Say What You Mean – Group Contagion

In 1951, a psychologist called Asch set out to try and establish the power that groups hold over us. In his classic experiment involving groups of people who were asked to match the length of lines on cards, participants were told that they were taking part in a study of perception when in fact only one person in every group was a true participant. The rest had been coached to give the wrong answer to see if the real participant would stand alone or join in with what the others were saying, even though it was quite clearly wrong.

Asch, a social psychologist, believed that groups held such a powerful influence that people would literally deny the reality of their senses in order to belong and the results consistently showed that this was the case, as you can see in the clip below.

Discussions of the experiment findings do talk about the changes in society that have happened since Asch’s experiments were first done. These days, it’s often said, we are far less likely to conform because we are far more encouraged to express our individuality, but it’s equally true to say that this isn’t always the case.

I’m sure that you can think of many times in your own life when you have gone along with something that wasn’t actually true to you in exchange for a feeling of belonging or because you didn’t want to rock the boat by saying what you really thought.

When we’re talking at the level of preferences around music, you might say that it’s not such a big deal to pretend you like one particular band more than another. But when you hear yourself saying things that you really don’t mean a lot of the time in order to fit in, I think that there is a lot more at stake.

Elsewhere, I’ve talked about research shows how contagious thoughts and emotions are and how feelings effectively spread out through social networks to affect the whole. When it comes to tuning what comes out of your mouth to match the group that you find yourself in, however, you might be risking more than you realise.

A Radio 4 programme broadcast on Sunday 17th July, The Power of Om, explored the science behind what happens when people chant together – whether it’s a football song or a prayer. One commentator on the programme made the comment that when we synchronise our voices, we bring all parts of ourselves in line and join with the whole, like a flock of birds in flight or a shoal of fish darting through the sea.

When you join your voice with others to say things that you don’t mean, and that actually don’t support what you want to create, not only do you limit yourself, but you perpetuate the limitation of the whole.

How might this work in everyday life? Maybe you know of a social group built around an ‘isn’t life awful’ theme, where you get together to chant old favourites that go along the lines of ‘people are terrible’, ‘there’s no point in trying’ or the old favourite, ‘you can’t change things so you might as well just accept and get on with it’. Pipe up, ‘but it isn’t all bad’ and you’re likely to be met with stony stares or a gradual freezing out. Join in, however, and soon you‘ll begin to believe what you are saying. The true cost of the membership to that group is the smaller life that you will live as a result.

I can certainly look back to my past and see that in order to haul myself away from the self destructive patterns that were creating havoc in my life when I was young, I sometimes had to extricate myself from relationships where there was no option but to sing songs of negativity. I was so conscious when I met someone who inspired me that they sang a very different song and lived in a totally different world as a result.

Sometimes, when you want to reach out for your dreams, you might need to begin by embracing the role of pioneer. You may have to leave the safety of what you know and what is familiar to move towards what you want. The miracle of attraction means that if you have the strength and courage to stride out, you will meet others who represent the world you want to live in and the reality that you want to create. And if you aren’t true to yourself, it’s much harder to meet them.

So just for today, listen to yourself speak. Notice when you are saying something that you really don’t mean at all and ask yourself why you are saying it. Begin to wonder about what kind of world you are creating for yourself as a result and what kind of world you might create if you changed what you are saying to something different. And if you find that you are saying things that you don’t mean most of the time, you might begin to wonder what you would say if you were really free to speak your truth and where you might find others who resonate with what that is.

There may come a point where you do have to move on to seek out other kinds of company. When you do, you don’t have to make anyone wrong. All you need to do is move towards what is right for you.

Loads of love,

Michele x

Asch experiment