This is the story of two shopping malls, and how they have led to a world in which everything is personalized.
I’m a psychologist. This gives me licence to people watch at parties and nod mysteriously when you talk about your mother.
But my real business? Mind control.
My skills reach everywhere: from your living room to the Vegas strip. From Disneyland to the movie theatre. I have the skills, the tools to make you buy, to make you believe, to make you desire.
You don’t have much say in the matter. You are infinitely suggestible, although you probably don’t want to hear that. You probably think you’re less susceptible the the person sitting to your left, or to your right, or the really hot one two rows in front of you. But I have to break it to you: you are susceptible. You will capitulate to the power of suggestion.
You are getting sleepy...
someone describing the experience of being in a trance when in a trance
It was the 1800s. The place was Europe. People were hooked by a new consciousness ever since the modern medical science had definitively made the split between the mind and the body. And hypnotism was the hot fadsweeping through the parlours of the well-to-do, and on the stages of the big cities. Showmen - like this guy, Frank Anton Mesmer - thought it was a brilliant trick to put people - and animals - into a trance for laughs. Frank here’s party trick was something he called “Mesmerism” - yes, after himself - and he claimed it was his charismatic and powerful gaze that manipulated the magnetic fluid in his patients’ bodies that put them into a deep deep sleep.
There was another school of thought making the circuit. One that was entirely rational and based on science.
Take any bright object (e.g. a lancet case) between the thumb and fore and middle fingers of the left hand; hold it from about eight to fifteen inches from the eyes, at such position above the forehead as may be necessary to produce the greatest possible strain upon the eyes and eyelids, and enable the patient to maintain a steady fixed stare at the object.
This is James Braid. And those were his words. He was a surgeon in Scotland, and thought Mesmer’s claims were poppycock. And Briad's hobby was debunking people who, he thought, made shit up.
The patient must be made to understand that he is to keep the eyes steadily fixed on the object, and the mind riveted on the idea of that one object. It will be observed, that owing to the consensual adjustment of the eyes, the pupils will be at first contracted: They will shortly begin to dilate, and, after they have done so to a considerable extent, and have assumed a wavy motion, if the fore and middle fingers of the right hand, extended and a little separated, are carried from the object toward the eyes, most probably the eyelids will close involuntarily, with a vibratory motion.
After extensive experimentation - first on himself, and then on other people, Braid determined that the trance state had nothing to do with magnetic fluids, and everything to do with fascination.
The explanation for the power that serpents have to fascinate birds … is simply this — that when the attention of man or animal is deeply engrossed or absorbed by a given idea associated with movement, a current of nervous force is sent into the muscles which produces a corresponding motion, not only without any conscious effort of volition, but even in opposition to volition, in many instances; and hence they seem to be irresistibly drawn, or spell-bound, according to the purport of the dominant idea or impression in the mind of each at the time.
When you’re in a trance, you are so concentrated, so focussed on a single thing that you go deeply, deeply into yourself. And it’s there that we are at our most suggestible.
James Braid’s method is still used by clinical hypnotists today - 175 years later. And although Braid rejected the circus circuit himself, his Eye-Fixation-Hypnotic Induction Method has been adopted by modern day stage show hypnotists too. Very little about his technique has changed, except that it’s been formalised into something called the Stanford Susceptibility Scale - Version C.
If any of you have been hypnotised in front of an audience, they’re using Victorian-era trance techniques. And they’re getting you to raise your arms and waggle them about, and taste something sour, and hide from insects, and cluck like a chicken when they pick up a pencil. All of this is in the Stanford Scale. Yup, even the bit about pretending you’re a baby.
But when we’re in our deep deep sleep, we’re not play acting. We’re actually participating in a way that Braid and his chums didn’t really get, but that today has never been better understood.
First of all, the attention areas of the brain are the bits here - it’s called the Angular Gyrus, for those who prefer completion. When you’re hypnotised, the electrical impulses in that part are hyper-activated. So trance does focus the mind, just like Braid said.
But there’s another part to hypnosis than just the trance. It’s what happens when you’re there that makes the difference - for the audience watching or for the person who’s trying to stop smoking.
In 2000 a group of neuroscientists at Harvard and the Massachusetts General Hospital in the US were digging around for a neurological basis for hypnotic suggestion. So they hypnotised a bunch of people and suggested that they look at a painting a lot like Mondrian’s but that they see it in greyscale. And the electrical impulses in the part of the brain that processes colour before the hypnosis were completely different from the electrical impulses in the same part during hypnosis. Suggestion worked its magic.
Another group of neuroscientists from Lund University in Sweden took some syntesthetes and hypnotised them. Synesthetes are the people who can taste the colour red or hear the smell of mangoes, and they normally have a pretty weird electro-map up there. While in the trance, the researchers asked them to stop smelling colours or hearing smells, and their brain electricity transformed into a normal person’s.
So something physical is clearly happening up there. When you’re in a trance, you’re neurobiologically convinced by things that defy rationality.
There’s another thing the Stanford Susceptibility Scale measures, and that’s post-hypnotic suggestion.
This trope belies our greatest fear: that we are not in charge of our consciousness. We are a pawn in a larger story - usually, to be fair, some kind of skilled assassin. The master hypnotist convinces us that we want to do what they tell us to do.
