I have been thinking lately about the power of suggestion, particularly modeling and mirroring. It's a topic that comes up often in my life though mostly subconsciously which, to me, makes it even more interesting.
In this first article I'm going to explain some of what I mean and then I'm going to ask you, the readers, to help me with a social experiment. That will lead us into the second part of this two-part article.
When I hear the phrase "the power of suggestion" I think of magic because, really, isn't that what a lot of magic tricks are? You are encouraged to believe one thing, through smooth words and/or actions by the magician, which leads you to miss the trick. (Personally, I've mastered the magic trick of making food disappear, which KILLS with the elementary school crowd).
But I'm talking here more about those suggestions that occur more in everyday life. I'm sure the following has happened to everyone here who is a parent, whereas it happens to me often when I'm working with special needs adults:
You're driving along and you have a plan, maybe one you've already discussed, about what you're going to do later and where you are going to eat, but then you approach a McDonalds and suddenly you're treated as if you're the worst parent in the world if you don't take them immediately to go eat at McDonalds. The book Fast Food Nation does an excellent job of explaining how McDonalds and other fast food companies market their food to kids in such a way as to make life and decisions more difficult for adults.
The McDonalds example is pretty overt – I mean everyone would expect that when you pass McDonalds you think McDonalds. But then there are the more subtle powers of suggestion that are harder to catch. Let's say that you are at the mall and suddenly your child has an intense desire to go eat somewhere and you have no idea what happened as you did not pass by that business or even a sign for it. However, maybe you passed someone holding a drink from that business and the child immediately remembered past pleasures of eating there and/or the great marketing for the place and voila, the intense desire to go there. It's all about connections, those intentional and those unintended.
I'll never forget one day watching television with one adult who, like most adults I work with, is mentally retarded. In his case – heck in the cases of many of these people I work with – there is much less of what I'd call media literacy, namely the ability to separate the fiction of marketing and commercials from the reality. Thus this guy watched infomercials and treated them like they were documentaries and so all he could talk about for more than two years – not to mention his Christmas present wish – was the exercise equipment used, as the ads said, by Chuck Norris and Wesley Snipes. To question whether the product was as essential as the ad suggested was, to him, to question if Chuck Norris was really a tough guy.
Anyway one day I counted and he changed his mind five times about where he wanted to go eat dinner. Those five switches occurred during a two or three-hour period with all five products mentioned during the television programs we were watching, some through commercials and some with just an announcer mentioning a business sponsoring the program. So it became "let's go eat at Taco Bell" followed a few minutes later by "let's go to McDonalds. I deserve a break today." Not only did he often repeat the same phrasing as in the commercial when talking about it but he'd appear surprised when I'd remind him that just ten minutes before he could only imagine enjoying one thing that night and that was pizza (Pizza Hut ad.)
I consider modeling and mirroring two types of the power of suggestion. Modeling – by which I mean how you behave as opposed to the stuff on Project Runway – is not just how one acts but, more importantly, how you want others to act. For example, when you tell your kids not to cuss but they hear you saying the f bomb on the phone you're doing a poor job of modeling and have only yourself to blame when they later cuss too. Maybe you think it's funny and cute when your kid says fire truck wrong (replacing the tr with a f) but you are a) encouraging him to do it more and b) setting yourself up to be embarrassed when, at some point, he'll say it at the wrong time and place (i.e. when talking to a firefighter.)
I ran into modeling a lot when I was student teaching. It was not enough to tell students what you wanted them to do but often I learned, through my mentor teacher, that it was also often essential to model what I wanted them to do. As a journalist-turned-educator, it took a while to get used to the idea that I couldn't just tell the students to write a paper explaining how they think the nation could be improved, but that in addition to talking about it and helping them think on this topic, I needed to have them see me writing a paper myself.
Often my own modeling outside of work isn't even conscious, which I'm sure parents can also attest to is often the case. You might be just minding your own business when suddenly you notice someone watching you and then copying in some form your own actions. This is what has been called mirroring.
I mentioned my own favorite example of this over at Firsty's great piece about getting children to read. I was meeting my niece, who was, at the time, about 2.:
I sat, as I often do, with one leg crossed over the other, and was reading a news magazine.
So she did the same. Well, first she went into room and grabbed something.
Then she sat down, crossed her tiny legs just like mine and picked up a magazine and began to also "read" it. It was the PBS guide and if it wasn't impressive enough that she could read it then surely the fact she was reading it upside down made it all the more amazing.
Since I'm often reading or writing it isn't surprising that a child or adult will think that maybe they too should be doing more reading and writing. I make a point, for example, of always encouraging kids and adults to read more – not just saying that but sitting down and reading a story with a child whenever they want. If that switches from modeling to mirroring at some point that makes me even happier.
Mirroring is the most interesting part of this equation and it is also the part where I'm going to ask you guys to do an experiment. I have been doing mirroring when working with kids for years before I even knew what it was called. There are two parts to mirroring: mirroring someone else in hopes of a response or change and being the unwitting mirror.
The former is one I see in education, especially with discipline problems. Let's say you're a mature adult (Yeah, I know, that might be a stretch but work with me here) and you're trying to have a conversation with a teenager. Odds are good he'll give you grief both verbally and through body language. Here's what you do: Copy their body language. If, for example, that person has their arms crossed then do the same thing.
One of two things will usually happen: Either that person will notice what you're doing – which often depends on how aware they are of the situation as well as how angry they are – or they won't. In the former case you can just use their inevitable question ("Why are you copying me?) to turn the conversation into unfamiliar territory. Instead of going over the usual argument you can then try a new tact: "I was just wondering what you would think if someone you were talking to gave you this body language saying you don't want to listen," or something less confrontational like, "I'm trying to understand your position better and thought I'd also try to understand where you're coming from. Are you really comfortable standing like that?"
If they don't notice you're mirroring them that's when things get really interesting because after you mirror their body language, such as how they are sitting and standing, then you can try to use, yes, the power of suggestion. If you're both standing there, for example, with arms crossed then slowly uncross your arms and they, often without noticing, will start mirroring you and uncross their arms too. You've gone from mirroring to modeling without them picking up on it and you can then help them relax. Try this: Take a deep breath and they will probably do the same. Take actions to help relax you both because they will, at least temporarily, do what you're doing. Some might find the whole thing funny which also does wonders to relieve situations and problems.
Ready for your experiment?
Try both parts:
1)Mirror someone else when you're trying to diffuse a situation. Copy their body language. See if you can use mirroring to improve and relax the situation. Report back on your findings.
2)Mirroring doesn't have to be just about conflict and conflict resolution. It can often be about things that are much less important. Try this then: next time you're out drinking or eating with a group of people pay attention to when people drink. Wait until a moment when nobody has picked up their glass and then go ahead and take a drink. Now watch – casually – and I'll bet you that at least one other person will follow your lead and also take a drink. That will spark another person to grab a drink. Then someone two tables away will choose that exact second to take a drink. Is this modeling and mirroring or just random events that appear to have a pattern? Try it out and report back.
I notice it all the time at restaurants but you see it too at parties when someone pulls out a cigarette and suddenly three others choose that moment to do the same. It's kind of freaky – oh my god my actions affect others – but it's also, to me at least, fascinating.
I work with one guy who is diabetic and doesn't like to drink water. I buy him water and drink my iced tea and while he'll say he doesn't want to drink water each time I drink he will too. It works quite well. Now if I can just teach him to stop trying to cheat when we play Uno….