Stabilizing Groups with Too Much Friction
You have all the ingredients that lead to cognitive friction. You have all the tension that can put you in the zone of possibility. How do you stabilize a group that has too much of that? I'm gonna start this segment by telling a story about a time when I woke up on a strange couch in south Philly. So I was in a bad place at this time in my life. This was several years ago. Went out with friends, I was in Philly, and was sort of medicating my problems. The last thing I remember is drinking a thing called a mind eraser. It was a cocktail at some bar. And fun fact, a mind eraser erases your mind. Next thing I remember, I'm waking up on a couch in south Philly. I look around, I'm a journalist, I'm trained to bear it out, things, I determine this is not my friend's couch, so I leave. And I'm walking, it's like six a.m. I'm walking through south Philly, like where am I? I have conference I gotta go to. And stop by a Starbucks, to kind of sit down and clear my head. Order a tea, sitting at t...
his Starbucks. The only other person at the Starbucks besides me and the barista is this hulking, heaping homeless guy with these really long fingernails, sitting in the corner, kind of across the Starbucks from me. Not someone I would make friends with. Not someone I would ever really say hi to or care about, other than the kind of systemic problem of homelessness. Not someone that I wanna hang out with. Scary, stinky, big homeless man. And he's sitting across the Starbucks from me, and he's making eye contact with me. And as soon as I make eye contact with him, he goes like this. Looks down, and on his table is a grimy old chess set. And makes eye contact, does that. I'm like, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, I look over, and he's still making eye contact, and he's does that again. And so blame on the hangover or the heartache or whatever, I find myself walking across the Starbucks to sit down to play with him. Now hang on to that story. I wanna tell a story about Jewish immigrants in Argentina. We've been talking about immigrant cities, how they have fear and tension. At the turn of the century, turn of the 20th century, Buenos Aires become this hub for immigration from Europe. And it turns out that, Buenos Aires, aside from New York City, is the number one city in the world that has the most immigrants ever in history. This was the time when a flood of immigrants came in. They wanted to get more people to pay taxes and till the land, and all of that, so they issued free tickets to anyone from Europe that wanted to move to Argentina. Turns out that Argentina is dope, so they all sent word back to their families, and the immigrants started flooding in. This was great, everyone loved this, until the Jews started moving in. And then, the local Argentinians started getting nervous. And then, Muslims started moving in, and they started getting more nervous. The headlines in the newspapers of those days started saying things like, "Are we becoming a Semitic Republic?" "What are we gonna do about this problem?" Not good if you are Jewish or Muslim trying to live, make a life for yourself in this land of opportunity. And there were a few things that started happening. You can imagine you now have embedded friction, cognitive friction in this city, and also tension and fear and all that. And the options you have if you're worried about this are you avoid these people. You put them in their own neighborhoods, which they started doing. You destroy these people, you do what Hitler did not too many years later. And you turn people against them. Or you figure out how to get along. Figure out how to actually work together despite your differences, maybe even because of your differences. So hang on to that story, and I'm gonna tell a story about the most diverse group of nerds you ever heard of. So this group of nerds came together a few years ago to work on a big project together. They are from Asia, Australia, Europe, all corners of the United States. One was a traveling salesman. One was a university lecturer. One was a city bus driver. One was a high school student. One was the wife of a soldier who was fighting in Iraq. There's a commercial airline pilot. There was a surgeon. There's a pizza delivery guy. They all came together to work on a project. So what could possibly be the project that could bring that kind of diverse group together? Where on Earth would that happen? It turns out it's not on Earth, it was in a place called Azeroth in World of Warcraft. So this was a guild who did not know each other, but they all were part of the same guild, the same crew of World of Warcraft, and when I write about this, I read about a particular task they work on, it was the Serpentshrine Cavern, where they had to defeat Hydross the Unstable. They all had to work together with all their different characters. And they only knew each other's voices, or their personas, they didn't know who each other were, but they were working on this project together, and they defeated Hydross the Unstable, I don't know if that's him or not, I have no idea. But there's a researcher, university researcher, who was one of the members of this crew, and what she was researching was the power of play to bring together people who would normally have no business working with each other. Who might pass each other on the street and never say hi. Might pass each other on the street and be nervous about each other. Turns out that human beings are built, that our brains are built with this sort of built in filter system that was really important to us when we were surviving around campfires, but not very helpful, in fact the opposite of helpful, in a world where we live on top of each other. When we have the internet and airplanes. So our brains, any person that you encounter who's new, who you don't know, your brain immediately tries to put them in a category called the in group. Which is like the safe group. They are your tribe, you can turn your back on them, and they won't kill you