Why we do what everyone around us is doing
As we’re a primate group species with unimpressive physical characteristics, it’s been an evolutionary necessity for us to band together in cohesive groups. The archeological record makes it very clear that homo sapiens and our ancestors and close relatives lived in groups numbering up to around 150 individuals for over 400,000 years. Lacking powerful muscles, tearing claws, and impressive incisors, the survival time for a lone human would have been at best measured in a handful of days. We depend entirely on being part of a group for our existence.
Only for the last ten thousand years or so have we banded together in larger organizations, made possible by the development of fixed-location agriculture. But ten thousand years is the merest blink of an eye from the perspective of evolution, especially when it comes to a complex organ like the human brain.
Not surprisingly, therefore, our brains contain within them a wide variety of hardwired mechanisms that ensure we can readily fit into groups. These mechanisms don’t appear to have changed significantly over the millennia and so we’re still very much the species we were during our long hunter-gatherer period.
Over the last eighty years a wide variety of psychological studies have shown the power of these hardwired mechanisms. People can be induced to express, and subsequently believe, almost anything provided that sufficient group pressure can be brought to bear.
When we look back through history we see a wealth of examples of this phenomenon, which seem incomprehensible to us when we’re living in times of peace and ease. How, we wonder, could so many people have descended into mindless hysteria because they were told that witches were at work among them? How could so many ordinary decent Germans have come to see ordinary decent Jews as an existential threat? How could so many Chinese students living during Mao’s Cultural Revolution have been induced to beat and kill teachers they knew to be ordinary decent human beings? How, for nearly all of recorded human history, have the great mass of people believed in the inevitability and suitability of slavery?
And, on a more banal note, why do millions slavishly follow social media trends, rushing out to buy fidget-spinners or have buckets of ice poured over them or look for dangerous places where they can be photographed “planking?” Why does nearly everyone these days feel the need to have tattoos when a mere thirty years ago they were largely confined to low-status males?
Underlying all of these phenomena, and a great many more, is simply the hardwired drive to conform to group norms.
Politicians began to take conscious advantage of this knowledge about thirty years ago, introducing policies to “nudge” people into desired patters of behavior. The very best way to get people to conform is to make them believe that “everyone you know is doing X.” So now we all dutifully recycle our trash, even though in many countries (the USA being most notable) most of the “recycled” material ends up in the same landfills as our unsorted trash. Regardless of any objective facts, it’s now the case that our neighbors will think ill of us if we aren’t putting our recyclables into the right bins.
Of course, often group norms are highly desirable even in our modern world. Our roads would hold daily scenes of carnage of the sort that occurs across the Indian subcontinent if we didn’t all obey the rules regarding which side of the road upon which to drive. And dutiful recycling, although today very often a waste of time and energy, may ultimately induce governments to pass regulations requiring corporations to manufacture less wasteful products and accept end-of-life returns that must be reused in new products. So there’s nothing wrong per se with group conformity.
But as with many behaviors, group conformity can not only result in social benefit but also in social harm, as per the witch-hunting and pogrom examples given above.
Ideally, we’d be mindful of how easily we’re stampeded into mass hysteria; unfortunately our species has only very limited self-awareness, and when we imagine we’re under threat our modest capacity to reason shuts down.
Again, there’s a very good evolutionary reason for this. Cogitating when faced with a hungry leopard or when under attack by a neighboring tribe would result in rapid demise. So the prefrontal cortex portion of our brain, which is where we perform our “higher reasoning” functions, shuts down to enable rapid fight-or-flight reactions. And for all of our evolutionary history up to the last few thousand years, this was highly adaptive.
Today, however we’re prisoners of our hardwired behaviors and this leads us wide open to exploitation.
As Goebbels said, “A lie repeated one hundred times becomes the truth.” And the very best lies aren’t total falsehoods but rather grotesque exaggerations of some small truth that instill fear in the audience.
Hence today in the Philippines, a brutal and low-IQ leader is applauded by a majority of citizens for putting death squads onto the streets of the nation’s cities. This is because those citizens were subjected to an information campaign that persuaded them that they and their families were in mortal danger from vaguely-defined “criminals and drug gangs.” So they embraced a very foolish response because they were afraid and thus unable (i) to assess the real magnitude of the purported threat, and (ii) to see that the putative cure is in fact far worse than the claimed problem it is supposed to address.
Politicians always lie in order to garner votes; this much is understood even though we never seem to respond appropriately. But there’s another force at work in our modern world: the mass media. As every media outlet either (i) has to generate revenues from advertising, which means being as sensationalist as possible; or (ii) has to look “relevant” by matching the audience numbers attained by commercial outlets, we now live in a world of 7/24 sensationalism.
For the last hundred years or more, politicians have been driven by waves of sentiment fanned by mass media.