So does this mean you can plead guilty, claiming hypnotism made me do it?
Well, no. The reason Derek Zoolander and Major Bennett Marco from Manchurian Candidate and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall and Nicholas Brody from Homeland have all become skilled assassins is because they are intrinsically motivated to do so.
Psychologists know that it’s almost impossible to get someone to do or think something they don’t want to. Normally, you have to be coerced or bullied. And usually, as soon as the pressure is off, you go back to what you were doing or thinking before. So what’s happening here? What kind of mind control did James Braid tap into?
What hypnotists do with their trance technique is to get you into a state where you want to do or see what they suggest. You become motivated to do it - but not through coercion or bullying, but because you’ve decided that this is what you want to do. You are intrinsically motivated. In these kinds of situations, it’s usually waggling your arms around in the air, or seeing the audience naked.
Hold that thought.
This is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He’s a psychologist. He’s an expert in happiness, and what gives people joy - even when they’re not getting anything back for their efforts, like money, or fame.. or even a smile. He’s spoken with thousands of people - artists, top athletes, musicians, rock climbers, writers, worker bees. Based on their stories, he’s come up with a theory about how people work most effectively. And he’s sold millions of books worldwide, all about the same thing: it’s about getting into a trance-like state so you can be the best Possible You you can be.
Well, when you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, as this man is, he doesn't have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home. He can't feel even that he's hungry or tired.
That's him in 2004, describing a composer in the mental state he calls Flow:
His body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness, because he doesn't have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time to feel that he exists. So existence is temporarily suspended. And he says that his hand seems to be moving by itself.
Everyone in this room has been in Flow. You’ve gone for a run and pushed through those first two painful miles. You’ve got lost in the waves when you’re on your surfboard. You’ve discovered hours have passed while you’re putting beads on a string, playing the piano or stuffing envelopes. You are free from everything else. You’re in the zone...
You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger.
In Flow, you’re so fixed onto what you’re doing that everything else evaporates. You are the bird fascinated by the serpent. Your internal magnetic fluids are dancing to the beat of Frank Mesmer’s drum.
This is starting to sound an awful lot like hypnotism. And in fact, there is a connection. But maybe not what you think.
In the early 2000s, Brian Vasquez was sports psychology researcher at the University of Washington, working on his PhD. He knew that top athletes - Olympic level is what we’re talking here - get into a flow state when they’re going for gold. And not only are there there, but that is actually the endgame. Winning is just a perk.
He figured that their peak performance was enhanced by being in The Zone: that they did far better when they were in Flow than they would otherwise. But..
if the state of flow is such a positive experience for an athlete or dancer or artist, why do people not enter this state when they want the desired effects? Therein lays the problem. It cannot be completely controlled and cannot be switched on and off at will. ...And like the ever-elusive fountain of youth, the secrets for achieving this realm upon command have yet to be discovered.
But Vasquez thought he might have the key. If Flow is so similar to hypnotism's trance-state, what if he hypnotised them and suggested that they regress to a previous experience flow?
So to test this, he recruited 48 top basketball players from a US University, tested their dribbling, defensive and three-point hoop performance first, then he either gave them relaxation techniques or hypnotised them, and then tested them again.
The results of this study suggested that participants receiving the hypnosis intervention were able to demonstrate significantly higher all-around basketball performance skill scores at postintervention than participants receiving the relaxation intervention.
So to get into the evasive flow state, you might want to look deep into my eyes...
Or you might want to look at a screen.
Woahhhh. Hold on a second. A screen? The pariah of the modern age? The thing we’re constantly told sucks our life away from us? That will bring us to this state of ecstasy?
Well, yeah. Chick-sent-me-high's concept of Flow has appeared in many places, from the board room to the living room. And one of the most important places is how it’s influenced software designers. A whole lot of them. But none more than computer games developers.
FlOw is divided into 20 levels. Each level introduces new creatures with new challenges. Different from traditional games in which players have to complete one level in order to progress to the next one, flOw offers players power to control their gameplay progress. By choosing different food to eat, players can advance to the more difficult level and return to the easier level at any time. The game features a minimal death penalty. If player died in one level, he will be pushed back to the previous level that is relatively easy. Players can also choose to avoid the challenge, skip the level, and come back later.
Jenova explicitly exploited Chick-sent-me-hi’s Flow to tweak and fine tune the game design of FlOw - balancing the correct amount of skill with the correct amount of challenge, and she did it in a way that let the players determine where they wanted to be, allowing them to avoid their own personal thresholds of anxiety and boredom. This is the enigmatic middle ground is at the core of Chick-sent-me-hi’s Flow and it’s what designers of games try to master.
Designing a video game is very much about how to keep the player in the Flow and eventually be able to finish the game. Therefore, the game system needs to maintain different players' experiences inside the Flow Zone.
Now it’s not just games that have this flow mentality. A team of researchers from Vanderbilt University in the US measured the experience of chatting in chat rooms, using search engines and shopping online and found that the services that were the most compelling put users into a state of flow too.
Consumers who achieve flow on the Web are so acutely involved in the act of online navigation that thoughts and perceptions not relevant to navigation are screened out, and the consumer focuses entirely on the interaction.
