I  am not sure I even had the choice this week as to what thought would be most prevalent in my mind because throughout this week, the same word keeps hitting me over the head. The word is mirroring – specifically the tool in which one person mirrors the actions or thoughts of another.

Mirroring is one of the easiest tricks of the trade for management and leadership. I personally discovered the technique when I first started interviewing people for work – at least at a very conscious, intentional level. The power of mirroring another person’s stance, sitting in a conference room, turns out to be incredibly powerful for easing discussion and information exchange. It feels manipulative as all get out, but then it is a dog eat dog world, and anything to grease the esophagus for consumption and breakdown identity islands can’t be all that bad, no?

The technique has become second nature to me, from business negotiations to 1:1 coffee shop interactions. When used with the YPO crowd, I have a great deal of fun employing it with a seasoned audience that knows the technique (oftentimes not consciously) – to recursive and humorous results. Because of the unconscious nature for many, the interactions are humorous to me, as is their befuddlement when confronted with a subconscious feedback loop.

Mirroring came up again this week in the book Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. An expert in hostage negotiations, the author emphasizes that even the most simple mirroring of words will allay and build trust with the other person. It could be as simple as repeating the last three words of their last sentence.

In David Brooks’ The Social Animal, he explores how mirroring is a principal aspect of child development and explores mirror neurons. He discusses how mirroring is hard-wired in our brain and is put to use immediately after birth – as demonstrated by the mirroring techniques between newborns and parents in the first six months of life. He pulls from a book (Mirroring: The Science of How We Connect with Others) that is exclusively on the subject of mirroring (added to my reading list).

Mirroring is not just between individuals in communication, but also in groups via group think. Arguably, the Asch Conformity experiment for group thought is just an extension of mirroring and is making use of the same mirror neurons (I think they have physiologically proven this – but don’t quote me).

So all that is context for my thought this week.  My thought this week is rooted in the recursive absurdity of the laughter associated with two CEOs reflectively and recursively mirroring each other. If we expand the mirroring tendency to life and groups, then what are the unintended consequences of all the mirroring going on?

Modicum – Part One

Obviously, in the age of high-speed communication and information sharing, technology quickens the feedback loop for confirmation, causing mindsets to become entrenched and balkanized more easily (the whole how-do-you-get-your-news problem that we have today). That’s an easy consequence to see – but viewed in the lens of mirror neurons, it makes for a depressing realization that the problem may be more biological – and thus entrenched – than is often depicted.

It gets worse though. Confirmation Bias keeps the entrenchment going once started. When combined with the Robbers Cave experiment, the resultant polarized group identification becomes a particularly powerful entrenchment. Furthermore, the brain’s extreme desire to maintain self-consistency will prevent mindsets from moving out of their existing patterns.

Before internet speed, information flow was slow enough that competing influences could be fed into the decision making loop, mellowing out the biological tendencies that still allowed for a Hitler to take hold – but only if a whole series of unusual environmental influences converge.

Put it all together and more succinctly:

Asch Conformity + Confirmation Bias +
Robbers Cave + Neural Self Consistency + Internet Speed =
Biological Polarization

It is not just that today’s polarized world is an outcome of a single demagogue or fake news or the blame du jour. It is inevitable biological polarization. All those components above are biological traits built into our DNA – the speed of the internet being the only added component.

And if it is biological, it is intractable – a depressing realization. Simply put, it is not going away until we implement societal or technological adaptation. In the post Trump world, it will not be getting any better. That is, not until we declare war – as was done in the third stage of the Robbers Cave.

Modicum – Part Two

Let’s get back to the personal world from societal – to be far more actionable. The consequence I’m really interested in is how do we get NON-mirror thought into our social consciousness? Is their room for original thought, and worse… will it have an even chance of being adopted given all that odds stacked against it? It makes me think of genius and isolation debates, e.g. Wegener’s Plate Tectonics resistance.

So mirroring is the soft gel coating of thought, smoothing the way to influence and gain acceptance for the delivery of thought. So how do you get to an original thought? Are our conversations mere reflections on people, doing whatever we can to affirm their own beliefs to build trust – rather than true interactions and exchange of ideas? It is a depressing realization, but when I apply it to my conversations of late, they all mostly fit that model.

Evolution gave us two ears and one mouth, and thus we should do more to listen, yes. And sure, apply the soft gel coating to when you do speak to facilitate trust to grease up the mind for reception. But… there is something more. We need to be more actively engaged in our brains with speaking to give true thoughts, not mirror thoughts, to increase the depth in our relationships. And just as equally, we need to really really listen to the ideas of others, and strip away that soft gel coating to open ourselves to true feedback, not sugar coating. We need to stop others in their subconscious mirroring and kindly request of them – please pause and tell me what you really think, don’t mirror back to me.

A good friend wrote to me that “Most writing is marketing/negotiating. Exploration of thought is the secondary purpose – and while more intellectually fulfilling, it is infinitely easier to explore one’s own ideas than to supplant someone else’s.” And so too, add a touch of the maxim that “You can’t be committed to your bullshit and to your growth; It’s one or the other.

Then the algorithm for human engagement is:

  1. mirror to others to build trust,
  2. demand to others to not be mirrored (obviously in a more nuanced approach)
  3. listen, listen, listen, then synthesize, and
  4. market/negotiate if you feel so inclined.
  5. Rinse, Repeat.

Note: Do not start at step 4.

And that’s my modicum this week. And a postscript, it all is recursive to this modicum project in the first place. I have a prerequisite for any modicum that it be worthy of original thought – just at least a modicum of new thought beyond mirroring the influences of the past week. Gödel, Escher Bach’s recursive wonder at work again.


A few days later adds a few more items:

Addendum #1 – Sounds like there is dispute on Mirror Neurons – but the detractors still emphatically support the idea that there is innate biological desire to mirror, just not dedicated mirroring neurons (src: https://www.amazon.com/Myth-Mirror-Neurons-Neuroscience-Communication/dp/0393089614)

Addendum #2 – Ironically there is an article in the Economist just this week on this topic – particularly Part One. Here is an interesting excerpt:

Deceit of power

Thomas Gilovich of Cornell shows how fake news, cognition bias and assuming that people are telling the truth interact to make it easier to believe lies. If you want to believe a thing, he argues (that is, a lie that supports your preconceived ideas), you ask yourself: “Can I believe it?” A single study or comment online is usually enough to give you permission to hold this belief, even if it is bogus. But if you do not want to believe something (because it contradicts your settled opinions) you are more likely to ask: “Must I believe it?” Then, one apparently reputable statement on the other side will satisfy you. That may be why so many climate sceptics manage to cling to their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Activists point out that 99% of scientists believe the Earth is warming up because of human actions. But people who doubt the reality of climate change listen to the other 1%.

You might expect (or hope) that thoughtful people would be more amenable to the force of fact-based evidence than most. Alas, no. According to David Perkins of Harvard University, the brighter people are, the more deftly they can conjure up post-hoc justifications for arguments that back their own side. Brainboxes are as likely as anyone else to ignore facts which support their foes. John Maynard Keynes, a (famously intelligent) British economist, is said to have asked someone: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” If they were honest, most would reply: “I stick to my guns.”