I want to talk a bit about what motivates us to think, believe, and act in the ways we do.
We have discussed some of the emotional and cultural factors that can influence us, but we haven’t looked at why or how we initially form our patterns of thought and behavior.
The first thing to note is that the belief that we all think or reason in the same way is false.
I am constantly frustrated and dumbfounded at the difficulty or outright impossibility of trying to communicate with others.
I see other people struggle, too: we all apparently expect that when we speak or write, others will understand what we are trying to communicate, even if they don’t agree.
The frequency with which this fails to happen is often underestimated.
So what are some of the reasons we don’t all think and behave in the same ways?
Environment is probably the largest influence. Cultures are different, subcultures are different, and families are different. A person raised in the jungles of New Guinea is going to have a different method of thinking and knowing than one raised in urban New York. More subtly but nonetheless real will be the differences between those raised in the rural south of the U.S. versus a large northern city.
Too often we in the West implicitly look at the ways non-Westerners think and live as beneath us because, we reason, our society is more technologically advanced. Look closely, though, and you’ll notice this is just another version of the “Might is Right” argument: I’m stronger than you so that means I win. While Western thinking has surely been a boon scientifically, is that the only kind of valuable knowledge?
Beyond this large-scale difference, though, what accounts for our formation within our particular situations?
We all by nature are largely motivated to think and act the ways we do in response to gaining the approval of people or groups of people whose opinions we value.
We all seek validation, and likely one of the first forms of validation we received came from parental figures whom reinforced particular thoughts and behaviors. Some of those memories are likely to stay with us forever.
As we mature from childhood into adulthood we begin to craft our own identity. Often this includes rejecting certain aspects of our parental figures’ thought and action and selecting role models and peers with which we look to emulate and associate.
But here’s an important point: we don’t always choose our friends or the groups we associate with.
Often we just kind of “fall in” with anyone who provides companionship, friendship or love. And being accepted or respected by these people then becomes incredibly important to us because we both like them and fear we might not find other people with which we can relate.
In this way our thinking and behaving become drastically impacted by the people who form our closest personal communities.
As a generic, fictitious and overly-simplified example that means no offense to anyone but does reflect the view of some: why would I as a strict and devoted libertarian who believes government is the cause of society’s problems even begin to imagine why a zealous socialist thinks more government is better?
What if I actually started to find the socialist’s ideas compelling? What would my friends think? What will I think about myself?
If you think that kind of characterization doesn’t apply to you because you make it a point to be a free-thinker who isn’t tied down to any particular group or belief, I would suggest that thought itself is part of the group and belief you associate with – what would your friends say if you stopped being a “free-thinker” and began ascribing to particular ideas and beliefs of a group? What would you think and feel about yourself?
All of us seek the respect and affirmation of certain people and to some extent allow our thoughts and behaviors to be determined by whoever those people are.