What Drives Our Choices in Life?

What drives our choices in life? When we are little, we are told how to function in the world.  Our parents have instructed us from infancy about how to walk, what is safe or not safe, what it means to be a member of this family, this religion, this race, this social level. When I was under three, we were brought to church most every Sunday and we sat upstairs in a sound proof room so we could crawl around and play, and the Moms could still hear Mass.  I vividly remember when Mom and Dad first took us to the church downstairs with all the adults.  Even at that preschool age, I remember Mom’s ‘Look’ that told us to stop fidgeting and stay quiet.  All thru my childhood ‘The Look’ from Mom got us to behave as she wanted us to even from across a room. Well, into our late 20’s and early 30’s my siblings and I complained about still getting ‘The look’, which was well beyond the time that Mom intentionally used it to communicate with us.  So, while it was a great technique to quiet a five year old, the 25 year old still felt coerced by this silent guidance of behavior.

It isn’t just our parents that direct our behaviors. Psychologists point out that we get our cues for behaviors and ideas about ourselves from our families, our religions, our neighborhoods, schools, even the organizations that we join like Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts or the businesses that we work for.  Remember the IBM man or the Marlboro man? 

So, our thoughts about who we are or what is ‘right’ for us to do are not ours but those given us by our families and society. When I was young, there was no child rearing philosophy that believed that the child knew best. Remember this was the day of Dr Spock.  Babies were fed on a 4-hour schedule not when they were hungry.  Consequently, our bodies were trained to a four-hour feeding schedule and we soon learned that crying got you nowhere.  Do we remember that?  No.  I do remember my own baby’s feeding schedule where we fed more on demand which was 2.5 to 3 hours.  The needs of babies don’t change.  The approved child rearing methods do, and these methods impact how we think about what we need and our assumptions about how our needs will be responded to by others for the rest of our lives.

This is what we know.  Our ancestors gave their children the best advice that they could about surviving and thriving in their society.  Some of that information was passed down to each generation as stories, as expectations, as values and sometimes as forced action.  “You will do this”; You will train for this job” etc. All with the ‘we know what is best for you’.  What is critical for us to realize is that our brains got hard wired with what Mom and Dad, our churches etc. said was the only way for us thrive as adults. Our society had and has messages about how each gender should behave; stereotypes about minorities; what economic status was approved and even the only approved jobs. When I graduated college, it was blatant.  Women could become secretaries, nurses or teachers. Our fellow male college graduates could enter management training positions etc. All these ‘facts’ are unconscious and at decision points, they are the lens thru which we react unless we deliberately try and change this information in our brains.  

There is evidence that stereotypes determine our behavior even if we do not consciously believe something to be true. In an interesting test of this, an intelligence test was created with all symbols, no words.  It was created with the hope by it was bias free.  What was discovered though was that individuals from marginalized groups still performed lower than whites when told that the test was an ‘intelligence’ test.  When they were told that it was another activity, they did the same as whites.

In another arena, it was discovered that women math majors did better on a test if they were told that the test they were taking was not the test that historically women math majors had always done less well than men.  When they believed that it was not the historical test, they did as well or better than the men.  Same goes for marginalized individuals whether it is by race, religion, gender.  Our brains act from the stereotypes of our group in stress situations whether or not we consciously believe that stereotype is true

What gives?  Well it turns out all that societal/familial training makes deep ruts, strong neural pathways, in your brain whether you consciously believed it or not.  Those ruts lead to reaction behaviors, to rises in blood pressure and to lessened performance in stress situations.  The good news is that our brain is the most malleable and modifiable organ in our bodies.  We can create new neural pathways that help us respond and make choices differently than our childhood training or trauma would normally predict.  It’s called neuroplasticity and there are lots of ways that we can increase the neuroplasticity of our brains. 

Neuroplasticity tells us a lot about learning and the brain. It turns out that the old saying of, If you don’t use it you will lose it”, is truer of the brain than it is of an arm or a leg.

I have identified six ways for you to increase your ability to respond instead of react in those choice points of your life.  These activities not only calm your brain so that it can function optimally, they also exercise your brain so that you increase the neural pathways and increase its neuroplasticity.  Look for my blog ‘Six Ways to Help Optimize your Ability to Respond Instead of React’ as well as my call on ‘Making Resonant Choices’ on Jan 22, 2019.