03 October 2007

Mob or Majority?

The only thing that keeps the majority from becoming a mob is the rights of the individual. Here are three tidbits from O'Reilly, Goleman, and Milgram to argue my case.

I’m at the gym the other day, getting news without sound. Bill O’Reilly is on. A graphic flashes up, something to the effect that “Was it proper that the police tasered that guy at Florida State who asked a rambling question of John Kerry?” The poll results? 75% said yes, and 25% said no. The vast majority of Americans agree that it makes sense to inflict pain on a guy who they find annoying.

Daniel Goleman, in his new book Social Intelligence, tells the story of 3 year olds in a study. Stage one, the 3 year olds are exposed to adults playing a game by clearly observed rules. Stage two, puppets come into the room and begin to play the same game – but make obvious mistakes. The reaction of the children? They begin to clamor for the puppets to behave properly. Not only do the children learn the rules, they seem to have a compulsion to foist those rules onto others, ensuring social conformity. (Goleman speculates that the basis for this might be genetic.)

In a famous study at Yale, Stanley Milgram learned how willingly individuals become Nazis. In the wake of World War 2, wondering at how an entire nation could become willing accomplices to evil, Milgram set up a study that appeared to have two volunteers – one of whom inflicted pain on the other in a study of memory. One volunteer would read a list of paired words, like “bird,” and “nest.” The other “volunteer” would be tested on memory, as the first volunteer would read “bird” and the second volunteer would be expected to say “nest.” If the second “volunteer” forgot the response word – or didn’t say anything – the first volunteer would administer a shock. The shock administered would steadily increase in voltage, up to 450 volts, an amount marked “dangerous.”

As it turns out, the second “volunteer” was actually an actor. The shock was simulated. And as the shock increased in intensity, this actor would scream in pain, would begin to complain about a bad heart, and would eventually not speak at all. The actual volunteer could continue to administer the shock even if the actor was not responding – a penalty for not remembering.

Milgram expected (as did almost everyone he asked) that only about four-tenth of one percent of the population would ever take the shocks all the way to the max level of 450 volts. As it turns out, more than half did. (Since duplicated dozens if not hundreds of times across countries and age groups, the results of Milgram’s study indicated that the average person would, indeed, be a willing accomplice to evil even if they might not initiate it.)

All this to say, O’Reilly’s data might indicate that we still haven’t done a particularly good job of over-riding the impulse to conform and to enforce conformity. As a guy whose ability to fit in has always been spotty (at best), this tendency of groups frightens me.

The real brilliance of the founding fathers was not just that they embraced democracy. Knowing the psychology of groups, they went further: they granted civil rights to ensure that the individual was protected from the democratic majority eager to coerce conformity.

8 comments:

ThomasLB said...

Was this a scientific poll or a phone-in poll? It might not have been 75% of Americans, it might have been 75% of those who watch Bill O'Reilly and cared strongly enough to call in. (Although I do think a lot of Americans will rubber-stamp anything a man in uniform does- that's what John Kerry did.)

If it is okay to taser people who are annoying, then it's Bill O'Reilly who should be the most concerned!

Ron Davison said...

Thomas,
You've quickly honed in on a glaring bit of ignorance on my part - given that I had no sound, I don't know whether this was 75% of Americans or 75% of O'Reilly's listeners. I'd like to think it was the latter.

cce said...

I think back to grade school and feel shame that while some children were instigators, teasing the different or torturing the handicapped, the rest of us were willing accomplices to their cruelty. If mob mentality is human nature, how does one raise a child to rise above the fray and "do the right thing" so to speak?

LSD said...

Odd; I would think that O'Reilly viewers should have a high tolerance for the annoying.

-I also thought the reaction to the tasering incident was surprising and disturbing. The actions of the people in charge at the Univeristy can be comfortably assigned to just a handful of individuals.

exskindiver said...

"As a guy whose ability to fit in has always been spotty (at best), this tendency of groups frightens me"

i knew there was a reason why we blicked. (blog clicked)

and CCE, if i may take a crack at answering your question...
i am guessing we can raise our children to do the right thing by in fact, doing the right thing ourselves.
after all, values are not taught--they are caught.

(this is very exhausting btw)

Dave said...

I don't think I've ever seen a poll that I've liked. They never have the answer that I'd give. Maybe more properly, the question has too many not set out facts which result in A or B or... not be the answer, unless the facts are...

Don't trust a poll.

Life Hiker said...

I have very mixed emotions about this tasering. I believe in the first amendment but also in "fair play".

If the guy knew the rules about how much time you get to ask questions, and he exceeded them,and he got escorted off, and he resisted the escort and continued to make a scene, then OK, he gets his prize - tasering.

"Free speech" means you can say what you want to say in a public place (gratuitous obscenities excluded). When the place is not "public", but in fact a place where special rules are placed on speech by the owners of the place, then one is obligated to abide by those rules. A courtroom is one such place, but I would argue that the place where Kerry was speaking also fits the criteria.

It may be that the guy's objective was to get attention to his cause by getting tasered. If so, he accomplished his objective and bully for him. He felt the pain of the taser was a good trade for making his point. OK. Both sides did what they needed to do.

What's the big problem?

Ron Davison said...

LH,
I'm so glad you said this. Not because I agree but because I very much disagree (and am so relieved that we finally have a difference of opinion).
If you watch the video of the guy getting tasered, it would take a very active imagination to think that he wanted to be tasered.