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Moving Beyond Social Proof


Exodus 23:2 (NLV) “You must not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you are called to testify in a dispute, do not be swayed by the crowd to twist justice.” (The Easy-to-read version): “Don’t do something just because everyone else is doing it. If you see a group of people doing wrong, don’t join them. You must not let them persuade you to do wrong things—you must do what is right and fair.”

That advice was given some 1000 years Before the Common Era, since the days of Moses and ancient Israel, and not much has changed in our demeanors. We are still humans with individual lessons to learn. The lesson we learn from the story of Adam and Eve is that we cannot rely on our own sense of right and wrong – we cannot lean on our own understanding.

It is not easy being theistic human beings: human beings who believe in a power greater than ourselves. It is not easy to remain calm and peaceful within when the science fields so often want to prove that there is nothing other than what is testable, verifiable, measurable, and physical. That is why the quantum science exploration appeals to me so much; it examines the universe from a new perspective, where the rules, as we understand them, are less definitive. Quantum Physics bucks the traditional views of science, and we don’t understand the specifics or intricacies in the research.

Similarly, individuals within the spiritual arena, from Christianity to Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and many other platforms outside organized religion, have rigorously explored the spiritual plane. They have learned to abandon the physical realm and enter spiritual dimensions that word cannot describe. Science defies it, the world denies it, we can’t explain it, and yet these individuals share with us experiences that we struggle to comprehend.

But these same experiences are available to us if we spend the time, energy, and years of practice to achieve them. Christ was able to do things that we call miracles. Other great ones before him were capable of states of consciousness that placed them beyond the grasp of the physical world. Since Christ, many yogis, priests, and sages have been able to enter a quantum-like state of mind that has taken them off common and traditional pathways. These souls have been able to see the world and its inhabitants from a new perspective – unfettered by the laws, constrictions, and expectations of the world.

We call them mystics, enlightened ones, shamans, or just plain weirdos. But in every discipline, there are geniuses who push the limits and derive as much as possible out of their field of endeavors to share with us. We comprehend their contributions to the best of our abilities and willingness, then discard the rest.

So it is, so it has always been, and always will be. Many of us simply do not have the time, energy, background, or desire to pursue everything that comes across our paths. Although we like to believe that we are in control of our thoughts and behaviors, we cannot get to the bottom of everything we encounter, so we rely on shortcuts...and one of these shortcuts involves social psychology.

Social psychology is defined as “the scientific study of how we think about, influence, and relate to one another.” We are a highly social species and most of us have interactions with people every day. Spirit requires it of us – to engage others, to serve, help, and in other ways mix it up with other Children of God. Yes, yogis may spend years alone in a cave at the top of a mountain discovering the secrets of the Universe, but as one great soul said, “These individuals can spend so much time with their minds focused on heavenly matters that they are of no earthly good.” For the most part, we are on earth to connect as social creatures, absorbed in life and each other. Studies show that on average we spend 70 to 80 percent of our waking hours communicating in some form. Of that time, 9% is in writing, 16% reading, 30% speaking, and 45% listening.

The research from social psychologists tells us that we do not have as much control over our thoughts and actions as we believe. We take cues from each other on how to behave. We’ve all heard the saying by Saint Ambrose from the 4th Century, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” We tend to apply this philosophy without thinking; it is called social proof, or informational social influence.

Social proof can be seen in what is called group polarization. This means that a group of likeminded individuals reinforces and strengthens each other’s opinions, viewpoints, and perspectives. A French study showed that even though people held a rather reticent leaning in a direction, by the time they had discussed it within a group who held the same slight leanings their opinions became extreme. From slight to extreme, by just a bit of reinforcement, or social proof.

We prefer being around people who share similar attitudes and opinions as ourselves, and the more we discuss our viewpoints with others who share our perspectives, the more emphatic we become. This is also known as the Confirmation Bias.

Unless keenly aware, most of us use social proof to make decisions on what to do, think, say, and buy. Often, to learn what is the correct way, or the best way, we look at what others are doing. I am aware that when I buy something new from Amazon, I frequently look for the best reviews, the most stars, or Amazon’s Most Popular. I do this for choosing movies to watch. I don’t want to take the time and invest the energy in researching everything myself, so I rely on the experience of others.