In 1938, the then-Prime Minister of the UK, Neville Chamberlain, was cheered to the rafters when he announced his appeasement of Nazi Germany. The UK population was so terrified of another war that they eagerly embraced the very policy that made such a war inevitable. Nearly every newspaper and the official radio station supported appeasement and so nearly every ordinary person supported appeasement. Today, Winston Churchill is regarded as a national hero but we need to remember that he was very unpopular indeed for over a decade because he persisted in pointing out the threat of Nazism and the folly of appeasement. Had he not come from a wealthy and powerful family, and had the backing of one major newspaper magnate, he’d have been banished from public life and written out of history entirely.
Politicians responding to mass sentiment was the reason another UK Prime Minister, Harold McMillan, responded to a journalist asking “What is most likely to blow your government off-course?” with, “Events, dear boy, events.”
In recent years former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has become effectively persona non grata in the UK because of a concerted media campaign to portray him as a “war criminal” for his willingness to partner with the USA in its unjustified invasion of Iraq. This has resulted in millions of British citizens dutifully calling for his head (figuratively and sometimes literally) without ever once asking themselves about the real facts of the matter. And in 2016 the British voted for the massive self-harm of Brexit because many were fearful that “foreigners” were “taking away” their nation. Trump of course famously garnered 85% of evangelical votes because he claimed that “aliens” were overwhelming white Christian values, which terrified white Christians who dutifully then flocked to vote for him en mass.
Create enough fear and reason flies out the door.
Today we see politicians around the globe scurrying to react to media coverage of the COVID-19 virus. Feeling that they must be “seen to be doing something,” politicians are enacting a wide range of measures. Some may indeed by worthwhile; others are self-evidently as foolish as when President Bush ordered National Guard soldiers to stand outside airports after the events of 11th September 2001. These actions inevitably further increase the panic felt by ordinary people as government action appears to confirm the severity of the situation and thus amplifies their fears.
As the global economy crashes and hundreds of millions lose their livelihoods, it is not beyond question that the consequences of hasty decisions may inflict a great deal more harm than the nominal good they are supposed to induce.
But most people will embrace whatever the politicians decide to do, because the constant barrage of media coverage has ensured that most people believe the entire planet is facing an existential threat.
Which is, of course, what inhabitants of New York believed when Orson Wells’ radio program War of the Worlds was broadcast on October 30th 1938. Fortunately in that case mass panic lasted only for a few hours, and lack of continuous repetition meant that the hysteria neither grew beyond control nor spread across the entire nation.
Today our situation is somewhat less easy.
Across many countries, supermarket shelves have been stripped bare as people panic-buy an excess of groceries and staples, convinced that “the apocalypse is coming.” This means a great many people now lack the ordinary necessities of life. Yet no one believes that there is any imminent risk of supply chains failing; shelves are empty only because everyone is over-reacting and thus harm is created where none was necessary. Sure, governments are saying “don’t go out and panic-buy,” but when people have been whipped into a state of fear it’s no good then asking them to behave reasonably. That’s like cutting someone’s head off and then asking them to perform arithmetical calculations.
As we stumble through this century, the chronic deficiencies of representative democracy coupled to what is increasingly predatory oligarchic capitalism will become ever-more apparent (and I write as one who is very much in favor of properly regulated open markets and genuine capitalism pace Adam Smith).
In a great many nations, people will revert to tyranny in the hope that a “strong leader” will save them from chaos. This is already the case in Russia, China, Turkey, various African nations, and not a few South American nations. We’re likely to see the same phenomenon spreading across Europe and arguably the USA is more than halfway down this road already, with the Republican Party eager to trample across all previous norms of behavior in order to cling to power at any cost.
But it is to be hoped that, although our immediate future will be one of increasing mass hysteria and increasing authoritarianism, in the longer term some may begin to think carefully about our fundamental limitations as a species and begin to consider how these limitations may be mitigated.
We insulate electrical cables so that thoughtless fingers can’t be shocked by the current they carry. We design ever-more-ingenious safety systems into automobiles so that our inadequate driving skills lead to fewer deaths on the roads than hitherto. Increasingly our kitchen appliances are idiot-proofed, so there are fewer burns and cuts than would otherwise be the case.
Surely we can begin to engineer equivalents for our social existence? Although today we fetishize representative democracy, even a cursory glance reveals its fundamental inadequacies. Surely we can begin to think about how better to structure things so as to avoid the shocks and burns and cuts that today are so common? Five hundred years ago, everyone “knew” that Kings and Emperors were the “only” possible way to govern. Five hundred years hence, our beliefs about representative democracy will seem just as quaint.
And today’s hysterics will seem to those who live in the future just as absurd as yesterday’s witch-hunts and pogroms seem to us who are alive today.