Just who is in control of you?

The disturbing power of “others”


I’m not a particularly influential person. I’d like to be, but the reality is I’m not. Oh, I have some influence. In my role as a financial adviser I routinely help my clients in relation to their financial decisions, but occasionally I lose an existing (and otherwise happy client) to someone else who is no more competent than I but has greater persuasiveness – you know, the kind of person who can “sell ice to Eskimos”. I’ve also given up on the number of times I’ve encouraged clients to see a solicitor or an accountant, and they simply haven’t. And when I talk to my colleagues, they seem routinely to make such recommendations, and hey presto! the client follows their suggestion.

So why am I telling you this? I’m the sort of person who never gives up on trying to improve. So I thought I’d read a book recommended to me, simply called “Influence”, by Robert Cialdini. It was apparently a best seller many years ago, and because the book speaks about human nature rather than whizz bang sales techniques, if it was true 20 years ago, it’s probably still pretty relevant today.

I have to say its contents unnerve me a little, because it’s all about taking advantage of the largely unconscious human behaviours that we all seem to have just below the surface, and how to “trigger” them to our advantage. I have no appetite to control others. Influence, as far as I’m concerned, is not about control, but guidance that people take seriously. So, it hasn’t been an enjoyable read. But I do have to say it’s been a fascinating one.

Amongst many other interesting (and disturbing) character traits, the author speaks about a phenomenon called “social proof”. Now social proof is something most of us are surely already aware of – that our decisions are impacted significantly by the opinions and behaviours of those in our peer group, or in our racial group, or in our nation etc. No surprises there. But what is surprising is the extent by which our actions are shaped.

One particularly fascinating aspect of this is a phenomenon that goes by the wordy title of “Group inhibition of bystander intervention”. To put it simply, there is a tendency that the larger the group of people that witness an event (say a mugging, or a person in need) the less likely it is that anyone will do anything to help.

An example is given of a murder that occurred in the streets of New York in 1964, over a period of half an hour where a woman, Kitty Genovese, was attacked, managed to free herself and run away only to be attacked again and eventually die. What made this tragedy all the more mystifying was that 38 people in the street reportedly either heard or saw part of the altercation and did nothing. These figures have since been seriously disputed, and in fact one or two people did try to do something, but it doesn’t take away from the observations of human behaviour that arose from it.

At first, the outcry from this event was that city life had hardened the hearts of city people and led them to do nothing (one neighbour had openly stated they didn’t want to get involved). But when it was thoroughly investigated, a very different picture emerged. People actually weren’t sure why they had done nothing, and were mystified themselves. Researchers discovered, from this event and from other events (and clinical experiments), a pattern of human behaviour emerging. When we as individuals are confronted by an emergency, we often don’t know what to do. We look for clues in the behaviour of others – how are they responding to this? The very people we are looking to are themselves most likely feeling the same way, and look to us to see how we are responding. The result is that no-one does anything – because no-one else is! On top of this, if no-one else is responding, we don’t want to be the odd man out. We don’t want to be the drama queen that makes a big deal out of the situation.

So, with the murder in the street, people didn’t respond because they thought maybe it wasn’t that bad and because no-one else (to their knowledge) had responded either. Maybe it was a quarrel between lovers, and if someone intervened they would just get shouted down, or if the police were called, they would get annoyed because their time was being wasted. It wasn’t because the onlookers were hard hearted. As a matter of fact, research into this phenomenon has shown that when onlookers are in no doubt of the problem or danger, they are much more likely to take action.

I find this aspect of human nature both fascinating and disturbing, that we as human beings could be so dictated by our social context. How many times have you or I walked down the street, noticed someone in apparent trouble, and felt awkward or unsure about doing anything because others were also just passing them by? I unfortunately can confess to this. The same research that documented this phenomenon also showed that a single individual, noting the plight of someone else, is much more likely to respond if they are on their own, than if there are others present.

There are very good reasons why we are social animals and why the opinions of others count. I think it would be foolish to assume that peer pressure is always bad. It just “is”. But it concerned me to realise just how controlled we are by it. This kind of influence is so powerful that it would be hard to resist. But surely, once we are aware, we must choose how we will act. After all, who do you want to be in control of your life, yourself or the madding crowd?

