Free thinking and social influence: how do we come to want what we want and how can we better tune into our own ideas about what’s going on.

Why do you choose the brand of washing powder you do when you visit the market? Do you choose out of habit? Or perhaps because the packaging is pretty? Maybe it’s on offer or perhaps you’ve read about it and it sounds like a great product?

On inspection there seem to be so many souces of influence that it feels wrong to pick just one. My actions and reactions in any moment appear to be triggered by my previous conditioning as well as a whole host of other more current internal and external factors. When seen in the way, it’s hard to infer causality in the realms of washing powder choice, and also in all other areas of my life.

In order to explore this question of what is causing what, I began to remove certain influences from my life in order to get a clearer picture of their impact. It has been quite informative and I  wanted to share the removal story with you, incase you would also find it to be an enlightening line of enquiry to take.



When I listen to dance music, I find that I feel like going to a party. When I listen to instrumental folk music, I feel like doing yoga. When I listen to jazz I feel like taking the day off work. These musical stimulants call to the surface their corresponding personality part and my consequent choices reflect this. I’ve written more about this phenomena, which in psychology is referred to as priming, in my book. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat

I don’t know how similar we are, you and I, but I feel I am often primed. However, the more present I am and the more aware I am to my bodily reactions and tendencies, the better able I am to witness them and take time to choose consciously. This is how it feels anyway.

Do you ever see priming in action in your day to day life? Here’s an example of how priming operates in a shopping situation:

Let’s say you are heading out to to buy your weekly groceries when you decide to pop into a clothing shop. Perusing the rails of glamorous outfits you feel yourself somewhat all of a sudden becoming a party girl, or boy. Then and there you are transported. You imagine basking in the Ibiza sunshine, kicking off your Havianas and dancing on the beach. Forget the food shopping, you think. Food is for wimps. Sequins are what you need.

You began to feel like partying ( a feeling or emotion arose in you, or a particular sense of self was awakened) and you spent accordingly. It’s a common case of priming that we may all relate to albeit under different circumstances. For example, you could swap party outfit shops for any other type of shop.

There may be other shopping occasions where you felt that you had a little more self awareness than usual. During these moments of increased awareness you were able to notice, mid shop,  that the party feeling had been awakened. You also noticed that party music was playing in the background and that whatever party spirit you had, had been enlivened by the music. At this point you paused to reflect, possibly considering that despite having your inner party spirit sparked so beautifully, perhaps you don’t want to buy party clothes after all. Or maybe you do decide to buy them.  There’s nothing wrong with shopping. Trust me!

Yet, whatever you go on to choose, how wonderful it is to have been privy to this priming happenstance!

From Shopping, to free thinking

We may all have experienced moments like this. Times when we see that our choices have been influenced quite explicitly by films, music or media, to name just a few sources. Shopping aside, how large a role do these sources of influence play when it comes to the development of our own deeper understandings and values in life? For example, our understanding of what life is about and what really matters. 

Another way to ask this is to say: how is it that we come to think what we think? Do you want to travel, to work, to be a sportsman, to raise a family? Is the world a good place or a bad place? How do you feel about gay marriage or nuclear energy? What feels right, in your heart? How do we come to have our views on these things? Is it though debate and deliberation? Through reading books, speaking to friends or does the understanding of what’s true arise from within? Is it a big old mix of all of this?

I have found that popular culture, (and for me, my popular culture is quite digital/westernised as I have always lived in the UK) puts ideas in my head as to how to think about myself and life. What’s more, being exposed to a constant stream of pop culture influence can saturate my thinking, so much so that I no longer notice that I’m being influenced. It is a little like what happens when you move out of a city you have lived in for a long time. Once you leave, it can seem easier to spot the social and cultural norms under which you had been living.

Even in the absence of the identified source of influence, I must acknowledge that my subsequent feelings and understandings are still heavily dependant on a whole host of external factors, such as past events, conditioning, biology, what I had for breakfast etc. But non the less, I’ve found that if I remove various sources of influence, long or short term, I can learn something new about myself and the world. 

Some years ago I stopped having a TV and radio at home. It was wonderful, you must give it a go! ( I still watched movies on DVD, and videos on YouTube). I truly feel that this enabled me to become a much freer thinker. Perhaps this was because I was less connected to the mainstream collective ideal. I felt better able to think for myself, more able to think independently. 

It was quite easy really to take the no TV leap. I just switched it off. After a week or so a member of my family rang to say their TV had broken and so it wasn’t long till my TV found a new home.  (It felt as though life was in on my little experiment.) 

It was easy,  having no TV at home. Mind you, I did notice that most everywhere I visited had a TV playing. The dentists waiting room, the newsagents, the doctors, office buildings, the airport… Everywhere really. After some time I  reintroduced the influence source, the TV, little by little here or there.  For example, I began to watch TV again while visiting friends or family or while in hotel rooms. When I did this, I felt that I was able to interact with it from the outside. 

I feel often that in order to see what influence, an influence source is having on you, you need to come away from it for a while and then introduce it (just like food really!) On re-introducing it, you see the influence it has been having. It was no different, with the TV.

An example of something I noticed is that through watching certain TV programmes, I had acquired a set of routine responses to particular events. In psychology they call these mental programmes schemas. Schemas are like little protocols or maps of how to respond to certain situations. For example, you might have a mother in law schema, or a ‘how to behave if you miss the bus’ schema. I have a schema, which I see in action when I am buying something at the supermarket. Again, when I am very present, I feel I can respond uniquely and creativity to the moment rather than going through the motion of a schema, but still, I do see it playing out from time to time. 

How does this relate to TV? Well, I discovered that I had inherited certain response schemas from watching entertainment TV and movies. For example, on one occasion someone blocked me in at work, car wise, and I was unable to attend all my workshops and events that day. It was a bit of a nuisance, but actually I wasn’t that upset. Impromptu day off! 

My initial reaction was one of understanding. I acknowledged that it was a mistake and while inconvenient,  I didn’t feel cross with the person who did it. Yet, I had the most unusual sensation running concurrently to this one. It was a feeling that I should be bothered about this. I should be bothered, but I’m not. And in that moment a scene from a film that  had seen many times, came into my mind in which the main character had experienced the same fate as I and had gotten very cross about it.  I seem to remember them shouting  ‘How dare you!’ very loudly at the parking perpetrator.

Such a curious observation! Itt made me wonder how many other Entertainment scenes were informing my responses to lifes events. I considered; how many times have I, while watching TV, seen a person react to being told a loved one was ill or had died? How often have I witnessed the response to birth? How often had I witnessed the beginning and ending of a love affair? Many, many times. 

All of this led me to question how often I borrowed ideas on how to interpret and respond to my own life experience from outside sources. There have been other experiences in my life that were more intense than the car park episode and again in those instances I noticed the discrepancy between how I truly felt, the response that felt natural and right, and how I ‘thought’ I should be responding. I’m sure I can’t be alone in noticing this phenomena— what do you make of it?

The internet is remarkable. I love YouTube and movies and documentaries! The TV and radio can be wonderful, wonderful things. Yet how much fun it can be to turn down the volume of certain influences for a short period, so we can get a fresh view.

Once you turn down the input from various sources, it can be quite nice to get into meditation as a means of listening to the mind and body. I’m not saying that all outside influence is wrong, and that all inner wisdom gained through meditation is right. I’m just here, wanting to explore what is what, exactly 🙂

Do you feel influenced by things? Which sources of influence do you think are most dominant today? Do you find the idea of this activity to be helpful,  let me know in the comments.