Straw Asch

[From: Bruce Nevin (Tue 931123 10:58:10 EST)]

Rick Marken (931122.1300) --

Rick, "the beast" is a chimaera, an imagined monstrosity that never
really existed. But people control imagined perceptions all the time.
Communication cannot happen without it.


Ignore the following paragraph, Rick. You won't see its relevance. Skip
to the text following the next demarcation line like the above one.

I imagine your intentions on the basis of my perceptions of what you do.
I imagine what you must mean by doing that. We may call this my
interpretation of your deeds. I do something based on my interpretation
of what you did. You imagine what my intentions must be, on the basis of
your perceptions of what I do. Leaving out a lot of back-and-forth
detail, if you are unable to interpret what I did as a suitable response,
you may suppose you haven't adequately got my attention. Or you may
guess at my interpretation--you may try to imagine what I imagine you
intend by what you have been doing. You may then do something with the
intent of my rejecting the "wrong" interpretation and understanding the
intended interpretation.

Here's a little story by a woman named Pamela L. Travers. I have adapted
it from Paul Watzlawick's little book, _How Real is Real?_, from which I
have been quoting lately.

Mary, an English nanny, has taken her two little charges, Jane and
Michael, to a gingerbread shop owned by Mrs. Corry, a tiny, witchlike old
woman with two large, sad daughters, Fannie and Annie. The following
conversation develops:

        "I suppose, my dear"--she turned to Mary, whom she appeared to know
    very well--"I suppose you've come for some gingerbread?"
        "That's right, Mrs. Corry," said Mary politely.
        "Good. Have Fannie and Annie given you any?" She looked at Jane and
    Michael as she said this.
        "No, Mother," said Miss Fannie meekly.
        "We were just going to, Mother--" began Miss Annie in a frightened
        At that Mrs. Corry drew herself up to her full height and regarded
    her gigantic daughters furiously. Then she said in a soft, fierce,
    terrifying voice:
        "Just going to? Oh, _indeed_! That is very interesting. And who,
    may I ask, Annie, gave you permission to give away my gingerbread--?"
        "Nobody, Mother. And I didn't give it away. I only thought--"
        "You only thought! That is _very_ kind of you. But I will thank you
    not to think. _I_ can do all the thinking that is necessary here!" said
    Mrs. Corry in her soft, terrible voice. Then she burst into a harsh
    cackle of laughter. "Look at her! Just look at her! Cowardy-custard!
    Crybaby!" she shrieked, pointing her knotty finger at her daughter.
        Jane and Michael turned and saw a large tear coursing down Miss
    Annie's huge, sad face, and they did not like to say anything, for, in
    spite of her tininess, Mrs. Corry made them feel rather small and

    (Watzlawick, op. cit. 16-17)

Do you see any fangs? They're not _really_ there of course. Annie only
imagines that she ought to please her mother, she only imagines that very
much undesired consequences will follow if she fails to please her. She
only imagines that Mrs. Corrie's question while looking at Jane and
Michael implied that her daughters ought to have given the children some
gingerbread. She only imagines that if she had said "No, Mother. We
were waiting for you to tell us to." Mrs. Corrie would have ridiculed her
for being unable to think for herself "What do I keep you great
good-for-nothing girls here for! I should have sent you off as
apprentices to that peddler!" (or some such threat)--her memories of
other occasions are perhaps an unsound basis for such imaginings. But
because of such imaginings (and memories)--well, you see in the story how
Mrs. Corrie discredits Annie's actions, then her thinking, and then her
feelings in swift succession. No matter what Annie does, or thinks, or
feels, she is wrong. Not merely factually wrong or mistaken,
existentially wrong, but even to disappear (which she might well wish to
do) would be a grievous wrong to her mother, who after all does need her,
as they both indeed do know.

    Let us not make the mistake of shrugging off this story because it is
    fiction, and children's fiction to boot. Research into the
    communication styles of families with a member who has been diagnosed
    as psychiatrically disturbed or into larger human conflicts shows
    that this pattern appears very frequently [refs omitted].
                                                    op.cit. 18.

how do you know how many variables were disturbed in the Asch study?
How do you know how many variables are disturbed in natural social

In the Asch study, the subject and the accomplices were unknown to each
other. Since they anticipated no future contact or occasions for
cooperation, the process and outcome of the study could have no effect on
their future relations. The subject's self-image and his imaginings of
how the others perceived him were "on the line" for the duration of the
experiment, but any loss of face would be only a private memory after the
experiment, unknown to any persons whose image of him mattered to the
subject. In general, the perceptions that the subject controlled for the
experiment would have no bearing whatsoever on anything that mattered to
the subject after the experiment. All that might change in the subject's
perceptual universe is the subject's private self-image. And that, of
course, is imaginary. A chimaera. Not really there.

