Belief is powerful, what you believe in will affect the way you make decisions and this is important because every decision matters. You may think choosing tea over coffee is irrelevant but even when conscious of what we choose and do, each day is a snowball effect of choice following choice and none of it is random.
This is not to say that choosing tea over coffee will lead to some fundamentally important life event, but it might. And it would be impossible to weigh up the probabilities of what difference that choice would make, but some choices have a very clear outcome which people should take heed of.
I’m sure many who read this will have gone out for a drink or two and ended up getting home at 5 am after an all-nighter, one choice lead to another. Alcohol and drugs do impair our decision making, they dis-inhibit us and by having one drink you may think you’re fine but the drug has already taken effect.
This all springs from a conversation I overheard one day on a train. A father was trying to convince his son to behave (not sure what the boy was doing exactly, but it appeared to be regular little boy stuff) and the father told the boy that if he didn’t behave the police would come for him.
There’s a few ways this may affect the child’s thoughts.
- It makes no difference, because he wasn’t listening anyway.
- He develops a fear of the police, adjusts his behaviour and possibly mistrusts his father, because he won’t actually call the police.
- He mistrusts the police, and develops a belief that they punish people for no real reason
- He learns the police aren’t bad and mistrusts his father for lying
And probably more possibilities. It sounds like an innocuous thing, an empty threat that many parents make. But it is a lie. Every parent will tell their children white lies to manipulate behaviour. I’ve written many times about using manipulation for positive reasons but as a general rule a lie will lead to more lies. At what point does the father stop using this lie to manage behaviour? The boy will eventually learn the truth, but he will go for some time with a belief he can be arrested for being a little boy even if he can’t articulate that.
None of this is suggesting the man is being a “bad parent” and likely he was at the end of his tether after a long day but teaching children the right things is important. I’ll never say everyone should trust all authorities but these kinds of messages may cause a deep mistrust. Children are like sponges, particularly to the messages of their parents and these can have positive or negative effects.
I have turned out very different to most of my family and have made very different life choices but I have retained certain things that my mother has instilled in me. When I wash dishes I ensure the bench is wiped down and dry, this was something she always did. I didn’t even realise that I felt that way until I one day realised I did the same thing, and got frustrated when others did not. She always got annoyed at people putting too much food in their mouths and even though I still do that at times I think of my mum’s annoyance at that. These things may seem innocuous and unlikely to have serious impact on my life, but they have had impact on my choices, which leads to other choices.
I see every problem as a social problem. The issues we each face are most often related to other people. Serious matters like war, abuse, and the environment are problems created by people making choices and are problems for people to solve. As a species we haven’t done very well in ensuring our survival, maybe being the “fittest” or most evolved isn’t a good thing.
The little boy on the train will make social choices based on how he takes on the messages of his parents. Has the father just not thought about it? Is he unaware of what it means to give messages to children, to impressionable minds? This unawareness is very common, many people are unaware of how their actions affect others. Many people just don’t care, which is alarming too.
Social awareness can often be derided by those who think the world is being too politically correct. In recent years the term “Social Justice Warrior” has been used frequently to deride those who speak up over issues. There is no doubt there are many people who use social media to tell everyone about how “woke” they are to the world’s problems and do very little to help. But sharing information is valuable. It may be that many people read my work and only one is inspired to change, or maybe very few read it and one is inspired to change, either way it’s a win. It’s challenging to always do the right thing, because we are imperfect and make mistakes. We may act with good intentions but do something ineptly. This is just being human. What we should do is be aware of those around us and our impact on them.
One evening on a trip to Paris with my mother, we stopped at a restaurant. It was situated on a very busy intersection with many people coming and going from work. There was a significant amount of young men standing around outside, coming and going also. Over the course of the meal I was observing and recognised the same men interacting with each other. Every now and then a new person would appear, then leave with one guy, then the guy would come back and not the new person. It became very obvious to me they were drug dealers. The police even came and spoke with them, clearly knowing who they were and what they were doing but their operation was tight.
In London you will see small groups doing this, but not in the same way, these guys were blatant, confident and cocky about it. In the time we ate our meal they must have sold thousands of Euro’s worth of drugs. The reason this interests me is this is also a social problem. People were mostly aware of what these men were doing, they basically owned that street corner. It’s not about drugs per se, but about the way a gang can take a place in the middle of Paris and be untouched.
The social problem has various elements, the fact people take and sell drugs regardless of the law. I do believe that many drugs should be legalised for safer use, but there are serious addiction issues that come with drugs which is a social issue that is related to many factors including poverty, race, aspiration and opportunity, and most definitely to mental health well-being. As long as drugs are illegal the social issues can’t be solved. Then there is the crime element, these gangs are often involved in violence to protect their spot, if the drugs were legal this would help alleviate the social problem of gang violence (It won’t stop gangs, illegal activities will continue in some other way).
Human activity is largely socially based. We do many things for survival, eating and sleeping etc. But these are things we like to share with others. We make choices based on those in our lives, children, parents, work colleagues, friends and partners. These are positives for us, but every bad choice has a knock on effect which can in turn affect those in your life as much as a successful choice does. I believe that if we view problems as social issues we can find a solution to them.
Crime is linked to low socio-economic status (although white collar crime is rife, the majority of crimes are in poorer areas) poverty is certainly a social problem as is crime, solve the base issue of poverty and crime will reduce. Racism is another massive issue, it is social as well. Disliking another person because of race is utterly irrational and completely constructed by people. This has led to situation where certain ethnicities have a generally lower quality of life due to this socially constructed bigotry. The same for the rise in right wing politics, its people voting based on their social understanding. Donald Trump has highlighted this many times with his actions and the way people respond.
What is the answer to this? There isn’t a clear one, there are many. Poverty could be solved partially by redistributed wealth, but changing lives involves opportunity and aspiration. Economic impoverishment affects behaviour and this needs to be unlearned by many. Thinking and behaving ethically is another one, but people have differing ethics and that’s unlikely to change.
I think the way to change is as individuals, even though it is powerful people with the most money who cause many of the social issues with greed and bigotry. You make your choices and when you face a problem think about the social implications, who has been involved and why? We often cause our own problems as individuals (I certainly have) but that behaviour and choice is something we have learned socially. We should think outside of our small sphere of experience, think about neighbourhood and community and world rather than “your house”. Make choices that are beneficial to those around you, not just yourself. I have learned this lesson a few times and made this mistake before by making selfish choices, we all have.
I have often wondered whether altruism really does exist. Does anyone do anything that is truly selfless? The way other perceive us is a massive factor in many of our deeds, good or bad. This status consideration does make us make positive choices and do good things because others will respect or like us for being nice. Just as you may decide against a choice if others will see you negatively. We are frequently on the lookout for positive reinforcement from those around us, often even the view of strangers can be more powerful in our decision making.
There is nothing wrong with doing good things because it makes you feel good, or if you get some reward as well. Expecting people to act selflessly is unrealistic. But we should commend those who do good things, give them more attention than those who make negative choices with harmful outcomes.
Most people are genuinely good, but most powerful people are incredibly selfish. We should endeavour to make those choices for those around us, whatever aspects you see as important. You may be criticised for giving a homeless person money, but if you feel it is a good thing to do, then do it. You may choose to help animals, or save the environment or support people with mental health problems. Any way you see it, they are good things to do, good social things to do. They are all social problems created by people and only people in groups can solve them.