Thursday, February 25, 2010

On Respect

This week I learned something very powerful and important about improv training from someone who’s done no improv training at all. Furthermore, I learned it from someone who’s been a part of my life for the last seven years and who I’d never really thought to have a deep conversation with on the topic. That person was my father-in-law.

My journey toward this moment started with a conversation I had with a terrific guy called Ari Hoffman. I’ve been learning from Ari about some groundbreaking work he was involved in to use improv training to teach his fellow medical students at UCSF. He had some profound things to say about the value of teamwork, and using the improv principle of ‘making your partner look good’ in a hospital setting. Most notably, he told me a story about a time when he was helping a woman give birth.

He explained that during childbirth, there’s more loss of control of certain bodily functions than many people expect, and that things can get messy. This means that the sheets or ‘chucks’ under a patient need to be changed from time to time--a task that’s generally considered to belong to the nurses. Ari explained how he’d channeled his improv training and changed the chucks to ‘save the scene’ as it were, while the nurses where unavailable. The nurses responded with unexpected delight, and felt like Ari had behaved much more like a part of the team than they were used to from medical students. Ari believed that it was that improv attitude that enabled him and his improv co-instructor Brynn Utley to graduate with honors from their highly competitive program.

This story really stood out for me, so when opportunity presented, I shared it with my father in law, Howard Graves, a doctor who until recently worked at SF General and is one of the most experienced Emergency Medicine specialists in the Bay Area. I was astonished at the vigor of this response.

“This is a really important point, Alex,” he told me, “and the way I teach it is this...”

He then went on to describe in enthusiastic detail a communication principle that seemed, at first glance, to be almost completely different from ‘make your partner look good’. What he told me was that in medicine, maintaining the dignity of patients is critical. Patients who walk into an emergency room are often at a huge emotional disadvantage. They frequently feel more vulnerable than they have in years. For the doctor handling that patient, another knock to that person’s confidence can mean the difference between their being able to give rational answers about their condition, and not giving useful answers at all. Retaining the dignity of your patients can be a matter of life or death.

When I went on to ask Howard about interacting with nurses or other doctors, he said the same principle applied. For a large number of historical reasons, modern medicine has inherited a rather hierarchical culture that sometimes can get in the way of the effectiveness of the people who comprise it. By taking personal responsibility for keeping up the dignity of everyone you interact with, they feel comfortable and confident working with you, and everything works better all round.

Of course, in truth, Howard’s message has more in common with ‘make your partner look good’ than at first I supposed. Both ideas encourage us to take responsibility for someone else’s experience and to make sure it goes well. The difference, I think, is that ‘make your partner look good’ is about achieving a shared goal. In improv, the good of the scene is placed above the experience of any individual player, and as a consequence, every player gains. In contrast, Howard’s idea often relates to situations where there may not be any shared goals or where goals may be in conflict. I think of this idea as ‘Second Person Status’.

The improv concept of Status is old and well-established. It essentially explains how every character in a scene broadcasts some level of intrinsic authority through their choice of posture, language, etc. Applied improv uses this concept to unpick the social dynamics of real-life situations. In applied improv terms, then, Second Person Status implies that when you find yourself in an environment plagued by a brittle emotional landscape, you can achieve a lot more by attempting to ensure that the status of those around you never drops. It’s a bit like learning to walk through a glassware showroom while wearing a backpack. You take each turn carefully.

I’ve been teaching people to read and pitch their status for years, and also how to flex when the situation requires it, but I feel like this idea is a little different. Taking personal responsibility for the status of others gets at the heart of what ‘respect’ in human society is all about. I suspect that this approach could be useful in academia, business, international relations, and any number of other arenas. I’m now looking forward to turning this idea into a sequence of targeted games and trying them out.

As my last word on the topic of respect then, I have this to say: Respect to Howard Graves and Ari Hoffman--two wise and excellent men.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gift Giving

This week I got to go back to Santa Cruz to run another session with my lovely UCSC grad student group. As before, this session was a kind of a grab bag of exercises I’d come up with--mostly as a reflection of the research I’ve been doing on influence. And once again, we encountered some fascinating results.

