virus: Consciousness

Mon, 10 May 1999 21:26:29 -0700

Tim Rhodes wrote:

> Tell me why consciousness good and what good it can do, not that its better
> than un-, if you really want to sell me on it.
> -Prof. Tim

In the book, "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.d. describes 5 "weapons of influence" that "compliance professionals" use to manipulate people into taking a desired (by the compliance professional) action. Those weapons are reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. Each section of the book describes a human tendency to respond in a particular way to certain social stimuli, what useful function that tendency normally has in our lives, and how compliance professionals exploit that tendency in us for their own ends.

Each chapter ends with a section titled "How to say no" in which Cialdini provides lots of specific advice and gives the reader a handy arsenal of questions to ask oneself in certain situations in order to get one's bearings, but the common thread running through all of these discussions of psychological defense is to be AWARE of how your psychological constitution can be used against you and with that awareness to RECOGNIZE when someone is attempting to use that aspect of your own psychology against you. Being CONSCIOUS of human psychology and the methods compliance professionals use to exploit it gives you access to a range of defensive strategies which are not available to someone who is unconscious of the psychological/social dynamics that are in play.

Here's an excerpt with ***emphasis*** added by me:

How to say no.

When up against a requester who employs the rule of reciprocation, you and I face a formidable foe. Whether by presenting us with an initial favor or initial concession, the requester will have enlisted a powerful ally in the campaign for our compliance. At first glance, our fortunes in such a situation would appear dismal. We could comply with the requester's wish and, in so doing, succumb to the reciprocity rule. Or, we could refuse to comply and thereby suffer the brunt of the rule's force upon our deeply conditioned feelings of fairness and obligation. Surrender or suffer heavy casualties. Cheerless prospects indeed.

Fortunately, these are not our only choices. ***With the proper understanding of the nature of our opponent,*** we can come away from the compliance battlefield unhurt and sometimes even better off than before. ***It is essential to recognize*** that the requester who invokes the reciprocation rule (or any other weapon of influence) to gain our compliance is not the real opponent. The real opponent is the rule. If we are not to be abused by it, we must take steps to defuse its energy.

But how does one go about neutralizing the effect of a social rule like that for reciprocation? It seems too widespread to escape and too strong to overpower once it is activated. Perhaps the answer, then, is to prevent its activation. Perhaps we can avoid a confrontation with the rule by refusing to allow the requester to commission its force against us in the first place. Perhaps by rejecting the requester's initial favor or concession to us, we can evade the problem. Perhaps; but then, perhaps not. Invariably declining the requester's initial offer of a favor or sacrifice works better in theory than in practice. The major problem is that when it is first presented, it is difficult to know whether such an offer is honest or whether it is the initial step in an exploitation attempt. If we always assume the worst, it would not be possible to receive the benefits of any legitimate favors or concessions offered by individuals who had no intention of exploiting the reciprocity rule.

I have a colleague who remembers with anger how his ten-year-old daughter's feelings were terribly hurt by a man whose method of avoiding the jaws of the reciprocity rule was to refuse abruptly her kindness. The children of her class were hosting an open house at school for their grandparents, and her job was to give a flower to each visitor entering the school grounds. But the first man she approached with a flower growled at her, "Keep it." Not knowing what to do, she extended it toward him again only to have him demand to know what he had to give in return. When she replied weakly, "Nothing. It's a gift," he fixed her with a disbelieving glare, insisted that he recognized "her game," and brushed on past. The girl was so stung by the experience that she could not approach anyone else and had to be removed from her assignment--one she had anticipated fondly. It is hard to know whom to blame more here, the insensitive man or the exploiters who had abused his mechanical tendency to reciprocate a gift until his response had soured to a mechanical refusal. No matter whom you find more blameworthy, the lesson is clear. We will always encounter authentically generous individuals as well as many people who try to play fairly by the reciprocity rule rather than to exploit it. They will doubtless become insulted by someone who consistently rejects their efforts; social friction and isolation could well result. A policy of blanket rejection, then, seems ill advised.

Another solution holds more promise. It advises us to accept the desirable first offers of others but to accept those offers only for what they fundamentally are, not for what they are represented to be. If a person offers us a nice favor, let's say, we might well accept, recognizing that we have obligated ourselves to a return favor sometime in the future. To engage in this sort of arrangement with another is not to be exploited by that person through the rule for reciprocation. Quite the contrary; it is to participate fairly in the "honored network of obligation" that has served us so well, both individually and societally, from the dawn of humanity. However, if the initial favor turns out to be a device, a trick, an artifice designed specifically to stimulate our compliance with a larger return favor, that is a different story. Here our partner is not a benefactor but a profiteer. And it is here that we should respond to his action on precisely those terms. Once we have determined that his initial offer was not a favor but a compliance tactic, we need only react to it accordingly to be free of its influence. ***As long as we perceive and define his action as a compliance device instead of a favor, he no longer has the reciprocation rule as an ally:*** The rules says that favors are to be met with favors; it does not require that tricks be met with favors.

Obviously this is a specific set of cases in which consciousness of human psychological tendencies and techniques designed to exploit them offers an improved range of options than would be open to someone not conscious of these tendencies and compliance strategies, and you're welcome to argue that no amount of individual examples like this can bootstrap us up to a general rule about the value of consciousness. I would find no fault with that line of argument.

As I've mentioned before, I did not decide to value consciousness after weighing the potential benefits. Consciousness is something that I value for it's own sake. Call it an element of my phaith.