Flimsy Sanity: September 2004

Flimsy Sanity

In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. - Friedrich Nietzsche

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

A Vote that Counts

Every four years or so, the big time politicians pretend they care about the common man. They hang up their $1000 suit jackets and show up in casual clothes riding on buses to let us know that they are “One of Us”. And of course, there are plenty of flags in the background. They are not only not one of us, their actions show they may just dislike us – the average working person – and they care very little about the will of the people. By and large, they are beholding to the folks that made them millionaires, not the folks that pay their wages. They cannot relate to folks who earn in a week what they spend at a meal. They like to call themselves public servants, but we should count the silverware.

The famous philosopher Schopenhauer said that “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” But then again, he also said women were meant to obey. But back to politicians. Are we too late to tell them that it is obvious to the working man that something is wrong with our democracy? That it is obvious that government is by and for the super rich who don’t care that the worker cannot afford health care as long as the pharmaceutical companies show record profits and rich doctors get caps on lawsuit awards. Who don’t care that full time work is rare these days as companies who cannot send their companies overseas only hire part time workers. Who act like a cost of living raise in minimum wage will bankrupt the country. Who have convinced us that government is bad and greed is good. The following was written about the Republican Party, but both have similar agendas:
In the glut of paper I could find no unifying or fundamental principle except a certain belief that money was good for rich people and bad for poor people. It was the only point on which all the authorities agreed, and no matter where the words were coming from (a report on federal housing, an essay on the payment of Social Security, articles on the sorrow of the slums or the wonder of the U.S. Navy) the authors invariably found the same abiding lesson in the tale—money ennobles rich people, making them strong as well as wise; money corrupts poor people, making them stupid as well as weak…..An opinion poll taken in 1964 showed 62 percent of the respondents trusting the government to do the right thing; by 1994 the number had dwindled to 19 percent. The measure can be taken as a tribute to the success of the Republican propaganda mill that for the last forty years has been grinding out the news that all government is bad, and that the word "public," in all its uses and declensions (public service, citizenship, public health, community, public park, commonwealth, public school, etc.), connotes inefficiency and waste. http://www.mindfully.org/Reform/2004/Republican-Propaganda1sep04.htm

No matter who gets in, corporate welfare and the wars will go on. Our choices are what Joan Baez called “A choice between cancer and polio.” We are fed the crap that our vote really counts and somehow we are responsible for the government we have.
Majority does not rule when the man who wins the popular election is not president so obviously their claptrap that our vote counts is bullshit. The only vote that really counts is the one that reflects a conscience rather than a tradition. For me, that is Ralph Nader. He is against the war and so am I. He is a moral person and so am I. He thinks buying legislation to benefit corporations that pay no taxes or operate from offshore havens is wrong and so do I. He believes the minimum wage should be tied to inflation and so do I. He thinks NAFTA and GATT are a mess and so do I. I think he is a reasonable man who cannot be bought and so he is ridiculed and violently opposed. In time, we will all see that what he says is self evident. Many social improvements came about because third parties were formed around ideas that were then co-opted by the major parties after enough people supported the idea. Whether Bush or Kerry get in, things will pretty much stay the same. I think either the Republicans or the Democrats can adopt Nader’s ideas and have my vote.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Polls unfair

I think it is unfair to poll people about their preference for political candidates. Humans are a fickle bunch and want to identify with a winner. A sporting team with a losing season sells fewer hats than a winning team - loyalty be damned. Publishing polls influences the election and that is wrong, as wrong as announcing winners before all the polls are closed on election day.


I've been volunteering at the local grade school's library. I am struck by how early children start conforming to clothing styles and even the overweight little girls have their bellies exposed. Part of the problem is that clothing options are restricted right at the store where hip- huggers and short shirts are the only things for sale, and in a case of which came first, the chicken or the egg, the stores may just be filling a demand.

No one wants to be embarrassed by being "out of fashion". I can't remember where I heard the statement, "Everyone wants to be normal, no one wants to be average." Woe to the child that doesn't conform, he will be ridiculed and bullied. When they grow to adults, they are more likely to shun the unconventional dresser or thinker.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Conformity research

Research on the topic of conformity began in 1951,when Solomon Asch used groups of seven to nine people who were told they were participating in a study on visual perception. These subjects were asked to match the length of a standard line to three comparison lines. Each group had one real subject while the rest of the group was made up of confederates who were instructed to unanimously give incorrect responses in some trials. Those exposed to the incorrect responses conformed to these answers 33% of the time, with 75% of these subjects conforming at least once. Such is the power of the group to sway the individual, even when the majority is clearly incorrect (Asch, 1956).

