Behaviour in depth is the second part in the Reaching others series, which helps us have honest conversations in which we try to seek for common truth even with those who have differing opinions.

You may have worriedly pondered: “I think some of my friends have started to reason in a strange way. I don’t recognize them anymore. What happened?”

We try to understand that predicament by learning about the model of our mind.

The knowledge of how our mind works gives us a better opportunity to reflect on how we ourselves and others act and react. That knowledge can help us foster a sense of inner security with which it’s easier to engage into challenging conversations. We also gain an understanding of other people’s thought processes and learn to adopt a more comprehensive and effective communication strategy when trying to reach others.

With time, that can help us develop a more top-down perspective and an ability to reflect on how we relate to each other in the moment to moment of the conversation. That way, we don’t get as easily triggered and we don’t trigger others as often. With insight into how we ourselves and others work, we become better at reaching others.

Mental iceberg

We can visualize our mind as an iceberg. We only see the small part over the surface, the conscious mind. The real size and power are hidden beneath the surface, in the subconscious mind.

By the conscious mind we mean the thoughts, feelings and memories that we are aware of in the moment. Our subconscious mind is a reservoir of thoughts, feelings and memories that affect us without us being aware of it. The vast majority of our mental capacity is subconscious.

Our subconscious mind often helps us make decisions, like when our gut feelings signal to us which way we should act.

The Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) is considered the founder of modern psychoanalysis. His theories have been described through using the iceberg metaphor. [1]

The rider and the horse

Another way of looking at our mind is through the image of a competent rider and his horse. It was Paul MacLean (1913–2007), American physician and brain researcher, who introduced this metaphor. [2]

The rider is an experienced and logical agent and represents our rational mind. The horse he’s riding is a strong and instinctive agent and represents our emotional mind.

In known conditions without obstacles present, it will be easier for the rider to be in control. But in case of surprises, fear or strong desire, the rider must firmly hold the reins, otherwise the horse will overpower him. A competent rider gets to know his horse, can work in tandem with him and rein it in when necessary, but if the horse overpowers him, its reactions are immediate and forceful and are thus given the last word.

The seesaw

We can see the balance between our rational and emotional mind as a seesaw. When we experience danger, we must be able to quickly adjust and act. One of the defence mechanisms that then gets activated is the suppression and blockage of the rational part of our mind. [3]

We instinctively recognize when others are emotionally upset and that can quickly trigger us too. That we react and function like that is natural. If someone in the tribe, for example, discovers something dangerous and threatening, the others do best to take it seriously as well and prepare themselves for fight or flight.

We influence each other even in the opposite situation. If you keep calm, it will also have an effect on others and you will also help them to calm down after a while.

Once someone has been triggered, it is difficult to reach them. They go into a defensive position, where the rational mind shuts down, and are not receptive to new information.

The 90-second rule

So how do we stay calm when we get triggered? Before responding to the trigger, it is useful to try to understand what happens in the body when we get upset. We easily recognize when we have been triggered. The pulse and respiratory rate are raised, our body heats up, we become more alert and we blush when the blood flow increases in our cheeks, arms and legs. We are preparing for defence.

Physically, the brain releases adrenaline, a stress hormone, as a reaction to perceived danger. The hormone rushes throughout the body. Within 90 seconds, the adrenaline has reached the whole body and the effect is over.

When the effect subsides, you can choose to mentally stay in the situation and trigger the reaction anew. But you can also choose to try to break the cycle and stay calm. We have the power to choose who and how we want to be in every moment, no matter what external circumstances we find ourselves in, maintains neuroscientist and stroke survivor Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, author of the book Whole Brain Living. [4]

To interrupt the cycle, hold back the impulse to react. Stop thinking about the situation that triggered the reaction. Instead, focus on something inner. Take deep breaths. You can think Stay calm on your exhalation. [5]

The people we talk to and want to reach, obviously work the same way. When you discover that someone has been triggered, you know that if you wait a little while, you get an opportunity to help them break the cycle and lead the conversation further in a more rewarding direction.

Cognitive dissonance

Here we will describe a phenomenon that can trigger an emotional reaction.

If one tries to keep two conflicting ideas or beliefs in consciousness simultaneously, a feeling of discomfort arises. There may be something in our behaviour, mindset or identity that does not fit well together. This phenomenon is called cognitive dissonance and was coined by Leon Festinger in 1957 when he published his theory of cognitive dissonance. [6,7,8]

One does not have to be aware of the cause of the cognitive dissonance for it to be felt. Usually it’s quite the opposite; one unconsciously avoids thoughts that create dissonance.