We become lost to the rest of the world, so deeply in a trance that we will follow the website’s lead down a rabbit hole… for *hours*.
And I reckon that a good proportion of the people in this room - although you probably won’t admit it - would regard Excel or Outlook as your favourite computer game. Mastering spreadsheets and clearing your inbox get more difficult the better you get at it.
Activities done through digital devices are designed to be compelling. They’re designed to get you into a Flow state. Into a trance, where you feel motivated to continue because your skill is matched by the challenge.
We are convinced by the technology that emptying the inbox is what we want to do. We are convinced that we want to stay in front of our screens. We are convinced that the best way to interact with our friends and families is by posting pictures of ourselves on Facebook, and with work colleagues by connecting with them on LinkedIn.
Once again, we are Intrinsically motivated - maybe not to kill someone or take over the world - but nevertpe less, psychology is being built into the apps and services we use every day.
The people who are designing these things want us to be compelled by their creations, but what they’re building isn’t agnostic. They may be taking advantage of our Flow state to - inadvertently - implant some of their own.
Take The Sims, for example...
A simulation of the real world - get a job, raise a family, buy a house and stock it with mid-century modern furniture.
OK, maybe this is my fantasy.
But this is the basis of the game: to succeed in one kind of life. It’s not to set up a market stall in Accra, Ghana and to open an internet cafe for poor gay kids in ebola-struck neighbourhoods. There *are* alternatives to the capitalist, heteronormative life experiences, but by Flowing through The Sims’ reward and punishment state, we’re learning that this is how we wish to be.
Aspiration, reflection and a privileged Western sensibility: we need to think about where the games and software come from to understand that we’re seeing the world through a very specific point of view.
Remember, most people’s jobs isn't to do email. In fact, the email flow state interrupts every other flow state. And if you find yourself going home after a day at the office satisfied because you’ve emptied your inbox - but your job is actually to do something else - you’re probably entranced by the email-based flow.
So when you return to your desks on Monday, think carefully about every activity you find yourself performing as part of your work duties. Are you doing this because it’s useful and productive and the right thing for the business, or because you’re fascinated by the mesmerising eyes of the designers, and you’re now fixated on winning the game?
There’s an island in the Pacific Ocean that’s teeny tiny; 25 miles long and 12 miles wide. There are only about six thousand people living on it. It’s covered in palm trees and coconut groves and the people there wear grass skirts, and do ritual dances and they drink kava.
And every February 15th they get out their special bamboo rods and wave them at the sky. And they raise flags, and wave them at the sky. And they stand for hours in specially-built boxes at the end of the strip of land they’ve specifically flattened for this particular day and stare up at the sky. And they put on special ritual headgear that looks an awful lot like what we in the west would call headphones and they wave smaller bamboo sticks at the sky.
And all this sky waving has a purpose: they’re hoping it will bring the mythical god John Frum, King of America and of their island Tanna, to their volcanic home. And he will come with medicines, technologies and riches they haven’t seen in more than 70 years.
How did these rituals arise? To understand this, we have to turn to one of the classic texts in the psychology canon: B.F. Skinner’s Superstition of the Pigeon. But before we set foot in the cage...
In 1895, New Zealand entomologist named George Hudson put a formal proposal forward to the Wellington Philosophical Society that would make it easier for him to collect insects throughout the year.
President Barack Obama is arguably the most powerful man in the world right now. He’s the head of government of the number one global hyperpower: the US currently boasts the most powerful economy in the world, the most powerful military in the world, the most powerful education and scientific institutions in the world, the most powerful cultural institutions in the world and it “owns” the most important communication platform in the world, the internet.
Not my words.
The title of “most powerful man in the world” is justified, right? So this week on the N of Us, mere days after US President’s Day, we’re looking at a single theory: the most widely accepted theory of social power in social psychology, introduced in 1958 by John R. P. French and Bertram Raven.
The processes of power are pervasive, complex, and often disguised in our society.
So begins The Bases of Social Power, French and Raven’s first stab at distinguishing what gives some people power over others. It’s a powerful topic; power leads to influence - to getting people to do what you want them to do and to think how you want them to think. And over the course of 10 pages - including references - they identify five bases that give one guy, whom they call ‘O’, influence over a person, whom they call ‘P’.
Our theory of social influence and power is limited to influence on the person, P, produced by a social agent, O, where O can be either another person, a role, a norm, a group, or a part of a group. The influence of O on System A in the life space of P is defined as the resultant force on System A which has its source in an Act of O. This resultant force induced by O consists of two components: a force to change the system in the direction induced by O and an opposing resistance set up by the same act of O. By this definition the influence of O does not include P's own forces nor the forces induced by other social agents. Accordingly the "influence" of O must be clearly distinguished from O's "control" of P.
And with that in mind, there are six bases of power.
First up, Reward.
Since O mediates the reward, he controls the probability that P will receive it. ..The utilization of actual rewards (instead of promises) by O will tend over time to increase the attraction of P toward O and therefore the referent power of O over P.
Also known as the carrot in the equation carrot + stick. But remember, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.Allow me to diverge into something a little more chillaxed.
