August 2, 2015

The power of others by Michael Bond

The power of others by Michael Bond
Peer pressure, groupthink, and how the people around us shape everything we do.

In almost every area of our lives, we are steered by others. They influence what we wear, the music we like, the food we eat and how much of it, our voting habits, how we invest our money.

On Wednesday, 10 Dec 1930, a New York merchant walked into the branch of the privately held Bank of United States and asked a teller to dispose of the stock he held in the bank. When the manager tried to discourage him, insisting it was a sound investment, the merchant left and spread the story among his business colleagues that the bank was in trouble. By the end of the day, three thousand customers had taken out some $2 million, including a man who queued for two hours to remove his measly two bucks.

The Bank of United States never re-opened. The rumors had resulted in run at other branches and by early on Thursday, they closed down the entire operations and handed over the remaining assets to the New York State Superintendent of Banks for safe keeping. Its collapse was a considerable blow to the public confidence in the economy, coming as it did just 13 months after the Wall Street crash known as Black Tuesday. The economist Milton Friedman and others have argued that it accelerated a crisis in banking that helped transform what had been an ordinary cyclical recession into the Great Depression.

Four decades of research into how people decide to do what they do has shown that we are highly susceptible to the winds of social influence. “In food as in death, we feel the essential brotherhood of man’ runs a Vietnamese proverb, a notion that recently has acquired scientific credibility. People have less control over their eating than they like to imagine. To be fully mindful about our eating - to savor every flavor to the exclusion of all else, we’d have to dine alone.

Mimicry is the breadth of social interaction. Most people will not be surprised that people with more friends are happier, but what really matters is whether those friends are happy. The idea that people can pass on emotions and moods such as anger or anxiety or even more enduring states of mind such as contentment or sadness, is hardly new to science.  For instance, if you are sharing a living space of becoming progressively more depressed the longer you live with them, you pick up their negative vibes. When customers respond in kind, which they usually do that rubs off on the staff. Recent studies have shown that such feelings can transmit not just from one person to another, but across entire local worlds of friends and work of colleagues.

When we emulate the look on someone’s face, we begin to experience the emotion behind the expression - a phenomenon observed by Charles Darwin. Darwin notes that manipulating our facial muscles profoundly affects they way we feel. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio argues that the physical sensations of an emotion - racing pulse, contracting muscles, dilated pupils, for example - precedes their representation in the brain. In other words, physiology determines feelings.

Engineers designing evacuations procedures used to assume that people respond immediately they hear an alarm, smell smoke or feel their building shake. But that is not what happens. Often challenge is getting them to move quickly enough. No doubts more people would have escaped from the World trade Center had they acted more quickly. Likewise, many have died in stricken aircraft burning on the ground because they sat in their seats too long before trying to escape. In their state of bewilderment makes it harder for them to process new information. They cannot think properly about what they should do. Here is some advice if you are caught in an emergency and unsure what to do.: move! Except that if you are in a crowd it is likely to be a bit more complicated. Once the sense of collective unity kicks in, you will feel less disposed to going it alone and you may be unwise to do so: one of the conclusions of Drury’s research is that acting individually in an emergency can lead to competitive and disruptive behavior, which reduces everyone's chances of survival. So take bull by its horns: make it clear to those around you that you are heading for an exit and that you want them to come with you. Then hasten ye all.

How to survive a crowd emergency

  1. Remember that your natural response to an emergency is likely to be a shock and bewilderment and that this can cause you to freeze. Do your best to override this: engage your brain and look for a way out.
  2. Cooperate with those around you, don’t compete with them. Altruistic behavior is very common during disasters and will increase your chances of survival
  3. Rehearse on an exit strategy in your head beforehand. You should do this whenever you enter an unfamiliar place or situation. You’ll far less likely to dawdle when something goes wrong if you have mentally gone through the motions.

Le Bone was not the first to articulate the madness of crowds, but he was first to popularize this idea. He believed, for example, that the size of the skull was a reliable indicator of intelligence; that's because Caucasians had bigger heads than other races in their brains were consequently more developed. (His book - Le Psychologie des foules - was printed 25 times in France in the 25 years following its publications). Sigmund Freud used Le Bon’s analysis as a starting point for his own thinking on the subject, kicking off his book “group psychology and the analysis of the ego”. “Look at a crowd when it roars down a street in anger. You have the impression of a beast majestic in its courage, terrible in its ferocity, but with something evil about its cruelty and determination” says Hilaire Belloc.

It was only a matter of time before a manipulative leader tried to appropriate Le Bonian theory for his own dark ends. In the early 20th century, Le psychologie des foules became something of a bible of totalitarianism. Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler all embraced its concepts of hypnotic action, anonymity and the collective mind. Le Bon went to suggest three tools a leader might use to persuade the masses to adopt an idea: affirmation, repetition and contagion. In other words, if you stated something clearly enough and repeated it enough times it would spread of its own record. Add to that the charismatic administration-inducing quality that he called ‘prestige’ and the people are yours.

