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As Nov. 8 rapidly approaches, the midterm elections feel like an omnipresent blanket that is quickly covering campus, both physically and mentally. Our social media pages are filled with campaign ads, and it’s impossible to avoid the neon yellow-uniformed workers on State Street asking if we’ve registered to vote. Some may feel overwhelmed by all of it, and I don’t blame you. From the constant questioning to ad interruptions while streaming Taylor Swift’s Midnights, I get frustrated by all of it too. That being said, there are days when I’m able to sit down, recognize how important these elections are and ponder how they’ll impact my life. 

As I read about the recent gubernatorial debate between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Tudor Dixon, a quote from Whitmer’s opening remarks stood out: “I still believe there is more that unites us than divides us.” Biologically speaking, the Human Genome Project has proven that humans share 99% of genes with each other. But our genetic makeup isn’t the only thing that unites us. Across cultures, humans share the same core emotions, things like anger, sadness and fear, and generally aim to achieve happiness, whether it’s through love, faith, success or some other means. By all accounts, what Whitmer said is a fact. But there’s an underlying misconception that Whitmer’s statement perpetuates. 

We frequently hear this idea that people are more alike than different. But we have to stop perpetuating this notion because, not only is it incorrect, but it also negatively affects our mindsets. As college students, it’s especially important to recognize this misconception before it has life-long implications.

Psychological studies have shown that we tend to overestimate how much those around us think and behave like we do. This is known as the false-consensus effect. Stanford University’s renowned Social Psychology professor Lee Ross found that when asked on surveys about making a choice and guessing which option others would choose, participants often overestimated the percentage of those that agreed with their individual decision. This was the first of many subsequent research studies that displayed a similar trend. To put it simply, we often convince ourselves that we’re more alike than we actually are. It’s important to understand why we frequently make this error. 

As human beings, we’re desperate to fit in and be accepted by those around us. Our self-esteem and self-confidence are heavily influenced by other people’s perceptions of us and whether we feel valued. Outside validation and fitting in make us feel happier and better about ourselves. This association has led us to constantly desire acceptance from others. Psychiatrist and bestselling author Dr. Joanna Cannon writes that “the need for acceptance is a basic human instinct.” We can also look at it from an evolutionary perspective. Evolutionary psychologists Bruce Ellis and Lee Kirkpatrick describe how our ancestors had to work with others in order to survive and reproduce — getting along not only meant feeling better about ourselves. It also meant surviving. 

With that being said, in her internationally bestselling memoir “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” Bronnie Ware explores how fitting in may not be as beneficial to living as it may seem. As Ware tended to those with terminal illnesses, she would ask them about their biggest regrets. There’s one quote from the book that highlights the problem with our obsession over fitting in: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Sure, fitting in makes us feel better about ourselves, along with helping us survive and reproduce, but most would agree it’s not worth losing our individuality and living a life shaped more by others than ourselves. 

As college students, these questions have never been more important. This period in our lives is considered the stepping stone from adolescence to adulthood. Some label these years as the critical point when we learn who we are and how we fit into the larger puzzle of the real world. We are given so many choices from the classes we take to the clubs we join and the friendships we make. There are a plethora of opportunities for us to embrace our individualities. Looking introspectively, I noticed that the majority of my day is spent on classes that family and peers have recommended. And unconsciously, I habitually spend hours coping with the stress that has built up from an internal conflict between who others want me to be and not knowing who I should be. 

As a Bangladeshi-American male, there are numerous expectations and standards that I’m often held to. I reached out to several members of the Bangladeshi Student Association for some context. LSA sophomore Rafee Mirza, outreach co-chair for the University of Michigan’s Bangladeshi Student Association, says that he confronts these stereotypes and standards by using fashion and art as a platform. Mirza claims that “expression of fashion is something that is really undermined in Bangladeshi culture” and, in general, it’s something frowned upon as it goes against Bangladeshi standards of masculinity. Mirza chooses to go against these rhetorical standards and wear creative clothing that expresses his individuality. But individuality can be expressed and embraced through subtler things too. 

Ongkon Deb, LSA Sophomore and the BSA’s Finance chair found that “many people aren’t as involved in their cultural background and heritage.” Often, second-generation students neglect their parents’ culture in an effort to assimilate into the more dominant American one. Deb, however, is “proud of (his) designation as a Bengali man.” Both he and Mirza are prideful of their culture and enjoy expressing it through the BSA. The University offers students a multitude of opportunities to be involved in things that matter to them. But outside of that, even our simplest actions and beliefs are representative of who we are. It’s important to ask ourselves if our choices were made out of an individual motive or if we were more interested in fitting in. 

For hundreds of years, scientists and even philosophers have examined the human experience and found countless similarities that connect us. In a divided society, it’s essential to recognize all of the things that unite us. However, there is also value in recognizing our differences. We must be aware of our cognitive biases and inherent desires to fit in. As college students, it’s important to remember just how unique we each are and to truly embrace our differences as we enter a society that often enforces conformity. College is an opportunity for us to discover who we truly are. If these really are the decisive years, we have to be aware of our decisions and consider if we’re living a life true to ourselves and our desires, or simply one that is made for us by being more alike than different.

Nazim Ali is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at nazimali@umich.edu.

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