Going beyond normalcy

by Flemming Funch, 8 August 1995.

There is an interesting psychological phenomenon in that people tend to base their concept of reality on totally unrelated information that they previously have been presented with.

None of us understand all details about everything going on around us. Since we usually don't have the time or willingness to sit down and do so, we will make guesses on how things work. We will usually base those guesses on what other people seem to think or what information is available to us.

I read about a study (I'm sorry but I forgot where) in which a number of people one by one were given a statement and then immediately asked a question which isn't directly related to the statement. For example, I say "50,000 people get killed in car accidents every year. How many people do you think get killed in accidents in their kitchen?" Most people will give a large number, in the tens of thousands. If instead I said: "17 Americans got killed by falling bricks last year. How many do you think got killed in accidents in their kitchen?" they would on the average give a much smaller number.

In other words, the typical person will let their answers be "seeded" or influenced by totally unrelated information they have been presented with.

In part I think that has something to do with that we want the world to make sense and be consistent and harmoniously proportioned. And when it isn't, we mentally cover up the discrepancies and pretend that things fit together. Even when they don't.

Most humans work hard on trying to appear normal. We try to do what seems to be the proper thing to do in the circles we move in. And we don't re-examine everything every day, we mostly do what is familiar, what we've done before, and what other people around us are doing.

I guess that is some kind of lemming principle. "If everybody else is going to work and watching TV and voting for the Republicans or Democrats, then that must be the thing to do". Without examining the hidden assumptions, one simply starts moving around within the frame one is supplied with. And even if one decides to break the norm and do something totally new and different, one is likely to relate that to the perceived norm. That is, one might become self-employed, might design a unique home entertainment system in one's living room, and one might vote for Ross Perot. But one still does that within the same frame as everybody else. Still going to the same kind of supermarkets, same kind of schools, still using the same kinds of money, still supporting the same political system, and so forth.

It is a common gag on "Candid Camera" shows to ask random people on the street to do something that is very off-the-wall, but which has been framed for them so as to appear perfectly normal. Like, you get a stranger to hold your elephant while you run a short errand, or you get somebody to stick their finger in a wall because "there is a leak". And then you walk away and let the hidden camera watch these poor people as they try to stand there and pretend that it is perfectly normal what they are doing. You will usually artificially increase their problems with the task at hand, for added humourous effect. That is, the elephant will get unruly, or new "leaks" will appear in the wall. And then you watch the victims defending the normalcy of what they do, even as it gets wilder and wilder. They are likely to even recruit other people to put their fingers in the wall.

Now, the reason I am bringing it up here is to point out that there is always a frame of reference, a set of unspoken assumptions, preconceived expectations and a norm for normalcy, in just about any situation you care to examine.

To examine a whole system we need to be aware of these things, and become able to go beyond them. Without the ability to look beyond assumptions we easily get sucked into the internal "normalcy" of any given system. That is, any system will appear perfectly normal and logical to people who've used it and lived in it for a while and who've lost sight of any alternatives. And the system's problems appear as "the way it has to be".

Logic is based on the initial acceptance of certain, often largely unspoken, assumptions. That is, if I have accepted that I need a car to go somewhere, and a car needs gas, and I notice that I don't have any more gas, then it is of course LOGICAL that I go get some gas. And if I somehow get the idea that cars shouldn't ought to need fuel and I start telling people about it, a lot of people would say that that is stupid, OF COURSE cars need fuel, "otherwise how are they going to drive?".

Anything is logical if you accept its pre-supposed assumptions. If I accept that somebody sells me an appliance that doesn't work before I connect it to an electricity source, then it is of course logical that I need to be a customer of the electricity company for the lifetime of this product. If I assume that the American political system is unchangeable, and that there are only two parties, then it is logical that I pick the one of the candidates offered that looks like the nicest person on TV, even though none of them have my best interests in mind.

The problem is that we are seeded with images of what is normal, what is expected, what the proper range of things are, and what people usually do. And even if these images don't directly have any authority over our personal choices, they will certainly influence them.

The more we use the status quo and the pictures of it as input to tell us how things ARE, the more it gets cemented in. If we have made very solid agreements on what is normal and real, then we don't even react when somebody turns it into a state law and starts prosecuting people who aren't doing things the normal way.

Now then, what when we recognize that things aren't really working right and we want to change them?

If we aren't aware of our hidden assumptions, we will most likely try to solve our dysfunctional systems with themselves. That is, we will try to use the inner logic of the system to change the system. We will try to handle unemployment by creating more jobs, or we try to handle the inefficiency of the government by voting on somebody else the next time. None of which does anything fundamental about the system that doesn't work.

As Einstein said, you can't solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that created it.

A new paradigm is not logical within the thinking of the old paradigm. A new paradigm is not derived from the mechanics of the old. A discontinuous jump is required.

We don't have to let our attempted solutions be seeded by the images of the old problems. Then we are likely to propose solutions that are very similar to the problems themselves, having the same inherent problems.

If you need to have your mind jump-started by something at all, it would probably be more useful to seed it with concepts that already work extremely well, rather than with unsolvable problems. Or, you can start with images totally unrelated to the problems at hand, and you might get constructive ideas that are totally new and unexpected.

If you are looking for a better future, you can't count on seeing it on TV, being taught about it in school, or having it passed as a law by congress. You have a much better chance by examining and re-evaluating the basic assumptions that underlie all these very "normal" institutions.

It can be a very valuable and rare ability to see the ridiculousness in the systems that everybody else regard as perfectly normal.

- Flemming