Here’s Proof that We’re Programmed

Written by:

It was Friday evening and we were gathering for a class on systems thinking at a local university. As we took our seats in the U-shaped desk formation, we peered over our desks to view an odd array of paraphernalia in the center of the room. There were two plastic matts, side-by-side, each about 2 feet wide by 20 feet long, that looked like racetracks. Both matts had about two dozen objects that appeared to be randomly strewn along them. The objects were things like stuffed animals, a child’s jack-in-the-box toy, a piece of pottery, etc. As the class was gathering, we asked each other what all this was about, but nobody knew.

Then the class officially started and the instructor told us we were going to do an exercise. He split us up into two teams, about 15 people to a team, and assigned each team to a track. He said each team was going to pick one person who was going to be blind-folded and attempt to walk the track from start to finish without touching any objects on the track. If they touched an object, they would have to go back to the starting point. The non-blind-folded members of the team were to give verbal commands to guide the blind-folded person. But before the walking of the track began, he wanted us to do one thing.

Each team was to prepare the track for the other team, as in move the objects in whatever way we wanted. After receiving this instruction, we all eagerly jumped up and began moving the objects so it would be as hard as possible for the other team to take a step without touching an object. Once this was complete, the blind-folded walking began, and as to be expected, it was very difficult for the walkers to make it through the course without touching an object. I was very happy when my team finally “won” by getting our walker to the finish line first. Then the instructor revealed the point.

The instructor said “Why did you assume this was a competition? I never said it was a competition”.  We then all sat back in our chairs and pondered this. Why hadn’t we moved the objects on the other team’s track to the side, to make it easy for their walker. The only explanation we had was that it never occurred to us.

This illustrates that some of our beliefs are so deep-rooted that they impact our decisions without us even thinking about them. At least in Western societies, we are predisposed to think of the world as though there are winners and losers, and our goal is to always be one of the winners. This translates into a foregone conclusion that it’s good business practice to always negotiate with other parties so that we retain the most dollars in any transaction. In other words, we believe we’ve done a good job when we get the lowest price from vendors and charge the highest price to customers. Does this really serve us?

It’s interesting that some extremely successful companies operate with different beliefs. In the automotive industry, there’s a huge difference between how Toyota negotiates with suppliers as compared to the American Big Three automakers – Ford, GM, and Chrysler. At least as of 2004, the Big Three aggressively pursued the lowest cost in negotiations and created adversarial relationships with suppliers. In contrast, Toyota created close-knit networks of vendors, where all companies prospered. Toyota’s extraordinary financial success is well known.

We would be wise to become conscious of our unconscious beliefs, so we can determine which ones serve us and change the ones that don’t.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a writer, speaker and consultant helping organizations strengthen agility and performance by shaping emotional energy. She is a thought leader bringing to light the new science of group emotional energy and connecting it to business performance. She has had a 28-year award winning career as a C-level Fortune 500 executive and Big Four consulting firm professional.
  Related Articles


  1. Russ Kinter  February 7, 2012

    Religion undoubtedly has many well documented shortcomings. But, I’m not sure I agree with laying this particular cause & effect at the feet of the gods. I think humans have been forced to compete for survival since the first tribe got together and started hunting and gathering. Those who gathered first and hunted best had full bellies and a bear skin rug on the cave floor. Those who didn’t generally had a tough winter. 200,000 years of evolution likely did more to shape us than a relative “Johnny Come Lately” cerebral concept like deities. Think Lord Of The Flies.

    • Jeanine  February 12, 2012

      I am not sure where you saw what you seem to be disagreeing with the ‘laying this at the feet of the Gods’ unless your definition of beliefs is so narrow that you translate ‘belief’ to mean ‘religious belief’.

      The word God is not mentioned in the article.

      We have beliefs about many things that our brains program. We have beliefs about pretty much everything in our lives. No one has exactly the same beliefs.

      Look at a common element, food. Talk to 10, 20, 100 people about their beliefs about food and each of them will have different beliefs. Some general beliefs will be the same for some but if you dig down to the nitty-gritty details there will be differences.

      Our beliefs are usually formed unconsciously by our experiences, parents, teachers, and the back stories we tell ourselves to explain our world to ourselves. We attribute meaning to try to make sense of why things happen and then our brains automatically look for evidence to support what we believe and ignore evidence that is contradictory.

      The good news is that we can make conscious decisions to change the beliefs that do not serve us well.

      I believe her point is that this competitive belief may not be one that serves us in every situation. I am in complete agreement.

      As far as ancient peoples competing; it is cooperation between those people that helped them survive and were the beginnings of what we call civilization.

  2. Jackie Barretta  February 8, 2012

    Russ, you’ve just illustrated the point of the article. You’re making the assumption that a win-lose philosophy has always prevailed and shown itself superior. In fact, the hunter gatherers were very collaborative, operating like a large family and sharing the goods. And the example given in the article of Toyota is a great modern-day illustration of the concept that win-win results in higher profits than win-lose. This article has some additional research on the merits of win-win negotiation. So we have lots of evidence that we can get more desirable results from a win-win philosophy.

    I suppose that the origin of our current win-lose mindset, whether religious or somewhere else, mattters less than our acknowledgement that we can re-program this belief. I submit that challenging some of our embedded, automatic beliefs is at the heart of truly transforming leadership.

