I believe that in order to be in charge of you own life and have an outstanding life, one of the most important phenomena to understand and be able to rise above is what social psychologists call social conditioning.
Social conditioning is the process of training individuals in society to have certain beliefs, behaviors, desires and emotional reactions, which are approved by society in general or by certain groups within it.
Your social conditioning begins when you’re just a small baby, and it’s most acute throughout your childhood and adolescence, but it goes on your entire life. It’s carried out by parents, teachers, peers and people in your community, by the novels you read, the media, the church and the ads you see.
Social conditioning often works by rewarding certain behaviors, thus reinforcing them, and punishing other behaviors. In this case it’s mostly a societal form of classical conditioning, which unsurprisingly, is a tool also used to train dogs, pigeons, laboratory rats, and so on.
But the most noteworthy mechanism of social conditioning is the repetition of the same simple messages, sometimes thousands of times over long periods, especially by perceived authority figures, until the mind gives in and absorbs them.
These messages can take explicit forms, like when a parent tells you plainly that you should do that or you shouldn’t do this, or implicit, like when a TV commercial shows you a well dressed guy that girls swoon all over, thus suggesting indirectly that if you dress well, girls will swoon all over you too.
And the result of all this is a person who conforms to the ideals, big and small, of the society and community they live in.
The Trouble with Social Conditioning
There are, in my view, some issues with social conditioning. The first one concerns what it is and what it’s not. It’s not a form of rational education, where people are advised to adopt certain beliefs or behaviors and given logical motives or practical evidence to support this advice.
Rather, given its major mechanisms of repetition, reward and reinforcement, social conditioning is a form of indoctrinating and herding people into having certain beliefs, behaviors, desires and emotional reactions. This means it can be used to train people to have any kind of responses, positive or negative, rational or irrational.
This leads me to the even bigger issue with social conditioning, which is that indeed, much of the social conditioning we get exposed to today takes our lives in an overall negative direction. Deliberately or not, the society we live in instills in us many horribly wrong ideas, ineffective behaviors, toxic desires and unhealthy emotional reactions.
It’s enough to look at some of the current health, happiness and lifestyle stats (many of them coming from studies done in the US) to realize that we’re making a boatload of bad choices in life. For instance:
- In America, 41% of first time marriages and 60% of second time marriages end in divorce.
- Approximately 8% of the U.S. population, or 25.8 million people, have diabetes and another 79 million people are pre-diabetic.
- About 7% of people in North America will have a major depressive episode within a one year period.
- Also in America, about 29% of adult women and 43% of adult men are binge alcohol drinkers.
And the stats from other developed or developing countries are similar. Something is seriously wrong, and poor social conditioning is likely one of the main culprits.
Some Examples of Bad Social Conditioning
When I first learned about social conditioning years ago, I began trying to pinpoint my own bad social conditioning, overcome it (and there was a lot to overcome), plus prevent further bad social conditioning from affecting me. As a confidence and communication coach, I’ve also coached hundreds of people to help them rise above poor social conditioning.
Thus I’ve come to realize that many of the most common beliefs, behaviors, desires and emotional reactions that society conditions us to have are dreadfully bad for us. Here are some key examples of common yet very poor social conditioning, concerning the major aspects of life.
Health and Fitness: Today’s society is obsessed with the most superficial layer of health and fitness, which is physical appearance. Many highly promoted and popular methods to look better are actually very damaging to our health and fitness: extreme diets, toxic cosmetics, pills, steroids, surgery, etc.
Also, a variety of voices urge us to seek instant gratification in eating and drinking, while paying little attention to the health consequences; to seek cheap food instead of nutritious food, and to live to eat rather than eat to live.
Money and Career: The society we live in encourages blind consumerism and materialism. As Tyler Durden from the movie Fight Club puts it brilliantly: “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” And it’s not only advertising doing that, I would add.
We are also pushed to work long hours, obey authority, conform to all norms, seek job security above all, be loyal and conscientious employees, and ask very little for ourselves, because “in the end” it will all payoff. But it rarely does.
Love and Relationships: In general, society promotes the idea that normal human beings are monogamous, despite the vast and accumulating counterevidence. It stigmatizes many of our natural sexual desires, especially that for sexual variety, and it glorifies the nuclear family, despite the fact it disappoints many of the people who form one.
It also encourages superficial social relationships, based mainly on appearances, as well as constantly comparing ourselves to others and caring intensely what other people think of us.
Of course, some of these examples may not illustrate bad social conditioning. I could be wrong about many of them. I’m not claiming to hold the universal truth on this matter.
Do your own homework, and determine for yourself the beliefs, behaviors, desire and emotional reactions you deem reflect bad social conditioning. I do believe though that if you do your research thoroughly and you analyze the data rationally, you’ll reach conclusions similar to my own.
Spotting Bad Social Conditioning
In time, I’ve discovered that there are a few elegant actions that are particularly useful in identifying the bad social conditioning that influences you, so you can rise above it. Here they are:
1. Do not assume you’re above social conditioning. Some of us like to think we’re so wise that bad social conditioning doesn’t influence us. That we never took from society false ideas or futile behaviors.
In my experience, this is never true. And the erroneous assumption that you’re above social conditioning makes you the biggest slave to it. The fact you’ve been living in society and you’ve been exposed hundreds and thousands of times to its propaganda means you’ve been affected by it. Start out with this mindset and go about exorcising the demon.