It is a shortcut, and it is not always reliable. I have watched movies with 3 stars that I have liked as well or better than movies that have gotten 4 and a half or five stars. How fast do we drive on a particular stretch of road? Well, how fast is everyone else driving? We look for social input to decide. Frequently, when driving in the mountains I will pull over to let people who want to go faster than me go by. But at other times, like in Los Angeles, I will go 80 just to feel like I am safe in the streaming traffic.

Our social environment can determine how we behave and the choices we make. It is true in how we wear our hair, how we dress, what kind of language to use. The amount of slang, colloquialisms, and vulgarity we use is determined by our social environment and what others are doing and saying.

Robert Cialdini wrote a book entitled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. In it he relates an experiment. At Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park there are signs which read: “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.” The sign was there to raise people’s awareness to the value of the forest.

As an experiment, Cialdini removed the signs from one path and discovered that the theft of petrified wood decreased by a third. Despite their intentions, the signs actually encouraged people to steal because so many other people were already doing it. Visitors saw it as permission, and thought it was normal to steal.

The influence of social proof can be used to help people. In one study, children who were frightened of dogs watched a four-year-old play happily with a dog for twenty minutes a day for four days. At the end of that time, 67% of the children were willing to enter a pen with a dog. After a month, that same group of children were willing to play with a dog. Their fears had been reduced by observing the behavior of someone else; a new model of behavior had been formed.

Social proof is difficult to identify and then it is difficult to overcome, largely because it is so entrenched within our belief system. There are times when our behaviors are rooted in what our parents have said, how they behaved, the decisions they made, what they believed. They may not have directly told us anything in particular, but we observed how they treated others, how they behaved, and subconsciously noted the decisions they made following a particular set of beliefs. Then, without our knowing it, those beliefs and their patterns for living became our patterns.

Clearly, our behavior is affected by others, just as our behavior affects others. And all this research supports the teachings of the Bible. 1 Corinthians 15:33 teaches: Do not be misled: "Bad company corrupts good character." Then in Proverbs 5:20-21 - Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm.

The good news is that we can become aware of who is influencing us. Although we are animals, we are not just animals. We are intelligent creations with a spiritual nature and can tune into our Source for solutions and guidance. We may not be fully enlightened souls capable of reaching Nirvana at will, but we can become still, quiet our minds and hearts, and listen to Spirit.

Although difficult, with the help of God we can see what and who influences our thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, perspectives, and decisions. Once that occurs, the choice becomes ours: do I continue living under that influence, or do I allow another influence to affect my being. It becomes a matter of willingness. Generation after generation of poor, negative, and destructive choices are not inevitable. Regardless of the hatred, divisiveness, intolerance, and lack of ethics we see around us, we do not have to perpetuate that behavior.

Despite one’s political persuasion, each party accuses the other of hatred and divisiveness. In our attempts to differentiate ourselves as Republican and Democrat, poor, middle-class and wealthy, educated and uneducated, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, or Middle Eastern, we create greater divisions and more reasons to hate.

It's like that sign in the National Park, but this one is in front of us on our path. It says, "You are are divided in this way, this way, this way, and this way, and because of all those divisions in society there is a lot of hatred. In fact, most people hate somebody that is not part of their group." It's like there is a sign stating that in society, and we are all looking at it, and it is leading us toward division, not away from it. What would happen if we took that sign down, so we don't have to be influenced or tempted by division and hatred? Why let that be a constant reminder?

As long as we see each other as opponents within the political, social, religious, or financial spectrums, we will continue to live from the ego and ignore the love that resides within our hearts. It is only by perceiving each other as a family member within the spiritual spectrum, the family of God – that scale outside of the world, that we can rise above our differences, and make healthy, wise, and love-based decisions untainted by previous paradigms and patterns. This is what will ultimately transform our thoughts and attitudes --- and the world.

But what a challenge that is.

The solution may begin partly by each of us, individually, opening our minds and hearts to a new influence, that of Christ’s new law - Love. In the physical world we are told that we communicate 30% by speaking and 45% by listening. Those are not bad ratios to apply to our prayer lives. Although we can read and write prior to moving into prayer, perhaps we can spend that remaining 25% of the time in just being. Being with Christ, being with Spirit; not listening, not speaking, but just being. Resting in the Lord, being still and letting God love us.

It is my prayer that we can know the truth of Romans 12:2 and accept its challenge: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.

We can rise above the pattern of the world and escape from using the social proof of the world ‘out there’. Instead, we can use the spiritual proof from Christ within. I pray that we become conscious of God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will and be transformed through the renewing of our minds in the Light and Love of Christ.


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