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Brainwashing before our eyes

Solomon Asch performed some exceptional psychology experiments in the 1950s. His experiments showed the power of conformity when people sometimes agree with a group’s opinion, even when shown evidence the group is wrong.

In the 1950s, Asch could not determine whether his subjects consciously changed their views or whether social cues unconsciously skewed their perception.

In 2005, Gregory Berns answered this question by repeating Asch’s experiment with brain scans. Berns found the brain’s visual center changed what it perceived to fit with the group opinion before passing this information to the reasoning part of the brain. So, people “see” evidence that doesn’t exist and do not know their perception is false.

And as this process is common, it has crucial practical implications for all of us.

For instance, if self-deception is unconscious, we must choose our company carefully. We safeguard our thinking by mixing with skeptical people who make evidence-based decisions and only use reputable sources.

We must avoid the company of the deceived. A radio or TV constantly blaring nonsense might be enough to poison a mind. It also means we must show compassion when talking to climate, vaccine, or election deniers because, unconsciously, their brains may have “shown” them evidence that does not exist.

Let’s not assume people are brainwashed when all it takes for most of us is a light rinse.

Simon Smith



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