In my town, each month one of the movie theatres has been playing old classic movies as well was some that were popular in the past decade. A few weeks ago I went to see Valkyrie on a particularly wide screen.

This theatre is unique in our area because when you purchase your ticket, you reserve a specific seat in the theatre, and boy what a seat it is! Leather, reclining, etc. Pretty nice for a guy who remembers when the seats didn’t do anything but fold down. Funny how something simple like that can make one very happy.

Anyway, for what seemed to be an eternity, but what was actually 30 minutes, they ran shorts that related in one way or another to the movie. They usually run previews for upcoming movies but for this one, they played clips from newsreels and documentaries about Hitler and the Third Reich’s rise to power.

I am something of an amateur historian so this was particularly interesting to me. One of the clips addressed a time when Hitler had fallen out of favor, and yet was able to regain power because of the general economic conditions of Germany. Hitler had successfully capitalized on the dissatisfaction of the German people and was able to drive home his message of Aryan superiority and to successfully demonize numerous groups—not the least of which were the Jews—as the sources of evil in their world.

We are today seeing growing evidence that when people feel anxious or worried they try and regain their balance, particularly psychological balance, by trying to make their world at least feel more understandable and pleasant.


One way that folks try to keep things pleasant is by hanging on more strongly than usual to the norms of their culture, how things have always been. When they grab tightly to those standards, people who don’t match their imagined “correct” way tend to get punished for their transgression. These punishments are often more serious than when people feel balance in their world. Think of contemporary politics; left or right, the pattern is the same.

One way that folks try to

keep things pleasant is by

hanging on more strongly

than usual to the norms of

their culture,

how things

have always been.

In an earlier blog, I wrote about how being afraid of dying can affect behavior. When people are reminded of their own mortality, the likelihood of being willing to punish people who have morally misbehaved escalates.  By way of example, one study asked participants to imagine themselves as a judge setting bail for a person accused of prostitution. In these situations, people reminded of their own mortality set higher bail than folks who had not been reminded of their own death.

Basically, anything that unsettles a person can result in this effect.

An ingenious version of this was demonstrated by Travis Proulx and Steven Heine in a paper published in the December, 2008 issue of Psychological Science.

They built on a really fascinating study done in 1998 that focused on people identifying changes to/in people around them. What they did was have an experimenter approach a person on the street with a map and ask for directions. Simple, yes? As the subject was giving directions to the experimenter, laborers moving a door cut right in between them, completely blocking the view of the subject. The experimenter in that moment smoothly switched places with the person holding the rear of the door so that the person on the street was now giving directions to a new person.

Something like 80% of people in this situation failed to notice that they were talking to a completely different person.

Here is the interesting thing. Even though the subject reported that they failed to notice that experimenters had been switched, there was some evidence that the people were “unsettled” by the experience. What I mean is that they had a “feeling” that something was wrong, but were unable to identify just exactly what the problem was, i.e., the change in experimenter.

In another experiment done by the same research team, the subject was met at the lab by the experimenter. After the study had begun, the experimenter left the room to retrieve some stuff for the study and was replaced by another experimenter dressed the same way. Guess what; just as in the other experiment, very few people consciously noticed the switch.

Then the real experiment began. After the switch out, people were asked to set the bail level for a prostitute as part of the experiment. The group that experienced the switch set a noticeably higher bail amount than a control group with no switch. In later studies, the experimenters managed some clever maneuverings to demonstrate clearly that the effect of the higher bail had to do with the people feeling unsettled.

So, you might ask…what does this have to do with me, much less Nazi Germany in the late 1930s?

Well, in difficult or challenging times, people work really hard to achieve psychological balance. When, ultimately, they can’t control their circumstances, they control their interpretation of the circumstances. This helps them feel like the world makes sense, even when it doesn’t. Hanging on firmly to social and cultural standards, or norms, is one way of trying to make sense of the world. “The way we do it is the way everyone should do it!”

In difficult or challenging times,

people work really hard

to achieve psychological balance.

This point was demonstrated historically and with research, is of particular importance in these contentious times. People suffering from economic or cultural problems are uniquely vulnerable to people who try to capitalize on the misery and peoples’ deep desire to make their world understandable. Do you see, regardless of your personal politics, how that thought matters today?

Because in the final analysis, we are one.

What say you?.  Are you seeing the changes going in your life? Would you like to notice more?

Give me a call so we can talk about it… schedule a time for a call and let’s give it a go.


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Header Photo: OSWIECIM, POLAND – APRIL 16, 2015: International Holocaust Remembrance Day . Annually people from the all the world meets on the March of the Living in german Concentration Camp in Auschwitz Birkenau. Poland

Proulx, T. & Heine, S., The Case of the Transmogrifying Experimenter


Simons D. & Levin, D., Failure to detect changes to people in a real world interaction

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