During the 1970s, the idea of making a statement with a slogan on a T-shirt came in vogue.
One of the most memorable of these slogan T-shirts was the phrase “I’m with Stupid,” with an arrow pointing ostentatiously at the person to the left of the person who was wearing the shirt (it is unclear whether the direction of the arrow had any significance, politically or otherwise).
This shirt was, of course, designed to embarrass those who were with the wearer. However, more to the truth would have been a T-shirt with a slightly different slogan. “I’m stupid because I am with” followed by the arrow pointing to the person on the left.
It perhaps comes as no surprise that whether or not we realize it, we are made less, or more, intelligent by those who surround us. This is due to the fact that we as humans are social animals. Despite our own glorified view of ourselves as strong-willed, independent thinking individuals who determine our own identity we are, in fact, dramatically affected by our social environment.
It is our social environment that can dictate not only the language that we speak and the type of foods that we eat, but it also dominates our attitudes and how we view the world around us.
We begin construction of this social lens at birth. The primary people who influence at this young age are our parents. Certainly it comes as no surprise that we learn our primary language from them, but we also absorb so much more. We learn not only the words to speak, but when and how to express ourselves. We learn about the power associated with communications and relationships. This includes not only who can talk to whom, but also what we can talk about to different individuals. This also includes the various ways ideas can be expressed, including how direct, or indirect certain topics can be confronted. And finally, we also learn the vast array of non-verbal cues associated with communication.
At some point we venture beyond a world dominated by our parents, and our social lens expands with our expanding social interactions. These interactions may reinforce the interaction rules that we learned up to this point, but often they also challenge these rules, or at least expand them to different social situations that we have not yet experienced.
Our world view expands certainly, but we also begin to make explicit decisions about our own place inside this world view. These decisions are rarely made in isolation, however. Often we begin to express our identity in certain ways and test it on the social world around us for reaction. Based on the reactions of those around us we continue to evolve our identity so that is consistent with the social interactions that take place around us. All of this takes place without our permission and, at least for most of us, we are completely unconscious of the process or result. We simply assume that we are who we are based on our choice of identity.
This is one of the reasons that we experience culture shock when we are place in a completely different social environment. Even if we speak the language, we still are generally unprepared for the change in social interactions that are the basis of the power relationships between ourselves and other individuals. This is especially true if the non-verbal forms of communication changes dramatically. These challenges go way beyond language, again without our being conscious of it, and cause us to modify our identity so that we can build a consistent view of our place in the world.
This process of identity building and evolution is not, it turns out, dominated by our attempts at creating a unique individual identity, rather it is dominated by our construction of our identity as members of various groups. We learn from these groups which behaviors are acceptable, and which are not. We then construct our existence as a collection of memberships, groups that we find ourselves in.
Equally important, however, are the groups we are not in, either through our own choice or from a rejection by the group of our membership application. Just think about the questions we ask ourselves when we are first introduced:
“What do you do for a living?” This question places us in a group associated with our profession.
“Where are you from?” This question is not meant to place us geographically, but to place us based on the characteristics of our geographic social structure. Similar questions can also place us based on schooling level and background (placing us in an academic group setting).
What we don’t realize is that this categorization begins to take place in our mental processes even before we speak. One of the very first things we do when we meet someone new is to evaluate them based on their gender, their age, and their ethnicity. As soon as this evaluation is complete we then place the person in their appropriate group membership categories.
The final step, which is one that is both unconscious and insidious, then has us evaluating this individual on what their in-group membership status are and then compare them with our own. The more alike we are, the more likely we are to interact with this person. Social scientists call this homophily. Simply put, people are usually much more likely to accept and interact with those who look like us. And, conversely, people generally find it difficult to interact with those who do not.
If you doubt that this occurs, look closely at pictures of those who you call good friends. Most likely they will all be of the same gender, ethnicity and age. Look at the pictures of those who who are in business together. Again, it is striking to see that a majority of the time these other people will most likely all be of the same gender, ethnicity and age.
There are positives associated with this homophilic behavior. It makes group forming effortless, we can quickly choose those with whom we are most likely to get along. It also limits the amount of conflict that arises during the group forming process because we are more likely to have the same world view as those who look like us, we are more likely to reinforce our opinions and prejudices than we are to contradict them. And we feel comfortable more quickly.
However, this behavior also results in some significant negatives, the most important of which is the point of our new T-shirt design, “I’m stupid because I’m with” and an arrow pointing at the unfortunate individual at our left (again the direction of the arrow not having any significance, politically or otherwise).
If we follow our tendency to interact only with those who look like us, we miss the opportunity to mingle with those whose world view is very different from our own. It is only through interaction with those who think differently that we learn and grow. Thus homophily, our tendency to choose those who are most like us, fundamentally stunts our intellectual growth.
So what can be done?
First, we must become conscious of the unconscious process of homophily that isolates us with those who look and think like us. Then we must challenge ourselves to step outside of our comfort zone and make the decision to engage those who do not look like us, whether this is gender, ethnicity or age. This engagement cannot be superficial, and it cannot be on “our terms.”
Rather, to be the most effective at changing ourselves, making us more intelligent, it must go beyond an acceptance of the other world view, but an inclusion of at least some of the ideas that make the other individual unique.
Some might recoil at the idea of such an inclusion, wary to question their own world view. But if we really consider the benefits, we will soon find out that we don’t really lose any measure of certainty in a chaotic world. Surely we must honor our own world view; it has served us well in providing needed direction. But opening our mind and heart to new ideas can enrich us in ways that make us both more intelligent and also more able to cope with a much wider set of challenges.