The Power of the Tribe


“Our cultural obsession with independence cannot suppress our human desire to fit in.” – Kelly McGonigal

Have you ever tried to break a bad habit, like raiding the candy jar at work, only to be thwarted when your coworkers overindulge themselves? Or have you tried to establish a good habit and had a good friend or colleague make it easy for you to find excuses to drop it – if only for today? If either of these sounds familiar, then you have experienced the power of social proof.

Human beings are social animals. We have a strong biological urge to stay with the tribe so we are not cast out to survive on our own. Because we are hardwired in this way, we tend to follow the tribe even when we firmly believe ourselves to be fiercely independent. And the closer we are to our specific tribe, the greater the influence it has on us. You will be most influenced by your spouse and good friends, less so by colleagues you do not work closely with or strangers.

As you can imagine, your brain is to blame for this – specifically mirror neurons. Unlike other neurons, mirror neurons fire both when we directly experience an event and when we witness others experiencing an event. They help us to read or relate to others and give us our empathy. Mirror neurons put us in other people’s shoes and help us to feel what they are feeling.

What this means is that other people’s behaviors are contagious. We can “catch” good or bad habits from people just like we can catch a cold. This happens every time someone’s happiness spills over and makes us feel good as well as when another’s negativity brings us down. Every single time my husband eats a brownie, I want to eat a brownie too. I may not eat the brownie, but I still want to.  If everyone is being super productive at work, I want to be productive too.  I’m more likely to go to the gym during the day, if other people in the office are also going to the gym during the day. Likewise, I’m more likely to eat lunch at my desk and not take a break if that is encouraged or common in my work environment.

As you might have guessed already, mirror neurons can lead us down the good path or the bad one. So, how can we harness the power of mirror neurons to maintain or increase our good habits and get rid of our bad ones?

1. Surround yourself with people whose habits you want to emulate. You are only as strong as the weakest link in your social chain, so you want to make sure that you are spending time with people who share your goals and aspirations in a disciplined and committed way. Are you hanging out with people who write, or people who avoid writing? Find those people in your social network that will set an example of self-control and discipline for you. If you want to be more productive, surround yourself with people who are more productive.

2.  Don’t use other’s behavior to convince yourself that you don’t need to stick to your goals. It’s not okay to eat that brownie because everyone else in the office is eating them. It’s not okay to refrain from exercise just because everyone you know is sedentary. Don’t use the excuse that “everyone else is doing it” to do allow yourself to do things that you know are bad for you. Remember what your mother said – “If Jimmy jumped off the roof, would you too?” Leave the grade school excuses behind.

3.  Be mindful of your goals and establish some rules around your behavior. If you are trying to cut back on sugar, make a rule where you just do not eat any sweets at all. If you want to free up time for writing in the morning, make a rule that you do not check your email until you have written for at least 15 minutes. By establishing an unbreakable rule, you are committing to a specific goal in a way that gives you an excuse not to engage in goal-destructive behavior. If you don’t eat sugar, then there’s no dilemma around whether or not you should indulge in office sweets. If you don’t check your email in the morning, then you don’t have to decide whether you will check your email first or write. If you don’t go home before stopping at the gym, then there’s no reason not to stop at the gym before you go home. Rules eliminate decision-making in individual situations by making a blanket decision upfront that you will not engage in a specific goal-destructive behavior.

4. Have a plan. Spend a few minutes at the beginning of your day thinking about your own goals and how you could be tempted to ignore them. Then come up with a plan on what you will do if the temptation arises. For example, if someone brings a box of brownies to the office, you will not walk past their desk for any reason. If someone offers you a donut at work, you will thank them but tell them that you will pass this time because you can’t eat sugar. If you are interrupted more than twice when you are trying to write, then you will get up and go to the library to get your writing time in.

5.  Bring someone to mind who is an example of good self-control. When we read about others who have overcome struggles similar to our own and how they did it, it inspires us. These might come from your favorite blogs, magazines or news sources or from memoirs or biographies. Some good memoirs and biographies to check out include Sonia SotomayorBarack Obama,  Misty CopelandSheryl SandbergBenjamin FranklinAbraham LincolnRachel CarsonMadam Curie, and Hillary Clinton. If you want to be inspired by pioneering women in science (random example), here’s a reading list to get you started:

Women in Science – 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Headstrong – 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World

Nobel Prize Women in Science – Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries

Rise of the Rocket Girls – The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars

Now go on out there and catch some inspiration and productivity. I heard it’s going around.

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