Who makes the major decisions guiding your life? Who determined the general course of your day today? Who is in the driver’s seat of your experience in this very moment? If you’re like most people, you probably think you’re the decider. But humans, like many other animals, are complex and dynamic social beings. As Walt Whitman famously said, we are large and contain multitudes. Our complexity and embeddedness within social networks and ecosystems means that the mechanisms driving our behavior are multiplicitous. Part of the challenge of being human is doing our best to live well within this dynamic, interwoven complexity. Fortunately, mindfulness is a trainable skill that can help us to do so.
Because our overall wellbeing and chances for survival are generally improved by the support of a community, we have a strong compulsion to be liked by and find ourselves in agreement with others around us. One example of this is our tendency to change our attitudes and behaviors in response to what we perceive important others do or think. Social influence is the combined direct and indirect impact of cultural norms, mass media, and interactions in social networks on individual decision making. Our social networks have a powerful influence on our heath and wellbeing. Time and time again, researchers Christakis and Fowler found this to be true about a variety of states and behaviors including obesity, smoking, drinking, and happiness. In many ways, we are deciding together.
We also have a cognitive bias (one of many) – and in the US we experience cultural pressure – to believe that we are the sole, autonomous authors of our own actions. This gives us the comforting belief in a just world and the illusion that we are in ultimate control our own destinies. But, research tells us that much of our decision making process happens below the level of conscious awareness and we tend to construct self-serving explanatory attributions to help us make sense of our experiences and the world around us. Authorship processing, is the perception that the self is the causal agent of internal and external events. Researchers have described authorship as an emotion “inferred from various cues” such as “body and environment orientation, sensory feedback and feed-forward, social cues, action consequences, and action-relevant thought” (Wegner & Sparrow, 2004). In other words, we tend make assumptions about our agency based on a variety of subjective factors, rather than the facts of a given situation. When this happens, our emotions make the decisions.
Another socially mediated example of a subconscious process that can influence our choices is the scarcity heuristic – a mental construct in which humans place a higher value on an object that is difficult to come by, and a lower value on those that are in abundance. Our tendency toward reactivity can drive us to compete with our neighbors or act against our own self-interests by attributing outsized value to ideas and things based on a feeling of lack, rather than a true need or their true worth. This reactivity can be deliberately triggered by those with self-dealing intentions for short-term gain, at great expense to everyone over the longer term. Sometimes we don’t realize that we are allowing nefarious others to call the shots.
Researchers have stumbled into other interesting phenomena that challenge our ideas of individual agency and free will. Libet and colleagues found that the unconscious brain activity of the readiness potential (signals that precede motor action) leading up to a subject’s movement began approximately half a second before the subject was even aware of a conscious intention to move. This implies there may be many complicated unidentified factors underlying our actions.
We are discovering that our behavior can even be influenced by the experiences of generations that came before us – people whom we may have never met. Epigenetics is the study of inherited changes in gene expression that can influence health and behavior. An example of this is intergenerational trauma, collective trauma that is passed down to subsequent generations, resulting in increased prevalence of mental health disorders, survivalism behaviors, violence, and/or mortality rates. In this way, history and our ancestors may have already made some decisions for us.
Finally, its becoming clearer to scientists that we are dynamic systems of organisms reliant upon a specific ecosystem for survival. In fact, our bodies themselves are ecosystems – communities of living things existing in delicate balance. It is thought that more than half of our bodies are made up of “non-human” genes, cells and organisms. These “non-human” elements are necessary for us to enjoy and process our food, eliminate toxins, and impact the development of our organs, including our brains – and so they undoubtedly impact our behavior. Studies of astronauts who have completed longer space missions revealed that our immune systems change and gene activation is altered when we are away from the Earth for extended periods of time. Human and animal studies have shown that changes in this delicately balanced ecosystem can have important effects on mood and behavior and are related to risk taking, anxiety, stress, mating and sexual preferences. When we think of it this way, trillions of tiny microorganisms may be contributing to our decisions.
Recognizing all of this complexity, it seems clear to me that there is no autonomous, unitary self blazing the trail of my life. Instead there are many causes and conditions that come together, collectively co-creating a response. A dedicated practice of mindfulness can help us accept this realization with humility, inspiring us to be more compassionate, patient and forgiving of our own and others foibles and mistakes. Our practice can help us make space to examine our habits and experiences more closely, creating a pause between stimulus and response, rather than reacting blindly from assumption or impulsively out of emotion. This spaciousness serves to expand our options and empowers us to navigate life more intentionally and wisely. We come to see that we must consider the wellbeing of all in our decisions – ourselves, other beings, and the planet – if any of us are to be well.
Christakis, N.A.; Fowler, J.H. (2007). The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network Over 32 Years. New England Journal of Medicine. 357 (4): 370–379.
Christakis, N.A.; Fowler, J.H. (2008). The Collective Dynamics of Smoking in a Large Social Network. New England Journal of Medicine. 358 (21): 2249–2258
Fowler, J.H.; Christakis, N.A. (2008). The Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network: Longitudinal Analysis Over 20 Years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal. 337: a2338.
Gallagher, G (2018). More than half of your body is not human. BBC Health.
Koren, O. (2017). Moody microbes: Do Microbes Influence our Behavior? European Neuropsychopharmacology. Volume 27, Supplement 3, Page S478.
Libet, B., et. al. (1983). Time of Conscious Intention to Act in Relation to Onset of Cerebral Activity (Readiness-Potential). Brain. 106 (3): 623–42.
Libet, B. (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 8 (4): 529–66.
Mavrodiev, P., Tessone, C. & Schweitzer, F. (2013). Quantifying the effects of social influence. Sci Rep 3, 1360.
Morsella, E & Poehlman, TA (2013). The inevitable contrast: Conscious vs. unconscious processes in action control. Front. Psychol. 4:590.
Osman, M. (2021). How Unconscious Forces Control Our Actions. The Conversation, BBC Future.
Rosenquist, J.N.; Murabito, J.; Fowler, J.H.; Christakis, N.A. (2010). The Spread of Alcohol Consumption Behavior in a Large Social Network. Annals of Internal Medicine. 152 (7): 426–433.
Wegner, D. M., & Sparrow, B. (2004). Authorship processing. In M. S. Gazzaniga (Ed.), The cognitive neurosciences (pp. 1201–1209). Boston Review.
University of California, San Francisco (2021). Space Travel Weakens Our Immune Systems – Now Scientists May Know Why: Final Study by UCSF Astronaut Points to Treg Cells as the Culprit. Research