Welcome welcome! Today we are talking about peer pressure, how we all want to be a part of groups of similars and about social rejection.
If you prefer to read this Brain Juicing episode, I have you covered; find it below.
Have you ever been to a dinner with friends, not very good ones that you know as the palm of your hand, but ones with whom you can break the ice quickly? In such a group of people that the in-between dynamics aren’t formed yet, it is mathematically certain that someone will attempt to match similar personalities. There will be a passionate statement from someone about how "I love to eat nutella right from the jar with a spoon." Those who agree with this position will take a stand next to him, creating an enthusiastic beehive and praising the delights of nutella. And then someone will throw oil on the fire by saying that “I think that peanut butter is better,”, only to collect around him the ones that feel the same. One group will start mocking the other, and if there is one indecisive person, both groups will bombard him with pro-nutella or pro-peanut butter arguments. At first glance, the "glue" keeping these members together is an insignificant culinary preference, but the feeling of excitement and satisfaction of belonging to a group of people, who share something in common, is so generalizable. In the end, there will be a cynic that neither is intrigued by such a game nor does he observe the social interest of it. He will state with apathy "I do not eat sugar.”, and will trigger a massive explosion against. This game is like a small ritual in many dinners, and this is how groups are created and spread more or less.
Such dinners are so delightful because they generate very often the most enjoyable conversations too. It is the most wonderful feeling to belong to a group of similars, in a group of people who share the same range of fundamental views as you. Personally, many times I find it tough to grasp the popularity of an opinion diametrically opposite of mine. That happens simply because I am surrounded by people like me. When I'm with them, I'm a flashlight and a mirror at the same time, our ways of communication are very common and our behaviors reflect on each other. And sometimes you meet people in your social circle with an intellectual horizon slightly wider than yours, and you customize your mirror, you become a sponge that absorbs what this person has to offer to your horizon. Such interactions are such great inspiration; it is like reading a book that brings your world upside down. However, being surrounded by similars can work in opposite ways too, it can become a brake.
In such a dinner we were wondering, what is the factor that motivates incredibly, shamelessly rich people to still chase more riches? When you have everything, and even more, when you can open champagne for breakfast, and fly around on your private jet, why is it so important multiply these little green paper babies per millions every day? What possibly can motivate you to spend millions to satisfy your narcissism, when you could cure tuberculosis in Africa, let’s say, with the same money? Is it the pleasure of taking competitors out of your game, is it the absence of the level of moderation and what has value, or is just greed and arrogance? Or all together? Or nothing from the above mentioned? A friend of mine, we will call him Paco for the sake of our discussion, suggested something really brilliant. He said "it is your lobby that motivates you". He threw in the conversation as if he is drinking malt whiskey with the golden boys of Wall Street and knows them so well. But seriously now, he is damn right I think. "I can imagine them”, he said, “standing there in their expensive suits, mixing statistics and Dow Jones averages (damn if I ever understood what Dow Jones show) and boasting about how many millions they made this week. Our environment and our peers set a tremendous pressure for us to be acceptable.” Interesting, huh?
But since most of us will never reach these levels of wealth, let's go one level below, in a situation with which we can identify more easily. Let's go to the groups of two, in the couples. Why do so many people want to get married? Why aren’t they satisfied with the promise of their partner to stay together? For me -besides the spousal coverage that marriage provides you in the case of medical or insurance circumstances- it is the security that the institution provides emotionally. When you get married, you join a group of two, and we all want to belong somewhere. A significant portion of people is terrified with the idea of pending their life alone with nobody to take care of them. We have learned that we need to belong somewhere and be accepted very early in life, through our family and our first friends. Aren't many children traumatized by the need to impress or please their parents by taking decisions that don’t make them happy? A lot. And let’s not forget the stress in which many kids are exposed to in school when they don’t satisfy the whims of their “friends’”, and the public humiliation that comes after. You can see that the peer pressure is frighteningly real and very powerful.
I had the pleasure of meeting the incredible Dutch documentary filmmaker Coco Schrijber. Her personality is such of a powerful stream that it took only twenty minutes conversation with her, for me to have the feeling of being swept along, and being struck powerfully on the banks of my beliefs. For example, Coco works as much as she wants or has to every year and after that she stops to live the life she wants. What a powerful statement! Who could have the strength in the current, sickly, social pressure to, even, murmur that she doesn’t want to earn more and more money? The norms dictate us to be ambitious, to aim higher and higher the elusive and inaccessible peaks. The conversation with her was so enlightening, that I wanted to continue it by watching “First Kill”, her first documentary. It raises the question of why did the veterans of the Vietnam war killed for the first time back then. This documentary is a little gem, the answers of these people are so honest, and you should see this documentary. However, for the sake of our conversation I will answer here this question. It wasn’t the sense of survival, or protection, or fear that prompted them to do so; it was the peer pressure that was set on them by their environment. Imagine, a bunch of macho boys intoxicated by the arrogance of youth and alcohol, who landed in the horrible reality of war and began a bet of who will hit the most. The absurd in all its splendor, or as Nietzsche would say, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”
As a biologist, I couldn’t avoid talking about how we are a combination of the genetic information we carry (in case you are not familiar with it: it’s the information transferred to us by our parents, as they took it from their parents and so on, which affects many of our traits) and of our environment. For sure we would end up as absolutely different people if we were raised in different conditions. Nothing in biology makes sense unless it is seen under the light of evolution, did you know? The bright biologist Dobzhansky said so, so let’s go back and observe us as species in our first steps on earth. The first people started as hunters and pack animals in the African savannas. Nowadays individualism is praised and rewarded as a great asset. However, the prehistoric man should stay with his herd. Otherwise, wild beasts would devour him. So, the brain networks of these early humans evolved to remind them of the consequences of the social rejection, a feeling of neccesity to stay in the team, otherwise you have to pay the consequences (a.k.a. death). These networks are preserved in the present human, and although we don’t hunt zebras in the savannas anymore(at least not in all continents or all places), we know that the beast that can devour us is still there; now it is a psychological one. It's crazy that our brains recognize the pain of rejection and the "wounded heart" as normal physical pain. Love and acceptance activate the same neuronal pleasure pathways as drugs or alcohol. And whether we go through a social or chemical withdrawal, the same neurons in the anterior cingulate cortex and the insular cortex are activated. The only way to feel better is to take back what will make the brain feel better, social acceptance or addicting substance.
Hence the need of belonging somewhere and the feeling of acceptance in a group of similars, is a nececcity. These are known in scientific circles or between high corporate executives and often they are used as a pressure tool. When you feel that you found your niche, it’s not, most of times, due to in-depth research about this group’s ethical principles, but because something you heard made a click on you. This creates the feeling of belonging with them. And out there in politics, in society, at work and friendly groups, there will be many people that practice this sport, of being likable. So wouldn’t it the best if we chose the people who surround us? Or instead of pushing ourselves to join somewhere where we do not feel comfortable, or accepted, internalize this need to be part of a team of similar, but choose them ourselves consiously. And as said incomparably hilarious Amy Poehler said, "Find a group of people that challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life”.
Credits | Text, Editting & Graphics: Despina Kortesidou, Photography: Alfred Eisenstaedt. George Balanchine’s School, New York City 1936, Life Magazine