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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?

Book Review: “Welcome to My World” by Johnny Weir

I enjoy reading memoirs – uniquely personal experiences with universal truths. I especially looked forward to the recently published autobiography “Welcome to My World” by Johnny Weir, a world-famous figure-skater, three times U.S. National Champion and twice Olympian.   I won’t pretend to be unbiased.  I am a fan of his masterful skating.  I have always been amazed at his capacity to push the boundaries of his sport and bring people from different countries and cultures together in appreciation for what he is and what he brings to the skating world.  I longed for a quiet weekend when I would snuggle with the book and make my world stop while I was in his world.  Johnny Weir’s autobiography promised much needed food for the mind, heart and soul (and a big plus, for a change, it didn’t include the word “brain” or “neuro” in the title like all of my recent reads).   I am happy to say, it didn’t disappoint.

Known for his honest, direct, and witty way of delivering messages, Johnny Weir stayed true to his style in his quarter-life memoir, as he likes to call it.  He is a skillful  storyteller.  His keen eye for detail and visual effects that so many of his fans appreciate in his skating programs translated into the vivid and lively language of the book.  You don’t just read about Johnny Weir’s life, you actually see it unfolding in front of your eyes as if on a movie screen.  Like his skates on the ice, everything moves fast in a delightful swirl of dialogue, characters, and places.  The book is another proof that whatever it is Johnny Weir decides to go after, he goes full force, lighting the path with sparkly rhinestones.

We witness his quick transformation from a quiet and focused child with an active imagination and wise outlook on life to an awe-inspiring skater and artist.  He took his first steps on ice not on a suburban skating rink but on the ice-covered cornfield patch behind his house in a small place of Quarryville, Pennsylvania, after his parents gave him a pair of used black leather skates as a gift. “I definitely caught the skating bug that winter afternoon,” he writes.  “The feeling of speeding from one place to another so quickly was amazing.”  Yet, his future at the time appeared to be in horseback riding – he was close to making the national team. Competitive and determined even as a kid, when his trainer suggested he should work on his posture, he went home and sat “perfectly straight for two hours” until his back was shaking.  Then, amidst his equestrian training, he took a group skating lesson – another gift from his parents – and to the instructor’s surprise, he landed an axel, a jump that usually takes someone two years to learn.  The decision had to be made, and an eleven-year old Johnny chose to become an Olympian in figure skating.

I don’t know how many parents would be ready to move multiple times and endure all kinds of financial and emotional pressures to give their son an opportunity to pursue an Olympic dream, but Johnny’s parents did just that and continued to provide love and support through all of the tribulations of his athletic career. And those were many.  “Everything changed as I climbed the ranks of competitive skating,” he writes.  “My body, my technique, my ability, my emotions, my surroundings, all in turmoil and flux.”  From his rapid rise to the Olympic level, Johnny Weir emerges as a person who is not afraid to accept, love and nurture the opposites in himself, which makes him an outspoken contrarian, adored by his numerous global fans, but also distrusted by the skating establishment.  A tender-hearted fighter, a disciplined artist, an ornery gentleman, a witty intellectual, an athletic fashionista, a quiet entertainer, one thing we know for sure, he is never boring.  Neither are his costumes:  “Much like A-List actresses who won’t hit the red carpet unless they’re dripping in five million dollars’ worth of diamonds, I can’t skate unless I feel beautiful.”

He aims for perfection in everything he does – from his sport to his wardrobe and the lines of the carpet at his home, perhaps, reinforcing the structure he needs to anchor his exuberant creative expression.   But while perfection is his goal, he never pretends to be perfect.  He is brutally honest in this “feel-free-to-hate-my-guts” kind of way when he talks about his own lapses of judgment, like faking injuries and withdrawing from competitions.  But you can’t be mad at him for long because he doesn’t give himself a break and certainly doesn’t expect it from others:  “My stupidity and hubris had landed me in skating purgatory, cast our from the mainstream and any kind of official track. I knew I earned my karma and deserved everything that was happening, but that didn’t make it any easier to deal with.”