In terms of carrot-power, few businesses fly the flag of reward-based power structures higher than Lululemon, super-brand, and athletic-wear cult.
Like many athletic-wear companies, Lululemon has a system of “ambassadors” which, through the power of rewarding them a pile of free stuff, access to free classes, an ego massage and some free publicity, Lulu gets one big chunk of their advertising, for free.
Ambassadors receive no pay, but are invited to teach free classes in their local Lululemon store, in order to publicise their own classes.
This system, is genius. Ambassadors can certainly benefit massively from the arrangement – the fitness industry is a crowded market, and having “Lulu backing” can go a long way in getting bums on mats and trainers on the treadmill. And getting some free clothes to boot can save some cash.
The range of reward power is specific to those regions within which O can reward P for conforming. The use of rewards to change systems within the range of reward power tends to increase reward power by increasing the probability attached to future promises.
And thus the faithful continue to give, for free.
OK. So compare this with the next basis French and Raven described. Please, join me on a trip back in time to the renaissance to talk about a centuries old theory of shock and awe.
A Prince should therefore disregard the reproach of being thought cruel where it enables him to keep his subjects united and obedient. For he who quells disorder by a very few signal examples will in the end be more merciful than he who from too great leniency permits things to take their course and so to result in rapine and bloodshed; for these hurt the whole State, whereas the severities of the Prince injure individuals only.
Machiavelli has managed to capture the imaginations of the subjugating and the subjugated for more than six centuries with his description of a Prince who prefers the stick to the carrot.
Coercive power - French and Raven’s technical term - has been used as a technique to control people for millennia. It’s corporal punishment in schools. It’s playground and grown-up bullying. It’s political blackmail, smear campaigns and philosophical treatises about the architecture of panopticon prisons. It’s the Drill Sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.
It’s exactly the same principle as reward power, but exactly the opposite.
Coercive power of O/ P stems from the expectation on the part of P that he will be punished by O if he fails to conform to the influence attempt...The strength of coercive power depends on the magnitude of the negative valence of the threatened punishment multiplied by the perceived probability that P can avoid the punishment by conformity, i.e., the probability of punishment for nonconformity minus the probability of punishment for conformity.
Whereas reward’s objective is increasing attraction, coercion’s objective is compliance.
There is, of course, another way. French and Raven’s third basis of power has to do with the influence of the social world on us as individuals. It’s called Legitimate power.
The US President has legitimate power over the people in the US because he was granted it in what they believe to be a legitimate way: he was democratically elected. Regardless of your political persuasion, as long as you believe the election process wasn’t rigged, his position at the executive helm means that he ought to have control over the decisions made for and about the population.
I said believe twice there. There’s a reason.
The feeling of "oughtness" may be an internalization from his parents, from his teachers, from his religion, or may have been logically developed from some idiosyncratic system of ethics. He will speak of such behaviors with expressions like "should," "ought to," or "has a right to." Conceptually, we may think of legitimacy as a valence in a region which is induced by some internalized norm or value. ...cultural values include such things as age, intelligence, caste, and physical characteristics ...Acceptance of the social structure is another basis for legitimate power..Designation by a legitimizing agent is a third basis for legitimate power.
The problem with legitimate power is that those internalised norms and values can be manipulated in a way that those who don’t legitimately have power can pretend to just by co-opting the signals of legitimacy.
The moral of the story is don’t impersonate someone who has legitimate power to get a discounted donut.
The next basis of power is like legitimate power, but it’s much more personal in nature.
If O is a person toward whom P is highly attracted, P will have a desire to become closely associated with O. If O is an attractive group, P will have a feeling of membership or a desire to join. If P is already closely associated with O he will want to maintain this relationship. P's identification with O can be established or maintained if P behaves, believes, and perceives as O does. Accordingly O has the ability to influence P, even though P may be unaware of this referent power.
In other words, who you want to be like or think you’re like has an impressive power over you to get you to do things or think things, from what clothes to buy to lifestyle decisions. Even political diplomacy. Remember the “Special Relationship”?
Peer pressure is a thing.
That was the cast of Grange Hill singing Just Say No. The second to last basis of power in French and Raven’s taxonomy is Expert power.
Wherever expert influence occurs it seems to be necessary both for P to think that O knows and for P to trust that O is telling the truth...
It doesn’t necessarily mean that O is right.
That’s Adam Rutherford reporting for the BBC in 2011 for the programme Science Betrayed.
The power that the expert - in that case, Andrew Wakefield - has had on global public health has been devastating and profound. And it endures; despite being stripped of his professional qualification, the expertise that he traded upon to demonstrate the falsified results continues to influence people who, themselves, have significant referent power.
Since power is here defined in terms of the primary changes, the influence of the content on a related opinion is not a case of expert power as we have defined it, but the initial acceptance of the validity of the content does seem to be based on expert power or referent power.
This is a perfect storm of the bases of power, which has trickled down to social change.
And it’s difficult to reverse it, particularly in an age in which it’s possible to find information that’s easy to validate your opinion - with so-called experts who are on your side.
Into this complicated web of power relationships comes one final basis, added to the list later by Bertram Raven in his 1965 chapter, Social Influence and Power.
The final basis of power is information. Simply put, knowledge is power.
