On Campus

The blind leading the blind

Self-definition and compromise in the choppy seas of first year.

Before I began first year, I wrote about the difficulty of “being yourself,” illustrated by decades of psychological research showing how willing people are to conform to a group–when they can obviously see that the group is wrong. Now, as I conclude first year, this idea is worth revisiting. The balancing act on display throughout this past year in pursuit of self-definition in the face of powerful social influences has indeed yielded some interesting results.

The phenomenon that psychologists call the ‘affiliation motive,’ a formal way of referring to the need human beings have to engage in meaningful relationships, seems a particularly powerful force in shaping a person’s behavior–perhaps even more so for those often insecure creatures of transitional identities called adolescents. For them, premising behaviors and beliefs upon a desire to fit in, to be accepted, or to achieve other aspects of the affiliation motive, can lead to outcomes of dubious value.

Meeting the criteria of the affiliation motive is not always congruous with meeting the criteria of other aspects of one’s life.  Much social interaction therefore seems premised upon compromise – upon altering one’s more fundamental, perhaps ‘primal’ motivations and concerns (the id, say) in favor of socially constructed concerns and motivations (the so-called superego). In so doing, I think that one chooses to sacrifice a degree of personal autonomy, allowing some other person to take a measure of control over one’s life and development.

In some cases (family, close friends, etc.) it might well be true that the person in question can indeed provide perspective and advice that is in your ‘best interest,’ however that interest is defined (at the very least, hopefully it’s defined by you). But to premise one’s behaviors and motivations upon the often whimsical values of other 19 year olds seems to be nothing more than the blind leading the blind.

The crux lies, perhaps, in choice. Should one consciously and knowingly choose to submit autonomy to an external motivator (a friend, a university, a parent . . .), perhaps this represents a civilized achievement in pursuit of greater happiness or satisfaction. But to be pulled by a current that leads to a poorly understood destination of questionable value is perhaps less of a good idea. Indulging frivolously in drugs and alcohol in pursuit of social lubrication is a common example among my fellow university students. Absent the affiliation motive, the incentive to engage in such behavior largely evaporates. I would suggest that the average 19-year-old lacks sufficient objectivity, maturity, responsibility, and foresight to properly balance the affiliation motive against other, perhaps more important concerns like health and school.

It’s in this multi-layered, badly defined, and constantly shifting social context that personalities are constructed, identities confirmed, and motivations derived. Especially in light of the well-established difficulty people have with going against social currents, the soil of the social landscape in which today’s young people sow the seeds of their development is thus of questionable quality, and deserves to be treated with the utmost care and attention.

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