Are you sure your thoughts are your own?
How to avoid falling prey to herd mentality
We are all surrounded by the opinions of others - perhaps more so now than ever before. How can you be sure your thoughts are your own?
It's quite astonishing to realize how comprehensively the workings of human nature, only recently clearly established by psychological research, have been explored and described in the richest detail in stories that are hundreds, and even thousands, of years old.
I'm sure you know the ancient story of 'The king's new clothes'. A dishonest tailor promises the king he can make him the most fabulous outfit for an upcoming public occasion - something to make the king look truly stupendous. The king gives the tailor a heavy bag of gold to buy the exceptionally fine and rare materials that will be required for this unique garment and the tailor gets busy.
When the king comes for his fitting, the tailor tells him that only the cleverest, wisest and most honest people can see such wonderfully exquisite materials as this outfit is made of, so very pure and delicate are they. The king, naturally, is not about to admit that he is not among the cleverest, wisest and most honest people, and so says not a word when the tailor strips off his outer garments and proceeds to clothe him with something he cannot see. The tailor is ecstatic about the fit, and assures the king that the crowd will be stunned by his magnificence. The king professes himself delighted.
Of course, word of the wondrous robes so fine that only the best people can see them spreads round the city like wildfire - the flames assiduously fanned by the (now very wealthy) tailor - and everyone is agog to see them. The great day arrives and the royal procession makes it way through the streets, the king proudly stepping forth among his subjects with the air of a man receiving adulation as his right and proper due. The crowds cheer and busily commend to each other the beauties of the cloth, the fineness of the stitching, the glimmer of a thousand jewels, the richness of the colours, the elegance and perfection of the tailoring, all amounting to a truly noble costume befitting a really great king.
All, that is, except one small boy, who calls out so all can hear, "Why is that man not wearing any clothes?"
Well, you know the rest.
When we listen to a story we often identify with one particular character and relate to the story from the point of view of that character. The best stories, however, are multi-faceted. The different characters represent different 'parts' of ourselves. We can all be the stupid 'crowd', busy agreeing with each other and ignoring what is right in front of our eyes, and we all have within us the clear, direct and honest perception of the little child.
Believing something is so purely because other people believe it is so is a most unreliable method of establishing the truth of a situation. But it happens all the time.
How much to rely on others
Of course, we can't check out absolutely everything for ourselves and much of life has to be taken on hearsay. I guess you haven't taken the trouble to prove for yourself that the earth moves around the sun, but you take it on trust from others that it does. So I'm not talking about having to pedantically challenge and question every single thing. I'm talking about being able to at least inquire why most people might think something, and whether that consensus is reasonable.
For example, you might, if you had a mind to, investigate why scientists over the centuries have concluded and now agree that the earth travels around the sun. After all, the general consensus ('what everybody thinks') for many millennia was the opposite.
The point here is that 'received wisdom' may be right, but it might be very wrong. If our only reason for believing something important is that other people believe it, we could be in trouble. For example, someone brought up in a household where all the other members seem to believe that person to be inferior may come to believe that they really are inferior - simply because all those other people seem to believe that. It may not ever occur to them to even question this belief.
So there are plenty of non-crucial circumstances where we might accept 'received wisdom' or 'group think' without having to question too hard. But when the issue in question has to do with our welfare, our financial, physical or mental health, say, then it really behoves us to be able to question what the crowd seem to think and not automatically go along with that.
The risks of conformity
Blindly going with the crowd can have consequences ranging from the trivial - like wearing clothes you'd never normally wear just 'because they are in fashion' - to the horrendous - such as when people see a crime being committed and don't try to help 'because no one else is helping', or when people get caught up in mob hysteria and violence.
It's also important to be aware that this tendency to conform can make us vulnerable to exploitation. Cults all over the world operate on the basis that their followers will blindly conform and never question what they are asked to believe, or to do.
Some people are naturally more resistant to following the herd but everyone can learn to be less thoughtlessly conformist through really understanding what I'm talking about here.
Looking into 'group think'
Back in the 1950s social psychologist Solomon Asch of Swarthmore College conducted some fascinating research into 'group think' (1). In one experiment, the subjects were told that they were participating in a study of vision. They were shown some illustrations and asked to say, out loud, what their assessments were - for instance, whether Line A was longer or shorter than Line B.
In reality, all but one of the participants were confederates of the researcher, and the study was really about how the remaining participant, the one who wasn't in on the true nature of the experiment, would react to the confederates' behaviour.
The confederates were always asked for their assessment first, and always gave the same answer as each other. They would answer a few assessment questions correctly, and then they would start to give incorrect answers. The 'real' participant would be asked last, and would have heard all the other answers before they spoke.
Solomon Asch hypothesized, and expected, that the majority of people in such a situation would not go along with something so obviously wrong. But he was mistaken.
When surrounded by confederates all giving an incorrect answer, the real subjects themselves provided incorrect responses to 32 per cent of the questions. That means that, for nearly one third of the time, the subjects wouldn't trust what they could see perfectly well for themselves, for example, that one line was clearly much longer than the other, but would just go along with what everyone else had said.
A few people never went with the crowd, but 75 per cent of the subjects gave an incorrect answer to at least one question.
This experiment has been repeated many times, with variations, with people from all walks of life and all ages, with similar results.
These studies have shown that if fewer than three other people believe something to be true (or pretend so for research purposes), then we are less likely to blindly conform. Also, if 'confederates' act as if they are unsure, or if just one other person disagrees, then we feel more able to go against the crowd as well.
But - I repeat - if everyone else shows they are certain about something, and by 'everyone else' I mean more than three people, then 75 per cent of us will likely go along with the group at least some of the time.
This helps to explain the famous 'madness of crowds'. We might like to flatter ourselves that we're different, but assuming that you are not susceptible to this kind of group influence may be exactly what makes you more susceptible. We are all human. It's easy to laugh at the naked king and his self-deceiving subjects, but group pressure can act on us in very subtle ways. Just think how language, fashion and attitudes are presented through the media, how certain values are pumped into our minds as clearly better than others. The sharp increase in the incidence of eating disorders in recent times, particularly in very young girls, is almost certainly at least partly down to a crowd psychology that is 'certain' that it's better to be a size zero.
How to protect yourself
So how can you guard against automatically going along with the crowd like the king and his subjects in the story, or like the millions of followers of dangerous cults or destructive political or religious ideologies throughout the ages that have sometimes used mass assumption to justify unspeakable crimes?
Well, firstly, remember that this happens. Keep the king's new clothes in mind - it's not just 'a story for children'. Like many ancient stories it contains a valuable blueprint for overcoming our common human weakness. Look around you. Ask yourself: "Would I really be thinking this if I was by myself?" When our emotions are whipped up through fear, greed or excitement, it's easy to be manipulated. Purposefully calm yourself down and always make allowances for the little voice in your head so well represented by the small boy in the crowd who sees clearly what is really happening.
- Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Asch, Solomon E. Psychological Monographs, Vol 70(9), 1956, 70.
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