Sunday, 16 November 2014

Bad Influence

You've heard that term, I'm certain. It suggests that somebody is behaving in a way that others copy, and that it's really not something they should be copying. If you have a kid who has been hanging out with "bad kids" you may be afraid that they are a "bad influence" for example. It further suggests that your kid is unable to decide for himself how he should behave.

There is an idea that young people, generally speaking, are easily drawn to such bad influences, and perhaps some of them are. This is one reason, of course, why there is so much fear of Islamic extremists recruiting the young.

But it's not as simple as that. For a start, it's not just the young who are influenced. People of all ages are heavily influenced by those around them, by the media they read or watch, and by those who make a living "preaching", and I don't just mean priests, or even politicians. Advertising executives, for example, are some of the most powerful preachers of our time.

The next issue then, is what defines "bad", in these influences. That is often going to be a matter of opinion; it's really not always cut and dried. Going back to your teen, if the influences got him into trouble resulting in imprisonment, or bodily harm, it's easy to label it bad, but sometimes it's just an influence that leads him away from his parents' preferences. Perhaps towards a career in art instead of medicine. People with Bohemian lifestyles are frequently seen as bad influences by the more conservative.

Some years ago I was deemed a bad influence on a female friend by her husband. Having seen the far more relaxed and jolly way that I ran my home and family, she started making changes in hers, and it was noticed. Despite the fact she was personally happier, he was insecure, and concerned as to where it might lead.

The fact is, like anything else, "bad" is always relative.

But how do you know if you are being influenced? That's the tricky part! It's also worth asking, do you want to be?

Apparently people do. Go into any bookstore and look at the size of the "self-help" book section. There are THOUSANDS of books written by people who believe they know what would make other people happier. And people who want to be happier, but aren't quite sure how, part with large sums of money to be told.

But it works the other way round, mostly. Writing these books, providing you can get them published, is a very good way to get happier, in fact, if money buys happiness (it certainly doesn't hurt). They do conferences and seminars too. People pay to listen to them speak in person. It's a bloody good scam.

"Are you saying they are a bad influence Melanie?" You tell me. They are the ones fleecing you for advice easily available for free.

Whatever, they are doing well on it. Enough people are willing to pay. Wanting to read or hear it. Seeking influence.

Lately I have noticed, far too often, people repeating almost verbatim, ideas that I know have come from others. You know what it reminds me of?

I blame social media. No, I don't really. I was just waiting for somebody else to say it. Long before there was such a thing, people got "ideas" from gossiping to neighbours. That's how culture arises. Charismatic people share their views and other people pick up on them. Without any kind of authority, these ideas become cultural norms, almost as powerful as law. In some cases more powerful than law.

(I'm not going to touch how culture becomes law, as it has in traditional religion, I'll save that for another day)

Are they good ideas? Well, clearly some are, and they've stuck around. But sometimes they really are not. The funny part is how one set of people can pick up idea A, while another set, in the same location, can pick up idea B, and these ideas are mutually exclusive.

This is what leads to partisan politics of course, but I'm not going there today either.

My objective today is to try to convince you that some of your ideas are not your own. Things you "believe" were taught to you, deliberately or otherwise, by other people. You may be quite happy with these opinions, and far be it for me to sway you from them (that would make me just as bad as those who brainwashed you gently in the first place), but you will find, if you take the time to examine your views, that some of them are second-hand.

Moreover, when you "change your mind", it's usually due to outside influence.

Now, there's nothing wrong with that, especially if it comes in the form of new data. For example, until recently I shared the opposition of neonic pesticides due to the harm I believed they were causing bees. However, having researched it very carefully, I have learned that banning these pesticides is a mistake. Banning ALL pesticides would be fine. But if you take away the neonics, farmers resort to older pesticides which do MORE harm.

My mind was not changed by the mere opinion of others, but by solid, independent, scientific studies. It took time, unfortunately, as these studies do. The ban was knee-jerk, and I don't blame anyone for supporting it, as it seemed like an emergency at the time. But now we know better.

This happens a lot. You may have noticed.

Unfortunately when you are infected by the ideas of others without new (or any) data, and especially without real research, your change of mind is potentially just as bad as inertia. That's why I spend so much time teaching my kids to look carefully at everything they learn, check facts, ask questions, and dig deeper. But today I'm asking you to do the same.

Preferably before you spread the contagion further.

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately it is not possible for everyone to independently repeat every study, or even to do much research. At some point forming an opinion becomes a matter of which sources of information do we trust? I have the greatest repect for the scientific method per se. However, the terms "peer reviewed" and "evidence based" are increasingly being hijacked by large companies with deep pockets who have a stranglehold on the publications in which the peer review tales place. Then of course there are vested interests in for instance the vitamin industry as well. IMHO one of the greatest problems is the reluctance to grant opponents a point in debate, on anything, really, for fear we have to buy the whole package; Did some blogging on that a while back.