Perhaps the most striking game for me this time was a variant on an improv classic called Presents in which players take turns to give each other gifts. (You can find it in the improv encyclopedia.) I picked this game because I wanted to explore the impact of reciprocity in the clearest way possible, and this seemed like a natural place to start. (To understand what I mean by reciprocity, take a look at the previous post.)

Normally, a gift recipient in Presents gets to decide what gift he’s being given and little or no value is assigned to the emotion with which the gift is received. This time, instead, I had givers say what they were giving. I then asked recipients to be as honest as possible about how they felt about the gift they’d been given. The idea was that each player would gradually figure out how to make their partner happy, and the result of the game would be a sense of achievement and increased trust for each pair.

However, shortly after the game started it rapidly became clear that things weren’t going as planned. Some participants were much pickier about what they received than others. Also, people were having trouble tuning in to their partner’s preferences. With each transaction that passed, some faces showed looks of greater and greater discomfort. By the time I halted the game, many participants still hadn’t really figured out how to make their partner happy. The game had had the opposite effect to the one I’d intended.

Fortunately, the group I was playing with have developed terrific rapport and a huge amount of trust, so the outcome didn’t matter, but it certainly surprised me. In the discussion that followed, it became clear that several things had been going on. For starters, the discomfort started when people didn’t appreciate the very first gift they were given. On reflection, one can see that this is because the reaction to a gift is as much a part of the reciprocity process as the gift itself. People give a gift and hope to see delight. An unsuccessful initial transaction immediately weakened the relationship for that pair. This made it harder for players to be pleased by later offers.

Secondly, there wasn’t enough information in the game for people to tune in to their partner's likes. This was even though I had suggested before the game that players offer things that they themselves liked the first few times before trying to work out what their partner wanted. I think everyone started with so much confidence that they’d be able to meet their partner’s needs that they didn’t pay too much attention to revealing information about themselves.

Most significantly for me, though, was how much the game appeared to matter. I base this on the body language and facial cues that the game revealed. People *really* don’t like reciprocity transactions to go poorly. The habit goes very deep. So much so that we have created all sorts of social behaviors to conceal our true reactions to gifts. And, ironically, those that are closest to us are probably most likely to received a censored response.

The strength of this habit may in party explain the enduring ritual draw of Christmas gift giving, and why so many of the emotions that arise from it are nuanced and not entirely positive. The fact that reciprocity--a mechanism intended to increase mutual trust--is so powerful that it causes us to routinely conceal the truth from each other says something about the extraordinary subtlety of the relationships that human beings form.

Monday, February 1, 2010

On Hidden Mechanisms of Influence

In the wake of the fun I had on my last visit back to Santa Cruz, I’ve been thinking more about Robert Cialdini’s impressive book on influence. (See previous post.) I’ve started to do with it what I always do with theories that interest me--to take it apart. (The engineer in me can’t resist.) An besides, I suspect that a weight of highly useful improv games lurk somewhere in this material, waiting to be teased out. Not to mention further valuable insights about how people interact.

Cialdini quotes six mechanisms through which human beings are influenced by others. These are:
Reciprocity: the urge to return favors.
Consistency: the urge to appear to have stable opinions and behaviors.
Social Proof: the habit of assuming that behaviors exhibited by others represent a standard for acceptability and wisdom.
Authority: the habit of assuming that those bearing the social trappings of power can be trusted.
Liking: the urge to make compromises when dealing with those with whom we have a pre-existing bond.
Scarcity: the urge to act quickly when we perceive a valuable commodity to be in limited supply.

Why six mechanisms? And why these six? Business book authors seem to be crazy about lists. (The five habits of great leaders. The seven guaranteed paths to selling. The twenty three easy steps to world domination, etc.) There is probably fascinating study to be done on this topic in its own right--to try to work out why lists hold such appeal. However, that’s not my focus here, and personally, I mistrust lists.

Whenever someone quotes a list at you, it’s effectively a statement that the system they’re describing has symmetry of that order. In other words, the structure that underpins the system can’t be broken down into some simpler pattern. In my experience, things in life seldom have symmetry as consistent, orderly and complex as order six without something going on underneath.

