Jim Rohn’s famous quote, “you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” has been motivational. But it has also been somewhat controversial. After all, how exactly do you measure and average the influence of people? You could spend the 9-to-5 with colleagues for years and socialize with them but never have deeper, meaningful interactions.
The main point is reasonable enough. The more you spend time with someone, the more likely they are to influence you. But so do others outside your innermost circle. This is particularly true when it comes to health.
You can hang out with people whose interests and attitudes are totally different, and resist their influence in those areas. But when you tend to eat at the same places and times? Seeing a colleague grab a snack is a cue to do the same. Managing those influences will take more than just a focus on your closest relationships.
The social default
It’s common to downplay the influence of friends and family as a result of shared experiences and values. We underestimate the power of groupthink, because we can easily point out the ways in which we think and act differently. Doing so is a testament to our individual agency.
But other people influence us most strongly in the areas where we don’t actually have a strong opinion or belief. In this situation, the observed choices of others can become a social default. They start to bear more weight than we would otherwise accord them.
Social defaults can be amplified by several factors. They tend to be stronger for ambiguous and low-stakes decisions. You may know that a candy bar is junk food, but how bad can it really be for your health? The messaging is less clear, compared to a pack of cigarettes, for instance. So when a friend eats or offers you a sugary snack, it’s easy to go with the flow.
The power of social defaults can also grow stronger when our cognitive resources are overburdened. When we feel rushed or stressed, decision-making gets harder.
Not only do we find it easier to emulate the behavior of others, in such scenarios our preferences can actually be reversed. If you’ve never touched a drink in your life, but your job is putting you through the wringer, an after-hours party with colleagues can change all that.
Going beyond 5
Thus, there aren’t really just five people in our lives who can influence our health. It isn’t enough to simply be more careful about who you spend the most time with. That’s a good place to start, but you also have to expand the curation and moderation of relationships and their effects.
Research has demonstrated that friends of friends can exert an influence on your likelihood of becoming obese or picking up a smoking habit, for instance.
At the same time, even occasional interactions with the right people can counteract those influences. You just have to be intentional and accord greater meaning to the positive people.
A doctor’s setting health goals, for example, should be as significant and life-changing as a real estate agent telling you which home is right for you. Likewise, a fitness trainer’s advice to reach those goals should be heeded like a mortgage broker helping you land a favorable deal.
You can’t maintain perpetually vigilance against the power of social defaults. So when there are influences in your life that help nudge you in the right direction, choose to listen and act.
Minimizing context factors
The problem with an approach based solely on curating relationships is that it places too much emphasis on the people around you. Recall that social defaults are not actually that powerful. They only threaten to gain undue importance in our lives when other factors are present, exacerbating the situation.
Take steps to manage those factors, and you can reduce the impact of social defaults on your own behavior. Strengthen your opinion on health-related matters. Write a narrative that makes it part of your identity.
Many people mock those who go vegan or follow a strict diet, or marginalize them in decisions such as where to have lunch. Yet those individuals persist in their dietary commitments because they’ve tied them to personal beliefs.
Make the stakes high and personal, the consequences of actions clear. And make a conscious effort to manage time and stress in your decision-making. Doing this will lift you above the context in which what other people choose to do with their health begins to affect your own behaviors.