Anyone with knowledge they wish to wield over someone else may wish to take a lesson from the rich pickings of industrial espionage.
In 2006, Joya Williams, an assistant to Coca-Cola’s global brand director, pilfered a secret sample of the company’s newest product. Stowing the vial away inside a brown Armani bag, Williams enlisted two friends to help her rekindle the fires of the famous cola wars.
The thieves penned a cryptic letter to Pepsi under the alias “Dirk”:
“I have information that’s all classified and extremely confidential, that only a handful of the top execs at my company have seen. I can even provide actual products and packaging of certain products, that no eye has seen, outside of maybe five top execs.”
Pepsi executives immediately reported the encounter and Coca-Cola enlisted the help of the FBI. The FBI in turn arranged an undercover meeting with the thieves. On June 16, the two parties met and the thieves were given a yellow Girl Scout cookie box containing $30,000 in exchange for the sample and a series of internal documents.
The group, Joya Williams, Ibraham Dimson and Edmund Duhaney, were arrested shortly thereafter and charged with wire fraud and unlawfully stealing and selling Coke trade secrets.
Information power is inherently transitory; you only have the power until you give it away. And this is why some governments want to control the pipelines of information. President Obama claims the US owns the internet. That’s a strong assertion, and one that begs some careful consideration before the self-proclaimed “owners” attempt to make changes to how the rest of the world uses and accesses it.
Because that is at the heart of information power: he who has the information has the power.
The President of the United States exercises his position through a balance of these six bases. Over the next year, we’ll watch America choose its next president who will promise to use his or her power to fix the neighbourhood.
Next week on the N of Us, I’ll be talking about one dominant theory of how this can be done.
This has been the N of Us with me, Aleks Krotoski. Voice and editorial support is provided by Ben Hammersley, and research by Hannah Whittingham. You can find out more about the five bases and find out more about the political subtext of the Eurovision Song Contest at thenofus.com
In late April 1381, Geoffrey Chaucer took a break from his latest draft of Canterbury Tales to write a poem celebrating the engagement of the 14 year old King Richard II to the 15 year old Anne of Bohemia. Parlement of Foules describes a dreamscape through temples with various romantic friezes, and into sunny courtyard where Nature is convening a gathering of birds pairing off with other birds.
Like much of his work, it was a remarkable piece of literature: not only did it usher in a literary style by being set in a fictional “old tradition”, but it also created a new tradition: one that we continue to celebrate today.
So this was on St Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.
OK, so Chaucer was the first person to make the link between romance and love and the various St Valentines - for there were more than one. And for this, we can celebrate (or blame) him for the cheesy Hallmark cards, the not-very-tasty lovehearts, the overpowering amount of red, and the tenuous editorial tie-ins that dominate the second week of February.
Cheers for that, Geoff.
But of course, Chaucer never made sense of love, he just waxed lyrically about it.
Enter psychology. Or, more specifically, enter the field of Interpersonal Attraction. Perhaps not quite as poetic, but certainly fertile ground for research.
I think it not much of an exaggeration to say that there exists no very adequate theory of interpersonal attraction. It has often seemed to me that even we psychologists, who like to pride ourselves in recognising that nothing occurs apart from its necessary and sufficient conditions, have come very close to treating the phenomena of personal attraction as an exception to the general rule. It is almost as if we, like our lay contemporaries, assumed that in this special area the psychological wind bloweth where it listeth, and that the matter is altogether too ineffable and almost passeth even psychological understanding.
Those were the words of social psychology founding father Theodore Newcomb in 1955, posing the problem that’s dogged everything from the first caveman to the latest teenage crush. It’s the kind of “Ur” topic: what makes us like one person and hate another? Why are we drawn to some and repulsed by others? And what makes a love affair turn into something a little more long-term?
And if I had the answer to that, I’d be rich.
In this week’s episode, I’m going to attempt to solve the greatest riddle using three psychology studies. First up, what’s all this about the girl next door?
In 1950, Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter and Kurt Back studied couples who’d moved into married student housing at MIT. The development was called Westgate West. The study was called Social Pressures in Informal Groups: A Study of Human Factors in Housing.
Westgate West consists of seventeen two-floor, wooden, reconverted Navy barracks. Each of the buildings is subdivided into ten apartments, five on each floor. Each apartment consists of a kitchen, living room, two bedrooms and a bath. The apartments differ only slightly from one another in the arrangement and size of rooms.
Westgate West’s small houses were arranged in U-shaped courts. All except the end houses faced onto a grassy area. The two end houses in each court faced onto the street. What the researchers were interested in was which couples developed friendships with which, and where they lived.
Friendships developed more frequently between next-door neighbors, less frequently between people whose houses were separated by another house, and so on. As the distance between houses increased, the number of friendships fell off so rapidly that it was rare to find a friendship between persons who lived in houses that were separated by more than four or five other houses…
Their conclusion was that, yes, proximity determined who you ended up hanging out with. And if that’s the girl next door...
How’s about another example.
Say your surname begins with L. On the first day of school, you go to class and the teacher arranges you in alphabetical order. To your left is a person whose name begins with K and to your right is a person whose name begins with M. Five people over is a person whose name begins with Q. At the end of the year, you’re more likely to be friends with Mr M and Ms K than to Q simply because you were more likely to talk with them in the beginning. It’s just it’s easier.
