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Don’t trade your individuality for an extra slice of zebra

We like to believe that we have individual opinions that are not easily influenced by others, but we know we get influenced not only too often but also too much! Why are we so willing to calibrate our beliefs to match those of others around us? Everybody wants to be liked and it has its benefits: a nice rapport with the boss will help you get that raise sooner, and being popular amongst your friends will ensure you a get an invite to all parties. But we often see approval seeking behavior in social settings where such behavior has no obvious benefits. Why do we see people go to such ridiculous lengths and do things they hate doing just to ‘fit in’ with the crowd?

The reasons might lie in the hostile environment that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in. Like our primate cousins, we humans also evolved living in groups. Life in those times was fraught with uncertainties and dangers. Imagine you are a hungry stone-ager and have just stumbled upon a bunch of colorful berries. How would you determine if they are edible or poisonous? Probably by asking the elders who might have seen their fellows eat those berries before – either to relish their taste or die from their poison. In those dangerous times, your fellow tribesmen were the only source of information you had. For every decision you made, you had to turn to them for information. Over millions of years of evolution, seeking the opinions of others became a survival tactic that got deeply ingrained in our genes.

But along with opinions, why do we also borrow our behavior from others and strive to ‘fit in’ by being similar to everyone in the herd? We often see people exhibit public compliance in spite of private disapproval. You know that your friend dislikes a particular movie actor. And yet, you see him admiring the actor in the presence of his friends because they are his devout fans! Not all rioters truly endorse unrestrained vandalism, rape and murder. And yet, we see them drown all their morals and reservations when the mob strikes. Why do we feel a pressure on us to conform and align our behavior to everybody else’s. It seems that this too has something to do with evolution. Similarity with members of the herd conferred considerable survival advantages to those who conformed. We simply like people who are similar to us! Why? Because if you like, become friends with, offer food to, take care of, come to the help of, and mate with people who are similar to you, you are eventually ensuring survival of genes similar to yours. And being similar to others increased the chances of all of the above things happening to you. The more number of fellow tribesmen you became similar to, the more were your chances that someone will offer you a fresh slice of the zebra they just hunted!

Life on the grasslands offered limited possibilities. The only career options you had were hunting, building houses, and raiding enemy tribes if you were a man, or fishing, cooking and giving birth to babies if you were a woman. Nothing new really happened for millions of years. The skill set one needed to develop in order to survive was very small. But things have changed, haven’t they? In today’s world laden with information, do you still need to turn to your buddies to make decisions such as what to eat, when to laugh, whom to ridicule and what movie actors to like? Approval seeking and canvassing your fellow tribesmen might have fetched you that extra slice of zebra then, but differentiation from your colleagues and not similarity with them is going to fetch you what you want today! The values of innovation and creativity that are deemed necessary for success today can only be achieved by being different. We need to consciously change our primeval behavior. We must learn to stave off our inner response that urges us to quickly and unthinkingly adopt whatever the majority adopts. We must realize that in today’s world our differences are our strengths – we can only contribute to others what they do not already have. If you are nothing but a reflection of your peers, you can contribute to them nothing but smug satisfaction!

Along with developing ourselves as individuals distinct from the collective, we must learn to respect others as individuals too. We must respect someone who maintains beliefs and opinions that are different from the herd. It is all too common to for us to suppress not only our own individual voices, but also the individual voices of others. Have you ever been angry on somebody just because the other person insisted on holding to an opinion different from yours? Herds are extremely efficient at drowning individual opinions. We must stop that from happening because the world’s most brilliant inventions, discoveries and works of art have always been produced by individuals – never by herds. Remember and try to break free from what Oscar Wilde says: “The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, and the terror of God, which is the secret of religion – these are the two things that govern us!”

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