We Are Not Alone

Connecting to others... unconsciously.

Posted Jun 29, 2009

This perspective tends to conflict with the dominant Western viewpoint. We tend to think of ourselves as independent creatures. We decide our own destinies, make our own decisions, act how we want to act. In the U.S., corporate America and the government tell us to "Think Different" and "Be an Army of One." But is every man and woman an island? Can we all think different? Is this even possible? In fact, the people that fill our daily lives affect us much more than we might otherwise believe. We are, in truth, social coordination machines. The aim of this blog is to explore the wonderful variety of ways that we synchronize, harmonize, imitate and complement others in virtually every aspect of our existence. Many forms of coordination are quite obvious. We understand and match people's actions when dancing, or playing sports and music. Talking to others also necessitates both speaking and listening—coordination is the very essence of communication. But we engage in additional forms of coordination without consciously realizing it, and it is these forms that are some of the most interesting and most revealing about what it means to be human.

Let's consider some examples of less obvious coordination. Imagine that you are about to walk inside of a building, and a person exiting the building holds the door open for you. What would you do-walk inside, do as the other person is doing and hold the door open as well, or maybe just stand there staring? If you are like most people practiced in the ways of social life, you would probably walk inside, perhaps expressing gratitude. You likely wouldn't think much about it. In fact, many of the behaviors we perform in the presence of other people are similar to this one in that they fulfill a learned script. You know that holding the door open is an invitation for you to enter, and it would be weird for you to do otherwise. Now imagine that you are out shopping and you happen upon a friendly coworker who is shopping as well. The coworker smiles in greeting. Would you be most likely to smile in return, frown, or remain totally and completely expressionless? Again, the script says that smiling in return is the correct behavior. These two examples highlight the two basic forms of social coordination we observe in the world. In the first example, holding the door invites a complementary action (walking inside), and in the second example, smiling invites an imitative action (smiling back). Imitation and complementation doesn't always require learned scripts. It can naturally emerge in any situation. Consider these scientific findings...

Liking another person (or wanting another person to like you) can lead you to rub your face and shake your foot when that other person is face rubbing or foot shaking. Further, people unconsciously follow the gaze of others, use their words and speech patterns in conversation, and even adopt their accents (this is one thing I hate about traveling in foreign countries—I often recognize, uncomfortably, that I'm speaking in Spanglish, Italianish or... British). Emotions can be synchronized as well. People can contagiously "catch" the feelings of others, and end up happy or sad for no identifiable reason. Our thoughts are not immune to contagion either. Simply being exposed to cues to the concept "elderly," for example, can lead people to walk and think more slowly. Even our very basic physiological systems are susceptible to social coordination. People's heart rates may become synchronized between mother and infant or between therapist and patient. There are countless other examples.

In future posts, we'll explore the impact of social coordination in innumerable aspects of daily life. We'll consider why people go through the trouble of coordinating (answer: a combination of learning and evolution). We'll talk about how coordination is not simply a consequence of engaging in social interactions, but also how it can change the course of those interactions. Finally, this won't be a blog that champions Eastern over Western wisdom (I could care less where the wisdom comes from), but instead focuses on what science tells us about how other people affect us, even when we don't realize it. Until then, stay aware of those around you and try not to stand there staring when someone holds the door open for you.