The book “Influence” is actually a fascinating read if you want to be amazed at the unconscious predictability of human behaviour, as it unpacks many other surprisingly strong traits of human behaviour. If you can stomach its cringeworthy application to sales, I do recommend it.

Desiderata 9

More on being real


Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 9th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.

“Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.”

Prior to this verse, Desiderata has exhorted us to “be yourself”. Then the author goes on to single out feigning affection as the thing especially not to do. That’s a big call. Why this one thing above all others? It makes me wonder if he had a bad experience himself and was particularly sensitive to this specific kind of deception. Is he speaking out of personal hurt, or does he really think that affection is the most important thing not to feign?

Let’s face it, lots of people feign affection. Either they don’t want to offend and so come across as friendly, or they want something and are trying to get into your good books. Think of a teenage kid who has got him or herself into trouble, and goes all smiley and cute/charming (never worked for me!) to soften the punishment or avoid it entirely.

Maybe it’s because affection, once it’s found to be false, hurts more than other forms of deception. But even then, it probably only hurts if you have already let that person get a little close. If I know someone isn’t particularly my friend and they all of a sudden turn on the charm, I can usually tell that they’re after something, so I’m not taken in. But it isn’t always that simple.

Recently, a guy who worked in the same building with me and got on well with me, moved on to another job, helping to build up a new electricity company. Although we got on well, (we seemed to hit it off on a number of levels) I wasn’t sure if he enjoyed my company quite as much as I enjoyed his. A few months passed, and he contacted me out of the blue. I was really pleased because I had missed our chats (though I tried to be pretty casual over the phone!) and after we chatted a bit, he said I must come over some time when I’m in the area to his new place of business. I’m on the road occasionally as part of my job, so I readily agreed and sure enough a few weeks later a window of opportunity opened up and I popped over to catch up.

When I got there, to my surprise he brought another guy into the room with him, someone new to his business. but who also knew a couple of people that I knew. I was expecting just to chat with my friend, maybe over a coffee and a bite to eat. Anyway, we chatted amiably for a while, and then just as I was about to leave, my friend asked if I wanted to switch my electricity across to his new business. I agreed (he had earlier offered me a great deal), and found out later that the new guy he had introduced to me was the one who would be the contact person on my account.

As I made my way home, a sinking feeling slowly came over me. I felt we had met under false pretenses, and it hurt a bit more because I had felt some connectedness with him in the past. And of course, surprise, surprise, I haven’t heard from him since then.

I must confess it hurts a little even now. And it makes me wonder, just a little, if he actually has any close friends. He is a private kind of guy with a lot of emotional baggage, but I wouldn’t have thought he was capable of this. Maybe it was because he was consumed by his business that he stooped to this level. Maybe he’s not even aware of what he has done. Maybe he thinks that he was just doing me a favour, even though none of that surfaced while he was inviting me over.

What happens to us when we feign affection? I suppose we become a little less real, a little less grounded. We are denying who we are, to some extent, by pretending be be somebody else. Affection is, in my opinion, a cornerstone to any long term relationship. Fake that, and just maybe you don’t have a relationship at all. People become disposable, and you become shallow.

Many other ‘deceptions’ might be forgiven – you might pretend to be smarter than you are, or richer than you are, or more athletic, or confident when you’re not, or more knowledgeable on a particular subject, or more relaxed when you’re really quite anxious. Chances are people can see through your subterfuge, and may (or may not!) still like you. But pretend to be affectionate, and once it is found out, people will leave you in droves.

Now, this can sound a little over the top. I’m sure all of us have got ourselves out of trouble by sucking up to someone, and as long as it’s a rare occurrence then we’re probably pretty safe (and really just a little bit human as well). But if it becomes something we routinely do, then we become known as someone lacking substance, not real, even if people can’t quite put their finger on it. My hunch is, though, that they probably can. Most of us can spot a faker from a mile off, just not all the time and maybe not straight away.

Feigning affection surely must hollow us out. We’re not being true to our own emotions, and over time we may lose touch with what we really feel. And that’s the tragedy. Maybe that’s why Desiderata goes on to say next “Neither be cynical about love…”, a comment we will unpack in our next blog on Desiderata.


Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.

Are you too cool for the Olympics?