Most people are convinced that they can resist peer pressure. But remaining independent in the face of a majority is a great deal harder than you might think. Standing alone can invite ridicule or ostracism, something all of us are keen to avoid.  Better to swallow your convictions than be laughed at or cold-shouldered.

Philip George Zimbardo is a psychologist and a professor emeritus at Stanford University set up the heroic Imagination project, which aim to reach managers, employees, school children and others the psychological skills required to resist conformity, bullying and mindless obedience. Advice includes: be mindful of what you are saying or doing rather than just going with the flow (don’t hesitate to fire a wake-up shot to your cortex), always maintain a sense of personal responsibility for your actions (following orders is never a justification), distinguish between legitimate authority figures, whose wisdom or expertise justifies their position and pseudo-leaders whose claim to power have no substance; develop a ‘heroic imagination’ by imagining physically or socially risky situation and how you might behave in them.

Polarization happens for two reasons: first, when you are surrounded by like-minded people you hear only arguments that support your own viewpoint, which are bound to reinforce it; second, we are always comparing ourselves with others and will shift out positions so as not to appear out of line. The same kind of thinking is behind the phenomenon known as ‘risky shift’ in which adolescents, already prone to risky behaviour, become even more inclined to throw caution to the wind when they are with their peers. Adolescents are esp. vulnerable to this because they put a very high value on social network rewards, such as the respect of their friends and are often blind to the negative consequences.

Cohesion can give a team the edge even in pursuits such as cycling whereas with mountaineering, the personal pursuit of excellence appears to be the prime motivator. Competitive road cycling requires spectacular individual effort, because of the huge physical advantages of sheltering in a teammate’s wake. Power and velocity share a cubic relationship, which means that for a cyclist to double his or her velocity requires an eight fold increase in power. The faster you are going, the more effort you need to up your speed. But a rider who follows in the slipstream of another can exert around forty per cent less power yet still maintain the same speed. When top cyclists ride in a capsule, with teammates in front, behind and on either side, the wind drag on his/her body is minimal and his power advantages can reach sixty percent. Thus when his moment comes to make his move for the front he should have energy in reserve. The most successful teams are those that coordinate their riders to make the most of this basic law of physics.

When resources and opportunities are limited, as in a recession, we tend to pull in further, our communities become more polarized and mistrust turns to hostility. Far easier to gain control over a chaotic environment by finding a scapegoat (immigration? Jews? Muslims? benefit claimants? bankers?) than taking aim at the entire system level. Co-operation requires a level of solidarity, If the diverse groups fail to integrate, you can bet that when the wheels off the wagon the divisions between them will be exploited by all sides. Ashutosh Varshney wanted to know why violence between Muslims and Hindus in India was more prevalent in some places than in others. After conducting field research in six Indian cities - three peaceful ( Calicut, Lucknow and Surat) and three violent (Aligarh, Hyderabad and Ahmadabad) - he concluded that the key to ethnic harmony was inter-communal engagement at a deep-level. it was not enough for two groups merely to know each other as neighbors or for their children to attend the same schools. They should be mixing in business associations, sports clubs, trade unions, political parties, community organizations, student unions, reading groups and so on. Integration at this level acts as a constraint on the polarizing strategies of political elites.

Group tendencies bring satisfaction and also much strife. Still, they can be vulnerable to reason, and thus it is profitable to be aware of them, even when conditions they create are hard to stomach. Consider three cases:

  1. Much evil is committed by people who are not psychopathic but who confirm unthinkingly  to the norms of their group, or who obey authority without questioning. Knowing that humans are wired to conform and how easily this can lead anyone astray., would potential evil doers behave differently? Possibly.
  2. Decades of research by social psychologists have demonstrated that fear drivers us closer to our in-groups and inflames prejudices against our-group.s. Would the world be a safer place if political leaders, public figures, pundits, commentators and the media took this on board and refrained from using fear to motivate voters and sell news? Unquestionably.
  3. Our fondness for mixing with others of our ilk - those who share our political and cultural values - is pushing disparate communities further apart (multiculturalism is divisive unless the different cultures interact). Would society be more harmonious if the various groups engaged more with each other? Highly likely, though hard to achieve.

Perhaps the most profound aspect of our groupishness is that it helps determines our sense of self. Identity is built not only on memories, but also on how people interact with us, a notion the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio dubs ‘ the social me’. In collective societies in East Asia, personal narratives dwell in the context and social significance of events, while Europeans and Americans are more concerned with personal achievement. The ‘terrible twos’ when children start to assert their independence, are less histrionic and sometimes completely absent in some non-Western cultures.

The group identifies before self identity and cooperation before autonomy. We are pulled by many currents, but it is the people we swim with who make us who we are.

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