That’s science, folks.
Back in Westgate West, for the most part, people didn’t make friends between floors. But the couples who lived near ground-level staircases and mailboxes had twice as many friends as most other couples They were in the nexus of activity of the housing complex: people came to them because of their proximity to stuff everyone used.
This is a kind of proximity, but it relies on something slightly, subtly different. It’s called propinquity.
Say you have a dog.
You need to take that dog for a walk.
And so every day you and your pup go out to the same park. Along the way, you see your neighbour.
And you see the postman
When you get to the park, you see someone who’s walking their dog, a dachshund. You also see a lady walking a poodle.
The next day, the same thing.
and you notice the dachshund and his owner is there again. No poodle, though.
And once again, the guy with the dachshund is there.
Because you’ve bumped into Dachshund Man three times, and Poodle Lady hasn’t been seen since Monday, you have more propinquity to the dachshund than to the poodle - even though he lives clear on the other side of town and has to drive 45 minutes through traffic to get to this park, which he likes better than any other park in the city, and she lives two doors away from you but turns left out of her door instead of right, and prefers another park. You are more likely to strike up a conversation with Dachshund Man and become friends.
It’s not that simple. But it’s a good start.
Regardless of the fact that you have nothing in common with one another except that you are neighbours, or you have similar letters at the start of your surname or you frequent the same park, you’re still more likely to be friends than if you had lots of things in common but didn’t meet as often.
OK. Study 2.
It is of course a truism that distance per se will have no consequences for attraction; what we are concerned with is something that is made possible or more likely, with decreasing distance.
In 1955, the man who wrote that - our friend Theodore Newcomb - put 17 transfer students into a house just off University of Michigan’s campus. And then he watched.
A student house was rented; male transfer students, all strangers to the University of Michigan, were offered the opportunity of receiving free room rent for a full semester; in return they were to spend four or five hours a week in responding to questionnaires and interviews, and in participating in experiments.
Sounds like a hoot. Theodore Newcomb, or Teddy as he was perhaps known to his friends and lovers, wasn’t always a peeping tom for science. He was born in the northeastern tip of Ohio, the son of a peripatetic minister who moved his family from rural town to rural town throughout most of Theodore’s young life.
In its baldest form, the proposition of propinquity reads as follows: other things equal people are most likely to be attracted toward those in closest contact to them.
After a false start in theology, Theodore settled into psychology. A bit like Chaucer, he was an industry innovator. We’ll be hearing about him again in the series. But for now, the most important thing is what he published in full in 1961 in The Acquaintance Process, based on his observation of those college roommates.
We have neither good reason nor good evidence for believing that persons of similar blood types, for example, or persons whose surnames have the same numbers of letters, are especially attracted to one another...the possession of similar characteristics predisposes individuals to be attracted to each other to the degree that those characteristics are both observable and valued by those who observe them - in short, insofar as they provide a basis for similarity of attitudes.
Newcomb described more nuance in interpersonal attraction than the proximity/propinquity thesis. He said that, in addition to proximity, we are attracted to people who seem to reciprocate our attraction, who we perceive to be similar to us and who we think complement us.
If you like to play piano duets or tennis, you are apt to be rewarded by those who make it possible for you to do so, and at the same time you are apt to reward your partner. Insofar as both partners are rewarded, another evening of duets or another set of tennis is likely to ensue, together with still further opportunities for reciprocal reward. Thus attraction breeds attraction.
Coming back to the dog example.
On Day four of your propinquity with Dachshund Man, you make eye contact.
On Day five, you make eye contact and he smiles. You smile back. You notice that you both are wearing blue shoes and that you hold your dog’s leads with your right hands.
On Day six, you make eye contact, you smile, you notice a book on dog behaviour under his arm that is EXACTLY the same book that just-that-day you put on your Amazon Wish List.
On Day seven, you make eye contact, smile and he says hi.
Your dogs sniff each other. There’s no growling.
By Day 9, you’re sitting in a cafe together. The dogs are asleep under the table. You’re talking about dog behaviour techniques and you discover you agree about the best groomers in the city. Turns out, he really likes Korean food, which you’ve never tried, but have always wanted to. And you happen to be an expert on antique brass door knockers, and he’s been shopping around for *ages* to find one for his front door.
Study 3: will you and Dachshund Man take it to the next level?
I’m going to put my wings on now, and grab my cupid arrow.
Because how that happens is the topic of hundreds of books, thousands of blogs, millions of column inches, billions of dollars in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics and innumerable pop songs.
Of course, very few of these are based on science, so wings and arrows are probably just as effective at transforming Planet Platonic into the Land of Lurve.
The not-very-sexy, entirely rational scientific community likes to pour cold water on things like romance. So what do we know about what turns you on?
First thing’s first: first impressions.
The old adage
You can catch more bees with honey
is etymologically dubious, as technically you attract more bees with nectar.
And although physical attraction is the most consistent experimental factor that predicts interpersonal attraction - in a kind of bleeding-obvious-recursive-loop - unsurprisingly the reasons for this go deeper than simple id-driven animal lust.