A little thought experiment. I turn to the person sitting next to me on
the subway. I say "What you think and say doesn't matter." He looks
puzzled. In some instances, he turns his eyes away and ignores me. In
some instances, a person (understanding the words) may say something like
"Yeah, these politicians are all alike!" and turn back to his paper.
Later in the evening, I turn to my wife, and with the same expression and
intonation say the same thing: "What you think and say doesn't matter."
The conversation that follows is very different. Before it has gone too
far, I confess that my saying this had been an experiment. I try to
explain that it was to demonstrate to Rick Marken that more controlled
perceptions are involved in communication between intimates than are
involved in anonymous communication, and that the perceptions that the
intimates have of their relationship matter a great deal to them. "Any
fool could see that!" she says. Among other things that she says.

I have not carried out this experiment, and probably will not. One
reason that I will not is that I imagine that my wife would imagine that
I was valuing an experiment more than our relationship, and I imagine
that she would not like my objectifying her as a "subject" in an
experiment. That sentence is a vague gesture in the direction of the
issues involved, hopefully sufficient for you to imagine what am
imagining--a mere chimaera because of which I inhibit myself from doing
the experiment as described. But you can do it if you like. After all,
it's all imaginary. Or maybe your wife is used to all kinds of off the
wall stuff from you. That might be. But then there is the risk of her
saying "oh, this is another of Rick's PCT experiments." Then she
wouldn't take it as seriously. At the risk of wrapping up a little
self-sealing premise, here, we have to admit that this sort of
expectation does present a difficulty. Like Minsky's daughter saying to
the visiting psychologist "Oh you'll have to ask my brother. He's older.
I haven't got volume conservation yet." No, you'd have to do it with
someone whose relationship with you matters a good deal to you both. How
about your boss? Or better yet, her or his boss.

I say again that Bill is right:

Bill Powers (931122.1315 MST)

Comparing the experimental situation with a family situation is
unwarranted. In the experiment, the stooges (I presume) did not
pull out all the stops in trying to make the dissenter conform.
They didn't act as if the dissenter were mentally defective,
morally corrupt, or blasphemous. They didn't withhold privileges
or love or administer physical punishments. They didn't starve
the dissenter.

Nor did they withhold some aspect of their relationship to the subject
that mattered to the subject, and which they were able to control but the
subject was not able to control.

these influences are not simply factual differences. They
are differences that people care about, and often detest and
hate. The "stooges" don't simply act differently from the
dissenter. They go to work on the dissenter, linking all kinds of
needs of the dissenter to conformity. The abstract influence of
factual differences in behavior becomes a trivial aspect of the
situation. The explanation for the way dissenters behave is not
to be found in any innate desire to conform, but in the
dissenters' need to control many aspects of their lives that are
made difficult by other people who demand conformity and actively
try to force it into existence.

The essential point is that, despite the absence of such factors, 100% of
subjects showed signs of conflict between their own perceptions of the
task and their perceptions of those task perceptions being verified or
not by the other participants. It is true that in a remarkably high
percentage of cases, the subjects actually discounted the task
perceptions, but that is one extreme of a range of ways of dealing with
the conflict. Controlling a perception of what their fellow participants
were reporting was not part of the task. Yet all of them did that. And
all of them--100%--experienced the conflict. That is the point of the
experiment from a PCT point of view.

To make sense of the 37% (or 9%) who disobeyed instructions and ignored
their actual task perceptions in favor of agreement, we would have to do
additional experiments with them as individuals, and perhaps enquire into
their histories. Perhaps there was a Mrs. Corrie in their growing-up
experience. There must be some basis for their discounting what they
_do_ perceive in favor of what they imagine they _should_ perceive.

"Social pressure" is not the point. Learned dysfunction might be closer
to the mark.

I think that the line-length experiment is simply a
trivialization of a much more complex and interesting phenomenon.

Nah, no more than Tom's elegant handle-flipping PCT experiments
trivialize control. It is the misinterpretation, as though the
capitulation of some percentage of subjects were the point of it, that
trivializes the results. And this is because the significance of
conflict was not apparent to Asch and his students (and, presumably, the
anticipated and actual readers of his reports). And this in turn was
because none of them knew that behavior is the control of perceptions.