Another classic work by Festinger (1950) uncovered strong pressures on group members to act in uniform ways. Leon Festinger was a social psychologist from New York City who became famous for his Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Festinger explained that group members (i.e., the majority) place pressure on other members to conform to group goals for two reasons: social reality and/or group locomotion. Social reality refers to the need of group members to validate their own opinions by having others agree with them. Group locomotion refers to the group's desire to move forward toward the completion of a goal. Thus, members of groups often experience strong pressure to agree with the rest of the group and to act in ways that will ensure movement toward the group's goal. His theory arose from his observations of a Wisconsin-based flying saucer cult of the 1950s whose prophecy of universal destruction failed to come true. The cult prophesied a vast flood would soon kill everyone on Earth except for the members of the cult, who would be carried away by flying saucers. Before the predicted flood, the cult was very secretive and very reluctant to speak to the media or make converts. After the predicted flood, they stopped being secretive and spoke very eagerly to the media.
Festinger explained this transformation as occurring because the prediction failed: there was no global flood and no flying saucers arrived to carry the cult to salvation. The cult was ridiculed, and though they had an explanation for the failure of their prophecy -- on the night in question their prayers "had spread so much light that God saved the world from destruction" -- nobody took it seriously. This is why Festinger suggested that the cult became fervently evangelistic. The only way for them to reverse their humiliation was to convert other people to their beliefs. If everyone believed, no one would laugh.

One of the most famous experiments on conformity and obedience was done by Stanley Milgram. The experiment involved two people. One, a confederate, played the part of a student trying to remember different words that they had heard. The other person was the subject who played the role of a teacher and gave him the test. The "teacher" was told to shock the "student" everytime he missed a word and to increase the dosage if the "student" got more answers wrong. Milgram found out that most people would shock his fellow man even to deadly levels and would be obedient to an authority even if compliance injured his fellow human.

Monday, September 13, 2004

The Emperor Has No Clothes

The problem with this fairy tale is that it stops too soon. The little boy convinces the villagers that the king is naked, but more than likely, the little boy faces ostracism and the populace and the king do all in their power to maintain the status quo and silence the little brat. Whistleblowers are not admired for their ethical or realistic views of a problem, but more often have their character besmirched.

The need for conformity is the desire to go along with the norms of a group of people, so you will be accepted as an in-group person - a non-threatening tribal animal. Conforming to group norms is a signal to the other group members that 'I am like you. I am following our rules. I am not a threat.' Sociologists study different groups for their different norms or rules to which group members conform in behavior, attitude, dress, language, etc. One study I read said that "In-group members who conform strongly are core group members who are asserting the identity of the group, or peripheral members who are trying to impress the core members, perhaps to be accepted into the 'inner circle' (which is in fact another group-within-the-group). Further out, people outside the group may similarly emulate group members either to seek admission to the group or to form an admiring group who are seeking to gain some reflected glory. An example is pop fans who dress like their idol."

Here are academic theories about forces encouraging conformity:
Bystander Effect: the more bystanders, the less likely it is one will help. In a famous study on conformity, Latané and Darley sat a series of college students in a cubicle amongst a number of other cubicles in which there were tapes of other students playing (the student thought they were real people). One of the voices cries for help and makes sounds of severe choking. When the student thought they were the only person there, 85% rushed to help. When they thought there was one other person, this dropped to 65%. And when they thought there were four other people, this dropped again to 31%.
A famous case occurred in the early 1960, where Kitty Genovese was attacked and eventually murdered over a 45 minute period during which 38 people witnessed the attack and did not lift a finger to help in any way.
Consistency Theory: we seek the comfort of internal alignment. Once we have made a declaration of our ethics, we try to remain consistent.
Commitment: we feel obliged to complete a public commitment.
Communication Accommodation Theory: we morph to be like others. When we talk with other people, we will tend to subconsciously change our style of speech (accent, rate, types of words, etc.) towards the style used by the listener. We also tend to match non-verbal behaviors. This signals agreement and liking.
Epistemological Weighting Hypothesis: conformance depends on how closely our norms match group norms.
Group Locomotion Hypothesis: members are motivated to achieve group goals.
Groupthink: maintenance of group cohesion becomes all-important.
Impression Management: we behave well when we are being watched.
Informational Social Influence: when we don't know what to do, we copy others.
Normative Social Influence: basic group need forces us to conform.
Pluralistic Ignorance: sometimes most people disagree with a group norm, but nobody speaks out.
Politeness Theory: we act politely or rudely depending on whether we care.
Reciprocity Norm: we need to return another's favor.
Roles: we conform with shared expectations of behavior.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: acting how we are treated.
Self-Monitoring Behavior: we are affected by how others see us.
Social Desirability Bias: we follow social rules when we are watched.
Social Impact Theory: how we behave depends on how many, etc. are watching.
Social Learning Theory: we learn much by watching others, thinking, then trying it out.
Social Norms: groups have rules that must be followed.
Spiral of Silence Theory: we keep quiet if we are in the minority (and vice versa)

