We often think of conforming as being a sign of weakness, and often applaud and admire the person who swims against the current. However, it would appear that the urge to conform comes directly from the brain, and my guess is that it’s a behaviour designed to help us thrive within a group – we like people who are like us, and who like us – no wonder we say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. A clever piece of recent research demonstrates how subtly it influences us.
Zaki, Schirmer and Mitchell, three psychological scientists from Harvard University had men look at 180 images of women and rate their attractiveness. As they did so a score was flashed on the screen beside their score, indicating how several hundred other male participants in the experiment had voted. In reality a computer randomly assigned a number higher or lower than their vote if they had judged someone particularly unattractive or attractive. They were then shown the same pictures again and asked to revote. Unerringly, if the other participants had voted higher than them, they revised their score upwards. If the opposite was true, they revised it lower. Amazingly, how attractive you find someone is influenced by the opinion of those around you.
This unconscious need to conform has massive implications in our daily lives. I was reminded of another study which showed that hanging out with fat friends led to you putting on weight. It seems we unconsciously seek to adapt to the norm, because, from an evolutionary point of view, what is different to the group is potentially dangerous to the group. You see it in the way people in groups tend to dress similarly, adopt an ‘in’ language and imitate physical actions and expressions – especially of those higher up the hierarchy. Experiments have shown on numerous occasions that, after a group has formed, they begin to discriminate against people outside of that group in a very short space of time. No wonder we do what we can to demonstrate that we ‘belong’.
So, if our brains are geared to adapt our behavior, our beliefs and values, and even our appearance according to our environment, how can we use this to be happier, or more successful, or healthier?
I suggest you look first at your network of friends. What might your brain be adapting to there? Are they positive people? Supportive? Do they encourage you to achieve your dreams? Do they exemplify the physical and mental traits that you aspire to? If they don’t, it could be why you feel like you’re less than you could be. Jim Rohn says, “You are the average of the five people you spend most time with.” If that’s true, who are that five, and is that the best you can do?
Let’s widen our focus. What characters on TV do you aim your unconscious at? Is your brain adapting you to become more like a character from Eastenders? Or Big Brother? I’ve definitely found that in the years since I stopped watching soaps and reality TV my outlook on life has changed for the better, and now I find them unbearably negative. The same goes for newspapers. I stopped reading them because I realised they never left me feeling better about the world. What do you watch, and read, and listen to? What message does it send your brain about who you should best be to survive? Whatever flows through our senses is our environment, and never in the history of humanity has there been more information available to choose from for that flow. The message is clear. If you want to be the best version of you can be, feed your brain the raw material to make you from. Watch a TED lecture instead of an episode of Coronation Street. Read something inspiring or aspirational instead of the Daily Miserable, go for a walk instead of sitting with a slice of cake, and audit your friends – spend more time with people who make you feel better about yourself and the world and who exemplify what you want for yourself, and ration the time you spend with friends who don’t.
What people who come on our hypnotherapy training often find is that the amazingly positive atmosphere, both in the classroom and on our forums – which usually get over a thousand page loads a day – in a subtle way begins to change their beliefs about what they can achieve. And now I can tell them why.