Life Choices: Understanding Sources that Shape Our Perceptions and Behaviors

Many people like to believe that we are all solely responsible for the decisions that we make in our lives, and that we are solely responsible for our own life outcomes, too.  Although I do agree that we each should be held accountable for the decisions we make and the actions we take, it is equally important to understand that we do not make decisions and act completely on our own.  Instead, we make our decisions and act within the constraints of a very complex social order.

The following statement by President Obama (that became very controversial) in the speech that he made in his 13, July 2012 presidential campaign event that took place in Roanoke Virginia, communicated how the complexity of life choices and outcomes are shaped by a larger social order.  The president said,

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own . . . The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together (President Obama Campaign Rally in Roanoke, n.d.).

View full speech here:

I will stress that what President Obama said was that, even as we act as individuals, we also, as a society, do things together.  Explaining this, in his speech, President Obama mentioned infrastructure, such as the building of bridges and the connectivity we have achieved as a result of the invention of the Internet.  I believe that President Obama was alluding to (or rather suggesting) how bridges and connectivity are built within a society in other ways, too.

Social connectivity takes place in such a way that individuals learn how to think and act within the constraints of their individual and collective histories, their cultural customs, and through a process of socialization that perpetuates and reinforces the maintenance of cultural and social practices.  For the most part, individuals make important life decisions in such a way that they perpetuate and reinforce sociocultural structures by following social norms, obeying authority, and through the adoption of imposed roles.  What this means is that, even for choices made by individuals, social forces play a major role in the decision-making processes and therefore, social processes also play a major role in people’s life outcomes.

For example, the suggestibility[1] of U.S. mainstream culture encourages us to embrace a belief in a ‘rugged individualism’ in that we each are responsible for our own individual decisions, actions and outcomes in life.  This ideology can be evidenced in President’s Hoover’s 1928 campaign speech when he spoke of ‘equal opportunity’ as the unique ‘American’ institution that had allowed the U.S. to ‘advance’ beyond all other nations in the world.  He said,

During one hundred and fifty years we have builded [sic] up a form of self-government and a social system which is peculiarly our own. It differs essentially from all others in the world. It is the American system…. It is founded upon the conception that only through ordered liberty, freedom and equal opportunity to the individual will his initiative and enterprise spur on the march of progress. And in our insistence upon equality of opportunity has our system advanced beyond all the world (Herbert Hoover, “Rugged Individualism” Campaign Speech, n.d.).

What President Hoover failed to mention in his speech about the virtues of freedom and opportunity were the number of citizens that were historically excluded from realizing equality of opportunity in the U.S.  For example, in the year that he gave this speech, women and people of color did not have equal rights and opportunity to the same degree that white-skin men enjoyed because of social norms, cultural practices, and even laws.

Women were ‘given’ the right to vote only eight years prior, and were limited by social norms and customs in many other ways.  Likewise, African-Americans and other people of color were routinely excluded from political processes until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, amongst many other discriminatory actions perpetrated and enforced by the dominating white-skinned, male majority.  Therefore, individuals in these marginalized groups did not experience the same degree of opportunity to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ as did white-skinned men, who were afforded the privilege of greater opportunity and participation in mainstream society.

This notion, this false ideology, that the U.S. is a land of equal opportunity has carried forward to the present day.  The rugged individualism that mainstream U.S. culture, through suggestibility, ‘teaches’ us to believe is rather mythical because it is based on a limited (white-skinned male privilege) perspective, which is lacking a larger historical, social and cultural context.

Therefore, with this contextual understanding, it is clear that life choices, or rather the opportunities that individuals may or may not enjoy in life are, for the most part, limited within certain societal contexts, or constraints.  Tod Sloan, author of Life Choices: Understanding Dilemmas and Decisions (Lives in Context) (1996), wrote about decision-making processes in relation to historical, social and cultural context in a related but different way.  He said that he wrote this book as an antidote (or ‘antiguide’) to traditional self-help books designed to counsel people through their dilemmas and make better difficult life decisions.  The argument that Sloan focused on was that clinical psychology, which is used in many self-help books, centers on an accepted wisdom (perhaps wisdom that is based in cultural attitudes that reinforce a western worldview ideology of individualism) concerning peoples’ choices without regard to any context.

