Sunday, March 19, 2023

How can you develop the personality traits needed to resist social pressure?


This guest post by my friend, Leah Goldrick was first published on her blog, Common Sense Ethics. Leah has an interest in Stoic philosophy, and is one of the editors of the Stoicism Today, book series. The passage quoted above is by Bruce Levine, author of Resisting Illegitimate Authority.

Leah writes:

In the 1950s psychologist Solomon Asche conducted a famous social science conformity experiment. While there are some variables, Asche concluded that roughly 3 out of every 4 people will conform to social pressure in a given situation.

Many of us are inclined to follow the majority or yield to social pressure because of our evolutionary biology. When our ancestors lived in tribes, we learned various skills by watching others and there were significant risks to our survival for being ostracized from the group. While there are fewer risks to our survival for not conforming with the majority today, there are still risks of being ostracized socially when we disagree. There are also psychological factors at work. People conform because they want to be right, because they want to be liked, or at the very least, because they don't want to seem eccentric or strange.

The ability to resist social pressure is quite important, because it determines what we will do in many contexts and how much backbone we have. While there may be some social drawbacks to resisting peer pressure, there are many benefits as well, such as not always seeking other's approval, thinking more openly, standing up for yourself in situations that matter, living a more authentic life, avoiding potential harm, and perhaps having more opportunities or career success.

Some people naturally have personality traits that make them more resistant to social pressure, but anyone can develop these traits with practice. Here, I'll discuss the stop 5 traits of peer pressure resistant people and how you can develop these traits:

1. Mental Toughness

Mental toughness is essentially is courage, but also grittiness or the ability to stick to your guns. Mental toughness is a prerequisite for every other trait that follows below. In fact, resisting social pressure is pretty much impossible without having or developing some level of courage.

The good news is that courage is easy to develop little by little over time. First, think about what it is you fear if you speak up against some majority opinion. Imagine the worst case scenario and how you would react. Usually the worst doesn't even happen and your fear is basically a non-issue.

Each time you overcome your fear or put yourself out there in some way, you develop more courage.

2. Contrarianism

Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Epictetus, and many of the other philosophers I write about here on Common Sense Ethics have something in common - they are all contrarians. What is a contrarian? There are many definitions; some positive and some negative. In a nutshell, a contrarian is someone who takes an opposite viewpoint from the majority; the opposite of a conformist.

My own view is that being contrary about everything as a rule will make you quite a difficult person to be around. However, true contrarians are pragmatic, not people who hold their opinions just for the sake of rebellion. They are contrarian about things that really matter to them. Contrarianism can be a helpful trait when the group is wrong, when your values differ from those of the group, when you want to look for opportunities the majority don't see, and/or when going along with social pressure will impact you as an individual negatively in some way.

Contrarians realize they risk social isolation because of their differing viewpoints. They are usually comfortable embracing this risk anyway when the circumstances necessitate it. So, this trait goes right along with trait number 1, courage or mental toughness. Contrarians have courage in certain situations and are comfortable resisting social pressure when it benefits them as individuals. 

To become more contrarian and get better at resisting peer pressure, ask yourself "What can I do differently in this situation which may benefit me?" or "Is this right for me just because it is right for the majority?"

3. Critical Thinking

Socrates said, "To find yourself, think for yourself." Critical thinkers are less likely to go along with social pressure if they have thought deeply about the issue at hand.

Critical thinking is difficult to define, but it is basically the ability to periodically question your own assumptions and to make sure your are thinking clearly and reasonably about something. I've been interviewed about critical thinking and also done a video interview on critical thinking here. Here is a longer definition of critical thinking from that interview:

When I say critical thinking, strictly, I'm referring to logic, or the science of how arguments need to be formed in order to be correct. I'm also referring more generally to skills like being slow to form opinions, having standards of evidence, separating truth from falsehood, being able to accurately evaluate other people's arguments, being open-minded, not being afraid to be wrong, changing your mind in light of better information, and thinking with a degree of detachment (rather than from a dogmatic or emotionally driven mindset). I would also add to this a working knowledge of cognitive bias and group dynamics. All these things are helpful for being able to think more clearly.

It also doesn't hurt to have a good understanding of propaganda and how it is used to influence us, so check out my article on that as well to bolster your critical thinking ability.

4. Disagreeableness

Disagreeable personality types are more resistant to peer pressure because they don't shy away from conflict. They also may be more successful career wise.

Research indicates that people who are higher in disagreeableness may be more successful in their careers, particularly when it comes to moving up the corporate ladder to an upper management position. While this isn't everyone's goal (and in my mind isn't a particular marker of "success," either) being disagreeable can have other advantages too.

