Monday, 28 April 2014

It’s the system, not me...

An excerpt from the book Homo Imitans by Leandro Herrero:

Not many people knew what was going on in the psychology department. Nothing unusual about that. An advert in the local newspaper offered volunteers a few dollars for participating in an experiment, and many people from the city of New Haven applied.

The study was run by Stanley Milgram, a small curious assistant professor specializing in social experiments. This one examined the effects of punishment—administered here as an electric shock—on learning. The psychologist conducting the experiment read sequences of words to be repeated: house, money, flower, pretty, whether, cat. Each time a subject got them wrong, the volunteer, who was sitting on the other side of a one-way glass screen, administered a small electric shock. The potency of the shock increased progressively with each mistake – the lever moving from 25v to 30v, 40v and so on.

As the experiment continued, the subject’s reaction changed from a grimace to expression of more and more discomfort. Invariably, the level became very unpleasant, even unbearable. The subject would be almost screaming. The administrator objected. “Never mind,” the psychologist said, “this is a well-controlled experiment, you need to keep pushing the button.” Screams. “I want to stop. He wants to get out.” “No,” said the psychologist, “keep trying. It’s the protocol, we can’t break this experiment yet.” And so it continued until the pain was intolerable and the administrators were shaking. But they kept pushing the button. Well, some of them: 65 % to be precise. The other 35% gave up and refused to continue the torture.

The experiments were repeated and repeated, always the same: mistakes, shocks, up, up, up. And the citizens from New Haven kept pushing the button even though they were torturing the guy on the other side of the screen. Again and again, 65% complied with the instructions, and 35% told the psychologist to keep the money. More screams, more shocks and more knowledge about learning.

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Thursday, 24 April 2014

From the jungle to Wall Street.

An excerpt from the book Homo Imitans by Leandro Herrero:

Rituals that are effective both on the business AND the organizational level are rare. Most of the time there is a disconnect between the business functionality (poor) and the ritual and tribal functionality (very high). One of the visible effects of a sudden cost-cutting exercise in the firm is the almost automatic suppression of some rituals: no more off-site meetings, no more transcontinental travel for a meeting, no more people sent to business schools...

But rituals can’t be suppressed. We can’t pretend that we can get rid of them, leaving a vacuum behind. The annual sales conference can be cancelled for cost-cutting reasons, but it will probably be substituted by regional/local ones, a digital one, a series of internal meetings with lots of PowerPoints, teambuilding exercises, local dinner meetings or something else.

The platform for belonging and expressing mimicked behaviours must exist one way or another. And if there is a real vacuum or a shortage, a new ‘corporate initiative’ will be launched for the corporate tribes. Tribal behaviour helps us understand a lot of Homo Imitans’ social life. Today’s anthropology should move from the jungle to Wall Street.


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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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Wednesday, 2 April 2014

This statement is silly.

An excerpt from the book Homo Imitans by Leandro Herrero:

In my adopted home country, England, you send your children either to public school or private school. Those who can afford private education will shop around. Parents usually visit nearby schools, look at the facilities, talk to headmasters, listen to their ‘spiel’ of “children are very happy here, this is what makes us different”, check the fees and make a decision. All those bits of information get to your brain together with “Mary takes her children here. You know Mary? The lawyer you met at that party?” And the combination of all this, allows you to decide ‘freely’ where to send your children. So, Mary and you meet in the car park for years to come. When somebody has just been hired and goes to the office on his first day, he is given a tour of the place and perhaps an induction plan. There are Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) to follow, training courses to join and detailed instructions on how to fill in an expense sheet. In other words, lots of formal ‘onboarding’ stuff. But the SOP does not contain all the rules or the hundreds of things that occupy 90% of your time in daily life. They are not written down. Is it better to bump into each other in the corridor as a way to meet people or to request formal meetings through Outlook instead? Is it better to desert the floor en masse at lunchtime or to unpack plastic containers and free your cucumber sandwiches in solitude instead? Is it better to wear a tie or to avoid embarrassment for being the only one who does?

Is it better to chat across the dividing screens or to enjoy monastic silence behind closed office doors? Is it better to have meetings in the cafeteria or in meeting rooms? Is it better to put everything into PowerPoints or to have a dialog without visuals?

By day three the new recruit has unconsciously adopted hundreds of unwritten rules which truly define ‘the culture’.

We are influenced by others in an incredible way. This statement is silly. It is obvious. However, many people spend a lot of time fighting against the fact that this is actually the case. We all want to be unique, different and not part of the crowd. But we are definitely influenced by others. What’s more, friends and friends of friends seem to have a particularly strong power over us. It is not entirely clear why, but many studies, some of them quoted in this book, show that this is the case. In a very important American study where more than 12,000 people were followed over three decades, it was shown that people were at a greater risk of becoming obese when a close friend became obese. We’ll talk more about this later. Obesity! Friends! Interestingly, in this large study, friends were statistically well above the influence from spouse or siblings.


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