What this means is that the limited perspective of clinical psychology does not consider the historical, social or cultural context when attempting to explain the processes involved in people’s decision-making activities.  Sloan asserted that decision-making could be best understood by considering not only one’s personality, but also the context of one’s life history, of social circumstances, and of one’s cultural ideology.  These ideas expand the notion that our life choices and decisions are shaped not only by our own inclination but also by the larger society.

Sloan questioned how people make decisions when faced with the “options” and “constraints” of “going along with the crowd” or else listening to their own “inner voice” when these two options seem to be in opposition (Sloan, 1996, pp. 2-3.)  In other words, he questioned how people might attempt to be authentic by keeping their decisions and actions in line with their character or identity, while also fitting in and benefitting from the larger society, because sometimes these goals are contradictory to one another.

Therefore, in order to reconcile these conflicting values, a degree of self-deception or rationalization, or rather a degree of face-making, in order to fulfill one’s intentions, desires or wishes takes place.  Sloan stressed that when a person’s ability to be authentic is limited by the complexity of historical, social, and cultural constraints, their choices and their freedom are limited, too (Sloan, 1996, p.14.).  Sometimes, life choices are difficult decisions to make, or rather dilemmas, because in order to be authentic in regard to certain aspects of one’s character or identity, it may require one to compromise by way of self-deceptions or rationalizations.

Knowing the human tendency for one to compromise in situations where conflicting values emerge, in order to protect one’s identity, can be key to understanding why some folks were angered by President Obama’s assertion that ‘you didn’t build that’, and that ‘somebody else made that happen’.  This can be explained with a hypothetical example:

If, for instance, I want to believe that I am a good, hard-working individual who has worked for everything that I have, then perhaps I don’t want to know an historical, social or cultural context in relation to U.S. social dynamics.  Perhaps, my self-concept of being a good, hard-working person doesn’t want to look back into history to see how certain social institutions, like slavery, had been built; and perhaps I don’t want to see how other social systems (like racism) have been constructed and maintained over the years, thereby limiting certain individual’s (out-group members) opportunities.  Knowing an historical context would be in conflict with my self-concept, therefore I tend to ignore the historical truth.

Additionally, If I want to believe that I am a hard-working individual who has earned everything I have, perhaps I don’t want to know how mainstream U.S. culture creates social norms, and sets policy in such a way that certain groups are privileged simply by their membership in a dominating group, while those in the minority are excluded and therefore, disadvantaged.  Understanding the social context, inclusive of the ‘authority’ imposed by a dominating mainstream culture would be in conflict with my self-concept, therefore I rationalize against this truth.

Furthermore, because I want to maintain my good-person, hard-working identity, perhaps I don’t want to know that others work just as hard, and possibly even harder than I do, and yet realize situations of disadvantage, such as living in poverty.  Perhaps I’d rather deceive myself and rationalize that I am financially better situated because I have worked hard for my privilege, and that ‘the poor’ are poor because of their own poor life choices.  Once again, my self-concept encourages me to delude myself into incorrectly thinking that I have greater privilege than others simply because I work harder than they do.

Finally, perhaps I don’t want to see that we rely on each other and the complex networks and systems that we create, or rather that ‘we do things together’. Instead, I’d prefer to believe in a western worldview ideology of ‘pulling oneself up by his bootstraps’ rugged individualism than to see a larger perspective inclusive of the connectivity among individuals.  Maintaining this sort of ideology allows me to ignore a larger historical, social, and cultural context in order to rationalize my greater degree of privilege.

Key to understanding the angry response of some folks, to President Obama’s suggestion that it is not only individual agency that creates one’s situation of wealth and prosperity, is knowing that the angry response is a defense mechanism that was activated in order to protect people’s self-concept or identity.  In this way, the suggestibility of the dominating rugged individualism ideology combined with a need to protect one’s self-concept is able to sway people’s opinions (of themselves and others) far from the truth.

Social forces such as following social norms, obeying authority, the adoption of imposed roles, the effects of suggestibility, and a tendency to compromise in certain situations by way of self-deceptions or rationalizations, all play a large part in an individual’s decision-making process.  Because of this, the actual degree of freedom of choice and outcome that individuals have might, in fact, be overestimated.  Another way to look into these social dynamics concerning the influences on decision-making is by examining the results of two important classic psychological experiments.