Oh sure, it’s still Freudian. Of course it is. We’re talking about sex here. But no, it has nothing to do with your mother.
So one psychoanalytic theory is that we fall in love when we’re dissatisfied with ourselves, and we meet a person who has characteristics that we wish we had but haven’t been able to achieve. Social desirability. Great teeth. Korean food. Antique door knockers.
And by falling in love, we get rid of our deficiencies by merging our identities.
There’s also plenty of research that says we’re attracted to people who look like us. Hello Narcissus!
But one classic study proposes something a little different.
Let’s say that the park you and Dachshund Man met in was engulfed in a giant sinkhole at the moment you first noticed one another. And across the chasm that had just appeared before you, your eyes locked and something… happened.
There is a substantial body of indirect evidence suggesting that sexual attractions occur with increased frequency during states of strong emotion. For example, heterosexual love has been observed to be associated both with hate and with pain.
So say cupids Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron.
Which explains why two totally unattractive people like Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock can fall in love with one another after going around and around the LA freeway in a speeding boobytrapped bus set to explode if it goes under 55 miles per hour.
Here’s how they tested their theory.
The experiment was conducted on two bridges over the Capilano River in North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The "experimental" bridge was the Capilano Canyon Suspension Bridge, a flve-foot-wide, 450-foot-long, bridge constructed of wooden boards attached to wire cables that ran from one side to the other of the Capilano Canyon. The bridge has many arousal-inducing features such as (a) a tendency to tilt, sway, and wobble, creating the impression that one is about to fall over the side; (b) very low handrails of wire cable which contribute to this impression; and (c) a 230-foot drop to rocks and shallow rapids below the bridge. The "control" bridge was a solid wood bridge further upriver. Constructed of heavy cedar, this bridge was wider and firmer than the experimental bridge, was only 10 feet above a small, shallow rivulet which ran into the main river, had high handrails, and did not tilt or sway. As subjects crossed either the control or experimental bridge, they were approached by the interviewer.
She was a pretty lady. The men were asked several questions about the effects of exposure to scenic attraction on creativity by either “Donna” or “Gloria” - the same lady - depending on which bridge they’d cross. They were then asked to write a brief dramatic story based on a photo of a woman covering her eyes and holding out her hand to the camera. Each interviewer finished up by giving the unwitting participants their phone number “just in case” they wanted to find out more.
Of course the pretext for the interview was entirely false. We psychologists are bastards, aren’t we.
What they were actually looking for was the amount of sex that the participants built into the story about the photograph, and whether they called the interviewer after the experiment. Out of the 18 people interviewed by wobbly Gloria, 9 followed up. Poor stable, solid Donna, she only got phone calls from 2.
Bottom line: if you want to attract a mate, go bungee jumping.
But unfortunately, once the adrenaline has subsided, we need a few of the traditional reasons to keep the flame alive. Recursively, one of those things is how attractive your partner is. Seriously. Ugly ducklings don’t tend to stay with bombshells.
As well as introducing valentines day to western civiliations, Geoffrey Chaucer was also the first person to say that love is blind. But poor old Geoff wasn’t a social psychologist. As these studies have shows, you’re more likely to be in a relationship with someone you live nearby or encounter more often, or whose qualities complement your own. If that fails, and you still can’t make Mr Dacshund fall in love with you, then I suggest you walk your dogs over a terrifying wobbly bridge.
This has been the N of Us, presented and produced by me, Aleks Krotoski, with editorial support and readings from Ben Hammersley and research from Hannah Wittingham. It wouldn’t be possible without the support of the British Psychological Society.
This week enjoy the romance. Next week, we’re looking behind the curtain to see why the people in power are so farn powerful.
For more on the topic of this podcast and the others in the series, visit thenofus.com, where you can read the full text of the articles in this programme and get aroused by photos of the Capilano Canyon Suspension Bridge.
I was there. I was in the crowd of 80,000 people shouting “Peacock Peacock Peacock” when the 19 year old paralympian stood at the starting line of the 100m dash in 2012, a race he ultimately claimed gold for.
I have never heard such an extraordinary sound as the wave of screams of the crowd that followed him around the stadium. And for Jonnie Peacock, the wave propelled him harder, faster than he’d ever run before.
BBC interview audio
Peacock and the other athletes that year were helped along by the crowd in a way beyond the support and encouragement of those cheers. Even if the crowd was silent - even if they were made of cardboard - just having another person in the room would have pushed these athletes beyond their usual triumphs. The reason takes us back to the very beginning of social psychology.
From the above facts the bodily presence of another contestant participating simultaneously in the race serves to liberate latent energy not ordinarily available.
This is social facilitation. And when a researcher named Norman Triplett at the University of Indiana first described it in 1898, he created a brand new discipline: understanding how the social world influences the individual.
So here’s the idea.
Take one guy cycling by himself and he’ll cycle a 2 minute 29 second mile
But put that same guy on the same route with another guy cycling next to him, he’ll cycle a 1 minute 55 second mile. This isn’t a fluke; in Triplett’s original study, almost all his 2,000 plus cyclists’ speeds increased by up to 25% when they rode with a pacer.
Why is this? Well, Triplett had a variety of theories, from eradicating “brain worry” to hypnotic suggestion.
