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.