People are socially connected in the way that they respond to one another, such as how they respond to authority.  For example, social psychologist, Stanley Milgram (1933-1984), during his professorship at Yale University during the tumultuous 1960s, conducted studies, specifically as experiments in obedience to authority.  His goal was to understand how it was that average ‘normal’ German citizens, during World War II, participated in the cruelty towards and the extermination of the Jewish people.  He wanted to understand why those people did not resist the authority and instead act in ways consistent with their own morals and values.  The goal of the experiment was to test to what degree average individuals selected from U.S. society would follow through with the instructions of an authority figure to inflict harm on others, even if against their morals.  The very high degree of willingness to inflict harm on others when told to do so by an authority figure shocked the researchers.  The researchers discovered that obeying the orders of an authority figure, even against one’s morals, was a societal and cultural norm, not only in Germany, but it was a social norm in the U.S., also.

It is important to understand that social or cultural norms make it difficult for people to see clearly.  In other words, because a circumstance seems ‘normal’ to people, it can, many times go unnoticed, such as we hardly notice the presence of air until we have difficulty breathing.  An example of unobserved cultural norms are Milgram’s thoughts concerning obedience as described in his paper, Behavioral Study of Obedience (1963).  In this paper, he wrote that obedience is a “basic element in the structure of social life” and that “[s]ome system of authority is a requirement of all communal living, and it is only the man dwelling in isolation who is not forced to respond, through defiance or submission, to the commands of others.”  It is interesting that Milgram ignored the violent nature of forcing others into actions of submission or defiance.  It is also interesting that he maintained assumptions about the ‘goodness’ of a need for a dominating authority, as did the participants in his study.

The participants were told that they would be assisting in the learning of the “effects of punishment on memory”.  More specifically, they were told,

For instance, we don’t know how much punishment is best for learning—and we don’t know how much difference it makes as to who is giving the punishment, whether an adult learns best from a younger or an older person than himself—or many things of that sort (Migram, 1963.).

The assumption was that the punishment by an authority is good for learning.  It seems that the suggestibility in a common authoritative utterance, ‘I’ll teach you a lesson’ in reference to a punishment, perpetuates the belief that punishment and teaching go hand-in-hand. Milgram wrote in his discussion of the findings of nine “features [that] help to explain the high amount of obedience obtained in this experiment” but he did not acknowledge the violent nature embedded in the assumption that punishment helps one to learn (Milgram, 1963.).  Apparently, neither did the any of the participants, because they went along with the experiment.  Likewise, Milgram did not distinguish benevolent leadership from violent domination.  Perhaps the high number of participants that followed through with the administration of what they perceived to be a ‘Danger: Severe Shock’ to a learner who answered incorrectly was also directly related to a larger social context in that the social norms of mainstream U.S. quite violent at that time period of U.S. history, even as they went unnoticed.

Perhaps violent cultural norms also explain the results of what came to be known as the ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ that took place in 1971 at Stanford University, and which was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research.  In this experiment, under the authority of social psychologist, Phillip Zimbardo, participants adopted imposed roles, that of prisoners and guards, and they engaged in their roles with such intensity and negative effect on the ‘prisoners’ (who were having mental breakdowns as a result of the experiment), it was necessary to end the experiment early for everyone’s wellbeing.

The Human Behavior Experiments 2006 from Connected Foundations on Vimeo.

Dr. Zimbardo discussed these events, as was portrayed in the 2006 documentary film The Human Behavior Experiments (n.d.).  He indicated that he did not recognize the change in himself – the move toward violence, even as he was studying why and how other people could act with such cruelty toward others (The Human Behavior Experiments, n.d.).  Professor Zimbardo had transformed into a sort of mad scientist, leading cruel experiments on others.  He said that he did not put and end to his madness until Christiana Maslatch, his soon to be wife, alerted him to his personality change, saying that “the power of the situation has transformed you from, from the person I thought I knew to this person that I don’t know (The Human Behavior Experiments, n.d.).”  Even the researcher, Professor Zimbardo, was transformed by the circumstances of the experiment, “seduced into doing things [he] never thought [he] could (The Human Behavior Experiments, n.d.).