probably. Or the out group, which is a question mark. This is someone who might be helpful to you, but they also might murder you to take your Woolley Mammoth stake. And the out group, basically anyone was doesn't look, act, talk, or think like you. So someone who you grew up with, or looks like and acts like someone you grew up with, could be part of your tribe. Your brain will say, okay, they're safe. And subconsciously you're gonna treat them a little differently, be less scared of them than someone in your out group. In this World of Warcraft game, all sorts of people from each other's out groups all banded together to work on defeating Hydross the Unstable. And some of the members of this group, there's actually one of them that I didn't mention was actually a soldier in Afghanistan, and he would play in his break time, whenever he's able to, and he said that, he told this researcher that he played the game because it helped ease the tension. Helped ease the pressure that he felt and the anxiety that he felt when he was at war. Even though this is a war game, you're fighting and killing monsters. Turns out that all the people that play this game, that's what's happening. There's this thing that psychologists call the magic circle that happens when we play games. The magic circle is basically a game, or competition, or play, is simulating an anxious situation, a situation of anxiety. So you're fighting monsters, if that was real, that would be terrifying. But since it's not real, your brain says, oh this is fun. And we're gonna laugh, and we're gonna feel good, and have endorphins and all of that because it's safe. And the same thing with any kind of game that you play. The same thing with joking, laughter. The prevailing theory of humor is something called the benign violation theory, which means that the setup of the joke, or the thing that's funny, is something that is a violation of what should happen. Potentially even something very dangerous, but when it is rendered benign, then it's funny. So, I remember my buddy Jason on a skateboard, trying to skateboard underneath the garage door that was halfway up, standing up too early and hitting his head and falling down, and we all laughed because it's hilarious. If he had broken his neck, we would not have laughed. Right, the violation was benign, so it was funny. This is how our brains help us to ease tension. To ease pressure when we think that the situation is gonna be hard or hurtful. The magic circle, what it does, is it turns out that anyone that you're playing the game with, whether it's in competition, or whether they're on your team, you end the simulation of anxiety having put them in your in group. This doesn't always last forever, but at least for a period of time, your brain sees them as safe, because you've been playing, and we know that play is not real. They've done all these studies, psychologists, where they show people faces of people who are from their out group, so they show white people black and brown faces, they show black and brown people white faces, and they measure their brain's fear center. And so the instant before your logical grown up brain can sort of squash down, like I shouldn't be afraid of this person, this is fine, they measure the instant reaction of your brain saying, could be a threat. And what they find is when they have people play with people who are not like them, of different skin colors, or even if they tell them, the person you're about to see on the screen is your teammate in a basketball game, the fear center doesn't light up nearly as much, nearly as often. So this magic circle is magic because it turns out that play is our way of easing a tension. So when we look at the zone of possibility, one way to pull ourselves off of that cliff from destruction. When we have all theses ingredients, but our brains are afraid of the differences, of the creativity, of whatever it is that could be risky to us. We just play with each other, it'll actually subconsciously help us to stabilize. So this is, when I went down this rabbit hole, I encountered two words that I never thought I would see put together, and those words are rat tickling. Never thought in my life I would hear someone utter the words tickling rats, but I did. Professors at Northwestern University the last few years have been studying tickling rats. 'Cause what they've found is, what they're working on really, is that when rats are depressed, when anyone's depressed, it's not that you're sad, it's that you actually can't imagine a better future. You can't imagine an outcome where you're gonna be okay. And so what they do is they get rats depressed, and then they tickle them to make them laugh, and rats that are depressed, when they put them in a room that has an electric floor, and it shocks them, the depressed rats will just sit there and get shocked, even if the door is open. Yeah, this is horrible, right. Rats that are not depressed, they put them in a room, door's open, the floor gets electrocuted, they are out of there. The depressed rats sit there, they just can't see the open door. But when they get the rats depressed, and then they tickle them, the rats laugh, and then they run out the door. So it turns out that for a brief amount of time, laughing, having fun, you're laughing 'cause it's like this horrible thing I'm describing, 'cause it's actually kind of rendered okay. And so it turns out that inside of our brains, the more that we play, the more that we have fun with people, or with ourselves, the more neural pathways form that reinforce the idea that there's a future out there that's not so scary, and it doesn't happen for very long, the effect doesn't last forever, but the more you do it, the more the effect can last. So the story of how Argentina started accepting Jewish immigrants is not too dissimilar from the story of this gang of people playing World of Warcraft. All these people from different parts of the world have no business working together according to their lizard brains that are afraid of people who are not