People are less likely to pressure a disagreeable person because they know that person probably won't change their mind. Disagreeable people may also give you an earful if you push them too far.

Note that I'm thinking less about being peer pressured to do innocuous things like "You should see x new movie, it's really great." I'm thinking of more troubling forms of social pressure, as it relates to medical decisions for instance: "You should really take this new drug x that everyone must have," (regardless of your unique medical history or other valid reasons you may not want or need new drug x). No matter the situation, a more disagreeable person is less likely to comply.

It's important to note that being somewhat disagreeable doesn't mean you should try to get into conflicts. It does mean that you aren't afraid to assert yourself when someone crosses the line however. Ideally, you should work on your delivery so that you are tactful yet assertive when standing up for yourself or when giving criticism.

If you are a very agreeable person, you can develop a little more backbone by saying no or standing up for yourself in an assertive yet tactful way. In the beginning, this might be uncomfortable, but you will get used to it more over time. It can help to rehearse important conversations ahead of time and think about what you want to say in a given situation.

5. Healthy Skepticism for Authority

Why does skepticism of authority matter for resisting social pressure? Because social pressure is often brought to bear as the result of what some authority says, or on account of the perceived authority of majority opinion.

I want to be clear that I don't think that all authority is inherently negative - authorities can be good, bad, neutral, or anywhere along that continuum. And obviously I'm not talking about situations where questioning authority would put you in harm's way either. If a cop tells you "Put your hands up or I'll shoot," you had better do it.

However their are many circumstances where we should not cede our critical thinking ability to an authority or expert without due consideration. Can we find other experts or authorities who disagree with the first authority? What if an authority or expert is mistaken? What if they have a conflict of interest? What if an expert or authority has proven themselves to be untrustworthy and has a poor track record? All of these things should be in our mind when we consider which authorities we can trust.

Psychologist Bruce Levine writes that the capacity to comply with abusive authority is humanity’s fatal flaw. An abusive authority is one which has shown itself to be dishonest or malevolent in some way. To overcome this flaw and develop a healthy skepticism of authority, we can get into the habit of asking ourselves the questions above.

I hope that this post will help you flex your contrarian muscle more and resist social pressure when it matters. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, March 4, 2023

What does it mean to be an Aristotelian?


In my view,  Aristotelians are people who seek guidance from Aristotle's ethics in considering how to live their lives. Please read on for an explanation.

I was prompted to pose this his question by an article by John Sellars entitled ‘How to be an Aristotelian’ (recently published in Antigone).  While thinking about the question I read Sellars’ new book, Aristotle, Understanding the World’s Greatest Philosopher. By coincidence, at the same time I was reading Stoicism Today, Volume 4, which contains an article by John Sellars entitled ‘Hard Truths and Happiness’. I mention the Stoicism article because the approach that Sellars adopts in discussing what it means to be a Stoic seems to me to be relevant to considering what it means to be an Aristotelian. (I also think many of the articles in Stoicism Today are worth reading. It is fascinating to read about how people seek to apply this ancient philosophy in their daily lives.)

This article will meander around, so it is particularly important in this instance to foreshadow what I am going to tell you before I tell it to you. I will begin by outlining Sellars’ view about what it means to be a Stoic. I will then discuss the view Sellars presents of what it means to be an Aristotelian in his Antigone article before moving to a discussion of the approach he adopts in his book. I will conclude with some personal comments on what it means to be an Aristotelian.

What principles do you need to accept to be a Stoic?

In his Stoicism Today article, John Sellars’ argues that Stoicism is a philosophy that is guided by the idea that people want to live well. Stoicism is a philosophy which makes claims about the nature of the world. It is a way of living, not merely a collection of exercises, or therapies, aimed at making people feel happy. Stoics believe that learning to live well within the world involves understanding what it is and how it works. However, Sellars implies that means more than just a commonsense understanding. He argues that if you want to get to grips with Stoic philosophy as a way of life, you need to get to grips with the fundamental principle that “everything is ultimately matter in a process of continual change”.

Everything in this world does seem to be in a process of continual change. Perhaps everything in the cosmos is matter. Who knows? I am not even sure what that means. In any case, I don’t understand how trying to get my head around the ultimate nature of the cosmos would make me a better human. It is interesting to read about the Higgs boson etc. but that seems to have less relevance in considering how I should live my life than the views of Robert Higgs on Facebook.

What principles do you need to accept to be an Aristotelian?