Four variations of a double bind and an example of countering it
(paraquoted from Paul Watzlawick, _How real is real?_ 18f):

A significant other punishes one for reporting or acting on certain
perceptions. One learns to distrust one's perceptions. Example: "an
alcoholic father demands that his children see him as a gentle, loving
parent, even or especially when he comes home drunk and threatens them
all with violence." The children learn to perceive reality as they
"should", that is, as the father defines it for them. As adults, they
find it very difficult to behave appropriately in many life situations
and may put a great deal of energy into determining how they "should" see
reality. Ignore the interpersonal context, and "his behavior would
satisfy the diagnostic criteria of schizophrenia."

A significant other expects one to have feelings different from those
actually experienced. One eventually feels guilty for being unable to
feel what one is told one ought to feel in order to be approved of by the
other person. This very feeling of guilt may be prohibited. "A dilemma
of this kind arises most frequently when a child's occasional normal
sadness (or disappointment or fatigue) is construed by a parent as a
silent imputation of parental failure. The parent typically reacts with
the message `after all we have done for you, you ought to be happy.'
Sadness thus becomes associated with badness and ingratitude. In his
frutless attempts not to feel unhappy, the child displays behavior which,
examined out of context, satisfies the diagnostic criteria of depression.
Depression also occurs when an individual feels, or is held, responsible
for something over which he has no control (e.g., marital conflict
between his parents, the illness or failure of a parent or sibling, or
his own inability to meet parental expectations that exceed his physical
and/or emotional resources)." [Have a look at the death of Holden
Caulfield's kid brother in _Catcher in the Rye_.]

A significant other gives injunctions that both demand and prohibit
certain actions. One can obey only by disobeying (and rebel only by
obeying). "The prototype of this is: `Do what I say, not what I would
like you to do.' This is the message given by a mother who wants her
teen-age son to be both law-abiding and a daredevil. The likely result
is behavior that, examined out of context, satisfies the social
definition of delinquency. Other examples are parents who place great
value on winning by any means, fair of foul, but tell the child that `one
should always be honest'; or a mother who begins to warn her daughter at
a very early age of the dangers and ugliness of sex, but insists that she
be `popular' with boys.

Perhaps the most frequent variant: somebody demands of another person
behavior that by its very nature must be spontaneous but now cannot be
because it has been demanded. `There is no way in which the spontaneous
fulfillment of a need can be elicited from another person without
creating this kind of self-defeating paradox. A wife who needs a sign of
affection from her husband eventually tells him, `I wish you would
sometimes bring me flowers.' The request is quite understandable, but by
making it, she has irreversibly ruined her chances of getting what she
wants: if her husband disregards her request, she will feel dissatified;
if he now brings her flowers, she will also be dissatisfied, because he
did not do it of his own accord."

The resolution of paradoxical situations "involves non-common sense and
absurd or even seemingly dishonest actions ..."

    Charles V ruled over an empire in which the sun did not set. This
    created fantastic communications problems for the officials of the Crown
    in the remote overseas possessions. They were supposed to carry out
    faithfully the imperial orders reaching them from Madrid, but often they
    could not, because the directives either were issued in crass ignorance
    of the local situation or arrived weeks if not months after being
    decreed, by which time they were largely obsolete. In Central America
    this dilemma led to a very pragmatic solution: _Se oedece pero no se
    cumple (One obeys but does not comply). Thanks to this recipe, the
    Central American possessions flourished, not not because but in spite of
    the imperial orders from the Escorial. Two centuries later this
    expedient was awarded official recognition under the reign of Empress
    Maria Theresa through the establishment of the Order of Maria Theresa.
    It remained Austria's highest military decoration until the end of World
    War I (and in the face of all logic, Hungary's even well into World War
    II). With refreshing absurdity it was reserved exclusively for officers
    who turned the tide of battle by taking matters into their own hands and
    actively disobeying orders Of course, if things went wrong, they were
    not decorated but court-martialled for disobedience. The Order of Maria
    Theresa is perhaps the supreme example of an official counterparadox,
    worthy of a nation whose attitude toward the slings and arrows of
    outrageous fortune has always been characterized the motto: the
    situation is hopeless but not serious.


In family therapy, one common form of paradoxical intervention is to
prescribe the symptom. What appears to happen is that, as hitherto
unconscious control becomes (by the therapist's prescription) control
with awareness, choice becomes possible.

There is more in Bateson's writings on the double bind, and in work of
Don Jackson, Jay Haley, and others in family therapy. (Haley was
enamored of the concept of social power, however--e.g. his book on the
power politics of Jesus.)


It may be that there is less here than meets the eye (Joyce Carol Oates'
comment about Nixon), but the "eye" nonetheless does meet real CEVs in
the mirror-world of perception. And some of them have fangs.