Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

The Secret To Bringing Out Your Best

Harness the power of peer pressure. And pick the right peers.

Who are you trying to please?  Who rewards and punishes you? Whose scorn tinges you with chagrin?  Whose praise swells your pride?

I ask because I believe in a simple predictive rule:  We grow toward the selective standards we’re under.  Tell me whose opinions matter to you and I’ll tell you what you’ll become.

I started out in evolutionary psychology, but soon came to see it as an overstep in the right direction. Yes, our evolutionary history shapes us and yes, it’s high time we admit it.  But no, it doesn’t determine us, and too many of my ev psych colleagues seemed to think it did.

At first I was starry eyed over ev psych’s power. All it took to generate a solid biological explanation for a human trait was identifying some way the trait could have been useful to our ancestors.  Ev Psych explained practically everything about us.

And so forgivingly too. Darwinian exculpation I called it--freedom from guilt since you don’t make yourself--evolutionary forces do.

Then it dawned on me:  Evolutionary psych explained too much. By its loose standards there was hardly a trait it couldn’t explain.

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Ev Psych represents one of two opposite oversteps in the right direction that our culture can’t resist for long, but also can’t sustain.  It represents our impulse toward the pleasures of determinism.  You may think there’s nothing pleasurable about determinism, but remember, there’s that freedom from guilt.  

There’s liberty in impotence. You didn’t make yourself, so if you screw up it’s not your fault. Your behavior was never up to you anyway. 

Self-determination can be scary.  You make your bed; you sleep in it, however poorly made.  It’s enough to give you the free willies; the freebe geebies.

But of course,  determinism is scary too, and the opposite overstep is toward total self-determination.  You can be and do anything. Indeed you can create your own reality.

Grand theories pointing to determinism or its opposite, total self-determination are like competing species of seventeen-year locusts, surging forth alternatingly, epidemics of certainty that wipe out all ambiguity for a brief cultural moment, and then subside, a die-off from their own excesses. 

In recent decades the impulse toward determinism surged in behaviorism  (very much a Darwinian spin-off), sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology, Blink, and cognitive science’s assumption that minds are computers. 

And the impulse toward total self-determination counter-surged in movements like EST, Chopra, and The Secret.

In truth we are neither as impotent as determinism suggests, nor as omnipotent as total self-determinism suggests.  We’re some-nipotent.  We can change some things, and the trick is figuring out what to change--where and how to invest our limited capacity to change things.

Darwin got his ideas about natural selection by meditating on artificial selection, the choosing that farmers and gardeners do in selectively breeding animals and plants for favored traits. 

In our personal lives, natural selection may limit our overall repertoires of possible behaviors, but within that broad repertoire all further narrowing is a product of a kind of artificial selection we call learning, the selective breeding of personal habits by nurturing some; and weeding out others. 

Who performs artificial selection on you? To some extent you are your own gardener, but mostly you’re gardened by the folks who people your life, the ones you need or want to please, impress and delight

With shows of pleasure, however subtle or effusive, these people cultivate some habits from within your repertoire.  With shows of displeasure, however subtle or severe, they weed out habits from within your repertoire.

Your some-nipotence’s greatest leverage is in choosing the company you keep.  To the extent you can, find people whose standards bring out the best in you as defined by your standards.   Harness the power of peer pressure. And pick the right peers.

I learned a great lesson in this about 20 years ago, when my wife wanted a divorce.  She said, “It’s not that I don’t like you.  It’s that I don’t like who I become with you.”  

I didn’t realize until months after the divorce, just how much I didn’t like who I became with her.   It wasn’t obvious at first because, 17 years into the marriage, she was my priority peer.  I had pleased her and suddenly I wasn’t. To win her back, I was growing in her direction, not mine.  Out of the mouths of babes--my young son, observed that I was becoming a mommy-wannabe. 

Years later my ex and I thanked each other for the mutual release.  We both moved toward more appropriate peers, cultivators of the habits we each wanted to grow in ourselves.  Of her second husband my ex says, “I fell in love with what I am with him.”  Wise words. 

Lord knows, we don’t get to pick all the company we keep, but to the extent you can,  garden your gardeners, pick the people who bring out the best in you.  

Be a selectrician, wiring up the selective pressures that get your energy and effort flowing in your favored directions.   

You can’t necessarily change yourself, but you can often change the company you keep so that it changes you.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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