Why cultures collide and what you can do about it
Jan 172013

Hazel and I once again contributed to Edge.org’s annual compendium of ideas. In response to the 2012 question, “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?” we riffed on Descartes to summarize the big idea behind social and cultural psychology. 

“I think, therefore I am.” Cogito ergo sum. Remember this elegant and deep idea from René Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy? The fact that a person is contemplating whether she exists, Descartes argued, is proof that she, indeed, actually does exist. With this single statement, Descartes knit together two central ideas of Western philosophy: 1) thinking is powerful, and 2) individuals play a big role in creating their own I’s—that is, their psyches, minds, souls, or selves.

Most of us learn “the cogito” at some point during our formal education. Yet far fewer of us study an equally deep and elegant idea from social psychology: Other people’s thinking likewise powerfully shapes the I’s that we are. Indeed, in many situations, other people’s thinking has a bigger impact on our own thoughts, feelings, and actions than do the thoughts we conjure while philosophizing alone.

In other words, much of the time, “You think, therefore I am.” For better and for worse.

An everyday instance of how your thinking affects other people’s being is the Pygmalion effect. Psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson captured this effect in a classic 1963 study. After giving an IQ test to elementary school students, the researchers told the teachers which students would be “academic spurters” because of their allegedly high IQs. In reality, these students’ IQs were no higher than those of the “normal” students. At the end of the school year, the researchers found that the “spurters’” had attained better grades and higher IQs than the “normals.” The reason? Teachers had expected more from the spurters, and thus given them more time, attention, and care. And the conclusion? Expect more from students, and get better results.

A less sanguine example of how much our thoughts affect other people’s I’s is stereotype threat. Stereotypes are clouds of attitudes, beliefs, and expectations that follow around a group of people. A stereotype in the air over African Americans is that they are bad at school. Women labor under the stereotype that they suck at math.

As social psychologist Claude Steele and others have demonstrated in hundreds of studies, when researchers conjure these stereotypes—even subtly, by, say, asking people to write down their race or gender before taking a test—students from the stereotyped groups score lower than the stereotype-free group. But when researchers do not mention other people’s negative views, the stereotyped groups meet or even exceed their competition. The researchers show that students under stereotype threat are so anxious about confirming the stereotype that they choke on the test. With repeated failures, they seek their fortunes in other domains. In this tragic way, other people’s thoughts deform the I’s of promising students.

As the planet gets smaller and hotter, knowing that “You think, therefore I am” could help us more readily understand how we affect our neighbours and how our neighbours affect us. Not acknowledging how much we impact each other, in contrast, could lead us to repeat the same mistakes.

  16 Responses to “You Think, Therefore I Am”

  1. I think this blurb is so right on! So often, we organize our thoughts about who we are based on what others say or think we are. What’s more, we even make it seem normal. We allow those thoughts to penetrate and dictate how we behave, speak, and think! Since when did others get to define who we are? Why do we give others’ thoughts about ourselves authority over our own? And, why, if we know that we do this, do we allow it to continue?

    I, of course, am guilty of allowing this to happen to me, too. So many times, I have exchanged my own thoughts about myself for others’, both negative and positive. It seems easier, for some reason, to find others’ thoughts more validating instead of my own. Why do we do this? Are our ideas of ourselves somehow clashing with the culture?

    • So how do we get away from allowing others to think for us? Or can we really? Are we hard wired to do this so that we can thrive as a people. The majority rule for the greater good? I just do not know

      • Thank you for your question. I think the answer is that we all think for each other and for ourselves, and the more aware we are of this deep interdependence, the better we will become at using it for the ends we desire.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

      As we explain in the introduction of Clash!, being shaped by others thoughts, feelings, and actions is inevitable; that’s how people make their selves. And so letting other people’s thoughts and expectations be a big part of who you are is not inherently bad. But if you find that other people’s ideas about you clash with your own, perhaps you have not yet found the right cultures for yourself. Seeking out cultures that support and reflect who we think we are or who we want to be is also a big part of being human. Perhaps you may find greater happiness with your self and your social world if you sought out people with whom you clash less.

      Does that make sense?

      • Yes! Makes sense!

      • Yes that does make sense. We are created to be social beings and very few of us thrive when we are ‘islands’ that is totally alone. I think of my very shy introvert son who enjoys being a part of the church youth group so much that he volunteered to be a mentor for the middle school youth group. This particular community supports him and reflects the kinds of thoughts and characteristics that harmonize with him. He found a community that he does not clash with. And yet this community has found outlet that makes them unique and together they stand out in the crowd.

    • Hi Heather,
      How would say your thoughts about yourself been affected by what you have come to understand as God’s thoughts about you – either your perceived thoughts about his thoughts toward you, or actual thoughts that you can count on being true.