2. Question your recurring ideas, behaviors, desires and emotions. You can’t question every little thing you do, think or feel. But you can question those that manifest frequently, which have the biggest impact on your life.
To begin with, practice paying conscious attention to your actions, thoughts and feelings in various situations. Then, when you find yourself having a certain thought you know you’ve had before, ask yourself: “Is this idea true?” When you find yourself doing something repeatedly, ask yourself: “Is this behavior useful?” Question the utility and rationality of your recurring wants and feelings in a similar matter.
This is how you can pinpoint your false beliefs and your ineffective behaviors, desires or feelings. And if you deem these elements are common in many people or they’re promoted by a major group in society that you’ve been exposed to, you know they’re probably the product of social conditioning.
Get used to doing this kind of self-examination regularly. Rational, critical thinking will play a key role here, and it’s an aptitude that improves the more you exercise it.
3. Learn from the real experts. In any field there are people who are true experts. They have lots of practical experience, they’ve studied that field profusely, they know the scientific research in the area well, maybe they’ve performed some of it themselves, and they can backup their claims with solid proof.
Often, these people will have ideas that are poles apart from what mainstream media and society preach. And almost every time they are the ones who are right.
So it’s very wise to search for such people and seek their knowledge. Read their blogs, get their books, take courses with them, go to events where they speak. Study a wide range of subjects, but learn about human psychology, social dynamics, health, economy, history and politics in particular.
Accurate, sensible knowledge in these areas has great power to reveal all sorts of poor social conditioning and put you on the right path.
4. Step out of your bubble. Most of us have this inclination to only wanna meet and interact with people who are similar to us: who think like us, behave like us, want the same things we do and feel the same way about things we do.
The desire to hang out with like-minded people is understandable and useful. But once in a while, it’s important to step out of your bubble, meet people who are different from you, get to know them and try to understand where they’re coming from.
Sometimes this will only confirm that your beliefs and behaviors are fine; other times it will help you realize that you’ve been believing and doing stupid stuff that resulted from bad social conditioning. It will pull the wool off your eyes and aid you see reality clearer.
Reconditioning Yourself and Taking Charge
By taking these actions, you’ll identify many of the elements of bad social conditioning that influence you. In some cases, just identifying an element as the product of poor social conditioning is enough to be able to instantly end its influence over you.
As a minor example, at one point, by studying about health and stumbling across articles like this one, I learned that many times it’s okay to eat something you dropped on the ground. So I simply stopped throwing away every piece of food I dropped like my mom taught me as a child.
In many cases though, a product of poor social conditioning will keep having a lot of influence on you even after you’ve recognized it as such. Because it got into your thinking, behavioral or emotional habits, and as a habit it often operates beyond your conscious control.
For instance, maybe you were told many times that you have to always play by the rules, because if you break the rules something bad will happen. And at one point in your life you realize at a conscious level this is not true.
Unfortunately, you may have been exposed to this idea so many times that it became ingrained in your thinking habits. So unintentionally, you’ll often still operate on it and you’ll be afraid to break rules, even though at a conscious level you know that sometimes it’s okay to break them.
This is where rising above bad social conditioning gets more complicated. Because it’s not just a matter of dropping a simple notion or behavior, it’s a matter of retraining yourself to habitually think and behave in new ways. And if you do, your desires and emotions will follow the same trajectory. So essentially, it’s about re-conditioning your psyche.
I could write an entire book about this process (in fact I already created and published this guide for reconditioning yourself in order to become socially confident), but the key principle is to deliberately practice thinking and behaving in the ways you consider to be the best.
Your psyche learns constantly. As you practice new ways of thinking and behaving, it will progressively get used to them and the re-conditioning will happen. If you feed your mind with the right stuff, the right stuff will come out.
In the areas where you feel it’s chief to create changes but you find it hard to do so, don’t hesitate to seek some professional help from a coach, counselor or psychologist. If they know what they’re doing, they’ll help you make the evasive process of re-conditioning your mind much more effective, and you’ll see much faster improvements.
Along with this, limit your amount of exposure to bad social conditioning, by reducing contact with its sources. For example, reduce the amount of mainstream TV you watch or the sensationalist news you read. It’s a lot easier to remove bad social conditioning and maintain this state when you’re not constantly bombarded by it.
Ultimately, I see removing and avoiding bad social conditioning as a lifelong journey. At first it’s usually faster and bumpier, then it somewhat slows down and smoothes out, but it keeps going pretty much your entire life.
And the benefits are incredible. As you free yourself from poor social conditioning, in effect you take charge of your own destiny and you enable yourself to take it in the direction you want. You become more confident, more productive, more successful and much happier.
At some stage, many of the people you deal with may judge you for not believing or doing the same BS they do. It doesn’t matter. Most people will always follow the beaten path, even if it doesn’t take them where they really wanna go. And they expect everybody to do the same.
Listen to what they have to say (sometimes you might actually learn something useful), but if they’re spewing the same simple-minded platitudes you’ve heard a million times, just disregard them.
Make friends with people who are open-minded and seek to rise above social conditioning, think for yourself, choose for yourself, and enjoy your life. You only get one chance at it.