Every setback and disappointment, however, becomes a learning opportunity and a springboard to propel himself forward.  He may be known as a “swan” for his signature 2006 Olympic short program, but he is also a “phoenix” when it comes to his signature life programming.  The phoenix is a symbol of renewal.  The mythical bird is a fire spirit with a colorful plumage and a tail of gold and scarlet (not unlike the colors of the book cover).   According to ancient mythology, it builds itself a nest of twigs that then ignites, and a new, young phoenix arises from the ashes.  From each career dip, Johnny Weir appears better and stronger:  “…nothing matters but the moment.  Whatever happens at an event, good or bad, dissipates when you train on a clean slate of ice.”

The book is an emotional rollercoaster that will make you laugh, cry, sigh and cheer as Johnny Weir takes you into his world of competitions, travel, fashion, and romance.  The issue of Johnny Weir’s ‘coming out’ in the book has been much discussed in the media recently although as he and many others see it, he has never been ‘in’.  He was six when he realized there was something different about him while watching Richard Gere in Pretty Woman:  “Seeing Julia Roberts get swept off her feet by her rich and handsome client, I wanted to be her so badly because he did something special to me.  Kissing seemed like a weird think to do, but I knew if I were going to do it, it would be with Richard Gere.”  When he turned eighteen, he told his mother he was gay:  “Suddenly it felt like I was sitting in the room with a stranger, and this was my mom, my best friend.  The energy around us dropped as she started to cry.”  He continues, “I fell sorry for my mom and wanted her to know that everything was going to be all right.”  She replied, “I don’t really care, Johnny, as long as I know that you are going to be happy.”  His love story is sweet, lyrical, poignant, and humorous at the same time.  It will resonate with anyone who has a heart and a body.  His experience is personal and unique, but the truths behind it are universal.

Johnny Weir lives a passionate life.  His passion for his sport gave him the dream, the purpose, and the strength to pursue his goals despite obstacles and disappointments and remain true to himself.  The book reflects his complex and multifaceted personality that bursts through whatever boxes anybody tries to put him in.  His story inspires us to find our own passions and strengths within and challenges us to rise above our labels.

By | 2011-01-18T17:22:22+00:00 January 11th, 2011|Books|0 Comments

Influence starts with a human connection

“Only through our connectedness to others can we really know and enhance the self. And only through working on the self can we begin to enhance our connectedness to others.”
~ Harriet Goldhor Lerner

Important relationships, service, and influence all start with a human connection.   John Ryan, president of the Center for Creative Leadership, talks about the importance of making human connections for leaders in the article “When Leading With Your Head Isn’t Enough.” He discusses the four steps to help leaders build trust and authentic relationships with their people.  We can all use these four principles to nurture our relationships with clients, colleagues, business partners, and other important people in our lives.  Here’s how:

1.  Listen (to groups and individuals)

Dedicate time each week to simply listen to people and be fully present, focused, and engaged.  Listen to better understand their concerns, needs, and dreams.  Create a safe space for them to speak honestly about important issues.  Mirror back what you hear to check your understanding.  Make whoever you talk to your top priority at that moment.

When we interact with others, the mirror neurons in the brain help us understand other people’s intentions, feelings, and emotions. They enable us to empathize with others.  In his book “Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy,” Dev Patnaik discusses the role of empathy in successful companies and encourages companies to learn about their customers’ needs by interacting with them and understanding them.

Our empathy translates into the other person’s experience of being heard and acknowledged, which is a big deal in our harried world.  It builds trust and shows that you care.  It also helps to provide a more personalized service because you know what’s truly important to the client.  So, take extra time to listen.

2.  Be visible

It may be tempting to read, do research, answer emails, or do some other important projects at your desk, but people want to see you because it shows that you are interested and care about them and their work.  At least once a week, join your colleagues or invite a client for lunch, attend a seminar or an event together.

If you work long-distance, you can use social media to share some appropriate personal moments with people.  For example, you can share what you are reading, any conferences or events you may want to attend, or articles that may be helpful to others.  We all want to know who we deal with.

I attended a conference some time ago where I met a woman who reminded me of an old friend and colleague.  I felt an immediate connection.  It was as if my positive associations transferred to this new acquaintance.  Have you had similar experiences?  Our brain is quick to categorize everybody we meet into “us” and “others.”  Being visible gives you more chances to build rapport and discover any similarities between you and your clients, colleagues, or business partners.  This, in turn, will make you familiar and safe to the brains of these people.

