We all like to think we have free will and make our own decisions in life, but in actual fact, we are programmed at an early age by social conditioning.
Social conditioning is a set of rules and behavior dictated to us by society. It’s very easy to see how we as individuals can be conditioned in this way.
We soon learn to fall in line with whatever everyone is doing, saying, wearing, wanting, even believing. So how does it start and who conditions us?
“The things you read will fashion you by slowly conditioning your mind.” A.W. Tozer
The thing is, this kind of conditioning begins as soon as we are born. Parents immediately reinforce gender differences. Parents tell girls to behave in a quiet and polite manner and boys must not cry.
Teachers take on the baton and steer boys towards scientific subjects such as maths and physics. On the other hand, girls are pushed to creative topics. Our newly qualified graduates head out into the workplace.
Adverts bombard them with messages on what to wear, what to look like and who they should like. This constant drip-feeding of nudging and reinforcing the right responses actually affects our behavior without us really knowing.
Examples of conditioning by society:
- Models have to be thin in the fashion industry.
- Pink for a girl, blue for a boy.
- Nurses are female.
- Money buys you happiness.
- We have to get our protein from meat.
So how does social conditioning affect our behavior?
Language instantly jolts our unconscious mind. For instance, what do you immediately think of when you read the word immigrants?
For some people, their initial thoughts might center on closing the borders, the country is full up, a lack of resources, or there’s too many of them for us to cope with.
For others, the word immigrants may suggest qualified doctors and nurses, ex-pats living abroad, EU nationals, foreign students, or NHS workers.
Depending on the type of media you watch or read will color your view of immigrants. For example, typically, right-wing media depicts most immigrants in a negative light.
The homeless; responsible for their own fate or in need of help from society? Some people have very strong ideas about how you can end up living on the streets. They think that it would never happen to them and, therefore, it must be the fault of the homeless person.
How did they come up with that belief? Were their parents particularly critical of homeless people? Statistically, we are all three pay cheques away from losing our homes and ending up with nowhere to live. It could happen to many of us, so why do some believe it is purely down to the individual and not the situation?
Society has been telling us for decades that hard work and effort are all we need to succeed in life. So it’s easy for us to blame the person rather than the longstanding message that everyone else believes and follows.
You cannot mention conditioning of any kind, social or otherwise, without talking about religion. I’m guessing that whatever religion you belong to or believe in as an adult, you learned about it when you were a child.
When we are children, we believe what our parents and teachers tell us. Because we are so young when this information is first absorbed, it is extremely difficult to dismiss it as incorrect when we are older.
You see similar examples with the retelling of major war battles in history lessons. Countries will favor their side of the story when it comes to educating children on the exploits of battle outcomes and actions of generals, even prime ministers.
Whole nations are outraged decades later when their respected war heroes are then revealed to be less than perfect.
Does the life you present on social media have any resemblance to the life you actually lead? The selfies you have carefully crafted, spending hours choosing just the right one that shows you at your best.
Or deliberating over a post that isn’t too self-righteous but shows how devastated you are over the latest world tragedy (after all, it does affect you personally).
We are conditioned now to look our best, say the right things and at least appear to be loving life like never before. However, in reality, more and more men are committing suicide, teenagers are being bullied to death and children as young as 6 are worried they are too fat.
Social media is a portal into our lives, but we are faking this insight because the life we are leading doesn’t live up to social expectations.
So what can you do to break free from conditioning?
- Don’t be afraid to question or confront people about their behavior.
- If you see something you don’t agree with – say so.
- Don’t surround yourself with like-minded people. You’ll only reinforce your own views.
- Watch media from different sources. If you only ever read one newspaper, switch to another.
- Do your own thing! Live by your own rules. So what if you don’t earn a lot of money? Do what makes you happy!
- Finally, recognize when your behaviors or beliefs are a result of social conditioning and work to change them.
As the Indian teacher of meditation S. N. Goenka advises:
“Removing old conditionings from the mind and training the mind to be more equanimous with every experience is the first step toward enabling one to experience true happiness.”
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