This is going to be a heavier post than what I normally try, but I read some really interesting psychological articles recently, and they spawned a conversation with Emerald that really stuck in my head and got my rusty wheels turning, and I suspect that the incessant squeaking they’ve been causing will continue until I textually vomit out all my inquisitive mental energy upon you kindly e-friends. And by the way, it’s a really long argument about whether human individuality is good or bad, how conformity effects society, and how the two should balance out for the survival of mankind, so if psychology doesn’t interest you, go ahead and check out the funniest site ever, but if you like deep psychological musings, read through it, cause I would love some feedback.
It all started with an article I stumbled across about five psychological experiments in history that have revealed a dark and terrible side to human kind. A side that has long interested me and driven me to explore, mostly through my own musings, what causes people to be so persistently stupid and cruel. Topics like cowardice, sadism, and blind conformity. Especially blind conformity. That topic alone has absolutely fascinated and frustrated me since I was in elementary school, and forced to attend and conform to a dogmatic church festering in the abuse of “spiritual authority” which I now realize was much more of a cult than anything else.
My bitterness towards religion aside, or rather emphasized, this article caught my eye because it addressed many of the things I experienced while attending that church as a child. Stay with me, because it’s kind of a long thought process. It starts out with something called the Asch Conformity Experiment, in which extremely simple eye tests are performed on groups, All but one of the participants are told to lie about their answers as a unanimous front, and the reaction of the one real participant is then observed. When the participants are alone and opposed by the group, despite being obviously wrong, just over thirty percent of the subjects would go along with the group.
This means that one third of mankind is so pressured to conform by a vast majority that even when they are 100%, without a doubt wrong, they will conform.
Now there are various reasons for conformity, for the sake of this particular line of thought, we’ll stick to informational influence and normative influence. With normative influence people conform to a group to be liked or accepted by the group, while with informative influence they turn to the group for information, and conform their actions or opinions because the group convinces them they are correct.
Another series of tests was conducted with an eyewitness identification task, participants were shown a suspect individually and then in a lineup of other suspects. In the tests the participant groups were shown an individual, and then had to identify him together in a lineup. One test gave the participants only one second to look at the lineup, and another made it easier. In both tests two groups were formed, and one was fed a story that would make them believe their answers were very important for the legal field, and the other knew they were merely in a clinical trial.
When the task was made easy, those who most wanted to be accurate conformed less of the time (16%) than those who didn’t feel their answers were important (33%). This would suggest that for non core beliefs, apathy promotes conformity 33% of the time. However when the task was made more difficult, Those who wanted to be most accurate conformed 51% of the time as opposed to 35% in the other group. This would suggest (to me at least, this is where I start extrapolating my own ideas) that for core beliefs, and important issues that fall somewhere in the grey zone of life, for times when an issue matters to someone, but they aren’t sure exactly what to think themselves, that 51% will go along with the public opinion in their group. It suggests that when we are confronted with complicated moral issues, we are most succeptable to informational influence.
Now a group can be any size, whether it be a particular demograph, or a culture, a country, religion, or political group. It could just be your friends, or family. Let’s use politics for an example, because it’s easy to see in society. If a political group can popularize their cause or opinions, then half of everyone who believes their cause matters will go along with whatever the majority says, and one third of everyone who doesn’t think the cause matters will go along with the majority too. You can see how this could quickly spiral out of control, with a very small minority of core believers highly influencing what soon becomes the vast majority of the whole society, turning an issue that could easily be completely incorrect (coughglobalwarmingcough) into majority supported law, merely on the basis of fancy words and the highly submissive and easily influenced subconscious mind of what (in my assessment) boils down to the majority of human kind.
The next study that fascinated me was the Milgram Experiment, where the subject was told he was a “teacher” and that his job was to give a memory test to another subject, located in another room. The whole thing was fake and the other subject was an actor. The subject was told that whenever the other guy gave an incorrect answer, he was to press a button that would give him an electric shock. A guy in a lab coat was there to make sure he did it, but of course the other subject was not really being shocked. The subject was told that the shocks started at 45 volts and would increase with every wrong answer. Each time they pushed the button, the actor on the other end would scream and beg for the subject to stop. Eventually the actor would stop his screams and only silence would come from the other room, but the test subject would be told to continue his shocks.
Between 61 and 66 percent of subjects would continue the experiment until it reached the maximum voltage of 450. (by the way, for those of you not blue collar types who may go through life without getting shocked much, that’s a fuck ton more electricity than it takes to kill someone) In another test the training procedure was repeated with a puppy, and real shocks. 20 out of 26 people took it to the highest setting.
