Choice and influence

A religious person might tell you that what separates man from animal is that we have a “soul”. Aristotle thought that laughter distinguishes us from the beasts, ignorant of the fact that even rats laugh. A modern man, though, will tell you that the uniqueness of humans comes from being imbued with Free Will; i.e. the ability to make choices unencumbered by physical, social, and mental constraints.

Free Will is what makes every individual within our society a special snowflake, whose personal success in life is supposedly a product of little more than having a strong will and doing hard work, and whose choice is always determined and unassailable. ”People never change,” some will say. We even instituted democracy as a system of disallowing the rule of the likes of evil kings and corrupted dictators, and this system is based on the premise that each citizen has an individual, objective choice, and as a majority they will pick the best candidate. This system of government is considered superior to all others because it can’t be gamed— no one can abuse the system because it’s impossible to affect people’s choices.

It’s a bit suspicious, then, that our ability to make “our own choice” is curiously influenced by outside factors. As of late, scientists are looking into techniques related to “priming”, i.e. affecting people’s choices based on exposing them to seemingly unrelated stimuli. Advertising not only informs you about the existence of a product, but is a trade of psychological tricks that exploit your insecurities, your ego, or both. (Buying a diamond ring to show love is an advertiser’s idea. So was deodorant. So was establishing pink as a color that girls and women prefer.) Websites tend to bend your choice by proven and ever-evolving techniques of “upselling”. The huge amount of money pumped into election campaigns is an investment into ideally affecting the choice of a large population. Our “choice” of a favorite sports team/religion/diet/formal education/fashion conveniently matches the choice of most people around us, or at least of those few that are closest to us.

So please bear with me while I entertain the following thought out loud: just as I don’t think of a human as a single creature anymore, but as a complex organism manifesting emergent intelligence, made of part human genome and part 100 trillion bacteria that make up our microbiome and affect our mental state (as neuroscientists are finding out), I also don’t think that our choice exists in vacuum, i.e. that it’s impervious to outside influence. Quite the opposite; I’m quite convinced that our choice is all outside influence; simply a reaction of all accumulated stimuli so far from the beginning of our lives to the very present moment.

Therefore it follows that everything I know and think and feel is due to, and thanks to, everyone who so far touched my life. It might have been as small as a single intriguing sentence in an otherwise bad book from an author who I know nothing about. It might have been a friend’s advice that I didn’t come to understand until many years later. It might have even been a bitter argument a long time ago.

So please, don’t say to yourself that you’ll never be able to change anyone. Because by simply existing, you’re influencing everyone around you with every however dumb or smart thing you say, with every social media post, even the morning selfies you send to a friend. During that argument you just had with another person, you might have implanted in them (and they in you!) a seed of influence that will someday end up fundamentally transforming them.

Seeds of influence will take months and years to grow. You probably won’t, and shouldn’t wait to, be around to witness it bearing fruit. In the meantime, try to be kind to everyone regardless of whether you were just agreeing or not. While you are allowed to hold onto your opinions; please, allow for a chance that not everything about yourself is just your own.