I once read an article that argued that “you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with” (Source Unknown). My first reaction to that was sincere disbelief. Upon reflecting on my changing identity, however, I’ve noticed that I’ve started acting more like my family members and friends over a period of time. I’m becoming more concerned about my lack of organization (thanks, Mom!). I’m starting to make much more of an effort trying to complete menial tasks to a level of perfection that I wasn’t even aware of (thanks, Dad!). I’m starting to procrastinate on my assignments (I might’ve been a culprit of this before, but Muhammad, Prince Procrastinator, made it much worse). Even after these changes, I was under the assumption that it was a rare occurrence; self-determination is an innate aspect of life, after all. As an individual, I should be able to choose who I want to be, correct?
And that’s when I encountered behaviourism.
Behaviourism is a school of thought in psychology that attempts to work around the limits of the introspection method (which involves asking a patient to identify their thoughts and feelings in response to a stimulus) by objectively observing the behaviour of the subject. Having a focus on the qualities that can be seen visibly greatly reduces the potential for bias, given that it is much easier to identify external qualities than having an individual try to determine their internal thoughts. From the conceptualization of the idea in the early 20th century by John Watson, behaviourism has always supported the dominance of environmental influence in the life of the individual. Over time, practitioners of behaviourism came to the conclusion that the life of the individual was almost wholly dependent on external influence. Since external influences determine the individual’s life, their choices are a result of the influence of their environment. The person the individual becomes as they mature is a directly affected by the environment they grew up to the point where their behaviour can be related back to the environment they matured in.
Everything you do can be connected back to an environmental factor.
“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”
– Arthur Shopenhaur
Impossible! The implications of such a belief oppose everything that I have learned as a living person. I’m supposed to be the one who decides what I do, what I think, what I believe… the notion that my identity is manipulated by my surroundings, without my notice, terrifies me. Perhaps I’m an individual who often lives in the comfort that I’m in complete control over my own actions. My will is mine alone; I choose to do what I want to do. I can spontaneously touch my toes with my hands while resisting the instinct to bend my knees as I’m doing so – albeit there is definitely a rather annoying pain factor involved (but that’s beside the point). Unfortunately, there exists a problem in my otherwise sound logic: the negligibility of the action destroys any relation that the action has to my persona. An individual will only will themselves to perform an action when the action itself relates to their character. The behaviourists have won this argument that unfolded in my thoughts.
“We’re a government that believes in everybody having the illusion of free will.”
Part of the reason that I’m in opposition of determinism is that it stands against everything that human society is built upon. Society functions under the premise of free will. Punishment is received after committing a misdeed because it is believed that the doer had chosen to act in such a way. Generosity, intelligence, kindness, and hard work are all rewarded because it is believed that the doer had chosen to act. If you eliminate the freedom of choice and say that the outcome was determined before it had occurred, aren’t you making the doer seem to be more of a victim of fate than an individual? Even religious individuals who practice religions that involve the worship of a Higher Being are run on the freedom of choice. You choose to believe in the religion, you choose to follow it, you choose whether or not you will commit sin; without choice, you’re really just a machine that’s being programmed by your surroundings as you continue to exist. The freedom to choose is ingrained in the life of a living organism, both literally and metaphorically. At each passing moment, impulses are sent through nerve fibres to initiate movement; impulses are always simultaneously being sent from – and delivered to – the neurons in the brain.
“All human beings are interconnected, one with all other elements in creation.”
Determinism surely limits the individual aspect of a person, yet in return, it enhances the collective aspect. Your identity is dependent on the world you surround yourself in, and in that way, the “elements” of the world take part in your identity. It’s a two-way give and take: part of your identity becomes influenced by the element of your environment, while the element is influenced in the same manner, the element in this case being a living organism. Both individual’s lose sovereignty over their identity, but also become dependent on one another over time. The example I used earlier involving my family demonstrates the influence they have on my identity, but on a deeper level, it also exemplifies my dependence on them. Without the people closest to me, I wouldn’t really know who I am; after analyzing literature, I found the effect to be similar in dynamic characters.
One can trace Dorian’s identity in Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in terms of Dorian’s environmental factors. Dorian’s lack of certainty in his identity can be attributed to the fact that his father was killed before he was born, and his mother died shortly after he was. While it may seem that Dorian is naturally an indecisive character, this quality can be traced to his upbringing. He was fated to be indecisive, in that sense. Dorian’s whole story was decided by his creator, Oscar Wilde, while Dorian is really just a puppet that experiences his fate. According to the extreme behaviourists who believe in determinism, living organisms in the world are all akin to Dorian: their character is determined by factors that are outside of their control and that are, for the most part, unseen.
While it can be said that determinism is prevalent in our life, it is not certain if it is necessarily dominant. Your environment may have a role in determining who you are, but you’re always in control of which environment you place yourself in, are you not? In the end, it’s you who choose who to be influenced by, like how Dorian chose to spend more time with Henry. One could argue that this decision would be Dorian’s – it was by his choice that he spent more time with Henry. “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. Dorian was an average between Henry and Basil, since he rarely spent much time with others outside of those two. An individual living in this world can always choose who they spend most of their time with, and who rather would they spend time with than people who satisfy the desired idealistic qualities of the individual. And that’s the freedom of choice.