Thursday, April 30, 2020

Influential Mind report by Kaela Lindsay

CM 105: Tali Sharot On How To Change Someone's Mind
How to change someone's mind,
Curious Minds Podcast (2018)

 What drives us humans to grasp a concept? Why do we feel accomplished when we make a decision? Why do we use social referencing, both as an infant and as an adult? Author and psychology professor, Tali Sharot discusses all these questions and more in her book, The Influential Mind.

Throughout her book, she discusses nine most observed behaviors in society and in her empirical, psychology work. Sharot also raises a lot of controversial ideas, such as: "Is 'unanimous' as reassuring as it sounds?" (p. 173); how social learning can effect how we perceive being "unique" (p. 149); and how emotions can effect our choices, behaviors and thoughts (p. 35).  

  In society we are conditioned to think more is better than less---including when it comes to opinions and decision-making. Sharot's chapter "Is 'Unanimous' as Reassuring as it Sounds?" beginning on page 173, goes into detail why this notion is wrong. However, Sharot points out that time and time again, we choose majority over minority. But why is this the case? Sharot explains that "this notion...dates back to Plymouth, England in 1907" (p. 175), in which the whole crowd guessed the weight of a bull  before it was killed for its meat; the crowd's average guess only differed by one percent from the actual weight of the bull (p. 175). This phenomenon was witnessed by Francis Galton, a polymath, who then published this finding in the science journal, Nature (p. 175). After this observation was known, it became the standard way of thinking. 
J.K. Rowling, Harry 
Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone 
 Sharot explains that we can be deceived by this popular belief. Sharot says that the phenomenon witnessed in Plymouth that day, was only due to chance, because through everyone's experiences at trying to guess the ox's weight and perception, observers "naturally distribute around the real weight of the ox," essentially they are in the range of the true weight (p. 177). Sharot, however says that in order for the unanimous idea to work, each opinion has to be independent, but Sharot challenges this idea. Sharot discusses that in some way, at some point in the decision-making process, we are constantly be influenced by others either directly or indirectly. The idea that more is better than one is due to "heuristics." When heuristics occur,  it serves as a "mental shortcut," thus we choose majority over minority, but Sharot cautions, it can lead to negative consequences (p. 190). 
Sometimes, we have to take risks, just as Barry Cunningham, the author who helped give the famous, beloved author of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling; who chose to value the minority opinion---his daughter, Alice. 

Courtesy of  Smithsonian: Air and Space Museum
The word "emotion" is often more simplified, however, as Sharot discusses, emotions are so much more than a way to label our can serve as the catalyst for forming opinions. Sharot discusses how President John F. Kennedy was able to convey his emotions to capture and convince his audiences about his vision of sending the first human to step foot on the moon, in Chapter  2. Needless to say, it was a success, in which Sharot states "[it] is quite an extraordinary ability humans have---to transmit ideas from one mind to another" (p. 37). 

Courtesy of artist, @ punnybone,
To further capture this amazement, Sharot explains that when humans are listening to a speech in which the presenter is passionate about their argument/cause, listeners' brains activate in perfect synchronization, as researchers from Princeton University discovered (p. 38). Additionally, researchers have found that when listeners are engaged with a speech; brain areas that contribute to language, hearing, associations, and interpreting emotions, allow listeners to better connect with the presenter (pp. 38-39). These natural processes aid to the presenter's cause, making their listeners empathize and support them---a connection forms, increasing intimacy.

These biological and psychological processes are not just for politics and persuasion, but also in daily life. Couples for example, who are in a strong relationship claim that there is an unspoken connection with their significant other. Sharot discusses that magic did not happen, nor is it due to "perfect understanding" between couples, but rather, it due to how a couple communicates with one another. However, Sharot explains that this is not just limited to romantic relationships, it can also be platonic relationships, because once again, it is about how we connect and relate to others that increase understanding and intimacy.
     Lastly, in life we want to be thought of as our "own person," we crave to be different and unique, but why? What drives us to constantly seek out it acquired or learned? In Chapter 7, Sharot attempts to find a possible answer. Sharing her personal story of her daughter's birth, Sharot discusses how she and her husband wanted her daughter to stand out from others, and avoid naming their daughter a common and popular name. As Sharot walks her readers through the process of naming her daughter, she then leads into why social learning can effect out decisions.  Sharot discusses while we as humans crave to be unique, we also find comfort in learning from others. 

Sharot argues that our search for uniqueness is attributed to both innate abilities and social referencing (observing the reactions of others). Therefore, our opinions and decisions are once again attributed to others, we all influence one another, much of which occurs unconsciously. Moreover, Sharot explains that since we want to be unique, we are quick to adapt to what appears to be popular at that specific time...similar to the phenomena of fads (p. 155). By swaying with the majority, we are setting ourselves up to what is considered socially acceptable and how we can break away.

Sharot concludes the chapter by stating, just like in the Plymouth example discussed earlier, following (or disagreeing) social norms can have positive and negative consequences; at times it can broaden ourselves, and other times, it limits our possibilities because the power of influence is a two-way street: while we are influenced by others, we also set the stage for those around us. 

Upon reflection, Tali Sharot's book, The Influential Mind is both a controversial, yet gripping. Although some topics raised in her book are repetitive, and overlap occurs in chapters, she does a good job trying to connect her arguments together in a seamless piece.

In summary, our minds are a complicated, yet powerful tool. We as humans have the ability to inspire, change and influence others in more ways than one. While their is truth to strength in numbers, there is also weakness---sometimes we have to take chances and defy the majority---we are all unique want to be unique.  

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