In his Antigone article, John Sellars makes what he describes as “a wild claim” that Aristotle “is the single most important human being ever to have lived”. To support that claim he finds reasons to rule out Jesus and other possible candidates. However, his main argument is that Aristotle shaped the way we think about so many things including by laying “the foundations for all empirical science”.

In considering what it means to be an Aristotelian, Sellars suggests that there are two ways in which we can use the word Aristotelian. The first involves “dogmatic Aristotelianism” – to subscribe to the truthfulness of the assertions that Aristotle made in the texts that he left behind. The second simply involves joining Aristotle in the ongoing process of trying to understand the world in which we live.

A few weeks ago I drew attention to the Antigone article in a Facebook post. In his response, Roderick Long, a philosopher, wrote:

Seems like a false dichotomy:  either being an Aristotelean means being a rigid, dogmatic adherent of a fixed and detailed Aristotelean system, or else it means something so watered down that any sincere seeker after truth counts as an Aristotelean.  Neither of these, of course, is what we who call ourselves Aristoteleans mean by Aristoteleanism.  Sellars is unfortunately failing to reckon with the possibility that we can learn not just from Aristotle's truth-seeking attitude but from his actual arguments.”

My response to Roderick: 

“I am inclined to agree with you. However, when I praise Aristotle’s arguments about happiness, ethics etc. I am sometimes reminded (by people with science training) of all the things that Aristotle got wrong. So, if a case can be made that he was an early advocate of scientific method (rather than a dogmatist) that does seem an important rhetorical point”.

I added that I was interested to read Sellars’ book, to see what he writes there about Aristotle’s arguments.

What does Sellars’ book say about Aristotle’s arguments?

John Sellars’ book is a short intellectual history of Aristotle. It is intended to serve as an introductory text but some people who already have some knowledge of Aristotle’s writings may also benefit from reading it. I found it enlightening because I had not previously considered how one thing may have led to another in the development of Aristotle’s views at different stages of his life. For example, the time Aristotle spent studying animals on Lesbos seems to have been important in his rejection of reductive materialism and the development of his thoughts about the purposes of living organisms, including humans.

In the book, Sellars provides an account of Aristotle’s struggle with Plato’s views and the development of his own ideas about being, substance, the idea that natural entities have intrinsic purposes (natural teleology) and the difference between actuality and potentiality. He summarises thus Aristotle’s argument about what it means to be a human being:

“So, a human being is a living thing with a certain set of capacities: the ability to grow, move, and reproduce. These capacities are ones that we share with other animals. The distinctive capacity of humans, Aristotle says, is the ability to reason: humans are rational animals. The defining characteristic of humans, then, is the ability to think rationally. The vast majority of adult humans have this capacity; we are all, we might say, potentially thinking beings. However, we are only truly thinking beings when we are actually thinking, when we actualize that potential and use the capacity. In short, to be a human being is not to exist statically, but instead to engage in a whole range of distinctively human activities, the most important of which is thinking.”

However, the book also presents Sellars’ view, referred to above, that there are two different ways in which we can use the word Aristotelian and that he prefers the second view - being an Aristotelian simply involves joining him in the ongoing process of trying to understand the world in which we live.

While I think Sellars view of what it means to be an Aristotelian is excessively broad, I think he performs a useful service in demolishing the view that Aristotle was a dogmatist. He notes that some thinkers in the 16th century, who were critical of clerical dogmatism, were aware that Aristotle was a champion of observation and open inquiry. He notes that even Galileo was happy to describe himself as an Aristotelian because he knew that Aristotle recognised that every theory is open to refutation by further observation.

My view

As already noted, I find it difficult to accept that everyone who is trying to understand the world in which we live is an Aristotelian. I think that is a necessary condition to be an Aristotelian, but not a sufficient condition.

It seems to me that Aristotelians accept certain philosophical principles, such as natural teleology, that are not accepted by everyone who is trying to understand the world. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Aristotelian philosophy is not sufficient to enable me to advance that argument with much confidence. Perhaps I am wrong. If you think that is so, please tell me why.

My main point is that in considering what it means to be an Aristotelian it is appropriate to adopt a line of argument like that adopted by John Sellars in considering what it means to be a Stoic. Like Stoics, Aristotelians are also guided by a philosophy which is concerned with what it means to live well. That philosophy is Aristotelian ethics.

The passage from Sellars’ book about the nature of a human being (quoted above) describes the philosophic foundation for Aristotelian ethics.

Many people who are trying to understand the world have no understanding of Aristotelian ethics and obtain no guidance from it in how they live their lives. I don’t think it makes sense to view such people as Aristotelians.