A curious theory, lately advanced, suggests the possibility that the strained attention given to the revolving wheel of the pacing machine in front produces sort of hypnotism and that the accompanying muscular exaltation is the secret of the endurance shown by some long distance riders in paced races.
Triplett was a clever guy, and he knew there was something else going on. He figured that cyclists rode faster because someone else was there. And that someone somehow made the athlete more self-aware, more self-evaluative, more competitive. Better.
So, like any good scientist, he tried again, this time in a context totally unrelated to cycling.
In the 40 seconds the average trial lasted, no shelter from the wind was required, nor was any suction exerted, the only brain worry incident was that of maintaining a sufficiently high rate of speed to defeat the competitors. From the shortness of the time and nature of the case, generally, it is doubtful if any automatic movements could be established. On the other hand, the effort was intensely voluntary.
He did two studies: in the first, he enlisted a roomful of kids. He got them to wind a fishing rod as fast as they could, on their own and with someone else doing the same thing next to them. In the second, he asked people to count as far as they could as fast as they could, again on their own and with someone else next to them.
And the result?
The desire to beat, if it did nothing else, brought them to a sense of what was possible for them. The arousal of their competitive instincts and the idea of a faster movement, perhaps, in the contestant, induced greater concentration of energy.
...which translated into peak performance.
Now, Triplett’s experiments ended up explaining everything in terms of competition, specifically with a person doing the same thing.
But if that was all there was to social facilitation, that would mean that the crowd screaming Jonnie Peacock’s name would have had no effect on his remarkable performance in 2012.
That’s not the case. It wasn’t only Oscar Pistorius and the other paralympians who pushed him on to the finish line. It was people watching in the crowd too.
In experiments using human subjects, skilled performance of pursuit rotor, accuracy in a vigilance task, scores on chain association, vowel cancellation and multiplication tasks, and latency of word associations have all been shown to improve under social conditions.
You know, this doesn’t just affect people
Studies using animal subjects found social increments in eating, drinking, bar pressing, copulating, exploring, nest building and running.
..Or even only mammalian brains.
Researchers have been running cockroaches through mazes for years. They do it to test the ability of the insect to learn routes. It’s one of the classic mad scientist experiments. But what nobody had ever considered was that the cockroaches might have a form of performance anxiety.
So the question that Robert Zajonc posed in 1969 with some of his colleagues at the University of Michigan was this: are cockroaches affected by this seemingly human effect?
To test it, he created two kinds of mazes in boxes. The first, well, it wasn’t really a maze; it was a straight line. The second had dead ends and blind alleys. And both of them had teeny little grandstand seating that was filled with, you guessed it, other cockroaches.
Yup, this time, the bugs running through a maze had a teeny tiny cockroach audience. The effect? In the simple mazes, the cockroaches being watched got faster. But for more complex mazes, the watched cockroaches got slower. Exactly the same result you’d get with humans.
Socially facilitated increments in performance are usually found for behaviours that are either very well learned or instinctive.
So what Zajonc discovered was the more complicated the thing you’re doing - like learning a new language or taking an exam or fixing a formula 1 engine - the slower you - and the cockroaches - are, and the better to do whatever it is you’re trying to do unobserved. After you’ve mastered it, by all means, get an audience. You’ll perform better than you would on your own.
What’s even more remarkable is that cockroaches - or people for that matter - don’t even need to be in the room to have an effect on performance.
In another experiment, Zajonc replaced the cockroach spectators with the smell of other cockroaches. And whaddya know, Eau de Cucaracha sped sped up run times through the simple maze and slowed them down in the complicated one, just as if there were roaches in the grandstand, even though no cockroaches were actually there.
Now, people influencing other people is understandable. Cockroaches influencing other cockroaches is understandable too, if you’re a cockroach. But we live in a world of artificial intelligence and speaking machines...
Hello Siri. Hello Aleks
.. in the future, when we’re accompanied on our runs by a virtual trainer on our smartphones, or our car’s inboard computer is talking to us...
...do these artificial virtual humans induce a social facilitation effect?
Dr Sung J Park at Georgia Institute of Technology tested this, and discovered that yes indeed they do.
For easy tasks, performance in the virtual human condition was better than in the alone condition, and for difficult tasks, performance in the virtual human condition was worse than in the alone condition.
Which means that the designers of these futuristic systems need to consider the social influence of their programmes, and how easy or difficult the tasks are for the people using them.
The spectators at the 2012 Paralympics propelled Jonnie Peacock over the finish line in record time, just as the voice connected to my smartphone compels me to go faster and longer when I’m running.
And so here is, the first theory in the field of social psychology. It, and further studies since, show that - whether you’re a cockroach or an olympic athleteif you want to do something simple it's best to have an audience, but if you want to do something complicated, you should do it on your own. Even if the audience is inhuman at all
This has been the N of Us, presented and produced by me, Aleks Krotoski, with editorial support and readings from Ben Hammersley. It wouldn’t be possible without the support of the British Psychological Society.
For more on the topic of this podcast and the others in the series, visit thenofus.com, where you can read the full text of the articles in this programme, watch videos of the astonishing 100m dash at the 2012 Paralympics and see the cockroach mazes with the teeny tiny cockroach grandstands.