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About the cover

 

D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    March 2008

Breaking the Spell

How to snap out of the "mass-consensus reality trance" and take back control.

By Joanie Connors



"Mass-consensus reality trance" is a term that tries to explain the conformity-oriented thought fog that seems to deprive people in our culture of the ability to think for themselves. To be entranced in mass-consensus reality means that we follow mass-consensus trends in our lifestyles (clothing, personal care products, food, drinks) and in our ways of thinking and acting (what to buy, what entertainment to choose, how to spend our leisure time, whom to vote for, whom to admire and whom to believe) instead of using our own personal judgment. In effect, we become conforming followers who do what media "experts" and our peers tell us to do and who live in fear of being different.

The term "mass-consensus reality trance" has been traced to Bill Whelen, an artist who studied the Don Juan books by Carlos Castaneda and was last seen in the desert of southeast Arizona (and not heard from in several years). Don Juan taught a skill called "stopping the world" as a necessary step towards learning to "see," in order to be able to achieve true knowledge:

"People tell us from the time we are born that the world is such and such and so and so, and naturally we have no choice but to see the world the way people have been telling us it is. Seeing happens only when one sneaks between the worlds; the world of ordinary people and the world of sorcerers." (Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castaneda)

Why are we so easily swayed to think and act according to a mass consensus that we are fed, a consensus that is manipulated by the media? This social thought fog can be somewhat explained by several mechanisms of individual and group psychology, including innate learning processes, group think and media manipulation of the public.



Innate learning processes: Conditioning and habituation are inborn forms of learning that automatically occur in our brains as we try to make sense of our experiences. "Conditioning" means associating positive or negative values with phenomena based on early experiences with them. "Habituation" involves learning to accept things that we are repeatedly exposed to. Conditioning makes us instantaneously assess all that we experience in a dualistic way (good or bad) and habituation makes that assessment automatic — beyond our conscious control.

The processes of conditioning and habituation create instant neural paths that go from sensing phenomena to reacting to it with a positive or negative value. Soon this process becomes so automatic that we are not aware of it as we do it or of how we color our behavior and feelings according to the assessments we use.

Habituation and conditioning provide much of the power for stereotypes, prejudice and other negative reactions to our fellow human beings (including people in our families). When experience conditions us to assess people's worth (such as gender role expectations and ethnic stereotypes), we automatically adopt unconscious thinking patterns that shape everything we do. In mass-consensus reality trance, habituation and conditioning ensure we learn and accept media messages of what is good and bad in our worlds. By adulthood, this process leads us to be deeply stuck in trances of media addiction, consumerism and unthinking acceptance of world politics.

Habituation powers much of public apathy by negating the emotional impact of wars, corruption and environmental loss — because they are presented repeatedly. Habituation also accounts for why outrageous messages that are repeated get accepted uncritically, so that marketers and politicians alike can manipulate the public to accept untruths (such as the still-persistent myth that Saddam Hussein caused 9/11) and the endless need to spend money on this or that.



Group think: Group think is another factor that roots us in mass-consensus reality trances. Group think is a distortion of thinking that takes place in many groups when they become spellbound by group harmony, and are afraid to challenge the consensus or say something that might disrupt the ease of being in agreement.

Group-thinkers engage in collective rationalization if any contrary evidence appears or if someone dissents from the group mind. Group think becomes less stoppable with time because such groups tend to develop a belief in their inherent superiority and morality and see other groups as inferior.

It is thought that this comfort with the familiar and discomfort with the new developed as a survival strategy during ancient times of scarcity. Those who favored their own group's needs were much more likely to survive because they rationalized depriving others of resources.

When group think takes hold, individual thinking and values — honesty, justice, kindness, compassion, understanding, etc. — become secondary to fitting in with the group mentality. Those who disagree are threatening to group-think harmony and ultimately get in trouble or become outcasts.

Group think is troubling in that the truth gets lost — sacrificed by group members for the safety of the herd. Propaganda-fed group think in Nazi Germany and Communist USSR is what allowed their governments to commit such massive inhumanities as the Holocaust and the Gulag prisons. Their government-controlled media convinced the German and Soviet publics that the millions who suffered were bad people and that wars were needed for the good of the nation.



Mass marketing of consumerism: Producers and mass-media establishments have learned to manipulate psychological forces such as group think and learning processes to produce maximum influences on their customer base. The corporate powers that drive consumerism have worked to create a dependency on media to ensure a pliable, consistent marketing base to reap profits from and to garner support for politicians who help them. They convince us that buying another product (electronic good, clothing, personal product) will fulfill us and ensure our continued popularity (or acceptability), so we happily get out our credit cards.

Much of the reality behind this aspect of our society is explained beautifully by a 20-minute video, "The Story of Stuff" (see www.storyofstuff.com), produced by Free Range Studios. "The Story of Stuff" explains how after World War II there was a conscious decision by retailing experts and government economic advisors to create a consumer economy and produce goods that would need to be replaced constantly.

A key element to this plan was to create a need for fulfillment through having more stuff, and this became a clear goal of advertisers. Television, print media and now the Internet subject us to an average 3,000 advertisements a day to convince us that we need more. After 50 years of this programming, many of us have become addicted to shopping and to the electronic media that tells us how to think.

Electronic beauty and stimulation has replaced the beauty and stimulation of life and left us in a trance we can't shake out of. We are dissatisfied with looking at our own bodies, so we look at the beautiful bodies of the electronic people. We no longer want to listen to the sounds of our world and so have electronic sounds streaming into our ears. There is good evidence that national intelligence is slipping overall, as standardized test scores go down and voluntary reading rates (including online reading) have slipped to 7-12 minutes a day for most adults.



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