As funny as that mental image may be, the implication of the test was that when told by a person in a position of authority, in this case the scientist in the lab coat, almost 80 percent of people would gladly kill a puppy, and 61-65 percent would kill a stranger. Let that sink in for a second, 65 percent of people are willing to kill a stranger if “the man” tells them to. For a scientific test, not even a holy war. This explains a lot of the psychology behind the third Reich, and religious extremism. Not just terrorists all you Jerry Falwell loving, rock and roll hating, gay protesting, bible thumping bitches. I mean you and your stupid ass church-state aspirations too. Your pastor could be “the man” for you, and we’ll get to you pastor with my next experiment.
The last experiment was the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this students from Standford were set up with the role of prisoners and guards. The basement of a building was built into a prison, and the guards were instructed not to use physical violence, but to make sure they kept law and order in the prison. It was supposed to last two weeks.
After the first day the prisoners, in retaliation towards the guard highly abusive behavior, staged a revolt and barricaded themselves in their cells. In the following days the guards punished the prisoners by stripping them naked, denying them access to a bathroom, waking them at all hours for forced exercise, degrading verbal abuse, and humiliating physical mockery. After four days four of the prisoners had broken down from stress and had to be released. By the sixth day everyone involved in the experiment, including the professor who ran it, had completely lost contact with reality, and had assumed the roles they were playing. Other staff objected to the point that the experiment had to be shut down.
I found a half hour documentary on the tests, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in psychology, human morality, or the prison system watch it. The three videos on YouTube are located here:
Anyway, these series of experiments into human behavior got me thinking. If a small majority can use the subconscious tendencies of the majority to gain power, (Asch conformity test) and the overwhelming majority of people will willingly obey those in power even when strongly in conflict with their own morals, (Milgram Experiment) and being in a position of power has such a corrupting and evil influence when put in the context of volatile or stressful situations, like prison, (Stanford Prison Experiment) or for the sake of argument, any similar situation where the people not in power are perceived as being dangerous, rebellious, or in some way in need of firm control, what does that say about mankind and our history, or our current social and political state of affairs? In test after test after test I ran across, most people were not only unwilling to stand up to tyranny and unethical behavior, but not even willing to help out their fellow man when it would take little or no effort. Are we inherently evil? Is all power on our planet simply decided by which extreme minority is capable of convincing the people too stupid or submissive to think for themselves? Can I even be sure that my own views are something I really believe in, or merely just me conforming to various beliefs held by other people?
Or is this dark, sometimes destructive behavior something more. What good thing could come from having a human species consisting of 90% sheep and 10% sheep dogs? After thinking this over and over, I am filled with a desire to behave out of my own individualism. I’ve always had anti establishment, and nonconformist tendencies, but at the same time I can look at my own life and observe conformity from my own beliefs in clear bold type throughout my life. I’ve worn stupid clothes to try and fit in. I’ve done things I don’t enjoy doing to make friends and impress women. I’ve even found myself occasionally swayed by clearly retarded political and religious philosophies. I won’t lie, I have been a sheep more often than I would like. And the numbers are not on my side. So what good thing could possibly come from most everyone living a life that isn’t theirs?
Well what if this conformist to individualist ratio we find in humans is part of a greater purpose? What if it is a subconscious self protection mechanism that has been instilled in mankind to benefit our species as a whole, a form of swarm intelligence that allows our species to survive?
Maybe if everyone was prone to think for themselves, and act on their own beliefs and desires all the time without a high level of conformity, then mankind would not be capable of forming functioning societies of any size. We could be thrown into anarchy, tribalism, or driven to extinction by unchecked vigilantism and violence. Perhaps the majority of people conform to other peoples values and ideas instinctively so that mankind is capable of forming cooperative groups: countries, companies, religions, maybe even ultimately a global union. Maybe on a primitive survival level it doesn’t matter if blind conformity leads to war, turmoil, and genocide. Maybe it’s better for our overall survival to have anyone in control of everyone, than to have everyone in control of no one.
So the question then comes, how important is individuality. I highly value mine, I’m assuming you value yours. Most everyone feels unique and to some degree wants to establish a firm self image and not be some worker drone. I would say that most of the really good things in history and human advancement, along with the really bad, have been born out of the individual thinkers. Those who had an idea and refused to listen to anyone else till it had become a reality. But if everyone was a free thinker, could society function? Without being a bunch of mindless followers, would we be spear chucking cave people? Screw that.
I don’t know. I have no answer for that question. I want to be individual, but at the same time I can respect some societies and organizations that are bigger than me and require my subordination to achieve something I alone could not. I don’t know if it’s better to be a follower and think you are individual, or be a freethinker and know everyone else is retarded.
I have a headache now. That was way, way, way too deep to be thinking on a Tuesday night. Now it’s your turn. If you actually made it all the way through that, what’s your take on conformity, authority, leadership, and the role we all play as an alleged individual? Does it matter? Am I completely wrong in my analysis? Are you individual despite what the numbers science has come up with say? Are you unknowingly just a tool for someone else? Hit me back, I want feedback.
Err ….. uh ….. informational influence? DAMMIT!!! Ignorance was bliss after all.