Dr. Zimbardo, an expert trial witness to one guard involved in the Abu Ghraib torturing of prisoners, during the Iraq War, related his prison experiments to the torturing of Iraqi prisoners (The Human Behavior Experiments, n.d.).  He explained that he could see the similarities between the prison experiments and what had happened at Abu Ghraib.  He concluded that the guards were not ‘bad apples’ so to speak.  They were, instead, average people acting within a corrupt system.  They were good people responding to a “cruel environment without clear rules (The Human Behavior Experiments, n.d.).”  It was the system that was bad, not the individual actors.

The system that was bad was a system that created a space and an allowance for people to act outside of less violent social and cultural norms.  They were allowed and even encouraged to interrogate by means of cruel physical and mental abuse in order to coerce a desired response from prisoners.  A new more violent culture was created within the Abu Ghraib facility, in which the prison guards assimilated.

A most telling statement in the documentary The Human Behavior Experiments (n.d.) was when a researcher commented concerning the ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’.  He said “they ended up punishing those prisoners as though they had done something wrong (The Human Behavior Experiments, n.d.).”  This is what the prison guards at Abu Ghraib did also, they punished before a conviction.  Yet, the researcher had difficulty seeing that perhaps the ‘wrongdoing’ of the individuals may have been created by an unjust system, and therefore punishment is possibly not the best response.  In other words, the researcher still believed in a violent ideology that was imposed by the suggestions and authority of a larger society that maintains a limited western worldview that stresses the goodness of rugged individualism and denies the reality that we do things together.

The researchers still grappled with the constraints of a very complex social order.  Even as they were drawing conclusions that it is the bridges and connectivity, or rather the systems of a social order that shapes individuals’ decisions and actions, they still had difficulty seeing social norms that suggest the acceptability of a certain degree of violence from select individuals.  They still believed that violence, if done by good people as a way to punish bad people, could be acceptable.  They still believed in the socially constructed roles of helpless victimhood, bad offender, and the punishing authority.  Because of this, they were not open to see that other responses to offenses can be more effective than punishment, or else they would not use such language as they did.  The complexity of the larger dominating violent social order constrained the researchers ideas such that they were not free to consider nonviolent responses to an injustice.  Therefore, even they continued to perpetuate a violent system.

How individuals respond to the dilemmas they face is shaped a great deal by a larger social order.  The decisions they make and the actions they take must be understood in context.  This context includes an individual and societal history, plus social and cultural forces, including the following of social norms, the tendency to obey authority, the adoption of imposed roles, the effects of suggestibility, and a tendency to compromise in certain situations by way of self-deceptions or rationalizations.  This context shapes individual perceptions and behaviors and it influences their decision-making and life choices.  Understanding the complexity of ‘individual’ decision choices can prevent us from yielding to external social pressures or influences such that we are better able to listen to our own ‘inner voices’ and remain authentic to our true selves.

Effective decision-making, that is decision-making that allows one to remain authentic to oneself, involves critical thinking, and that requires an understanding that an historical, social, and cultural context interacts with a person’s thinking processes and shapes their perceptions and their behaviors.


Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Readings about the social animal, 17-26.

Herbert Hoover, “Rugged Individualism” Campaign Speech. (n.d.). Herbert Hoover, “rugged individualism” campaign speech. [Web page]. Retrieved from

The Human Behavior Experiments. (n.d.). The human behavior experiments. [Web page] Retrieved from

The Human Behavior Experiments. (n.d.). The human behavior experiments. [Web page] Retrieved from

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371.

Philip Zimbardo: The Psychology of Evil. (n.d.). Philip Zimbardo: The psychology of evil. [Web page]. Retrieved from

President Obama Campaign Rally in Roanoke. (n.d.). President obama campaign rally in Roanoke. [Web page]. Retrieved from

Sloan, T. S. (1996). Life choices: Understanding dilemmas and decisions. Denver, CO: Westview Press.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

[1] Suggestibility is a theory proposed in 1955 by psychologist Solomon E. Asch, in which social experiments explained how the use of suggestions (and especially suggestions combined with group pressure) can affect one’s opinions and even sway people’s opinions far from the truth (Asch, 1955).


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