • Getting into an airplane, where you cannot even see the pilot.
  • Getting into a large metal tube with jets attached, hurtling through the
  • With your life at the hands of someone you cannot see and have never met.
  • Posting the details of your personal life on Facebook.
  • Leaving your family, to go work in a factory or business for 40 to 60 hours a week.
  • Investing the 40 best years of your life in grinding away, to increase a number in a bank account, in the hopes that you'll live long enough to enjoy it after retirement.

Have you ever stopped and asked why?

Have you ever asked "does this even make sense?"

Are you seeing what I'm seeing now?

If we're honest... we probably live 99% of our lives in the way we do, because everyone else we know lives theirs that same way.

The more people we see doing a particular thing, the less we think to ask why, and the more it feels like the only option.

Think about this.

Everything in our lives... how we work, where we live, the existence of culture, fashion,, money, government, and even language are possible because of this.

Lemmings, aren't we all.

The Bandwagon Effect

What we're talking about here is a very powerful cognitive bias known as the Bandwagon Effect.

We like to think of our thoughts and emotions as our own, but in reality, the people around us affect both of these far more than we realize.

Your brain treats consensus as irrefutable evidence that a particular behavior or belief should be adopted. Given enough evidence, you will respond subconsciously, and react automatically.
You likely won't even be consciously aware you're doing it, and if you are aware, it will seem absolutely normal- as though there are no other options.

Using this to Your Advantage

For humans, this is a mixed bag.

It presents huge challenges for sure, everything from barfights to "crowd think" and echo chambers.

But it also creates huge capabilities for us...

The Bandwagon Effect is equally responsible for most of the best aspects of modern humanity - language, government, law, friendly social behaviors, monetary systems, and commerce.

The Bandwagon Effect is both a weakness and a strength. If you understand it, and utilize it to your advantage, it can benefit your life in powerful ways.

TIP #1 - Always question the status quo

Never accept what everyone else is doing blindly, no matter how many people are doing it.

Observe what the people around you are doing, and ask these questions;

  • Is this healthy? Will it lead to better health, or will it reduce health? Watching TV for 3 hours a day... playing tons of video games... eating junk food... watching porn daily... working sitting all day at a desk...
  • Does this behavior lead to growth? Or does it lead to decay?
  • Will this likely lead to a better future, or not?
  • Can it be improved? Government. Monetary systems. Relationships. Working conditions. Lifestyles.
  • At my core, does this feel right? Is this something I approve of and believe in? Should I be investing my time, attention, money, and energy here?

You may be surprised what you find.

TIP #2 - Consciously choose who you surround yourself with

Who do you have around you?

Take a quick look at your social world. Let's put you at the center, with a series of 4 ever-widening rings of people around you.

These probably include...

  • Closest Influencers - Your romantic partner, family, best friends, and business partners.
  • Next closest influencers - Your workmates, friends you see casually or occasionally
  • Distant influencers - Communities that you're involved in. Facebook friends who impact your feed, but who you don't know personally.
  • Environmental influencers - Your neighbors, the society and culture that you live in.

Most of those people are a choice. You can decide who you surround yourself with, at all levels of closeness, because they all influence you.

Consciously engineer your social world. The people you surround yourself with are your flight crew in life. These people who support you, encourage you, challenge you, and help you become the best person you can be.

Consciously remove the negative influences

For example;

  • People who steer you towards unhealthy temptations that take away from your life.
  • People who don't respect you or treat you well.
  • People who don't treat others the way you believe that they should be treated.
  • Consider moving and changing your cultural environment if needed.

Consciously add positive influences

For example;

  • People who enjoy learning.
  • People who are emotionally mature.
  • People who have goals, and work towards them.
  • People who share your core values, e.g. creativity , compassion, respect, honesty, or whatever else you value.
  • People who encourage you into health & fitness.

TIP #3 - Continually expose yourself to new people, cultures, and ideas

Unfamiliarity creates anxiety

About week ago, I went for a walk with a new friend, and her dog - and she made an interesting comment that I'd never heard before.

She observed that when her dog was a puppy, she'd found it very important to expose him to a wide range of people, animals, and environments. Without that, he would learn to be afraid of unfamiliar people and situations.

She also shared that this had been mostly successful. He was very comfortable around people except for two specific kinds of people-

  1. People wearing costumes, such as on Halloween
  2. Homeless people

These were unfamiliar, and when he encountered these people, he would react with intense anxiety and aggression.

Dogs fascinate me because their social behaviors so closely mirror our own- but without the complication of a rational mind. In many ways dogs show us precisely how our emotional mind works- what it's like to be a human, who can't "think."

If you stop and consider where racism and other forms of discrimination come from, you'll see why this is so important to understand.

Many of us have "walled off" our social gardens- but the most valuable things are outside of those walls, and we're only hurting ourselves.

On the plus side, as humans, having a rational mind means that we can challenge our emotional comfort zones, and break those walls down.

I did it. So can you.

Shatter your echo chambers

When is the last time you traveled to a different country?

Or made a new friend, or invited a neighbor that you've never met over for coffee? Or how about, picked up a book that you never imagined reading?

Unless you consciously practice exposing yourself to new people, ideas, cultures, and experiences, you're in an echo chamber, and the walls are invisible to you.

You don't even know what you don't know.

