Monday, 21 April 2014

Forget tribes in Polynesia.

An excerpt from the book Homo Imitans by Leandro Herrero:

Forget tribes in Polynesia. Open your windows and you’ll see urban tribes, corporate tribes, religious tribes, political tribes and sports tribes. The ‘social proof’ mechanism of influence operates nicely here, sometimes even without saying a word. This mechanism ensures that ‘everybody here says, does, behaves, wears X, Y, Z, etc’. This is the generic, largely unconscious copying and imitation that has been well-studied by sociologists and social psychologists for many years under the broad label of ‘conformity’ mechanisms, which I mentioned above.

Homo Imitans needs to belong to and feel part of something that provides meaning, context or simply a psychological (or physical) shelter (a safe(r) place or a power/control centre). This was the case in the communes in the seventies and it still happens in day-to-day society today. Tribal Homo Imitans copies clothing, look and hairstyle, lexicon, behaviours and rituals5. In the era of the cult of diversity, our similarities are embarrassingly colossal.

Corporate Homo Imitans is particularly interesting. One of the problems of ‘modern management’ is that it ignores anthropology6. It thinks it doesn’t need it in order to calculate Return on Investment (ROI) or to deliver the five-year strategic plan. But corporate Homo Imitans is a perfect object of interest under the anthropological umbrella. It has rites of passage (talent pool goes to Harvard), rituals (annual business plan process), tribal ceremonies (offsite conferences for the entire company) and other gluing mechanisms.

Some of those corporate rituals practiced by Homo Imitans on the payroll are completely inefficient from the organizational or business perspective (in some cases even utterly useless). This is a fact well-known by many corporate leaders.

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Friday, 18 April 2014

‘Talk therapies’ don’t work here.

An excerpt from the book Homo Imitans by Leandro Herrero:

In the seventies, I was a practicing psychiatrist in Spain and I frequently observed a curious phenomenon of conformity selfregulation in groups. At that time, there were numerous groups of young people living in the countryside, sharing a communal life. As much as there may have been a noble, idealistic and counter-cultural aim, they all looked weird to everybody else. They were all carbon copies of each other in clothing and physical appearance. This is how they expressed their rejection of the rest of us in suits and ties.

Life inside these communes was pretty intense, even if their members told you otherwise. There was a tight, unwritten set of rules which held the community together. Under the appearance of a free world, there were lots of borders and ‘regulations’, even if the latter were not recorded in a Standard Operating Procedure manual. They were typical cases of the Dios los cria y ellos se juntan’.

This environment attracted lots of young people from many categories: disillusioned youngsters, counterculturalists, those rejecting their parents, people wanting to save the world or refusing to join the capitalist society, music lovers, love lovers, sex lovers, drug lovers and chronic hippies. It also attracted mentally ill people.

In psychiatry, a delusion is a firm, unshakeable belief in something that has no basis in reality. For example, my thoughts are stolen by a third person. The thought process behind this belief is solid and unbreakable. Rational counter-arguments don’t work, because there is nothing rational about the logic of interaction of the deluded, mentally ill person. A psychotic person thinks and behaves in a strange manner and changing that will not happen by any rational means. That is why psychotherapy or ‘talk therapies’ don’t work here. As you can imagine, there was a lot of irrationality in those communities and very often it was difficult to distinguish between the counterculturalist with an intact brain (or perhaps a brain partially challenged by a recreational substance) and the psychotic who was convinced that an extra-terrestrial visited him every night and took energy from him.

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Tuesday, 15 April 2014

‘Dios los cria y ellos se juntan’

An excerpt from the book Homo Imitans by Leandro Herrero:

The crowd is group contagion on a larger scale and with broader borders. Crowd behaviour has been studied from many angles and in a nutshell, two streams are apparent. People join a crowd because of a conscious or unconscious, rational or irrational affinity to something or the desire to behave in a particular way.

This is called convergent theory. But the crowd itself, for whatever reason, also makes people behave in a particular way. This is called contagion theory. You can see that both are possible and likely to appear together. Homo Imitans has some characteristics that make him find affinity with others (convergence). Once inside the crowd or large social group, he can see others ‘going with the flow’. It’s a visible phenomenon. And so, he will become infected by the collective behaviour (contagion), which will reinforce his belonging to the crowd. But there is a third element. The collective itself may also create its own emergent and somehow invisible rules. This trio of crowd rules also explains quite a lot of what is going on inside organizations even if strictly speaking organizations are not crowds. People may join an organization because they want to be part of it. There may be many reasons. Once inside, ‘the organization joins them’.

