Sunday, September 26, 2010

Science Sunday: The Lowest Common Denominator Unwisdom Of Crowds

Crowds (of people, not sheep) can be funny things. They can make you thrill and they can make you paranoid, but there is nothing stranger about the crowd dynamic than the well-established fact that they can make you feel blameless if you're doing what everyone else is doing.

Exhibit A in this regard is Nazism, which through the vehicle of the enormous crowds
that turned out to hear and cheer Hitler resulted in a moral catastrophe without equal in modern history.

"You end up doing, or at least condoning, things that you would never do solo, and that you have a hard time justifying once the crowd disperses and you are on your own again," as David Rieff notes in a thoughtful post at Big Questions Online.

"Recapturing these scruples -- at once the burden and the blessing of individual consciousness -- does not mean moving from the utter conformity of the crowd to its polar opposite, an absolute non-conformity," he continues. "To be a true non-conformist is rare, which is probably just as well, since absolute non-conformity would mean rebelling not just against some particular convention, but rather against all convention, and, by extension, all continuity with the past. Taken to this extreme, non-conformity becomes the moral equivalent of economic autarky -- self-sufficiency taken to the
point of nihilism, and few travel down that road (our modern pose of non-conformity is another matter)."

As scientists have confirmed, absolute conformity seems to be an ever-present possibility for most of us.

Rieff cites the experiments of Stanley Milgram at Yale in the 1950s which showed
that people would all too readily obey authority figures and commit acts that contravened people's deepest moral values.

But he notes that the so-called Asch Paradigm,
which is based on a series of conformity experiments conducted at Swarthmore College during the same period by social psychologist Solomon Asch, is even more troubling.

Asch gave his subjects a vision test. No one in the control group was pressured to give an incorrect answer, and only one in 35 did. But in the group where a majority of the subjects were told to give an incorrect answer, 75 percent of the participants did so. Worse
yet, Asch showed that it required only three people out of the 35 to stick to that incorrect response in order for the rest of the group to come around.

"With apologies to Nietzsche, this will to self-satisfaction is what lies at the heart of the dynamic of the crowd," Rieff concludes. "Think of the behavior of the political crowds of the present moment. It is one exercise after another in radical simplification, actively decomposing, in Haffner's apt phrase, 'all the elements of individuality and civilization.' Whether it is urban left-wing activists demonstrating to the slogan of 'No Justice, No Peace' (among its other charms, the assertion is false on its face since not all good things go together and often the choice that confronts us actually is justice or peace), or the Tea Party activists, with their tricorn hats and 'Don’t Tread on Me' flags, our political crowds are studies in lowest-common-denominator subordination of the individual to the collective and of the thought to the slogan: in short, complexity to simplicity."

Top photograph by Guy Edwardes/Taxi-Getty

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