  2. This article really sparked my interest. I can see how other people’s thoughts influence how I feel about myself. But what really rocked my world is the notion that we can cause people to react positive or negative by simply guiding them to self think in a stereotypical manner or not. Wow. Ever vigilant in our own thinking to protect our minds and guard our hearts

  3. I learned about this in my social psychology class, the Pygmalion effect is pretty powerful. I can somehow see this in my own life. When I was in grade school I remember teachers favoring other students for some reason and those kids excelled more, it made me feel like I wasn’t worth the time and my grades reflected that. I hated school, until I went off to college and learned about this, I felt like my eyes were suddenly open!

    It’s very interesting how we tend to value other people’s thoughts about us to be much more important and than our own. How powerful a simple comment from someone can either bring us up or bring us further down. So we create these expectations that we try to achieve but many times fall short, it brings stress, anxiety, etc. We become consume with what another person will think of us. I do believe it is important to have good feedback from other people, but when it becomes a danger to the way we think, feel, and act then its doing more harm than good.

    • Really good points here.

      Humans are indeed a very social species; sticks and stones may break our bones, but words and thoughts can hurt us even more. Keep in mind, however, that you are not just a product of your cultures. You are also a producer of your cultures. You can contest, change, or, in some cases, even exit the culture cycles of which you are a part. We discuss this at the end of every chapter of Clash! to illuminate how people can reconcile cultural conflicts–including those within their own selves.

      Thanks for posting!

    • Here is an example from my own life. In fourth grade I had a teacher who saw the best in me. I excelled in almost everything she threw at me because I felt that she really believed in me. In fifth grade I found myself in the ‘smart kids class’. You know how schools used to do that back in the 70’s. Anyway from day one the teacher did nothing but berate me…make fun of me in front of the class and tell me that I wasn’t supposed to be in that class. In 6th grade transition into middle school, I found myself in the ‘dumb kids class’. Miss Kelly my teacher…who I still see around town always would lament that I did not belong in that class… and she found extra projects and sent me for expanded classes and such. And because my household was such that my parents were not in a position to support me in school…I lived each expectation from the teachers that they threw at me. Take That fifth grade teacher… I am in a Master’s Degree Program! HA (a little self lovin… )

  4. So interesting to think about how our personalities develop. It really is a combination of what we think about ourselves and what others say about us that combine to who we are.
    I love the part describing the teachers expectations of certain students and how well they did in class. I think this goes along with the idea of how we view ourselves (ex: I’m bad, no one likes me, hostile view of self) and then seeing the world through that lens. We then in turn view every interaction with others in this way and react accordingly. Like a self-fulfilling prophesy. And if teachers (or leaders, bosses, etc) have certain expectations and such for us, how will that affect our performance?? It will possibly only perpetuate the behaviors.

  5. The article made me think of how my sense of self or my “I” is shaped by God’s view (AKA his thoughts) of me. Since I’ve been a christian, I have grown to have not only a healthier view of myself, but this view of God toward me has radically changed how I view others; how I think about how God thinks of me and how I think about what he thinks of others.

    I think on the one hand, it is deeply important that we stay attuned to what others think of us. Of course, the most important thoughts about us are God’s thoughts about us.

    But part of why think it’s important for us to care about what others think is that we otherwise run the danger of being indifferent and thus meddle with the temptation to do what we want, say what we want, or think what we want. I think one of the potential dangers of being too unconcerned about what others think is that we eventually become selfish proud people. In other words, if we actually don’t care about what others think, then I beg to argue that we can’t actually love those others whose thoughts we are indifferent from.

    This isn’t to suggest that our goal of love is to be somehow controlling or manipulative. Actually, all I am suggesting is – that what bothers us so much about other’s thoughts (except for those that are flattering) is that we can’t control them to meet our ends. Sometimes, others’ thought of us are downright painful.

    Hence, in my view, this is the power of stereotyping – the effort to control others through how we think about them without even meeting or knowing them. Stereotyping is a subtle (or overt depending on who you ask) form of unloving someone. How can anyone, who experiences the stereotyping acts of others not also experience what it feels like to be unloved by that someone?

  6. This is a great piece of insight pertaining to the impact of stereotyping and social psychology. As a social being, more or less we are under the influences of other’s expectation even though we live in a society that promotes individualism. It is because we need other’s recognition and approval in the process of understanding ourselves and seeking our self-identity. We rely on others as a mirror to reflect to us who we are and unconsciously we make believe we are who others think of ourselves. To be able to differentiate oneself needs lots of self-awareness.

    • I love that you used the phrase make believe. When we are children our job was to play make believe so we could understand ourselves in a grown up world. The trick is going from putting on each other’s cloaks to figure out who we are to putting on our very real self image cloak. It’s important to be a team member within a community as that is how culture and community thrives. However it is important to remember to thine own self be true. Fitting in and standing out.

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