Now, some crowds are one-off phenomena, others are transitory, some recurrent (civil rights protests) and some are established rituals (religious gatherings). In some crowds the stability is often precarious. The crowd’s own rules can be broken very easily by small deviations, particularly if Homo Imitans has ‘converged’ from different ‘positions’ and uses the crowd as a vehicle of expression. In crowd mode, sometimes all it takes is a minority of rule-breakers to exacerbate hidden emotions in Homo Imitans. The anti-Iraq war demonstrations in the UK and other parts of the world saw enormous (largely selforganized) crowds composed of a variety of unlikely companions. On the surface, they all had the anti-war theme in common, but the motivations behind their anti-war stance and the ‘crowd-joining’ mechanisms were extremely diverse. The crowd, which can have its own personality and emotions, is the perfect social copier and amplifier. An old classification of primal emotions is useful here4. It is said that if the dominant emotion is fear, the crowd could convert it into panic. If it’s craze, the crowd produces joy. If it’s anger, the crowd breeds hostility.

Incidentally, I believe my parents may have inadvertently been very fond of the convergent theory, as they often used the Spanish expression Dios los cria y ellos se juntan’. This translates roughly as ‘God creates them and then they get together’, pretty much meaning people always seem to be able to find likeminded people and associate themselves with those. The English say ‘birds of a feather flock together’, but in my parents’ opinion that always meant something more. It meant trouble...

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Thursday, 10 April 2014

Why do we have an epidemic of obesity and not of anorexia?

An excerpt from the book Homo Imitans by Leandro Herrero:

Like many aspects of the behavioural and social sciences, it contains a high dose of stereotyped thinking that is not always substantiated. Take public role models, for example. The question is not whether they are powerful, but what their relative power is when compared with other mechanisms of social influence...

Eating habits are a good example. We spend a lot of time criticizing thin young girls on the catwalk. With their quasianorexic looks, we believe they are perverse role models for the younger generation, who will then aspire to become (and stay) a size zero. But if their influence is so powerful, why do we have an epidemic of obesity and not of anorexia? As I have mentioned before, a close friend or a friend of a friend has more power to influence your body weight than thousands of pictures of skinny people in magazines. Close ties may be more powerful than pictures on a screen.

If you navigate the waters of corporate life, as I do as an organizational consultant, you will often hear that the role modelling of the senior leadership team dictates what goes on below them. Or that people in the organization cannot behave in a particular (ethical, effective, open...) way if the leaders at the top don’t behave that way. Both claims assume that the leadership or management team at the top has great powers. It is so entrenched in our management thinking that just the idea of challenging this would raise a few corporate eyebrows. It is difficult to disagree with the idea that the top leadership must surely be behaving following the standards that they wish to be used in the organization and that if these standards are poor, it is likely that the organization is on shaky ground to say the least.

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Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The champions...

An excerpt from the book Homo Imitans by Leandro Herrero:

The pre-existence or the engineering of a common goal very often links people together in a way that accelerates social copying. In a recent television series in England, school students with no particular singing skills or interest in singing were invited by a charismatic young (external) teacher to create a choir in a school without choir tradition. At first, the teacher was frustrated as he was not able to get many students to join. Then, a tipping point moment followed where the enrollment of some induced the enrolment of others and, suddenly, a very reasonably-sized choir was formed. At some point (‘threshold change’), social copying (enrolling, attending class, singing, rehearsing) took over and singing in a choir became acceptable. Eventually, this brand new choir entered a large public competition at a first-class venue.

Many of the components of social contagion that will be addressed in this book were present in that television series. The champions: mainly the young teacher and the head of music. The backstage leaders: the headmaster and other teachers. At first, they were baffled, but then they understood that their role was to support the choir in the background and to be seen doing so; not to come along to choir rehearsals and pontificate about ‘the importance of singing’. The behaviours: joining the queue for enrollment, rehearsing, being punctual and talking about it. The attitude of the students: initially sceptical and even hostile, but then turning into positive when they saw a critical mass (a group of their own peers) on board. The threshold change: slow intake and change at the beginning, then things speeding up quite quickly. The social reinforcement: being able to sing per se and in front of people; the visit from other young choir singers from another school of similar social status (‘people like us’) and, probably, the presence of the cameras.

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Friday, 4 April 2014

Monkey see, monkey do...

An excerpt from the book Homo Imitans by Leandro Herrero:

Homo Imitans is at the core of evolution. We are because we copy. But Homo Imitans did not disappear when Homo Sapiens took over. Like a dinner guest reluctant to leave, Homo Imitans stuck around. Social copying explains so much about our behaviour that sometimes it makes you wonder if Sapiens really deserves the limelight it got. When I was a child, the word ‘imitation’ came linked with monkeys. Indeed, at 2 or 3 weeks old, both chimps and humans start imitating others. And then the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ really begins.

There is a whole world of data available on imitation in animals, but my interest in social infection centres around the social life of that odd couple in evolution: Sapiens and Imitans. People have been documenting the social whereabouts of Homo Imitans for a long time. Some of those accounts belong to the social sciences and only surface in the media occasionally. However, some phenomena start in the media and end up being analyzed or validated by academia.

In the Annex of this book you will find a library of short summaries of the most relevant cases that illustrate this social life. The classification in the Annex is artificial, but deliberate. I grouped them as they tend to appear in public life (‘clusters of examples’), but there is a great deal of overlap between the mechanisms involved. I’ll take you on a short tour later, but, before that, let me set the scene by sharing some comments on six general and somehow overlapping examples of our social copying life.

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