Why Is It…?


“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university educator over the last 17 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].


Q: Why is it that people underestimate the power of social consciousness?


A: Consciousness may be defined as the state of “awareness” of self and surroundings. Social consciousness can be described as our state of group awareness – on a collective scale. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was commonplace to witness mass, collaborative social movements striving for reform. From the Civil Rights Movement to anti-war protests, American society appeared to be infused with the power of collective social consciousness. But now, half a century later, have we lost our belief in our ability to unify against leaders and policies that negatively impact our lives?


At present, the world is faced with a multitude of negative forces – from political agendas that oppress and exploit the masses to unparalleled forms of highly advanced technological weapons of mass destruction. But where is our collective outcry? In Egypt, collectives of like-minded citizens organized to dethrone a negative ruling force over their lives, realizing the full measure of their power of social consciousness. Closer to home, tens of thousands of Wisconsin public service employees rallied in Madison to voice collective objections to Governor Walker’s Repair Bill. But what about those working in the private sector or the general population who simply watch events unfold on the nightly news – distanced and uninvolved.


In last week’s column, I shed light on the systematic efforts by the power “elite” to manipulate public opinion by way of persuasive media propaganda messaging with the intent to “dumb down” the American population. Because our lives have been spent absorbing and internalizing these “messages,” most Americans don’t realize the anesthetizing effects that these “programs of persuasion” have had on our sense of personal control over the quality of our lives.


The dynamic of learned helplessness has been extensively studied by social psychologists and demonstrates that people will simply “give up” or “fail to try” when faced with negative events that they “believe” are beyond their control or ability to change. Even lab rats will simply lie down in the bottom of an electrically charged cage, when their efforts to escape have been met with repeated failure – resigned to absorb the inescapable pain and discomfort. People are the same way. If they believe they are powerless, people will not attempt to create change in their lives – and the cycle of abuse continues.


We’ve also been socialized into adopting a blind compliance to authority. From earliest childhood, we’re taught not to challenge those in power. From parents, teachers and employers to governmental and law enforcement officials, we’re warned not to “talk back” or “make waves” in fear of punitive repercussions. Is it any wonder that we simply “hold our tongues” and shake our heads in hopeless helplessness when faced with social policies that go against the grain of fundamental human rights and dignity?


Our blind acceptance of authority and collective states of socialized learned helplessness combine to produce an apathetic, ailing and disenfranchised populace. But it’s important to question exactly whose agenda is being serviced by the cultivation of such a wide-scale and idle state of social consciousness. If it was my intention to engage in behaviors that benefited me, at the expense of others, would it not be in my best interest to instill a sense of powerlessness in those others in order to fortify my agenda and avoid the backlash of social resistance? Would it not make sense to stimulate and perpetuate a preoccupation with basic survival needs that would necessarily take precedence over all other concerns?


The market economy that dictates our very survival constitutes a primary and necessary preoccupation with money. Because the majority of us spend most of our time trying to make “ends meet” – we have little time or energy left to critically examine exactly what might be going on behind the closed-door sessions of those in positions of power. We simply trust that our leaders will “protect” our interests. But examine we must. “Never depend upon institutions or government to solve any problem. All social movements are founded by, guided by, motivated and seen through by the passion of individuals”. (Margaret Mead)


As a cohesive group, individuals possess enormous collective power. The Egyptian mass collective of impassioned, like-minded citizenry began as a grass-roots effort on Facebook! So, when objecting to the policies that negatively impact our lives, Mead phrased it beautifully, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”