My first experience travelling outside of my home country was kind of mind-blowing, not because it was "better", but because it showed me that there were other ways of living... different ways of thinking... more creative ways of solving problems.

I encountered new perspectives on life, and on the World- along with unexpected ways of connecting and communicating with other people.

And all of these new ideas were mine to simply take and adopt if they suited me.

All of your thoughts and behaviors are shaped by your social environment. Want a better life, a clearer perspective, and a happier mindset? The people around you are the best teachers.
Especially... the ones you haven't met yet.

Final Thoughts

No man is an island.
Create the right environment for your mind by surrounding yourself with the right minds. Soon, you'll find yourself developing in amazing ways.

Personally, I have a lot more to think about this.

So far, I can say for certain that my life has improved dramatically when I began to intentionally choose who I surround myself with.

I encourage you to become more aware of that, and to choose good people, on the same path, who are going in the same direction, towards the same goals.

If you don't you'll simply be swept up in the mob, and carried along, wherever they decide to go.

It's your choice, but... for me at least...

I don't want to be a lemming.

First published on 
November 4, 2020
. Last updated on 
November 11, 2020

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      Addendum

      Foreward

      This article explores one of my favorite concepts. The more I study psych, the more I realize that 99% of our thoughts & feelings are determined, influenced, and "walled in" by the people around us.

      We're each living in a bubble of "normal", with the people who view the world the same way that we do. That part of what makes us human, however it's important to burst that bubble often and expose yourself to new perspectives & experiences, or we stop thinking critically.

      Often, we forget that, and the walls of the bubble harden, so much that it becomes a fort,

      In our view, that fort protects us from scary and uncomfortable things...

      But in reality, that fort is a prison, and we're the prisoner.

      Don't let that happen. Your mind should be free.

      About Lemmings

      On my lemmings example, I want to note that I have no idea what role serotonin and peer pressure play in the lemming brain, or whether that's a part of their mass suicide behavior ( yes that's a thing, apparently tied to overpopulation or food scarcity ). But... the serotonin peer-pressure mechanism seems like an awfully plausible candidate...

      Why the Bandwagon Effect Evolved

      Here are my thoughts...

      Reptiles are not social creatures. When Mammals came on the scene, one of the big advantages was the invention of cooperative behavior. But among a group of mammals, how does nature enable this?

      Groupthink. We adopt each other's emotions- anger, fear, security, etc.

      Watch a group of gazelle, and the moment one gets spooked, the whole group of a million gazelle is off sprinting across the plains.

      Of, look at a dog pack. A group of happy, well-loved, fully-domesticated cuddly pets can turn into a raging fury of vicious attack beasts when they're in a pack. Even attacking humans. House cats are thought to be similarly impacted in pack situations, even though we don't think of them as having strong pack-behavior.

      Look at mammal groups and you can see many of these behaviors. The emotional states of the individuals are strongly tied to the emotional states of the group.

      Combatting the Bandwagon Effect

      The 10th man, or the "Devil's Advocate"

      The devil’s advocate office ensures that AMAN’s intelligence assessments are creative and do not fall prey to group think. The office regularly criticizes products coming from the analysis and production divisions, and writes opinion papers that counter these departments’ assessments. The staff in the devil’s advocate office is made up of extremely experienced and talented officers who are known to have a creative, “outside the box” way of thinking.

      Perhaps as important, they are highly regarded by the analysts. As such, strong consideration is given to their conclusions and their memos go directly to the office of the Director of Military Intelligence, as well as to all major decision makers. The devil’s advocate office also proactively combats group think and conventional wisdom by writing papers that examine the possibility of a radical and negative change occurring within the security environment.

      This is done even when the defense establishment does not think that such a development is likely, precisely to explore alternative assumptions and worst-case scenarios.

      http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2007/10/intelligence%20kuperwasser/10_intelligence_kuperwasser.pdf

      Yosef Kuperwasser (2005), 'Lessons from Israel’s Intelligence Reforms', Center for Middle East Policy Analysis Papers | Number 14 of 33. Page 4.

      The Purpose of Psychopaths

      Nature may well have evolved mechanisms for this purpose too.

      This may be why psychopaths (1% of society) exist... I suspect that psychopaths may exist as a function of mammalian evolution, not only human evolution.

      If lemmings were studied, it's clear that 100% of them cannot be susceptible to the mass suicide behavior, of they'd be extinct. So why do some dive of the cliff, and others do not?

      Other fascinating studies & examples to explore

      The Stanford prison experiment, which among other things showed a society splitting into groups with strong and consistent behavioral characteristics (guards v prisoners), even when those behaviors conflicted strongly with individual values.

      The movie "The Game" with Michael Douglas, which shows how strongly someone can be affected by what they think others think.

      illusionist Derryn Brown did a real-world experiment and found this could be repeated in real life situations.

      German citizens during WWII.

      Chinese youth during the Cultural Revolution.

      Seniority and impact levels

      Seniority, serotonin and impact levels

      Another implication I see is how the effect is tied to seniority levels as well. Our emotional "valuation" of another person's behaviors and emotional state is not influenced only by the number of people we see doing that thing, but relative importance we ascribe to them.

      For example,

      • As young children, our parents affect us strongly, and we want to be like them.
      • Similar for our teachers
      • Or respected leaders
      • Including alphas, older brothers or sisters, even celebrities

      A serotonin study here would be interesting.