like them. Argentina started accepting Jewish immigrants when Jewish kids started playing soccer. Soccer was the unofficial religion of Argentina. It superseded Christianity. So what happened is soccer at first was sort of this game of the elites. They played it in these manicured fields. It came from Ireland and England. And this is what the aristocracy played. But after a while, soccer kind of made its way to the streets. And in order to be a true Argentino, the thing that they said that was kind of like the trope, if you wanted to really belong here, you had to be gaucho, which is sort of this Marlboro man cowboy thing. The gaucho, that was like, if you were not from here, then you were not really Argentinian, because you had to be gaucho, that's what it meant. To be part of this in group. And gauchos were Christian, and that was the thing, and this is not, this is sort of subconsciously how people thought of this scenario. So the people who believe things that we don't understand move in, and we wanna put them in their own neighborhoods, because they're not gaucho, and they're not like us, and maybe they're gonna get voting power and change things, and who knows. But when soccer made its way from the upper classes to the street, and Argentinian kids, kids of gaucho, started playing soccer with Jewish kids in the street, they suddenly had something to, not only bond over together, and to do together, but they would come home after playing soccer having made friends with the kids whose parents believe in a different religion. And this happened in every major immigrant city. Latin America was swept with soccer. Mexico City, Sao Paulo, all these places, people started playing soccer, and in line with the uptick in playing soccer came a decrease in fear of immigrants. But no place on earth did this happen more than in Buenos Aires in Argentina. It turns out that there are more soccer clubs, and more people per capita play soccer in Buenos Aires, Argentina than any place on earth by a large margin. So even though we saw this effect of depressurizing the tension in Sao Paulo and Mexico City, it wasn't nearly as pronounced as here, because there was just more playing happening. So this brings me back to me and the homeless man. This slide is to represent what happened. The homeless man destroyed me in chess. He's a scary looking dude. And his fingernails, like long, curly fingernails. And he didn't speak the whole time. I tried to nervously make small talk while I'm playing chess with him. And he was good, I'm pretty good at chess, but he was really good. He put me in check, and instead of saying check, he would make a check mark with his gross fingernail. And when I would make a move that was incorrect, you know, I made a couple mistakes, he would look at me, look down, look down, and the whites of his eyes are three times the size, or whatever, I could tell what he was doing, even though he can't speak. And oh, I made a mistake. So I'm trying to talk to him, and I'm nervous, but halfway through this game, I'm like, I love this guy. He was, I was not nervous the longer we played, and he was fun, and the gross fingernails were gross, but I love this check thing. And by the end of the game, he's so good at chess, he destroys me. By the end of the game, I'm in such a better mood after this weird night where I'm not in a good place, and I wake up on a strange couch, and I'm feeling like an idiot, and I'm so happy by the end of this game. And so I get out my wallet after the game, 'cause I assume this is what it is, he wants money. And I hand him a five-dollar bill, and he goes like this. Dismisses the five-dollar bill back to my wallet. So I'm like, well I gotta, can you at least tell me your name, thank you. But I gotta know your name. And so he reaches out his curly fingernailed hand to shake my hand, and says the only words I ever heard him say, and probably ever will, in an octave much higher than I thought. He says, "Call me grandmaster." And then I literally said, I said, if I knew your name was grandmaster I wouldn't have played this game of chess with you. And then I left. But I have the feeling, if I were to see him on the street, I would talk to him. I would not be afraid of him, even though he looked very scary. I have the feeling that I would make an effort to include him if there was some scenario in which that was an option. And so even that, just this one chess game, I'm not, I'm still afraid of scary looking people, but just because we played together actually depressurized that friction. There's all sorts of amazing examples of this in corporate scenarios. I studied another merger between two companies where there was a lot of tension. Dissimilar geographically, different countries and all of that. And the woman who ended up being the CEO of the merger, she understood this principal. Depressurizing the tension that could get in the way of them finding this synergy. And so she moved people from one office to another. She mixed people in the offices, and then encouraged this series of games, competitions, and kind of instilled humor across the whole thing, and anything that was a point of tension, she would dress up in a costume and address it. She did this company event where she showed up as Cruella Deville, and talked about how she was here to destroy the company for reason X, Y, and Z that everyone was worried about. And everyone laughing, they're like, okay we can talk about this now. We can actually push further into this zone of friction, debate the different things that we're worried about, because we've acknowledged it and we've depressurized it. And they orchestrated all of these competitions in her office, and she made teams rotate, and always do these series of challenges together that, realizing that if they played together, if they had fun together, then they could then address the things that were hard and get the most out of their relationships, which is pretty cool. Another reason to do improv comedy as a group. To learn to work together, and to depressurize that.