The Power of Social Habitats

We are shaped by the social habitats we experience.

Posted Feb 12, 2018

Aristotle was right—our social habitats shape who we are.  The activities and friendships we take up mold our sensibilities—that is why he contended that one needs mentors to help with those choices. Science is supporting this view. Our experiences shape our intuitions (Hogarth, 2001). Even where we place our attention shapes our beliefs about what is real, true and good. (More on specifics in my next post.)

When we are babies and young children, we don't have a choice of social habitat. We are born into a family that attends to our needs kindly, shaping us to be calm and caring, or a family that is distracted or intrusive or harsh, shaping us to be anxious and insecure (or a family somewhere in between). Early life is the most critical time for shaping-by-habitat as so many biological systems are finishing their construction in response to postnatal experience. (See more here and here.)

We carry forward the engraving of early experience in our reactivity, social capacities, personality, and preferences. Though our trajectory is established by how well our basic needs were met in these sensitive early years, we do have the power to choose a different path later.

Little by little, through childhood we increasingly choose our own friends and activities, but our ability to make choices really comes into fruition in adolescence, then adulthood, when we typically have much more freedom.

It is best to have mentors guiding us in our choices, as Aristotle suggested. We do know now that adulthood really doesn’t arrive till nearly age 30, in terms of executive functions (foresight, planning, empathy, action shifting), assuming no damage earlier (Anderson et al., 1999; Bechara, 2005) or excessive violent video game immersion (Matthews et al, 2005). But even a well developed brain at age 30 does not have the sophistication of a well-developed elder’s brain, which can integrate and synthesize past experience, present conditions and future possibilities to guide wise choices. In fact, Maslow thought only older people reached their human potential in self-actualization (see here for list of characteristics). In traditional societies, like those of Native Americans, wise elders guide the community in its choices perhaps for this very reason.

Each of us benefits from wise guides throughout life. Sometimes we choose them—they attract our attention with their insightful comments or plain encouragement to keep following our dreams. Or, sometimes they choose us by taking us along on an experience that reshapes our direction. Sometimes wise advice comes from complete strangers, who somehow voice what we need to hear—as for my husband as a teen hearing from a stranger at the gas station that he was intelligent and should attend college.

To learn to be wise, we must be guided by the wise. I hope you open yourself today to the advice of wise guides for the challenges you face.


  1. The Power of Social Habitats
  2. How Intuitions are Shaped
  3. Choosing Habitats Wisely


Anderson, S.W., Bechara, A., Damasio, H., Tranel, D. & Damasio, A.R., (1999). Impairment of social and moral behavior related to early damage in human prefrontal cortex, Nature Neuroscience, 2, 1032-1037.

Bechara, A. (2005). Decision making, impulse control and loss of willpower to resist drugs: a neurocognitive perspective. Nature Neuroscience 8, 1458 – 1463. 

Hogarth, R. M. (2001). Educating Intuition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kodituwakku, P.W., Kalberg, W., & May, P.A. (2001). Effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on executive functioning. Alcohol Research and Health: Alcohol-Related Birth Defects: An Update, 25 (3) (online document from NIAAA).

Mathews, V.P., Kronenberger, W.G., Wang, Y., Lurito, J.T., Lowe, M.J., & Dunn, D.W. (2005). Media violence exposure and frontal lobe activation measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging in aggressive and nonaggressive adolescents. Journal of Computer Assisted Tomography, 29 (3), 287-292.