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Your Brain or Mine? Collective Perceptions and Group Conformity

agreementMetaphors often reveal the hidden connections between our perception of the physical world and our mental constructs.   The expression “eye to eye” means “in agreement.”  It turns out that seeing eye to eye in the physical sense may explain our tendencies to conform and “follow the crowd” under  peer pressure.  Put differently, what others say may change what you see.

In the 1950’s, Solomon Asch, conducted a series of experiments designed to understand the phenomenon we know as conformity. In his experiments, a group of participants were seated in a classroom and asked to compare the length of vertical lines. They were then asked to tell the group which vertical line, A, B, or C, matched the test line. The catch was that all of the participants except one were Asch’s aids . The aids first gave the correct answers, but eventually all began to give incorrect responses. Amazingly, the test subject began giving the same incorrect answers as the aids. Overall, after 18 trials, only 25% of the subjects never gave a false answer, and 75% of the subjects conformed at least once.  However, in follow-up trials where one aid openly disagreed with the rest of the aids voicing the wrong answer, the test subjects easily identified the correct answer. So, it took just one dissenting voice to destroy the conformity spell.

Psychiatry professor Gregory Berns, the author of the book “Iconoclast:  A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently,” wanted to find out if people conformed because the peer pressure influenced their decision-making or because the group’s opinions affected their physical perception.  The use of fMRI, registering different brain activation patterns, allowed the researchers to distinguish the “seeing” stage from the “deciding” stage.  The experiments revealed that the peer pressure may actually shape the way we see things.  Moreover, those subjects whose perception remained unaffected by the opinions of others and who went against the group showed more activation in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with fear responses and emotional control.  It takes courage to disregard the fear and discomfort and go against the group.

So, how do we know whether we truly see eye to eye or we look at the world through the peers’ eyes?   What do we do to avoid false agreements?

How The Grumpy Gremlin, The Inner Critic and The Mad Monkey Stole the Creative Seed of Discourse

CreativityOnce upon a time, Discourse possessed a creative seed that in the right conditions had the power to germinate into better understanding among people and offer new solutions to their problems.  The wise and the elderly knew how to take care of the creative seed and help it sprout into a peaceful growth until one day a stranger showed up at Discourse’s door.

“What’s your name?” Discourse asked.

“I am The Grumpy Gremlin,” replied the stranger. “You, Discourse, can’t even imagine all the threats and dangers that are lurking out there.  Hidden in the dark, nagging worries, stewing self-sabotage, debilitating doubt, and paralyzing fear wait for the right moment to pounce and send chills down your spine.  And slimy worms are about to eat your creative seed. “

Discourse looked around in horror.  “What  can I do?’  “Can you help me?”

“All right,”  said The Grumpy Gremlin.  “I will protect you against threats and dangers out there, but you have to give me something in return.”

“What can I give you?” asked Discourse.

“Your good mood,” The Grumpy Gremlin replied.

Discourse thought the Grumpy Gremlin’s request was strange.  What’s the value of the good mood, anyways?   And he accepted the offer.

As days passed, Discourse grew sad and blue as he became aware of every possible threat out there.  This realization even gave him indigestion.  One evening, Discourse was sitting by the fire when he noticed a shadow darting across the wall of his house.  Spooked,  Discourse jumped around and saw a strange creature creeping across the room.  “Who are you and what are you doing in my house?” Discourse yelled.

“So sorry to bother you, Discourse.  I am your Inner Critic.  I was always here, but you were too happy to pay any attention to me.”

Discourse listened in disbelief as The Inner Critic’s voice grew louder and louder.

“Just look at yourself, Discourse.  You turned into a laughing stock.  You are just fuming and fuming, but you have nothing useful to say.  What will people think of you?”

“What should I do?” asked Discourse meekly.

“Here is what you do,”  The Inner Critic replied angrily.  “You listen to me carefully.  I will protect you against the harsh judgment and the ridicule of your neighbors.  But you have to promise me something in return.”

“What is it,” asked Discourse, embarrassed and upset with himself.

“Promise me that you will always carry your creative seed in a tightly closed sack and you will never venture into unknown territory.”

“But if I always keep the creative seed in a closed sack, how will it grow without the sunlight?” protested Discourse.

But The Inner Critic just hissed, “What do you know?”

So, Discourse reluctantly agreed to The Inner Critic’s offer.

Discourse kept the promise.  He carried his creative seed in a tightly closed sack as he walked along the beaten path.  One day, during his usual walk, a monkey jumped from a tree and grabbed the sack with the creative seed.  Discourse was too absorbed by his own sad thoughts to notice The Mad Monkey sooner.  He tried to catch her but she ran into the forest and just kept jumping from tree to tree.  Discourse chased The Mad Monkey for a full hour but had to stop because he got tired of running in circles.

And that is how Discourse lost his creative seed, tricked by The Grumpy Gremlin, The Inner Critic, and The Mad Monkey into giving away his good mood, courage, curiosity, and a peaceful, open mind.

By | 2011-05-03T23:21:31+00:00 April 2nd, 2011|Change, Communication, Creativity|0 Comments