I was chatting to one of my friends recently when the topic of the Olympics came up. He clearly wasn’t interested, and disdainfully referred to the whole thing as a form of jingoism.

I’d heard of the term, but didn’t know what it meant, so I looked it up. Among other things, it means to have a sense of superiority regarding one’s own race.

Now, my friend is a pretty alternative lifestyle kind of guy – kind of anti most establishment things. He’s a muso, just like me, and whilst we have lots of things in common (we love similar movies, shows, and artists) we have our own points of departure on things. And that’s okay.

And its fine, of course, if you’re just not into sports, or just not into the Olympics. Could be that it bores you to sobs, and that you’d rather watch paint dry, or for some other reason its just not your thing. But when my friend said it was jingoistic, that was a judgement call on the event itself. And it made me ponder…

I think I understand where he’s coming from. A lot of flag waving zealots taking pride in trouncing anyone else who is different from them. And there would be some people like that, for sure. But is that typical? And obviously patriotism also has a field day with the Olympics (he’s no fan of patriotism either, and if by that he means a similar form of extremism, I would agree). But does the Olympics have to be that? Is it so wrong to take some pride in our country, and can you do it without being a bigoted racist?

There’s been no shortage of humorous put-downs of the Olympics. I saw a video on Facebook by a guy who’s very good at taking the mickey out of things, and he was having a field day taking aim at the Olympics. I thought he was pretty clever and that he also had a few good ideas as well (no better way to tell a truth than disguise it with comedy). One of his points I really agreed with – whilst I love to see athletic excellence, I do sometimes worry about the lengths that people will go to, and what they will do to their bodies in order to excel. Is perfection worth anything, at any cost? I have mental pictures of them in older age proudly displaying their medals while gazing at them from a wheelchair.

It seems that it’s cool to mock the Olympics. I’m not super cool, but I’d like to think I’m a little bit cool(!) and I don’t buy everything about the Olympics either. But if you set your mind to disliking it, you simply won’t see anything good whether it exists or not. My mate, I reckon, has set up a ‘straw man’ about the Olympics because he thinks it’s not cool and is looking for an excuse. I don’t buy it.

When I’ve looked at the Olympics events in the last few days, I’ve searched for anything that could be regarded as jingoistic, but for the most part I just haven’t seen it. About the only thing that comes to mind is the retort that Mack Horton, one of our swimmers, gave to Sun Yang, a Chinese swimmer, labelling him a drug cheat. And even then I put that down to intimidation tactics rather than an attempt to prove racial superiority (it turns out that although I and many others were unimpressed with Mack’s comments, there may have been more to it, and he may not have been quite so callous as we think).

The Chinese response to Mack Horton could also possibly be viewed as jingoistic, as they mercilessly attacked him online and in any way they could. But, at the risk of sounding racist, I would have to say “That’s China for you”. And by the way, I still don’t see it as jingoistic – rather a defensive response from a nation that is extremely sensitive about how it is perceived.

From a national pride perspective, I enjoy the wins that our athletes achieve, for sure. But I also take joy in seeing superb athleticism and certainly don’t begrudge other nations winning their gold medals, even at our expense. In fact, if they have won in a particularly amazing manner, I am just thrilled to have been able to see it. And I’ve noticed that our own commentators are similarly exhilarated when they see an amazing win from another country.

So what do you think? Am I missing something? If we ignore the fringe dwellers (those who use any excuse to go nuts and big note themselves, their team, their country) is the Olympics something to be proud of, and to watch with respect?

I’m going to enjoy it. I’m not going to get sucked into any saccharine form (or angry raging form) of patriotism, I’m not going to pour scorn on other nations, and I’m also going to have a life while the Olympics is on. But I fully intend to oooh and aaahh when I see something that really blows me away, and take pleasure in the wins that our young men and women achieve on behalf of Australia.

Life’s too short. Let’s enjoy what we can.

The quest for balance

Are we trying to be reasonable or just dodge the issues?


I have an almost built in desire to see both sides of an argument. I think that’s a pretty healthy thing, but I wonder sometimes if it’s also my way of copping out.

