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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Power Of Suggestion

The way we think is influenced by the social context in which we operate. This is not simply a question of our consciously picking up information and knowledge from the people around us. In some cases, pressure from other people can make us see things from their point of view, or can make us behave in ways that we would not previously have done, as though we had surrendered up part of our consciousness. To an extent, everyone of us is suggestible. We all yield to some of society’s norms; and the behaviour of people working in large companies is frequently shaped by some kind of corporate “ethos”. Psychological studies of suggestibility indicate that there may be more than one process at work.
Two simple experiments reveal the power of suggestion in different contexts. The first looks at an individual’s response to someone who is in a position of authority. An experimenter repeatedly gives the subject the same suggestion: for example, she tells the subject that his body is swaying. Soon his body will begin to sway. Not everyone is susceptible to this form of suggestibility, and neurotic people succumb more easily than “well-balanced” individuals. In another famous experiment from the 1950s, the social psychologist Solomon Asch looked at group dynamics. He presented a group of seven to nine subjects with a card showing three lines of different lengths: the subjects were asked in turn to identify the one line that was the same length as a reference line shown on another card. The correct answer to the question was obvious — one line clearly matched the length of the reference line — but all the members of the group, except one, were experimental “plants”: they had been briefed by Asch to give an incorrect answer. The point of the experiment was to determine how far the true subject, the one”innocent” member of the group, would go along with the others. The researchers found that only one in four individuals held out consistently against the view of the group, proving that the power of suggestion can sometimes override the evidence of our own senses. Pressure to conform weakens if the group is not unanimous, even if there is only one other dissenter; and even if that one other dissenter is wrong, the subject will still feel more free to express his or her own opinion.
Asch’s experiment may be artificial, with few direct parallels in real life — but if what we see can be undermined by pressures to conform, it seems almost certain that our everyday moral and social judgments will be subject to the same or greater pressures.
Suggestibility can have grave consequences, especially in the setting of the police interrogation room. Forensic psychologists became interested in the power of suggestion in the 1970s, following a series of high-profile cases in which the police where accused of unfairly extracting confessions from suspects. Individuals were convicted on evidence from confessions that were elicited by dubious means, and spent years in jail before their convictions were quashed on appeal. At the root of these appeals was the state of mind in which confessions were made. The subjects were told time and time again that they had committed these crimes, and eventually a few of them started to wonder if it really might be true. On some occasions, suspects were allegedly also deprived of sleep, light and food and were beaten up. Had the suspects been so suggestible that they just parroted what the police wanted to hear? In certain cases, this appeared to be true. The suspects later reported that they were no longer sure exactly what they had done or where they had been at the time that the crime was committed.
Police interrogators know how to exploit the situation. Barrie Irving of the UK Police Foundation noted,”The principal psychological factor contributing to a successful interrogation is privacy — being alone with the person under interrogation.” ( A successful interrogation in this context is one that ends with a confession.) Under such conditions some suspects become more suggestible, even though they know that eventually they may be convicted of a crime. But not all suspects buckle under the pressure: Gisli Gudjuddson, author of The Psychology of Interrogations, Confessions and Testimony (1992), has shown that there are a number of factors that tend to make people confess to having done something that they have not done, including low intelligence, a high degree of anxiety and an inability to remember. There may also be a personality factor present: a tendency to comply and an unwillingness to confront.

It is a wonderful law of nature that the three things we crave most in life — happiness, freedom, and peace of mind — are attained by giving them to someone else.  ~ Peyton March

The Law of Gravity : what goes up must come down.  
The Law of Life: what you send out,  must come back.

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