Culture or Conditioning: How Many of Our Problems are Self-made?

Reading the excellent book by James Surowiecki on the Wisdom of Crowds, one of his examples when talking about the power of convention: seating in public places, got me thinking about the role of convention and norm in determining the shape and feel of our lives, jobs and even destinies to some extent. Let me backtrack slightly: in this chapter Surowiecki talks about how powerful conventions are in making society run smoothly, they maintain order and stability in addition to reducing the amount of cognitive work you have to put in to get through the day. Quoting:

Conventions allow us to deal with certain situations without thinking much about them… and they allow groups of disparate, unconnected people to organise themselves with relative ease and an absence of conflict.

So let’s think more deeply about this – how much of our lives is actually made up of conventions? How many things do we actually do and put up with, not because that’s the most logical way to approach a situation or solve a problem, but because it has always been that way or we have always done it in a certain way? Let’s take this example by Surowiecki:

Consider a practice that’s so basic that we don’t even think about it as a convention: first-come, first-served seating in public places. Whether on the subway or on a bus or in a movie theatre, we assume that the appropriate way to distribute seats is according to when people arrive. A seat belongs, in some sense to the person occupying it. This is not necessarily the best way to distribute seats. It takes no account, for instance, of how much a person wants to sit down, It doesn’t ensure that people who would like to sit together would be allowed to. And it makes no allowances – in its hard and fast form – for mitigating factors like age or illness (in practice of course people do make allowances for these factors, but only in some places. People will give up a seat on the subway to an elderly person, but they are unlikely to do the same with a choice seat in a movie theatre, or with a nice spot on the beach).. so why do we do it? To begin with, it’s easy and it allows people to concentrate on some presumably more important things. The rule doesn’t need coercion to work, either. And since people get on and off the train randomly, everyone has a good chance of finding a set as anyone else.

Still if sitting down matters to you, there is no law preventing you from trying to circumvent the convention by, for instance, asking someone to give up his seat. So in the 1980s, the social psychologist Stanley Milgram decided to find out what would happen if you did just that. Milgram suggested to a class of graduate students that they ride the subway and simply ask people, in a courteous but direct manner, if they could have their seats. The students laughed the suggestion away, saying things like “A person could get killed that way”. But one student agreed to be the guinea pig. Remarkably, he found that half of the people he asked gave up their seats, even though he provided no reason for his request.

This was so surprising that a whole team of students fanned out on the subway and Milgram himself joined in. They all reported similar results: about half the time, just asking convinced people to give up their seat. But they also discovered something else: the hard part of the process wasn’t convincing the people, it was mustering the courage to ask them in the first place. The graduate students said that when they were standing in front of a subject, “they felt anxious, tense and embarrassed”. Much of the time they couldn’t even bring themselves to ask the question and they just moved on. Milgram himself described the whole experience as “wrenching”. The norm of first-come, first-served was so ingrained that violating it required real labour. The point of Milgram’s experiment, in a sense, was that the most successful norms are not just externally established and maintained. The most successful norms are internalised.

This leads me to the title of this post – how many of our perceived problems exist because we have begun perceiving them as ‘convention’,  and trying to fight them literally fills us with anxiety, tension or embarrassment? This happened to me too, not that I realised it necessarily at the time. In my case our team had been together for a few years and we unwittingly became became victims of some presumptions by our boss at the time, he had made his mind up regarding each of our strengths and weaknesses and forever treated us according to these stereotypes and never would let us prove him wrong by doing something different. After a while you almost begin to believe it yourself, when you find that you are arguing a point to deaf ears. Although you persist, it is easy to gradually give up as the embarrassment of asking and labouring a point simply becomes too great and before you know it you have been conditioned to put up with it.

Someone a while ago illustrated this very well, when explaining how fleas are trained for the flea circus. This is a true story! To get fleas to jump a specific (premeditated height) what you do is you stick them in a tall tube, the height of which you would like to train your flea to jump and stick a lid on the tube. In the beginning the flea will jump as high as he likes, but hit his head/body in the lid of the tube. He will do this a few times until he learns (mainly from the pain!) that this is not a good move. Eventually he learns to jump just so high that he won’t hit his head in the lid of the tube anymore. Take him out of the tube and he will still only jump as high as the height of the tube he was in.

How much are are we victims of the same thing? How much could we in fact change what happens to us by daring to pipe up, speak our minds or even just as a difficult question? True, this will demand more labour on our behalf, but may in fact lead us to happier lives, new opportunities and allowing us to grow beyond our perceived limitations.