How Social Programming Influences Your Reality
Our worldview about people, things and situations is what defines the reality in which we live. Yet our culture, value system and beliefs are a product of a complex social process which begins early in our childhood and continues as long as we live. This is known as social programming.
Social programming (or social conditioning) is the process by which we learn how to become members of the society. Through this process, we assimilate the value system, concepts, ideas, norms, beliefs, customs and ideologies of the society as our own, aligning with the group. The society shapes us and makes us fit for its standards. When those cultural and behavioral elements become deeply ingrained in our personality, the society deems us fully developed individuals, and we fit with the majority.
This set of instructions which we adopt and integrate in our lives comes from many different sources in our social environment. Our parents, family, teachers, and friends are the first, immediate, and most impactful agents of the process of social programming. The social programming begins as soon as we are born and continues through our childhood, when our psyche is most malleable.
By aligning ourselves with the societal codes and norms of behavior, we gain a sense of identity, belonging, acceptance to the group, and external approval. However, the pay an enormous price—we forsake our innate nature, we are no longer in tune with our inborn intelligence, and we become highly dependent on the system.
Do we know what we really want? Are we fully aware of our innate drives, of what truly inspires us, and what our true purpose is? How much of our likes and dislikes, goals and ambitions, values and ideas are genuinely our own? Do we live a programmed life, with all our beliefs, aspirations and dreams defined by others — our family, our culture, our community, the society at large?
For example, one of the most dangerous beliefs which has been programmed into us through social conditioning is that of having to sacrifice the present for achieving a “better future.” Children and young people are often told that they need to postpone the game, the pleasure, the joy, and direct all their focus and effort on their studies. Parents and teachers continuously repeat that being excellent in school is the way to progress in life and enjoy in future. The message that education is important is not to be refuted. What is troublesome, though, is the idea that the only way to achieve it is through externally imposed discipline; that study and playing exclude one another; and that the present moment is less important than the future.
Psychologists, philosophers and spiritual masters often warn us that, as adults, we are caught in the tight grip of the various mechanisms of social conditioning. We continue to conform to external standards in order to avoid punishment, earn a reward, get recognition, have a sense of belonging. Yet this becomes a treadmill, a rat race — an endless strive to advance or even just preserve one’s status in society. In the process, we forsake our authenticity, our sense of agency, and our wholesomeness.
As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in his book “Flow,” one is always “caught in a treadmill of social controls … reaching for a prize that always dissolves in his hands. In a complex society, many powerful groups are involved in socializing, sometimes to seemingly contradictory goals . . . Schools, churches, and banks try to turn us into responsible citizens willing to work hard and save . . . merchants, manufacturers, and advertisers to spend our earnings on products that will produce the most profits for them . . . The messages are very different, but their outcome is essentially the same: they make us dependent on a social system that exploits our energies for its own purposes.”
A common belief and behavior resulting from social conditioning is the obsessive pursuit of money, status and power, which comes from the belief that affluence brings/guarantees satisfaction and happiness. In reality, such attitudes often sabotage one’s wellbeing, quality of relationships, and sense of fulfillment. Another behavior resulting from social conditioning and far too readily accepted as a signature of “modern lifestyle” is excessive consumption, hoarding and addiction to shopping.
Breaking free from social conditioning requires awareness, openness to change and transformation, inner work through mindfulness meditation and other techniques, awakening one’s inner voice and intuition. These long-term approaches require commitment and work.
It is possible to loosen the grip of social conditioning through small steps applied in everyday life. Some of the most effective approaches are:
- Nurture the attitude of critical thinking, and refuse to accept things at face value.
- Question your reactions, especially if they are habitual and in response to a problem, challenge or a crisis. Is it a learned reaction? Have you adopted it from someone else (parent, mentor, etc.)? Can you respond differently to this situation?
- Challenge authority—whether it is a scientist, religious figure, popular figure, a politician etc., remember that no-one holds absolute truths.
- Beware of your use of TV, printed media, Internet and social media. These are powerful channels of influence, shaping of public opinion and promoting particular narratives which support certain power structures in the society. Far too often, these media abound with messages of negativity, violence, fear and consumerism. And remember, one of the most powerful tools of social conditioning is what every marketing agency routinely applies — repetition of a given message leads to its acceptance.
- As much as possible, get exposure to countries, cultures, religions, philosophies and ways of life different from your own. In doing so, you will be able to recognize how our societal systems shape our own beliefs. You will be able to gain different perspectives and widen your worldview.
- Beware of trends and mainstream culture. The entertainment industry (including music, cinema and fashion) define the predominant taste, ways of thinking, and attitudes. Question those choices. Being “in” means letting others choose what you think, how you speak, what choices you make, and how you behave.
- Begin to choose and define your own values and goals. Through self-reflection, open-mindedness and sincerity, scrutinize every opinion, value and goal which you identify with. Is it your own, or it was imposed on you at some point of your life? Slowly begin to get rid of those which do not contribute to your wellbeing and progress. Do not fear to create—even from scratch—values, principles, vision and goals of your own.
- Dare to be yourself. Many people fear that being unique or doing things differently complicates their life (school, career, relationships) and puts them at risk of being excluded from the community. However, all the great achievers have dared listen to their inner voice and define their own purpose and goals, instead of accepting the herd mentality.
Not everything about social conditioning is negative. Social conditioning is an effective process of integrating the individual within the group and the society at large. It is a system through which the individual both harnesses and contributes to the cumulative wealth of culture, technology, science and art, and benefits from the large support network. However, the key is to become conscious of the way social conditioning affects you, to awaken to your innate nature, and reclaim agency over and responsibility for your own life. When that happens, you become free from a feeling of limitation, fear and victimhood. You begin to reshape and manifest your reality according to your inner truth.