During an Easter dinner, a seven-year-old boy named Solomon watched the adults pour an extra glass of wine and leave it at the end of the table. He asked who the wine was for, and the adults explained it was for the prophet Elijah (a sort of Jewish Santa Claus). At the night’s end, they pointed to the glass and said to Solomon: “Look! Do you see that there’s less wine in the glass than in the early evening? Do you see it, Solomon?”
Little Solomon didn’t know what to do. He felt pushed to agree with the adults not to appear rude. But the truth is, he never really believed the wine had dwindled.
Forty years later, the boy Solomon had become a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, near where I’m parked today, and decided to do an experiment to test how much pressure from other people influences our behavior.
For the investigation, eight subjects were seated around a table. Seven were actors, and only one of the participants was being tested. Solomon explained that he would show a poster with a straight line drawn and then show a second poster with three more lines.
The task was to say which of the three lines was the most similar in length to the line on the first poster. When Professor Asch showed the second poster, it was evident that the third line was identical to the one on the first poster. But since all the other participants said first that the similar line was the middle one, the student went with the majority and stated that the second line was the one. But that was not just a characteristic of those students. Salomon repeated the experiment dozens of times, and in the vast majority of them, people, at least once, said a wrong answer to go with the majority.
This research became known as the Asch Compliance Experiments and showed how we are all influenced by the people and environment.
We all want to see ourselves as free-thinkers, but we don’t even realize that most of the time we are just following someone else’s program. We eat three meals a day, and not two or four, because of the convenience of the factories during the industrial period and not because of our preference or because it does our bodies better.
We don’t notice that we divide our lives into weeks of seven days because of the Babylonians, who 4,000 years ago believed there were seven planets and decided to separate the days into groups of seven. A practice that later spread to Egypt, then Rome. Later, religious leaders set aside one of these seven days so people could visit their temples, pray and donate. And 42 centuries later, in the 1930s, industrialist Henry Ford, pushed by the unions, instituted the two-day weekend in his factories. So, we would have one day to pray and another to take care of the house – and buy stuff.
More recently, some companies have tested a four-day week. The most famous case was that of Microsoft in Tokyo, where productivity did not decrease but grew by more than 40%, and the experience had the approval of more than 90% of the employees. Despite the success, the practice is not widespread. One of the main reasons for this is that companies know that when employees have more time with their family or hobbies, they start to question whether they should be spending even more time with the ones they love and their passions. And it ends up in people asking to leave their jobs. As David Graeber says in Bullshit Jobs, “The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger.”
A person with his nose glued to the keyboard for five days and only getting up to get high and watch tv series on the weekends does not have the opportunity to question if what he’s doing with his life is really the best for him.
What is a good idea for the Babylonians is not necessarily good for you. A decision by an industrialist nearly 100 years ago does not mean that it is the best format for your family.
That was one of the reasons that led us to this adventure, to get away from the Babylonians and the people saying which line on the posters was the right one for us.