3.  Show gratitude

Acknowledge people’s contributions in a specific way that shows that you understand the value of their actions and intentions.  Don’t underestimate the power of a hand-written thank-you note or an occasional surprise gift.

Gratitude is brain-captivating for both the giver and the recipient.  Positive psychology studies reveal that the practice of gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%.  For example, one recommended exercise is to write a “Gratitude Letter” to a person who has exerted a positive influence on your life but whom you have not properly thanked in the past, and then to meet that individual and read the letter face to face.  Whenever you express gratitude, let yourself experience all the positive emotions and memories brought about by the act of giving thanks.

4. Invest

Invest in others’ success.  Understand people’s aspirations and help them grow and develop professionally.  Invest in mentorship, client education, and important trainings for your team members, and their brains will love you.

Our brain is sensitive to how we appear to others.  We spend much time worrying about what others think of us.  Research shows that when people realize they might compare unfavorably to someone else, it triggers the release of cortisol and other stress-related hormones. In contrast, when people master a new skill or receive praise their perception of status gets a boost.  Supporting people’s growth in respectful and collaborative ways makes them feel good about their accomplishments and creates a sense of safety and trust when they interact with you.

What do you do to nurture important human connections?

By | 2010-05-18T18:52:47+00:00 May 18th, 2010|Books, Communication|1 Comment

Your four-legged friend shares your deep feelings

I am a dog owner, and it is not a stretch for me to accept that my dog has feelings (that’s him in the picture).  He seems so happy to see me when I come home, his tail tracing a big smile in the air.  He is playful after a good walk.  And he tosses his bowl around the kitchen floor impatiently when he is searching for food. For all of you, pet owners out there, I want to share a piece of evidence today suggesting that our four-legged friends indeed have feelings.

On a recent train ride to Grand Central, I listened to an episode of the Brain Science podcast in which Dr. Ginger Campbell interviewed Dr. Jaak Panksepp, the author of “Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions.” Dr. Panksepp studies how various brain systems regulate emotional feelings and social bonds.

I am yet to read the book, but Dr. Panksepp appears to have a unique position on studying emotions in the brain.  His experiments challenge some current neuroscience theories that view emotions as the brain’s interpretations of our bodily feelings.  Dr. Panksepp’s research indicates that both human and animal emotions begin in the subcortical circuits of the mammalian brain, which is the ancient part of the brain.  In contrast, all our human planning, reasoning, abstract thought and other complex executive functions happen in the cerebral cortex, which forms the largest part of the human brain and is situated above most other brain structures.

Through brain stimulation, the researchers have been able to isolate seven emotional systems in animals so far:  the seeking or searching for resources, rage, lust, fear, care (for the little ones), panic (the separation distress call when a little one gets lost from the parent), and play.  Scientists may discover more in the future.

Originating in the deep areas of the brain, “deep feelings” may be more than just an expression after all.  And if you feel emotional, your pet gets it.

By | 2010-05-12T17:21:26+00:00 May 12th, 2010|Books, Brain|0 Comments

Cordelia Fine on Neuromarketing [Video]: A Self-Control Depleating Spray, Anyone?

During our recent meeting of “The Mind and the Brain” book club, we had a stimulating discussion of Cordelia Fine’s book “A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives.” One of the many intriguing take-aways from this book is that our subconcsious brain is sensitive to various triggers in our environment. These triggers influence our behavior although we don’t even recognize it. Our conscious brain is good at providing explanations why we acted the way we did after the fact. Unfortunately, these explanations may be nothing more than convenient fabrications to keep us comfortable and content.

In the video below, Cordelia Fine discusses research into certain tactics that provoke impulse desires in people and influence consumer behavior.   She also raises important questions about ethical implications of the use of these discoveries in neuromarketing.  Watch the video and let me know what you think, from the perspective of  a marketer, a consumer, or both.  Awareness may be our best tool in the battle for our attention.

By | 2010-05-09T00:02:52+00:00 May 8th, 2010|Books, Communication|0 Comments