When you seek to see both sides of an argument, you can be tempted to avoid backing any one view wholeheartedly. You can, in essence, sit on the fence, and have a strong sense of justification in doing so. So I wonder – am I playing safe, or is it because it really is too complex to know?

Do I sit on the fence because I’m scared of confrontation? It’s a lot easier to say “Maybe” about something, and many people, after trying to pin me down, seem to settle with my maybe, because I’m being so reasonable about it all. “You may have a point there” I say, “but I’m not sure if… because……” And I’ve proven to be just a little too slippery to pin down, so they back off.

If I state boldly “This is my view, and this is why” then I set myself up for strong opposition. I’ve never been very good at handling strong opposition. I tend to crumble on the inside, and doubt myself. The other person could be dead wrong, but if they state their belief with passion and force I find myself thinking “Maybe they’re right”. I go into defensive mode (I can feel when it happens) and my sense of objectivity goes out the window. My logic becomes strained and pulled by my fear (yes fear, how dumb is that) and I am longer able to deliver a point of view with any sense of certainty, or perhaps too much certainty because I’m compensating madly.

Case in point. I recently made a comment on Facebook about a survey done by a particular newspaper in Melbourne that is deliberately targeted to lesser educated readers (the newspaper that is). I had questions about the survey results and and in the process described it as “not a thinking person’s newspaper”, an accurate description but understandably a bit offensive to those who read it. Well I copped flak for that from someone I had never met and I was surprised how unnerved I became by their mild but still personal attack. Actually what upset me was that they were upset! And that they responded by taking it personally and getting personal in reply.

Of course, it is also possible that I sit on the fence because it really is complex and I’m intelligent enough to recognise that it’s hard to be sure about some things. There’s an old saying that goes something like “The intelligent are full of doubt, and the ignorant are sure about everything”. There is a lot of truth to that.

I find emotive issues the worst. Discrimination against women is something I detest, but I find that I can’t agree with absolutely everything that is pointed at men. It has something to do with my emotional defensiveness (I am a man after all) and of course not everything said against men is right, but which is right and which isn’t? Whilst there’s plenty of black and white parts, it’s all the grey areas that I can’t be sure of. And my defensive feelings interfere with my own ability to discern what is fair and what is overblown.

The refugee crisis is another example. In Australia we keep asylum seekers (those who try to reach our shores by boat) in detention camps on Manus Island and on Nauru. We turn back boats, and we have sometimes taken refugees straight back to their country of origin, no doubt straight into the arms of their oppressors. The detention centres are currently off limits to journalists and just about anyone who isn’t part of the Government, and unsubstantiated reports of brutality and other offences have leaked out.

Huge issues there, and I feel very strongly about the treatment of the refugees. But anything less (or so they tell us, I’m not convinced) would not deter the boat smugglers, the ones who bring the refugees over. I freely admit that it is extremely complex, and that we don’t want to send a signal that asylum seekers will find it easy to land on our shores. However, the contemptible treatment of refugees is not an acceptable practice despite the dilemma. There has to be a better way, but at the same time accepting all refugees or making it easy for them to come is not a solution either.

It’s tempting to try and simplify things when they’re just not simple – and yet that’s what so many people try to do. I could list many more examples that in my opinion are just “too hard” to boil down to simple statements or slogans.

I have also found that reasonable, balanced discussion is hard to find. Opinions expressed are all too often framed in terms of black and white, and couched in words that make it difficult to disagree with without making them look foolish. The person who got offended by my newspaper comment could have said “why do you think (x) paper is not for thinking people? I read it all the time”. Instead they responded “I resent your comments … You are elitist….”. I considered trying to respond but gave it up, because I knew I would either have to abjectly apologise or go into protracted discussions that would not be appreciated and, let’s face it, just wasn’t worth it.

So I come back to my original comment. I seek balance, and do believe that the truth is often somewhere in the middle, and that it is often hard to find. However, I don’t like to make myself an easy target, and probably don’t take a side as often as I should because I don’t like the battle that ensues.

Maybe if people took sides but also recognised the grey and the ambiguous in their position, it would make for a lot more reasonable discussion and understanding. And just maybe I would suck it up a bit more and be more ready to enter the fray.

The need to let our hair down

All most of us need are the flimsiest of excuses to let it all hang out


I’m sitting here watching the footy at the moment. I’m not a huge sports fan, and rarely watch a whole game. But I’m keen for my team to win, and right now I’m riveted.

