Truth is consensual, feelings are contagious

In the three previous columns, I described the feelings that are associated with our initial attempts to behave in new ways. These are the insecurity, anxiety and fear of the unfreezing phase of change.

If these are a challenge for us as individuals, what happens when groups of people are undergoing the stresses of change at the same time?

Group behavior occurs in many forms, ranging from small work teams or families to large audiences, crowds and mobs. This behavior includes patterns that are possible only when two or more individuals interact verbally or visually. These are called emergent properties of groups.

Behavior in groups can exert powerful psychological forces. For example, a small number of individuals expressing strong emotions in a meeting can, through contagion of affect or feelings, cause a majority of those present to share the same emotions. This is an unconscious process independent of rational thought.

This contagion of affect appears increasingly in our society as individuals are encouraged by elected officials and members of the media to express their feelings publicly.

For example, the town hall meetings on health care reform, which members of Congress conducted in August, 2009, were settings ripe for contagion of affect. The strong emotions expressed by those who spoke may have been transmitted to others who did not share those feelings initially.

The televised broadcasts of those meetings may have spread the contagion of affect across the nation. The expression and contagion of emotion may, in the end, hamper the thoughtful consideration of the issues facing our nation.

This is especially true if the emotions are coming from the anger, insecurity and fear of the unfreezing phase of change. Encouraging the ventilation of those feelings will not cause them to diminish. Furthermore, observing those reactions in others does not mean that the proposed changes triggering those reactions are good or bad.

Another emergent property of groups is a process called consensual validation. We depend heavily upon others to help us form our own interpretations of events. “Truth” for humans is determined through our senses and secondarily through others’ interpretations of what events in our lives mean.

We are particularly dependent on the consensual validation process for understanding large events that we cannot detect directly with our immediate senses. We turn with increasing frequency to the pundits on radio and television to help us interpret the meaning of complex events in our lives. They help to validate our own thoughts and feelings.

Climate change, for example, is impossible for us to evaluate without the presentation and interpretations of data by others. Because local weather does not directly reflect world climate, we are likely to be wrong to interpret a hot summer as global warming, or an unusually cold winter as evidence that global warming is false.

Nevertheless, many of us use our senses and the consensual validation by others to arrive at just those conclusions.

Internet Web sites, blogs, social networks and cable and radio talk shows have significantly increased the opportunity for contagion of affect and consensual validation. These are not necessarily destructive phenomena, but they can create their own realities that are often informed by ignorant or false assertions rather than valid data. How then does our democracy function when a falsehood espoused by an uninformed individual can become just as emotionally loaded and consensually valid as a fact?

Another emergent property of groups is coalition formation that entails like-minded individuals forming groups to accomplish a common goal.

The “Tea Party” movement is a recent example of a coalition. Some coalitions are short-lived, while others can become structured and institutionalized. Many of the social movements of the 1960s, such as the civil rights movement, included diverse groups of individuals who formed a coalition with sufficient strength to change the nation’s laws and culture.

These columns on change are intended to help us understand and respond constructively to our own and others’ reactions to change. These reactions can be painful and suggest that change is misguided simply because it is causing so much upset. If we understand change and are alert to group reactions to change, we may be able to accept these feelings as normal and not necessarily indications that we are headed in the wrong direction.

An appropriate response to change is to focus on the task of changing by doing our own problem-solving and not focusing on how bad we feel and seeking consensual validation for what’s wrong by listening exclusively to those who share our points of view.

Bill Liggett has a doctorate in applied social psychology and retired from School District 51 as director of research and program evaluation in 2007. His current life change is to prepare himself and his 1946 Ercoupe to fly cross country.


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