So how about these patterns of influence? Do they have a deeper structure? I think so. Right away, we can break Cialdini’s list down on the basis of the type behavior to which they relate. The mechanisms of Scarcity and Social Proof both relate to the behavior of individuals operating in anonymous groups. They’re not specific to people. You can see the same behaviors in shoals of fish, in their patterns of feeding and flocking. Feeding patterns reflect Scarcity: ‘food is suddenly available and I might not get some’. Flocking reflects Social Proof: ‘everyone’s turning left so there must be a good reason to do so’. The same primal patterns of social optimization can even be found in bacteria.

At the other end of the scale, the mechanism of Authority relates specifically to hierarchical behavior, which you only get in those organisms that collaborate in structured groups. Furthermore, it’s culturally dependent. A man dressed as a witch doctor with lion’s teeth around his neck is going to be less immediately authoritative to a western audience than a man in an Armani suit. This mechanism clearly equates to the improv principle of status.

Between these two extremes lie Reciprocity, Consistency and Liking, all of which relate to building and maintaining relationships with peers. Thus, we can see that there are three levels of social behavior being revealed: hierarchically-connected, peer-connected, and group-connected. (Intriguingly, these layers correspond to the first the scenes in a Vanilla 6-Hander improv play, but that’s perhaps material for another post.) The next question is whether we can slice up each these layers in ways that reveal further structure. Doing so might reveal gaps in Cialdini’s findings and uncover mechanisms that he missed. And this is where it gets interesting.

Let’s look at the group-connected layer first. What’s the difference between Scarcity and Social Proof? While they share the common idea that ‘other people know something I don’t’, I would suggest that Scarcity relates to group competition while Social Proof reflects collaboration of a very basic sort.

However, if we then look at the peer layer--Reciprocity, Consistency and Liking--a different pattern emerges. There’s no pattern in this set that obviously relates to collaboration versus competition. Instead, these three mechanisms appear to correspond to different points on a relationship-building time-line. Reciprocity relates to how people respond to overtures of alliance. Consistency encourages people to behave in a reliable fashion while a relationship is being developed so that others can build predictive models of their behavior. Liking reflects reluctance to break a social bond once it has been fully formed.

Then, last of all we come to the mechanism of Authority, sitting in a group all on its own. Can we infer the existence of other missing mechanisms to this group by applying the patterns we found in the other two groups? Perhaps. I haven’t managed this yet. However, there’s a more obvious omission here. Hierarchies of individuals generally don’t only involve information passing from the top to the bottom. Information percolates back up as well. Thus, given that human beings have been forming hierarchies for a very long time, shouldn’t we also see patterns of influence here too?

Of course we do. I would refer to this new principle as that of Vulnerability. Hard-wired examples involve the ‘looking up cluster’ that women apply to men. This involves body language that’s low-status, yet gently coercive. Consider also tropes such as the female hitch-hiker by the side of the road whose boyfriend suddenly appears when a ride is acquired. Many of us will also be familiar with how successful children can be at exerting social influence on their parents, even though their apparent bargaining position is very weak. I suspect that there are a host of influence tricks that belong in this bucket.

I think Cialdini missed this mechanism because it because it’s employed less frequently by sales-people and managers. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s not widely used. A female friend of mine won accolades in her younger days for her door-to-door fund-raising. She raised a staggeringly greater amount of money than her peers working in the same charity because her approach combined quick-witted dialog with a highly non-threatening appearance. Doors opened for her that would open for nobody else.

Thus, all told, we’ve now got seven mechanisms that occupy slots in a more clearly defined structure. What’s curious, though, is that each layer of social interaction we’ve defined comes with its own symmetry. This suggests that Robert Cialdini effectively nailed six out of seven of the major channels of human interaction--at least if you believe the model we’ve constructed here. That’s impressive. However, the lingering question in my mind still whether we can take what we’ve found here and use it to create behavioral games that enable people to do things they’ve never achieved before. And that’s something I’m still working on.