For those of you who aren’t sports lovers, I won’t go into detail (you’d have to be familiar with Aussie rules footy anyway). But my team has been ahead most of the night, with the opposition closing in at regular intervals. In other words, it’s a tightly contested game, and I have been full of adrenalin as I watch.

It’s interesting how important it feels to me right now. But of course it’s not important at all really, only desirable. I’m all gee-d up as if everything depends on it, although in the dying stages of the game I’m relaxing more because it looks like we’re poised for a win.

This effect on spectators has been well documented and studied over the years. Basically we identify with our team, and their win or loss becomes our win or loss, that’s why we get all wound up. That’s why fights break out, and some sports experience violence, at the game or at the pubs later on.

It’s a bit sad really. As I’m watching, the crowds are booing perfectly good (or great) footy played by the opposing side. I mean, I don’t expect them to cheer when their opponents play well, but to boo, well, I just find it really petty.

That’s the word – petty. Aren’t we adult enough to not let our passion take away our sense of fair play? I get it that we are emotionally involved, that in some way we are the ones that are losing or winning, but you would think that we wouldn’t be so blinded as to lose our own equilibrium.

I’ve got a theory (probably not original). I think that we allow ourselves to drop our morals, to let go and just let our ugly side show, because the opportunity affords it. I’m not saying we want to be ugly as a way of life. But we’re tired of being well behaved (at work, at school, probably at home depending on what’s happening there). We crave an opportunity to let our hair down, be arseholes for a little while or at least behave in ways we couldn’t normally get away with. Maybe it’s a safety valve, letting off steam, maybe it’s something else.

I think we can see this in lots of places. When people have drunk a bit too much and do dumb things, I think it’s not just that the alcohol has removed their inhibitions (it is that, but not just that). I think it’s that people can also use the excuse of being drunk to do or say things they normally wouldn’t.

One of the bands I play in performs at what is called “bachelor and spinster balls” (nicknameed ‘BnS’). Daggy old fashioned name, but it’s rock n roll outdoor venues attended by young people in their teens and early 20’s. It’s usually held in country towns, and these events are known for wild behaviour. Typically, the attendees come dressed in white clothes, proceed to throw or spit food dye at each other and get rip roaringly drunk at the same time. Girls routinely flash their boobs, sometimes at the behest of the band playing or the boys and sometimes just because they want to.

It’s funny how in their efforts to be wild they are actually quite conformist, because the behaviour at all the BnS balls I’ve attended is strikingly similar, exactly the same really. So young people take the opportunity to do stupid things and be stupid because no-one is going to judge them (they’re at a BnS ball aren’t they?). And all the time they don’t really go over the edge – they’re still conforming, but can claim later their antics can be explained by the booze and the venue.

So getting back to the footy. I’m not the kind of supporter to badmouth other teams. Whilst I will absolutely get worked up and get emotionally involved (in fact at the moment I’ve had a crappy few days and needed a win tonight!), I still love great play by whatever team. But the crowds set a (low) standard that spectators can stoop to. They allow the individual to conform to crappy behaviour.

If that gets it out of their system, no harm done. Let’s shout, let’s scream, let’s abuse the umpire if he has made a bad call. That kind of atmosphere – okay. And if we can leave the grounds feeling a little better, that we’ve managed to let go of some of that stress, well and good.

But if it encourages ugliness, if it encourages discrimination, an ‘us and them’ mentality, rage…. then that’s not good. And I’m not sure that it’s possible to separate the two. Some people will ‘responsibly’ handle their emotions at the game, and some will not. Some are just looking for an excuse to get angry.

I don’t expect that will ever change. Sport (and other things that I’ve mentioned) is a drawcard for all of us to let our hair down and be a bit silly or even stupid (and goodness knows we need opportunities to let off steam). That it so often degenerates into something worse is an unfortunate by-product that no amount of security guards is ever going to stop.

But for the rest of us, lets have our fun, do some silly things but don’t go too far, don’t let it degenerate into ugliness, don’t let the crowd set the benchmark. Then let’s walk away, a bit more relaxed, a bit more relieved and get on with the rest of our lives.