Humans are inherently social. We all have the “need for love and belongingness” (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Our psychological need for a sense of belonging can create an obsession with being part of a specific community, tribe or association. A lot of people believe that bigger is the size of the group to which they belong, the more invincible they are. Also, being part of a growing community can be perceived as a sense of achievement. Our motivation can be driven by many other reasons such as career advancement opportunities or of better social standing.
Being part of a group always require compromises and sometimes even sacrifices when the need to fit in is more important that the right to speak out and be true to our core values. Steep hierarchies in certain organisations or communities has one major inconvenience: not knowing what is going on – making them counterproductive. The high stress of deep hierarchies makes it harder to think but also riskier to dissent. Dissenters are condemned to languish further down the pecking order.
As a result, being true to oneself can become the exception rather than the rule. If you are in a constant state of stress due to the many compromises to be made as being part of a group, it taxes your whole stress response mechanisms. A human’s stress response is generally meant for ad hoc use. Making an abusive use of it can lead to depression or mood disorders. Chronic stress also hampers our ability to think and solve problems.
Rank, status and their associated symbols are constantly evolving so that seeking them can feel like being stuck on the treadmill for ever. Pursuing them can become addictive, driving people to greater and greater extremes, bigger and bigger risks. The rewards are all relative as there will always be someone who has done better, won more, achieved more. Satisfaction can remain elusive for those people with that state of mind. Status has always been, is always and will always be relative….
Dissension is necessary for any organisation or community as it fosters new ideas leading to creative solutions for existing challenges. Choosing to communicate without status and without authority reduces distance so that sharing gets easier and dissolves social barriers. Sharing, trust and the desire to connect is what makes it worthwhile to be human. Size is not what matters.
It has been proved that mutual trust, reciprocity and having shared norms make a society resilient in times of stress. Communities with higher levels of social capital tend to have lower poverty rates, fewer incidents of violent crime, and stronger democratic institutions.
Social barriers are usually inherited rather than learnt. For the growing brain of a child, the social world supplies the most important experiences influencing his or her perceptions about life. For the first six years of a child’s life, every experience is directly downloaded into the subconscious without discrimination. Parents also have an overwhelming influence on the mental and physical attributes of the children they raise. The fundamental behaviours, beliefs and attitudes we observe in our parents becomes part of us.
Fortunately, we can choose to perceive the environment in different ways. While we cannot readily change our DNA, we can change our minds on how we perceive our reality. The function of the mind is to create coherence between our beliefs and the reality we experience. Behavioural epigenetics has demonstrated that the character of our lives is determined not by our genes but by our responses to the environmental signals that propel life. Changes in beliefs lead to rapid changes in gene activity. When people raise their level of optimism and deepen their social connection, they are happier and they are more successful in their studies and career. Scientific studies of longevity, medical and mental health, happiness and even wisdom point to supportive relationships as the most important determinant. The creation of loving bonds assures the mind that we are safe.
So, whether we choose to be free in how we perceive our world or observing our lives through the lens of social barriers is up to us. In other words, we have the ability to edit the data we enter into our biocomputers, just as surely as we can choose to be part of a group and be ourselves at the same time.