Nobody remembers the name of the woman who tried to stop the accounting practices at Enron. Hugh C. Thompson, the U.S. Army helicopter pilot who helped expose the My Lai massacre in Vietnam more than 25 years ago and defied the soldiers on the ground by rescuing villagers, is hardly a household name and is less a hero to some than Lt Calley. Joseph Darby, the Army specialist who complained to his superiors about the torture of Iraqis in the Abu Graib prison is not interviewed on NBC. Whistleblowers are known to suffer greatly for their assertion that the "Emperor Has No Clothes."

Abu Graib reminds me of the famous experiment called the The Stanford Prison Experiment in 1973. Zimbardo set out to investigate whether prison guards were sadistic. There had been numerous stories in America in the 1960s about prisoners being brutalized, humiliated and even killed by their guards. In order to investigate if the guards behaved like that because of personality or environmental factors, Zimbardo set up an experiment at Stanford University using student volunteers. They became sadistic so quickly the experiment had to be stopped.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Mackay, Charles, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

Mackay, Charles, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds: Library of Economics and Liberty is an interesting book about the phenomenon of group mania and some of the history of insane movements. The following is from the preface to the 1852 edition:
IN READING THE HISTORY OF NATIONS, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first. We see one nation suddenly seized, from its highest to its lowest members, with a fierce desire of military glory; another as suddenly becoming crazed upon a religious scruple; and neither of them recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of groans and tears, to be reaped by its posterity. At an early age in the annals of Europe its population lost their wits about the sepulchre of Jesus, and crowded in frenzied multitudes to the Holy Land; another age went mad for fear of the devil, and offered up hundreds of thousands of victims to the delusion of witchcraft. At another time, the many became crazed on the subject of the philosopher's stone, and committed follies till then unheard of in the pursuit. It was once thought a venial offence, in very many countries of Europe, to destroy an enemy by slow poison. Persons who would have revolted at the idea of stabbing a man to the heart, drugged his pottage without scruple. Ladies of gentle birth and manners caught the contagion of murder, until poisoning, under their auspices, became quite fashionable. Some delusions, though notorious to all the world, have subsisted for ages, flourishing as widely among civilised and polished nations as among the early barbarians with whom they originated,—that of duelling, for instance, and the belief in omens and divination of the future, which seem to defy the progress of knowledge to eradicate them entirely from the popular mind. Money, again, has often been a cause of the delusion of multitudes. Sober nations have all at once become desperate gamblers, and risked almost their existence upon the turn of a piece of paper. To trace the history of the most prominent of these delusions is the object of the present pages. Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Blog launch

This is the start of a new venture - to catalog some of the insane things humans do collectively.

The terms for group thinking are varied. Some say humans are sheeple-flowing with no obvious leadership while others claim people are subject to mind viruses or memes. Movies and the media frequently feature schizophrenics in depictions of strange behavior, but the general population is as collectively crazy as any madman. Some of the nutsy things people have done range from the tragic such as the Crusades, to the trivial such as the rush to buy furbees, "Cabbage Patch" dolls or "Tickle Me Elmo's". Collective thinking can be seen in the popularity of tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, diets, jokes, political and religious thought, regional accents, even styles of walking.

People are easily panicked. The Great Toilet Paper Shortage occurred in 1973 after Johnny Carson made a joke that there was an acute shortage of toilet paper in the United States. The next morning, 20 million viewers bought up all the toilet paper they could find so that by noon that day, most stores were out of toilet paper. Herd Instinct is a term used in the investing world to describe irrational buying or selling by large blocks of people.

Groups seem to enjoy paranoia. Christian fundamentalist belief in the coming apocalypse and the Rapture would require a prescription for anti-psychotics if it was observed in an individual. Recall all the survivalist gear sold for y2k. Insurance companies prey on this principle.

Humans want others to think like them, although more often than not, they are not thinking for themselves. Car salesman and police interrogators both know that copying actions and speech patterns of their subject ingratiates themselves with the target. It seems that the main thrust of most organizations, religions and political groups is recruitment of more members more than it is social improvement.