Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Social animals, status chimps, clever humans

We are social animals. Our sense of self develops first in relation to our environment and immediate caregivers, then the others in our family unit, our clan, our tribe or our village. Our identity involves a complex dance between the polarities of being grounded as a part of something larger (relatedness to others) and the expression of self (individuality).

This dance is described in psychological terms as the interaction of the superego (parental and societal rules), the id (self-expression) and the ego (sense of self and of personal agency).

The ego helps us to set our individual goals and identify our motivation to achieve them. And because of our social nature, we also discover that in order to accomplish many of the tasks in our lives we require the assistance, support, and cooperation of others.

Like our nearest animal relative, the chimpanzee, our social relations are encoded with status, with games and a pecking order – literally the “who’s who in the zoo”. Status helps lend some structure to our interactions with the other members of our group and, in evolutionary terms, helps to ensure the survival of the group entity. As an individual, status can be simultaneously reassuring (we know where we fit in) and tremendously threatening.

To illustrate the point, look at the picture below, and imagine that you are the orange circle in each of the two groupings.

From the work of German Psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus.

What feelings do you experience when you imagine your position in the group on the left versus the group on the right?

Is your ego telling you that one situation is acceptable and the other is not?

Do you take comfort from the fact that in both groups, you are actually at the centre of a group of others?

Most interestingly, did you spot that in both groups, the orange circles are in fact exactly the same size…?

The point is this: we are animals and therefore social. We are (essentially) chimps and therefore have status in our groupings. Yet we are more than our animal origins.

As humans we can apply our larger brains and evolved minds to define and shape our own reality. This enables us to keep our ego-based fears from getting in the way of our relatedness to others.

Now this is not to demonize the ego (which is a normal and necessary part of who we are) it's a call for a reality check. And a reminder that we have the choice to define our own reality such that, no matter the “size” of those around us, we are less concerned with the relative differences in size than with striving to be the best orange circle we can be.

Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said, “People are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” If you define your happiness as always relative to those around you, it will remain always beyond your control.

On the other hand, if you choose to define happiness for yourself then you will always be the best measure of its accomplishment – and you will be better positioned to reach out to others to help you get there, since you’ll have nothing to fear from them and everything to gain.

Choose wisely, it’s your life after all!

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