- Cultural norms are a lubricant that make socializing easier, but if we’re not careful we can overly rely on conformity.
- We need to catch ourselves from our natural tendency to go along with the group and we need to speak up with innovative ways to change and make progress.
- In the end, you might even find that the group agreed with you all along.
Collective Illusions is a 9-part series brought to you by Stand Together: a community of changemakers tackling our biggest challenges. Learn more here: https://standtogether.org/.
TODD ROSE: I believe our society's gotten to the point where you can't question. You can't provoke. You just have to adhere to consensus. For whatever value we think we're creating, I can guarantee you, the end result is the establishment and maintenance of norms that do not reflect public consensus. You need to be aware of the forces that influence your behavior, and cultural norms are a massive influence that we're often unaware of. Cultural norms are essentially group consensus at scale.
Norms lurk in the background. We rarely think about them, and unless we are actively challenging them and making sure they are valuable, they will eventually become collective illusions. Simply put, collective illusions are situations where most people in a group go along with a view they don't agree with, because they incorrectly believe that most people agree with it. And because the people themselves are upholding the illusion, only the people themselves can dismantle it.
As human beings, our brains are absolute energy hogs. Your brain's always looking for ways to reduce energy expenditure. Well, one of the best ways to do that is through the use of cultural norms. There are things we agree to as a society that help us grease the wheels of social interaction, and they make
life predictable for us. Cultural norms usually reflect the prior generation's group consensus, not our own. Because we're born into them by and large, we just assume that this group consensus reflects something that is true and good, that people really want, but it's not correct. A lot of norms are just entirely arbitrary. And we need to be skeptical about norms, because norms can exist for a very long time, not because they were ever true, but just because people don't question them.
The areas of the brain that track cultural norms are the same areas of the brain that process social information in general, and a violation of a cultural norm will trigger the exact same error signal that your brain triggers when it is perceived that you are going against your group. Artists throughout history have played a role in purposely challenging norms. We see them as a little weird and a little disconnected from society because they're supposed to be, and that creates a permission structure that allows them to pull the mirror up to us and say, "Is this really you? Is this what you believe?"
Sometimes you come back and say, "Absolutely, it is," and you're offended that they even asked. But a lot of times, it's the first crack in the norm that eventually breaks. And as people start to talk about the artist and about the art, rather than the norm itself, it reveals the opportunity for people to reveal to each other what they actually value, and the norm can disintegrate and a new norm can emerge.
Vietnam faced an incredible challenge with child malnutrition that had basically been impossible to solve through traditional top-down means. They finally addressed the problem and solved it through a completely different approach called positive deviance. Start by actually going into communities and saying, "Let's find the examples of people in these communities that are positive deviants." Meaning whatever problem you're facing, like malnutrition, there's some family whose kids are not malnourished, even though they're under the same constraints as everybody else.
They discovered that these mothers were supplementing the meager amounts of food the kids had with shrimp. Well, those were freely available and widely available sources of nutrition, but what they found out was at some point, a norm had emerged in that community that said shrimp were harmful to kids. The mothers that were doing that were doing it in private. They didn't want anybody else to know they were, because they knew they were violating a cultural norm. It wasn't enough to tell people to feed their kids shrimp. They had to find these mothers and elevate their voices and allow them to communicate to other parents and break that cultural norm. But once they did, they made dramatic gains in child nutrition for decades.
The fact that we're so hung up on top-down, expert-driven solution to everything is the only reason why positive deviants seem strange to us. But in reality, it's the only way you can ever drive social change under collective illusions that are rooted in cultural norms. If you understand that fact and you create the enabling conditions that allow everyday people to reveal who they really are to each other, these illusions can crumble in a hurry and social change can happen at a scale and pace that would otherwise seem unimaginable.
NARRATOR: This series is brought to you by Stand Together, a community of change-makers tackling our biggest challenges. And to learn more about how you can partner with Stand Together, visit standtogether.org.