In the previous post, Jaybird asked me a rather interesting question: why is it that the professional makeup of my friends has changed, implying a further question of whether the change in my social network has caused me to adopt a change in attitudes about public policy. It was an incisive question because there is no way around the fact that each of us are influenced in our thinking and our social norms by the people with whom we associate. A change in peer group will inevitably produce a change in perspective on the world.
I would expect that in most cases it would be a change in perspective towards the norms of the peer group, although for some individuals or in some circumstances it may be a change away from those norms. Examples:
- The single best indicator of whether a straight person supports same-sex marriage or not is if that person has gay friends. If you have gay friends, chances are good that you think they should get married.
- Children of parents who have good relationships with their parents have a strong tendency to register in the same political party their parents did.
- It is easier to see the necessity of expensive military weapons programs when your neighbors earn their living building those weapons. But if you don’t know anyone in or associated with the military, it is easier to condemn our defense budget as wasteful and unnecessary.
- Similarly, it is easier to see the necessity of adequate Social Security payments to retirees when you have family members who rely on those payments for their subsistence. If there is no one close to you who depends on Social Security, the program appears significantly more malleable to you.
- Traditionally, the single largest student group at UC Berkeley is the College Republicans.
- Children of parents who do not like their parents frequently register and vote in opposition to the way their parents would prefer.
- And some people are just gosh-diddley-darn it contrarians and enjoy stirring up the pot with their friends.
I’m sure Readers can think of many more examples, one way or the other, but the point is: the people we associate with do tend to cause us to alter our views of the world. It’s a natural enough phenomenon, one of affinity as well as one of education. And it’s related to the phenomenon that what you put in your brain is determinative of what comes out of it, whether that be the books and blogs you read, the TV you watch and the radio you listen to, or (in this case) the friends, family, and peers with whom you talk and share ideas on a regular basis.
We would all like to think that we are completely independent thinkers, who are strong and confident and intelligent in forming our own beliefs and preferences. The truth, though, is that we are influenced by our environment in many subtle ways and there is probably no more powerful an environmental influence than our peer group.