Six Degrees of Separation? Creating Chaos or Authentic Communication?
In 2001, Duncan Watts, a professor at Columbia University, continued his research based on the phenomenon and recreated Milgram’s experiment on the Internet.
Pavlov’s Dogs, Little Albert, You and Me
Do you often like or dislike people when you first meet them? Association is a connection between how you feel and what you think about one person that you project or put on another. It does not have to happen consciously. This reaction to someone happens because, in some way, the new person reminds you of someone from your past. In psychological terms, it’s called transference.
The Messenger is Like My Mother
- “You look like my sister.”
- “You remind me of my aunt.”
- “You act like my dad.”
- “You sound like my mom.”
- “You dress like my old school teacher.”
- “You look like my sister and I can’t stand her.”
- “You remind me of my aunt and she is mean and lazy.”
- “You act like my dad, rigid and unbending.”
- “You sound like my mom, the authority on every subject.”
- “My old teacher had negative opinions about everything, too.”
It is the connections and subtle triggers, not the gender that generates the association.
The reality is that your new boss uprooted his family and moved 3,000 miles to take this job. His children are struggling with leaving friends and are mad and think he’s cruel to make them move their senior year in high school. His wife gave up a promising career, and she feels undervalued.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: An Association with Myself
- People pleasing or can’t say, “No”
I would fidget, purse my mouth, or in some way convey that I didn’t like what she was saying. One of my counselors took me aside and asked why I reacted so unfavorably to her.
His first question was, “Who does that remind you of?” I immediately recognized myself.
“If I hang out with dishonest people, might I revert to that?”
3. Smug and Self-righteous Postures
“I used to be that way, but I’m better because I changed.”
“I’m jealous that she seems to get away with this behavior in the group.”
If these reactions have happened to you before, explore some of the other unsaid thoughts and see if there’s association. Other times, the association is to a title, position, or past experiences that were embarrassing. While I liked my counselors, there was one who seemed to take pleasure in reprimanding participants.
Oh, No, We’re in Trouble Associations
Each of us in that small group commented at lunch one day that we thought it was like going to the principal’s office. We were in trouble.
Unfortunately, this association meant that most of us were defensive even before we got to the group. Rather than present alternative behaviors that would produce better outcomes, this counselor told us what, how, and why to change and then told us when. It was this lack of choice that fostered some of the resistance to authority.
Since we had other groups together, it was clear that a defensive posture was not always the norm, yet in this group, even I found myself wondering what I would have to defend.
Different Associations for Positive and Negative Reactions
Ever had someone break up with you and then list all the things wrong with you? You might already be reeling from the breakup and now heaped upon the hurt are all your negative qualities. Then, you don’t get a job promotion and feel ashamed and sad when your supervisor tells you why. Your emotional reaction to this seeming slight might be magnified by a recent romantic breakup.
Age is also not a determining factor in the association.The illustration by Octavio Ocampo demonstrates how within each of us is a memory or illusion of what was. Hidden at first, we have to change our perspective to see the younger versions, but they are there.We sometimes have to look carefully to recognize our distorted perception of people in our associations as well.
Often our attitudes about people are like the illustration, some see an old couple, and others see the younger version.In a work environment or with the extended family, it is a good idea to check your perception if others do not have the same issues in communication that you do. If you dislike someone but everyone else does, there may be an association for you that is not about the other person.
When our perceptions and relationships are negative, asking others for their opinion on how they see us interacting with someone might help process the reactions better and label the personal association.
I’ll Be Mindful: They Are Not My Sister
We are going to run into people in every aspect of our lives that we like and dislike. Another way to decide if there is an association is to reflect on how you would feel if, someone you liked said the same thing to you.
• Would you process the information differently?
• Are there people who you just tune out and dismiss?
• Would you listen if you liked the person saying something?
• Do you judge certain people as more credible than others?
If you answered, yes to any of these, then you may be associating.
What are You Missing When You Associate?
Just as the bearer of bad news was killed by the king with little responsibility other than delivering the message, we can bypass the message and focus on the messenger. There are two primary problems with this. When you are dismissive of information based on the messenger, you might be missing something helpful. Jeffrey Wigand spoke out about the dangers of smoking. A PR firm, hired by Brown & Williamson mounted a merciless smear campaign designed solely to discredit Wigand. Why believe a raging alcoholic, wife-beater, and pathological liar? Many whistleblowers lose their careers and their families from the relentless attacks upon them, focusing our attention on perceptions of their character and not their message.
The opposite association is valid as well. Just because you like the messenger, the information may not be correct. Take that American staple of cookie lovers everywhere and that iconic baby, Nestle. A few marketing companies have specialized in “disinformation”.
Nestles hired Abelson Taylor to silence the facts about exporting infant formula to Africa that could not sustain life. Nestle had a campaign in Africa claiming that their formula was better for babies than breast milk. Hundreds of thousands of infants died from this deficient formula.
Better Outcomes without Association
To break down associations, identify who the person reminds you of; then make a conscious effort to not filter the message by the association or past connection.
Tell yourself, “It’s not my mom, dad, boss, or ex that is speaking to me, it’s _____.”
When you deliberately and intentionally refer to the new person, it helps remove the association. Don’t get swayed by outward appearances only.
When you look deeper into an association, you may find that your associations are preventing you from giving a new person in your life a chance to show their qualities, not what you projected onto them at first meeting.
The added benefit of identifying your associations is that if you learn to communicate and process information better with the new person, it will probably help your old relationships as well.
So, the next time that old-timer speaks, listen to the message, not the messenger – it might just save your life.