Are we conditioned to age?

It is sometimes difficult to accept that we have been susceptible to social conditioning, although it is easy to see it in others, particularly in other cultures; the person who mocks Hindus for venerating cows may stand firm declaring his belief in his own one true religion; someone who believes Mediterraneans are warmer and have more intense feelings than those from Northern Europe will be extremely reluctant to accept people are the same everywhere; a parent who has followed the path of higher education will be averse to the suggestion academic study may not ultimately be the best preparation for life. From the famous experiment with Pavlov’s dogs, salivating at the sound of a bell originally heard when they were fed, to aversion therapy, desensitization and “flooding” (repeated exposure), conditioning underpins many aspects of how society and psychology works.

As an example of adaptive behaviour, conditioning helps protect an individual from experiences that have harmed them in the past, or prepares them for a future experience such as an exam, a fight or sex. The conditioning occurs irrespective of whether the event is imminent. A conditioned response may be the smell of coffee making us feel alert, a piece of music bringing back intense emotions, a clock indicating it is time for dinner causing hunger to become suddenly acute or the placebo effect when we think we are taking pain killers but are actually consuming sugar. Farmers have used conditioned responses in animals : sheep have been trained to weed vineyards but avoid eating the grapes by feeding them vine leaves and then injecting them with a drug inducing nausea. In a similar experiment wolves were conditioned to avoid eating sheep. In humans, aversion therapy has been used, sometimes controversially, to treat conditions such as alcoholism, violent behaviour, gambling or pedophilia using stimuli such as electric shocks or nausea drugs. Therapy to reverse conditioning is predicated on the idea that behaviour that has been learnt can also be unlearnt.

Social conditioning 3Accepting we have been conditioned requires some degree of humility, but it is true of all of us, and breaking out of conditioning entails risks for our place in the society we live in, and may jeopardise relationships. However, it is possible with a degree of introspection to question our shells of assumed knowledge, and recognise conditioning for what it is. As young children we are told by the media, our peers, teachers and elders that we need certain things in our lives to be happy. By the time we are adults we believe these things are true and it is devilishly difficult to adopt new beliefs. Even if, for example, we feel happy when we are alone, we are surrounded by partnerships, and the urge to pair up with another in order to be happy, despite the very real divorce rates, rises up in us again and again, day after day. Other examples of conditioning are that owning an expensive car or house is necessary for social status, or that wearing brand names makes you cool (parents will recognise this one), that men should earn more and be more successful than their female partners, that you will catch a cold if you go out with wet hair or that middle-aged men in suits know what they are talking about. Travellers will recognise the amusing experience of coming up against conditioning in other countries : praising a child’s beauty attracts the evil eye in the Balkans and the Middle East, in Greece crossing your legs in church is considered obscene and drinking Pepsi helps digestion and in Moslem cultures women who look directly at men in some cultures receive unwanted sexual attention. The shock in the assembled company if as a foreigner we break with the social conditioning is sometimes so extreme and the condemnation so virulent that it is much easier to quickly adopt the view of the majority, at least while we remain in the culture. Subsequent return to our culture of origin can result in so-called cognitive dissonance, or ‘reverse culture shock’.

If we test our own cultural assumptions we might ask : does reading in a dim light ruin your eyesight? Do hair and nails continue to grow after death? Do we lose most of our heat through our heads?

Social conditioning 2History is full of debunked medical myths. Before 2002 doctors might have prescribed HRT to protect women against heart disease. Then it was discovered HRT made heart disease worse. In the nineteen sixties a doctor would have blamed the mother’s distant attitude for her child’s autism. In the 1980s doctors and the media used to say saturated fat was bad so avoid butter like the plague. Now there is no evidence it causes heart disease. “The fatwa on sat fat has been a fabulous boon for the sugar and cereal industries,” said one article. Eggs are another example. First ‘go to work on an egg’ – then advice that 5 eggs a week are disastrous for cholesterol, and now evidence that eggs have no effect on cholesterol at all. Statistics seem to indicate that iatrogenic ailments (wrong advice or medication from doctors) are currently the biggest cause of death in the US.

What health assumptions do we have that future generations will discount as quackery?

We usually believe our physical and mental health will decline steadily from middle age and that we will die around 80. What if this was just social conditioning on a massive scale, and future generations will show that this was wrong?

Did we receive an apology about fat, autism, eggs and HRT? No, so don’t hold your breath we will receive one about ageing.

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