Mirror Neurons: A Reckoning
How I learned to stop unconsciously agreeing with things I don't believe
A quick reminder that you can listen to this essay, and my entire Monday Memo, on Womancake’s brand-new podcast, only for paid subscribers. In this week’s episode I talk about brand-new brain science that can lead us toward healthy aging, how to get over the fear of becoming more visible to your community, and offer a tip about how to help other women do the same:
There is a certain scrap of human communication that never fails to make me bristle. It’s called the Sullivan Nod. It was invented by a restaurateur who wanted a method of pushing menu items to customers without being overbearing. He taught his waitstaff to nod at certain items when they recited the list of daily specials, which creates an unconscious but powerful inclination toward that particular item in the customer’s mind.
The Sullivan Nod has something like a 60% rate of success, likely due to the effect of so-called mirror neurons, the kind of co-creative, co-regulating brain activity that causes people to unconsciously mirror each other’s body language, gestures, and even emotions. A nod is especially persuasive and hard to resist. In short, if your waiter nods at something on the specials list, you’re 60% more likely to order that item, or, in a social context, to indicate agreement with what a nodder is saying by nodding back.
Anecdotally, I’ve observed that all of us are subject to this effect, even those who would claim immunity. During my time as a young theater student in New York City, I went on dates in high-end restaurants with men whose vanity about their annual earnings manifested in aggressive waitstaff bullying. This behavior included things like rejecting the waiter’s wine suggestion not once but twice, sending them back to the kitchen for a better bottle, and snapping at the room to summon the waiter again. Yet despite all their haughty and contemptuous bullshit, most of these men were quite susceptible to the Sullivan Nod, often ordering nodded-at menu items that they previously claimed to dislike. Once the choice was made and the menus handed over, they would sit back and sigh contentedly, certain that they had affected complete control over the situation, utterly unaware that they had been skillfully manipulated.
I didn’t go on many of these dates because I found them unbearable (though they proved instructive in the gob-smacking ways of the 1%). But I had another experience of the Sullivan Nod in New York that shocked me awake when I was 18 years old, and shone a light on human behavior and the ways that we unconsciously affect each other’s opinions, experiences and judgements, sometimes to devastating effect.
It happened directly after a violent mugging that occurred as I was walking home from a party late at night with a friend (greater detail about this incident here). Once it was done, my friend and I raced across the street to a building with a doorman, who listened to our plight and called the police immediately. The cops started right in with questions, and the very first one came with a Sullivan Nod: Were the attackers Black?
But that wasn’t all. As the week unfolded and news of the mugging spread to my fellow theater students, many of them posed the same question in the same way. My friend and I attended a single session with the school counselor, who did the same thing. In fact, almost every person that found out about the mugging asked us the same question with the same nod of their head.
This, I saw clearly for the first time, is how racism thrives in our social world: not just through direct language, but in subtle and non-verbal insinuations and implications (sometimes referred to as microaggressions) that are harder to quantify, but can add up to something equally harmful. In this case, the combination of the question and the nod projected an assumption that Black people were responsible for what happened to my friend and I, and another assumption that we would play along with this narrative.
After awhile I stopped talking about the mugging, which seemed like the best way to shut down the racist attitudes that plagued almost every dialogue. But I regret not pushing back on it, though back then I didn’t have a single clue how to engage someone in that conversation.
This, I saw clearly for the first time, is how racism thrives in our social world: not just through direct language, but in subtle and non-verbal insinuations and implications (sometimes referred to as microaggressions) that are harder to quantify, but can add up to something equally harmful.
Conversations about racism are challenging under the best of circumstances. I certainly don’t have it all figured out, but I believe it’s a skill worth pursuing. I found an excellent guide book in the form of, “So You Want to Talk About Race”, by the acclaimed author and journalist Ijeoma Oluo.
The book is written in a straightforward but descriptive style, with admirable personal candor. Oluo offers advice about how to converse on topics of race without becoming defensive or shutting down. She uses stories from her own life, including her experiences as the daughter of a Nigerian father and a white mother, to illustrate ways that conversations can promote true understanding, or go completely awry. She also answers many of the questions about race that she receives on social media and elsewhere, using a combination of personal anecdotes, American (and global) racial history, and statistical data that is highly compelling and instructive.
Oluo doesn’t let you off easy, but she is not a scold. She’s an intelligent, insightful, and compassionate guide who believes each of us is accountable for our part in perpetuating systemic racism. Reading her book made me recognize that I have a long way to go in my understanding of this issue. It also made me much more aware of how subtle and insidious everyday racism can be. Seeing the world through her eyes is powerful (by the way, she also has a brand-new book called, “Be A Revolution: How Everyday People Are Fighting Oppression and Changing the World-And How You Can, Too” and it’s available now!).
I don’t ever want to nod along unconsciously when someone tries to rope me into a conversation that is tinged with racism. Oluo’s book taught me how to work toward a productive dialogue that leaves room for truth and understanding to bloom. I’m still learning, and I plan to continue as long as I live. If you’re nodding, go and buy her book!