Communication, Conformity and Memory

The binary brain and the misrepresentation of psychological research

The brain likes simplicity, or at least most of us aren’t prepared to do the hard work of critical thinking, research and analysis that is possible with a human brain. It’s a whole lot easier to rely on first impressions, simplistic perceptions, unreliable memories of both yourself and others. They can fuel a narrative that is emotionally comfortable and even psychologically satisfying. This happens in every area of life. As a result misinformation abounds. This is particularly troubling when “research” is hijacked, creating urban legends about everything from physiological processes to human behavior.

For example, you may have heard that 93% of all communication is non-verbal. While intuitively we might assume that such factors as gestures and tone shape our perception of a communication, most of us had no idea that almost all of communication is non-verbal.

It isn’t.

The statistic comes from work conducted by Albert Mehrabian. In this research, a person spoke just one word and subjects had to judge his communication. Hardly surprisingly, most people took their cues from tone or body language because let’s face it, there’s not much communication value in one word. So when a person just utters one word, most of the perception about the communication is non-verbal. Duh! The research, however, has been taken completely out of context and the findings generalized to all communication — which typically involves a whole lot more than one word. So 93% of all communication is not non-verbal, unless you’re using sign language, and even then you could argue that there is some serious verbal processing occurring in the “listener.”

Another area of confusion comes from Solomon Asch’s work on conformity. In his research, subjects were effectively asked to match one of three lines with another. The matching line wasn’t difficult to determine at all. The wrinkle in this experiment, or the part of it that’s quoted the most, involved fake subjects who chose the obviously wrong line. The real subjects, who didn’t know it was a set-up, made their judgments after hearing the other fake subjects give the wrong answer. Would they be influenced by listening to other people’s obviously wrong choices? Would they feel pressure to conform? YES! Everyone was swayed and gave the wrong answer showing the enormous power of conformity. Well, that’s not quite true. Actually, a majority of people weren’t swayed at all. 36% of people seemed to have been influenced, or at the very least gave the wrong answer. It’s a significant number but our simplistic binary brains hear this study and perceives and remembers it as convincing proof that most people are influenced to conform and that’s not what the study’s data show. One could certainly imagine some situations where there was a greater pressure to conform and more people would go along with the narrative they were presented with, but that’s not what this particular study shows.

How about a statistic from a memory experiment? Elizabeth Loftus has done a lot of research into memory, showing that it can be an unreliable and dynamic process influenced by many factors. In one study she attempted to implant a false childhood memory of being lost in a mall into her subjects. That she succeeded is noteworthy and made headlines. However, the vast majority of subjects — 75% to be precise — didn’t accept the memory. Loftus herself talks about the “fiction of memory.” However, what we are witnessing is the binary brain once again rising is two-sided head. While Loftus and others have shown that memories can be implanted, it doesn’t mean that all memory is a fiction and that all memories are false. Memory is a reconstruction and subject to bias and distortion, which can lead to inaccuracies.

I could write a thick book using such examples but hopefully you get my point. We like to see the world as black and white certainties rather than flexible probabilities and categorize our experiences as well as our ideas and beliefs accordingly. That’s one reason why knowing how to think critically and having the discipline and mindfulness to do it maybe the most important life skills to develop.