It's the future, Jim, but not as we know it...

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

He Stoops to Belong

If someone told you that the sun is red would you agree with them, just so they would like you? Probably not. What if seven people said it was red, and you were the only one who thought it was yellow? What then? The truth is that you would be more likely to say it is red than you realise. 

How low would you go?

It is amazing how easily people will give their power away to others, just to be accepted. In 1958, a well-known psychologist tested this idea in what has become known as the Solomon Asch experiment. Here’s how it went. One unsuspecting person was led into a room with seven others. However, the others had been “planted” there by the experimenter, and told what to do beforehand. Two cards were shown to the participants, with the card on the left containing one vertical line, the card card on the right featuring three lines of different length.

The subject was then asked to choose which of the three lines on the right matched the length of the line on the left card. Sometimes the others in the room had been told to deliberately choose the wrong line, even when it was clearly the wrong answer.

The results were somewhat disturbing.
Over thirty per cent of the subjects decided to chose the obviously incorrect answer. Incredibly, 37 of the 50 subjects chose the same answer as the majority at least once, while 14 of them agreed more than 6 of the 12 times the test was conducted. When all the other group members deliberately chose the wrong answer, on average the subject agreed 4 times out of the 12 trials.

Soloman Asch, the psychologist who conducted the tests, had this to say.
The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black. This is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct." (reference)

Why do so many people give their power away to the beliefs of the group? The two main reasons are probably that they want to be accepted by the group, and because they believe that others in the group are smarter than they are.

Professor Asch observed that it is difficult to believe that you can see something or know something that no one else does. Many people will effectively change their perception to accommodate the group’s perspective.

What this means for you

Just because everyone else is doing something, or believing something that you don’t, does not mean that you are wrong. Just because everyone else chooses a poor way to solve a problem, does not mean that you have to do so too. You can choose another way, and what is more, you do not even have to tell anyone about it if you don’t want to.

For those of us who are passionate about the frontiers of human knowledge and intelligence, the need for approval presents a constant dilemma. How readily should we communicate our beliefs, understandings and experiences in societies which often do not ready acknowledge what we perceive and understand? 

For me, it has always been a challenge. Over the past decade I have formally committed a huge amount of time and passion to Futures Studies, and then investigated and researched Integrated Intelligence. I made a decision to "come out" and devote my research and writing to this domain of inquiry. Yet this last decade has probably been the most materialistic ever, and universities have gone through a phase where funding is allocated according to the needs of industry and government focused upon economic development. Universities want academics who can measure and produce quantifiable outcomes. And so I have experienced repeated rejection when applying for academic positions (certainly many hundreds of them, although I'm not counting). 

Even fellow futurists can have a hard time accepting what I write about. Recently an academic article I submitted to a particular journal was almost rejected because the referee did not like my referring to certain transpersonal philosophers, most notably Ken Wilber and futurist Richard Slaughter.  He/she said that these people were the equivalent of "spiritual fascists", and appeared to insist that I remove reference to them. The matter was resolved after I pointed out I had no personal connection with these writers, and was merely using them as a reference point to situate an argument. The journal editor seemed to accept my point that a referee has no right to reject a paper based on the fact that a writer holds a different philosophical stance than he/she does.

Nobody said that being different is easy. There is a price to pay for being open about being "alternative", and there are definitely times when you should not tell people what you are doing, or what you believe or understand. There are a large number of people walking this planet who simply do not have the spiritual maturity to deal with worldviews which differ significantly from their own. 

The key then is to know your truth, to know when to speak it and when to remain silent. Most importantly, you must have the courage and conviction to own your truth, and not give your  power of perception away to the group. 

And that's the way it is.



  1. 'There are a large number of people walking this planet who simply do not have the spiritual maturity to deal with worldviews which differ significantly from their own'
    I find this a very patronising and judgemental view and it depends on where you're standing.Some would find the worldviews of scientists or politicians very unsafe but perhaps it is to them you refer.We're all at different points in our learning.

  2. The average level of responsibility on this planet is very low, Von. If you forget this, then you set yourself up for suffering. I know, becasue I have worked at depth with people and their shadow, and I have seen first hand the way some people lash out when they are confronted with a truth they don't want to acknowledge. My point was not a judgment, but a discernment. You cannot tell people your truth in every situation, and you have to develop the wisdom to know the right time, place and individuals. As just one example, if you read my book Sage of Synchronicity, I refer to a wonderful spiritual teacher named Jessica. Her career and professional reputation were eventually destroyed in New Zealand by just such people. I won't go into details, but it involved a deep betrayal. She had little choice but to move to another country. She did nothing more than devote her life to healing for a decade.

  3. Great post, Marcus. We are a strange and complex species, for sure.

  4. I understood exactly where you were coming from and by the way I'm a she!It pays never to make assumptions.

  5. I love your blog and especially this post! I am one person who has had a hard time fitting in since elementary school. My thinking is always considered to be "out there." One of my frustrations with the current organization that I work for is that I saw problem areas early on and tried to recommend changes, but was rejected only to see that these problem areas did cause scandals. My biggest conflict seems to be that I'm a "quality" guy, not a "quantity" guy and I work in an organization obsessed with quantity over everything else.

    I also find most people to be conformists who are afraid to stand out. Many companies get into trouble because of groupthink and the isolation of people who think differently and are able to see problem areas. Its frustrating. I wish I was independently wealthy so I can work for myself...doing similar kind of things that you are doing in the realm of metaphysics.

    I'm glad to read your blog so I don't feel like the only odd ball on this blue marble in the darkness of space! Its nice to "meet" people whose thinking is far more advanced than the average person I work and interact with on a daily basis.

  6. Hi Sansego,

    I know it can be painful to think differently. As I wrote above, we somehow have to know the right time to speak our truth, and the right time to remain silent. It also helps if we can learn not to judge mainstream culture and others who don't share our worldview. It's not easy, but it is possible. The thing is, such judgments ruin our own peace of mind. If you can find your own Purpose, and have the courage to live it, it makes a big difference.

    I note you are in Portland. Oregon is a beautiful part of the world. I was in Corvallis for a visit a few years back. I'm an Aussie, but live in Hong Kong now.

  7. Boy, you hit the nail right on the head this time!