The Power of Environment

 

Famed psychologist Albert Bandura made an important, even disturbing discovery about why we behave the way we do.

In his famous bobo doll experiments, Bandura would instruct an adult to aggressively assault a bobo doll. A young child was watching this take place in a nearby room. After the adult was finished giving the doll a beating, the child who had just witnessed this would be instructed to play with the bobo doll. The child would mirror the adult’s behavior by aggressively attacking the doll.

The important implication of this study is that we determine what behavior is acceptable by observing the actions of those around us. We are sponges for our environment. We model the behaviors of those around us to far greater an extent than we’d like to admit (even to ourselves).

In fact, Bandura’s theory has been reinforced by a variety of recent scientific findings. One particularly chilling set of studies found that if one of your friends becomes obese, you are 57 percent more likely to become obese as well.

Social influence like in the above examples happens completely outside our conscious awareness. We don’t think, “Damn, John’s been gaining some weight, I better be careful to avoid modeling that behavior and gaining weight myself.” No, our mind picks up John’s behavior unconsciously.

As social animals, we are naturally inclined to adapt to the social habits of the people in our social environment. The degree to which this influences us is tremendous, whether we’re aware that it’s happening or not.

This can seem very disempowering. It apparently implies that we are largely the product of our social environment, and that we don’t have nearly as much control over our actions as we’d like to think we do.

I see it differently. Understanding the vast influence that our social group has on us means that we have a powerful point of leverage to use to our favor. If we change this one variable, we can markedly change our lives for the better. There are two practical strategies I recommend using to accomplish this.

 

Find Exceptional People

 

Jim Rohn famously said that you are the average of the five people you interact with the most. As we’ve seen, the science backs up this statement, meaning there is tremendous value in seeking out new friends who will have a positive influence on you.

Furthermore, if you currently have friends who are negatively influencing you, the best way to eliminate that negative influence, as cutthroat as this may sound, is to replace those old friends with new people who will influence you more positively.

In the past, finding exceptional people would have been quite challenging, but today, with the power of the internet, it is actually quite simple. If you want to improve your fitness, seek out a fitness group on meetup.com. You can then go to a hiking event (or something similar) with people from the group, and you can make friends with anyone there who you connect with.

You can also meet exceptional people by joining a variety of local classes. For fitness, you can go to classes at a gym or join some yoga classes. If you want to take up meditation, you can find local meditation studios that offer free guided meditations. If you want to improve your social skills you can join a local Toastmasters group.

Whatever it is you want to pursue, you can easily find people who are already following that path. Then, by meeting these people and starting to form relationships with them, you will shape your social circle in a way that is going to positively influence your behavior. The average of the 5 people you spend time with the most will be elevated, and thus, you will be too.

 

Indirect Mentorship

 

Having a real-life social circle full of passionate people who share your values is the most powerful form of social influence you can leverage in your favor. However, it’s not the only effective strategy, you can also be influenced by people who you don’t even interact with in person.

In an interview with Tom Bilyeu, Neuroscientist David Eagleman said that if you want to improve your behavior, you should read books by people who have already accomplished things similar to what you want to accomplish. And you should also watch videos of people who represent peak performers in the field you are pursuing yourself. To do this, consider replacing some of the time you spend being entertained, with time educating yourself.

The five people who influence you most can include digital mentors, people whose content you follow and learn from. With the scope of resources available, there is no limit to the value you can draw from online mentors, whether it be in video, audio, or written form.

 

Invest Your Time Carefully

 

Laugh track sitcoms, social media, and video games can all be entertaining, and there is intrinsic value to that. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the time you spend consuming electronic media is a substantial investment, and one that you have control over.

When deciding whether to watch tv or play video games, ask yourself if the time you’re about to spend is taking more from you than it’s giving. As a former World of Warcraft addict, I can say that video games can be a fun way to immerse yourself in another world, but they don’t always give something positive back to your real life. In fact, the time I spent playing that game was taking from my actual life. The more accolades and accomplishments I achieved with my virtual avatar, the worse my real life got.

I’m not suggesting you abandon all video games and all television watching. However, for many of us, these behaviors become addictions. At that point, they become detrimental to our life. According to ratings company Nielson, the average American watches five hours of television per day. Even more shocking, the average American spends over 10 hours a day consuming digital media (video games, tv, social media, etc).

Let’s say you spend only half as much time consuming digital media as the average American: five hours a day. Five hours a day adds up fast. If you’re spending five hours a day consuming media, that means you’re spending 140 hours consuming it per month. The amount that can be accomplished in 140 hours is astonishing. I did some number crunching, and for me, that would be enough time to write a 200-page novel, revise it several times, then publish it.

Of course, it’s not realistic to give up all media consumption, nor would that be beneficial. Yet, it is worth considering if there are better uses for some of that time investment.

Think in terms of investment, what are you getting back from the time you’re putting into Netflix or the video games you play? At what point, for you, does that investment become unhealthy or detrimental? If you are exceeding that point, then it will be to your advantage to trade off some of that time you’re spending being educated by people who you admire.

Now, this is easier said than done. Many of us (myself included), have become addicted to our digital media influences. I have been addicted to both television and video games to the point where I was spending most of my free time on those mediums. If you’re situation is similar, you can use applications designed to make reducing the time you spend on these mediums more realistic.

Personally, I use the application Cold Turkey. It allows you to block any distracting websites or applications that you add to a list, and it even allows you to schedule time segments in which those applications are blocked (e.g. from 8am to 9pm) Furthermore, it allows you to lock in the schedule you set until a date that you predetermine, which means you cannot deactivate the software once you’ve set it in motion.  This application is particularly effective because it’s nearly impossible to remove or deactivate. (I use a similar application for my Android smartphone called Offtime. Moment is an alternative for iPhone.)

If you want to reach a high level of success, the cast of Friends or How I Met Your Mother probably shouldn’t be your primary digital mentors. Ross and Ted Mosby aren’t going to be great candidates for the five people you surround yourself with the most. Instead, consider setting aside some of the time you currently dedicate to entertainment to education, and you will immerse yourself in an environment conducive to personal growth.

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