  3. Russ Kinter  February 8, 2012

    Jackie, you choose to focus on the collaboration of our relatives in their bid for survival and that’s fine. No doubt none would have survived if they all chose to go it alone against nature and each other. So collaboration paid huge dividends within the group. But as soon as there was more than a single individual in a group of hunter gatherers there was competition as well as collaboration. And as soon as there was more than one group the competition got nasty and collaboration between the groups was probably not the first strategy they chose to employ.

    Collaboration between groups requires trust and sacrifice and compromise. Competition comes with none of that pesky emotional baggage as long as you have superior numbers and a bigger stick. Not to mention the fact that lions have historically made lousy collaborators. They seem very limited in their application of game theory.

    At any rate, my point was that to ascribe this bias for competition to a fairly recent higher level abstract concept like religion and deities is ignoring a couple hundred thousand years of evolutionary programming that came before we started building cathedrals and mosques.

  4. Jackie Barretta  February 8, 2012

    Russ, OK, I get your point now about when the pre-disposition with competition arose. However, I question your assumption about what history would tell us about the belief systems thousands of years ago. I’ve certainly heard about wars between the Native American tribes, but I’ve also heard stories about the first encounters between European explorers and Native Americans, where the natives assumed that they could have free access to the tools, knives, etc. of the Europeans. They didn’t have the concept of things belonging to people, which is at the root of competition. Chief Seattle’s famous speech is another huge indication that they didn’t have the concept of owning things, but rather the earth was there for everyone.

  5. Jan Duniewicz  February 8, 2012


    Thank you for this theme larger than life and “survival”… these are my few reflections…

    For me the “competition” and “win-lose” are the paradigms of the more and more deteriorating, extremely costly and wasteful world. The “collaboration”, “win-win”, good “partnerships” are the chances of global not only survival but possibly rejuvenation, enrichment, and joy of life.

    When I look at the “win-lose” excitements, unfortunately marketed and trained so commonly with so much popularity (see championships from a childhood till adulthood), I witness:
    • the feelings of fight which are negative by themselves
    • immense costs and wastes of resources thru redundancy of efforts, repetition of the same errors;
    • conflicts, wars (trillions of dollars and millions of people spent for attack and defense)

    Whereas with “win-win”, collaboration, partnership, I sense:
    • positive feelings of being together
    • combining complementary knowledge, skills, values, efforts
    • mutual inspiration, motivation, enrichment

    It’s an utopian thought now, but… let’s imagine for a few seconds that we do not need to compete and fight among the nations but cooperate with each other, how these trillions of dollars and huge wasted natural and human resources could be reused for our good!?…

    Professionally and personally, I have been learning, implementing and enjoying “win-win”, “collaboration” and “partnership” approach.

    What are your further views?

    • Jeanine  February 12, 2012


      Your comment regarding ” let’s imagine for a few seconds that we do not need to compete and fight among the nations but cooperate with each other” is a possibility.

      What is required is for individuals to let go of the ‘need to be right’. The current belief is dominated by a ‘only one person can be right’ belief-system.

      When people begin realizing that what is right for one is not necessarily right for any other (requires a place of internal confidence and security to get here because insecurity asks for validation and sees others who have different beliefs as threatening to their own beliefs) the basis for more peaceful sharing of this planet will be in place.

      There is a growing international group of people who are already there. We are in over 100 countries.

  6. Jim Battin  February 8, 2012

    Thanks Jackie for sharing your preview of Mastering Group Energy. My two comments are related both to the e-book and competition/collaboration.

    1) I am struck by the simliary of thought between the points you raised regarding ‘separation leads to decline in prosperity’ and vice versa. For example, in Tribal Leadership we make these comparisons:

    Stage one–retaliation–completely isolated except with others at stage one
    Stage two-loosely knit relationships—feeling victimized
    Stage three-hub and spoke relationships–more control, dyads, competence, about me
    Stage four–value based relationships–we versus I,
    Stage five–creating network to network relationships–there is no ‘them’

    Each stage becomes more positive and coherent.

    Oneness connects the world.

    2) The notion that our thoughts and emotions influence the way matter appears and events unfold. Our beliefs directly affect which possibilities unfold into the events and situations we experience. Again, very consistent with TL thoughts, especially Three Laws of Performance.

    Finally, our intention for a particular result increases the chances that the result will manifest.

    I can’t wait to read future e books in your series.

  7. Ronald V.  February 8, 2012

    Yes Jackie, and here you can read how they did (and are still doing) it

    “John Taylor Gatto – The Underground History of American Education”
    A Schoolteacher’s Intimate Investigation Into The Problem Of Modern Schooling
    COMPLETE AND UNEXPURGATED! -> Free Downloadable Ebook.


  8. Thomas Aw  February 14, 2012

    The article showed the difference in Thinking and social approach, between the Eastern Thought of – HARMONY as a priority; and the Western Thought of – Compete to get ahead Individually.

    Human beings, plants and all other creatures are born naturally, with competitive survival instinct.

    Collaboration and Harmony is essential, for larger and sustainable progress, for ALL.
    ** Learned through thousands of years of battles, disputes and competitive failures, in history.

  9. Joan Kappes  February 15, 2012

    Wonderful article! Being conscious of our beliefs is key to living the life the life of our dreams – the life we intended to live. It IS key!


Add a Comment