To alleviate the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, it is common to try to rationalize, deny or avoid new information that does not fit into our worldview.

Common signs of cognitive dissonance are feelings of guilt, indecision, anxiety, and shame. Cognitive dissonance is often motivated by social pressures and peer pressure. [9]

The smoker in dissonance

Many people identify as a person who wants to live healthy, often also those who smoke. At the same time, we know that smoking harms health. The smoker may experience dissonance when the behaviour does not fit into his identity.

To alleviate the discomfort, one can explain it away. I will gain weight if I stop smoking and that is just as bad. One can deny. I smoke so little anyways. And one can avoid. I’m not interested in hearing about any diseases.

Deeper levels

Edward T. Hall describes, in his 1976 book Beyond Culture, that we can see our mind as divided into different levels that all relate to each other. [10] The deeper we examine our mind, the more fundamental are the thoughts we find there. But ultimately, we only get to observe a person’s outward behaviour.

We can see our behaviour as being something what we do. A level below we find our skills, habits and knowledge, which affect how we do what we do.

A level beneath that, we find our mindset, our attitudes, beliefs and values. Our mindset determines why we do what we do.

Even deeper than that we find our identity, our self-image. This level determines how we view ourselves. Who am I that does this?

The relationship between levels

All the levels in our minds relate to one another. The superficial levels are driven by the underlying ones. A change in a superficial level is easier to implement, but has less impact on how we behave. We are less sensitive to criticism aimed at a superficial level.

The deeper levels define us as individuals. The impact of change will be greater there but simultaneously takes more time. We are often more sensitive to criticism aimed at a deeper level.

Behaviour and skills belong to the superficial levels, while mindset and identity belong to the deeper levels. We mentioned earlier that we need to mind our mindset and now we see more clearly why that can be a challenge. Once something is rooted in our self-image, it’s harder to change.

Our skills are easier to influence and change. That’s what we’re doing right now, as we gain knowledge about how we ourselves and others work.

Group identity

As herd animals, it is natural wanting to be included in groups. Alienation is perceived as frightening. At the same time, it can be difficult to have a healthy relationship towards the groups that we belong to.

If the group imposes its way of thinking on you, the group’s identity can override yours. Then we can observe group identity dominating our individual identity on a deep and fundamental level. Social pressure from the group we belong to can make us accept things that we would not otherwise agree to. [11]

Therefore authorities and others who want to effectively influence the masses often go directly to the leaders of the groups with their message. Group leaders, on behalf of authorities then further endorse their message. Group affiliation is emphasized and encouraged so that the method of influence becomes even more pervasive and reaches as many people as possible.


We do not identify with one, but with several different groups. Which one comes into focus depends on the current context. Sometimes we may identify with the group of activists, sometimes with the group of relatives, and sometimes with the group of parents. Someone else can identify as a citizen, a particular soccer team fan or maybe also as a parent.

We always share some of our groups with the person we are talking to. We can lead the conversation and its context in a direction where our group identities coincide. If we both identify as parents, we can start our conversation by talking about topics that relate to parenthood. That’s how we can come onto the same side. [12]

Getting on the same side doesn’t mean pretending to be someone we’re not. Instead, it’s about us choosing a context—deciding to find a common ground and points of interest we share so we can feel closer to each other.

Don’t let the label stick

Sometimes those we talk to see us as belonging to a group that is in opposition to their group. As a part of their defence mechanism, the validity of what we are saying can be questioned and dismissed because of our group affiliation. [3]

One way our perspective can be questioned is through an attachment of a condescending label—one which paints a caricature image of us—and is used to place us in a designated mental compartment box on the opposing side. Anti-vax is an example of one such label. If we accept it, our arguments can be easily dismissed as “anti-vax nonsense” and that will make connecting with and reaching the person difficult.

So even when we face opposition in conversations, it becomes our task to try to establish the idea that we are on the same side. Therefore, do not accept the label, but instead ask them to kindly explain what they mean by the label they are using.

Ask them to explain

A condescending label deeply criticizes who we are—our identity. It’s provocative but avoid getting triggered.

Although we are all familiar with these labels, they have not been clearly defined. It will not be easy for them to explain what they mean by these labels when we kindly ask them to do so. The dynamics of the conversation can often change when they try to explain the meaning of these labels. [3]

If someone claims: “You’re spreading disinformation!”

Then we can calmly reply: “That is possible. What kind of disinformation am I spreading?”

Someone else might say: “You’re such a conspiracy theorist!”

