March 08, 2007


Caption: Venus is a non-conformist.

It seems to El Cabrero that most of the horrors and crimes committed by humanity over the ages have not been perpetrated by the occasional sociopath but by fairly "normal" people either doing what they are told or going along to get along.

I call them "sins of obedience."

Partly because we are inherently social animals (or else we wouldn't have lived this long), there are powerful pressures on us to conform to perceived social norms. Much of the time,that's not a bad thing. But it often can and has led to disastrous consequences.

"Group think" has been blamed among other things for the bad intelligence going in to the unnecessary war in Iraq, to use just one example.

A famous psychological experiment Solomon Asch first conducted in the 1950s shows how conformity can lead people to ignore the obvious evidence of their own senses.

As Cass R. Sunstein describes it in his recent book Why Societies Need Dissent,

In these experiments, the subject was placed in a group of seven to nine people who seemed to be other subjects in the experiment but who were actually Asch's confederates. The ridiculously simple task was to "match" a particular line, shown on a large white card, to the one of three "comparison lines" that was identical to it in length. The two nonmatching lines were substantially different, with the differential varying form an inch and three quarters to three quarters of an inch.

At first, everyone agreed about the right answer. But in the third round, all the other members of the group picked the wrong line.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, most people ended up agreeing with the group when it was obviously wrong at least once in a series of rounds. And,

When asked to decide on their own, without seeing judgments form others, people erred less than 1 percent of the time. But in rounds in which group pressure supported the incorrect answer, people erred 36.8 percent of the time. Indeed, in a series of twelve questions, no less than 70 percent of people went along with the group and defied the evidence of their own senses at least once.

And, while the experiment was first conducted in America, the general pattern was fairly similar when repeated in other countries, although there were some differences.

Asch drew two conclusions. First, some people are independent most or all of the time (about 25 percent all the time and the rest not conforming 2/3 of the time. But, to quote Sunstein, "Most people, at least some of the time, are willing to yield to the group even on an apparently easy question about which they have direct and unambiguous evidence."

This is where it gets interesting. If at least one other person dissented from the group, the subject was much more likely to stick by his own observations. As Asch put it, "dissent per se increased independence and moderated the errors that occurred."

Need I say more?

TRADE, FAIR AND OTHERWISE. Although it's too soon to draw conclusions, it looks like the new Congress won't necessarily be a rubber stamp for fast track on future trade deals. Here's an interesting article on the possibilities by David Sirota on the subject.

A VOICE OF REASON ON ESTATE TAX REPEAL. This is some good news. Bill Gates Jr. of Microsoft and Gates Foundation fame, i.e. the world's richest man, came out yesterday against repealing the estate tax on those who inherit large fortunes:

WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) -- Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, the world's richest man, said Wednesday that he agrees with his father that the elimination of the estate tax would be a bad idea. Gates' father, Bill Gates Sr., has led a campaign against efforts to repeal the tax. "I do agree with my dad, I think what he's doing there has a lot of merit," Gates told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, in response to a question from Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt. Gates said he hasn't spoken out extensively on the issue because he is focused on innovation issues important to Microsoft and global health issues at the center of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's mission.

GAG ORDER ON THOSE POLAR BEARS. The NY Times reports today that the Bush administration issued a memo to Fish and Wildlife personnel ordering them not to discuss climate change, sea ice or polar bears if they were not explicitly authorized to do so. This must be because polar bears hate freedom.



Anonymous said...

While on the topic of great psychological experiements dealing with obedience, lets not forget Zimbardo and Milgram....on another note, it may also be said that polar bears, sea lions, and other cold water aquatic life have been additions to the axis of evil; however, doplhins and seals, are now being enlisted to attack intruding swimmers who threaten national security... seems to make a lot of sense... maybe the military should start to enlist and train polar bears to attack...

mohsood said...

Allen Funt did that kind of thing on Candid particular favorite was a guy getting on an elevator, and all the people were facing toward the back wall. It was interesting to see how many people turned around backward themselves....quite a few.

El Cabrero said...

First, to anonymous, dolphins and seals are part of the coalition of the willing. The polar bears must disarm or they will be disarmed.

More to come on Milgram.

Mohsood, Candid Camera had it's moments, didn't it. There's a whole branch of sociology (now fairly defunct) where people acted weird to see how other people reacted. I think they called it ethnomethodology. It was like candid camera for academic types.

mohsood said...

El Cabrero - I was racking my brain for that word (ethnomethodology) -
thank you!

El Cabrero said...

I think a lot of the people who practice it run a risk of getting beat up.

elipsos said...

Unfortunately though, the polar bears are telling a story by dying... (and this is an old article)

Or perhaps Someone saw 'ursus maritimus' on a report and thought...hey, that's not American English. Axis of Evil!

This of course, does not beat Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) comment about global warming being caused by dinosaurs not realizing the benefits of Beano.

(though, to be fair, sheep farts are why New Zealand has such bad air quality)

El Cabrero said...

Love the dinosaur thing! Re: New Zealand's sheep, I think the boxer who sometimes appears here is not entirely innocent in that department.