Social habits are why some initiatives become world-changing movements, while others fail to ignite. And the reason why social habits have such influence is because at the root of many movements is a three-part process that historians and sociologists say shows up again and again
📌 How movements happen
1. A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and strong ties between close acquaintances.
2. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together. (“the power of weak ties”)
3. And it endures because a movement’s leader give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership.
Usually, only when all three parts of this process are fulfilled can a movement become self-propelling and reach a critical mass.
There’s a natural instinct embedded in friendship, a sympathy that makes us willing to fight for someone we like when they are treated unjustly. Studies show that people have no problem ignoring strangers’ injuries, but when a friend is insulted, our sense of outrage is enough to overcome the inertia that usually makes protests hard to organize.
Weak-tie acquaintances were often more important than strong-tie friends because weak ties give us access to social networks where we don’t otherwise belong. Many people learned about new job opportunities through weak ties, rather than from close friends, which makes sense because we talk to our closest friends all the time, or work alongside them or read the same blogs. By the time strong ties have learned about a new opportunity, we probably know about it, as well. On the other hand, our weak-tie acquaintances – the people we bump into every six months – are the ones who tell us about jobs we would otherwise never hear about.
Individuals with few weak ties will be deprived of information from distant parts of the social system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends. This deprivation will not only put them in a disadvantaged position in the labor market, where advancement can depend … on knowing about appropriate job opening at just the right time.
Peer pressure – and the social habits that encourage people to conform to group expectations – is difficult to describe, because it often differs in form and expression from person to person. These social habits aren’t so much one consistent pattern as dozens of individual habits that ultimately cause everyone to move in the same direction.
The habits of peer pressure, however, have something in common. They often spread through weak ties. And they gain their authority through communal expectations. If you ignore the social obligations of your neighborhood, if you shrug off the expected patterns of your community, you risk losing your social standing. You endanger your access to many of the social benefits that come from joining the country club, the alumni association.
In other words, if you don’t give the caller looking for a job a helping hand, he might complain to his tennis partner, who might mention those grumblings to someone in the locker room who you were helping to attract as a client, who is now less likely to return your call because you have a reputation for not being a team player.
On a playground, peer pressure is dangerous. In adult life, it’s how business gets done and communities self-organize.
Such peer pressure, on its own, isn’t enough to sustain a movement. But when the strong ties of friendship and the weak ties of peer pressure merge, they create incredible momentum. That’s when widespread social change can begin.
For an idea to grow beyond a community, it must become self-propelling. And the surest way to achieve that is to give people new habits that help them figure out where to go on their own.
Movements don’t emerge because everyone suddenly decides to face the same direction at once. They rely on social patterns that begin as the habits of friendship, grow through the habits of communities, and are sustained by new habits that change participants’ sense of self.
📌 The neurology of free will – are we responsible for our habits?
A cognitive neurologist did an experiment in order to understand more about how people react to a gambling slot machine that was programmed to deliver three outcomes: a win, a loss and a “near miss”.
Two groups of people were involved in this experiment: “pathological gamblers”(people that had gambling problems) and nonproblem gamblers.
The cognitive neurologist found that, pathological gamblers are more excited about winning. Facing a slot machine, when the symbols lined up, even though they didn’t actually win any money, the areas in their brains related to emotion and reward were much more active than in non-pathological gamblers.
What was really interesting are the near misses. To pathological gamblers, near misses looked like wins. People without a gambling problem were better at recognizing that a near miss means you still lose.
The two groups saw the exact same event – “near miss”, but from neurological perspective, they viewed it differently. People with gambling problems got a mental high from the near miss while the nonproblem gamblers got a dose of apprehension that triggered a different habit, the one that says “I should quit before it gets worse.”
Gaming companies are well aware of this tendency, of course, which is why in the past decades, slot machines have been programmed to deliver a more constant supply of near wins. Gamblers who keep betting after near wins are what make casinos, racetracks, and state lotteries so profitable.
Adding a near miss to a lottery is like pouring jet fuel on a fire.
Habits even once they are rooted in our minds – aren’t destiny. We can choose our habits, once we know how. Everything we know about habits, from experts, is that any of them can be changed, if you understand how they function.
However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it.