Then we can calmly ask: “Okay, I hear what you’re saying. What was it that I said that is a conspiracy?”

Sick obedience

The following experiments demonstrate how our behaviour depends on how we experience the situation we find ourselves in. Charles K. Hofling arranged a real-life study in 1966 in the United States with nurses who were unaware that they were involved in an experiment. [13]

The nurses were asked if they would give double the maximum dose of an unknown and made-up medicine, called Astroten, to their patients. Only 2 in 33 (6%) would do so. The others refused because they were concerned about potential life-threatening side effects.

In the second part of the experiment, the scientist called up night nurses in a psychiatric hospital. Under the guise of being a doctor, the researcher asked the nurses to give double the maximum dose of the made-up medicine to their patients. A whopping 21 in 22 (95%) of nurses obeyed the doctor’s orders and were about to give the medication to their patients when a hidden observer stopped them.

Authoritarian influence

Authorities are behaving in an increasingly authoritarian manner. Drawing on the countless, tragic historical events humanity has suffered, it’s normal to ask yourself: How could the population go along with that?

We try to understand how and to explain that phenomenon.

When we experience coercion, it’s easy to give into it and many do. However, when the behaviour that is forced upon us does not fit well with our self-image, we experience cognitive dissonance. To avoid that discomfort, we subconsciously change how we view ourselves in order to achieve a sense of internal psychological balance and can even start supporting the action that we might have previously felt uncomfortable about. [9]

The authorities know very well that we work in this way. New recommendations are constantly being introduced which prompt us to gradually change our self-image by inducing cognitive dissonance each time. [14]

When we don’t stand up for ourselves

The recommendation to wear a face mask can serve as an illustration. A person who identifies themselves as a good citizen and thinks it is important to protect others, makes a habit out of following rules and authorities’ advice.

When authorities and the media incessantly emphasize how important it is to wear masks to protect others, social pressure to conform increases. Peer pressure becomes too great for many and people follow the recommendations despite inconvenience and hesitation. The view that we protect others conflicts with the self-image that we possess civil courage and can draw a line in the sand if the situation should go too far. Dissonance occurs. [9]

We solve it by unconsciously reinforcing the collective part of our identity and suppressing our individuality. In this way, our personality changes. And perhaps that is precisely the purpose: To make us stop thinking for ourselves and questioning the situation by weakening our sense of individuality. [14]


When we experience danger, we quickly adjust, the survival instincts kick in, and the activity in the rational part of our mind gets suppressed. Thus, when someone has been triggered, it becomes difficult to reach them because we cannot appeal to the rational part of their mind. The person moves into a defensive position and is not receptive to new information.

We influence each other even in the reverse situation. If you stay calm, you will have a calming effect on others. To interrupt the cycle of emotional retriggering, you have to hold back your impulse to react. It’s more constructive trying to let go of rather than ruminating about the situation that triggered the negative reaction.

When we experience coercion, it is easy to give into the pressure to conform. If the behaviour that is forced upon us does not match with our self-image, we experience cognitive dissonance. To escape discomfort, we subconsciously change the way we see ourselves and may even begin supporting the action that might have previously made us feel uncomfortable.

We identify with several different social groups at the same time and always share some of those with the person we are talking to. We can lead the conversation and its context in a direction where our group identities coincide.

That’s how we can get onto the same side. Getting on the same side doesn’t mean pretending to be someone we’re not. Instead, it’s about us choosing a conversational context which brings us closer together—deciding to find a common ground and points of interest we share with the other person.


  1. Freud’s personality models, Learnify,
  2. The Rational Rider and Emotional Horse: Finding Balance,
  3. Reaching People,
  4. Whole Brain Living: The Anatomy of Choice and the Four Characters That Drive Our Life, Taylor, 2021,
  5. The 90-Second Rule You Can’t Afford to Ignore,
  6. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, Festinger, 1957, Stanford University Press,
  7. Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959, The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology,
  8. Cognitive Dissonance, Mindler,
  9. Princeton researchers discover new strategy to encourage vaccinations and masking, Fuller-Wright, 2021-09-21, Princeton news/2021/09/21/princeton-researchers-discover-new-strategy-encourage-vaccinations-and-masking
  10. Beyond Culture, Hall, 1976,
  11. Peer pressure, Psychology Wiki,
  12. The Importance of Orientation, Unravel,
  13. An experimental study of nurse-physician relations, Hofling, 1966, Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, hofling-obedience.html
  14. MINDSPACE Influencing behavior through public policy, Halpern, 2010, Institute for Government,

The material has been developed by Us together in collaboration with Reaching People.

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