In Praise of Sheeple

Why we shouldn't always think for ourselves

As you’ll know if you’ve read CONFLICTED, I’m a firm believer that the group, under the right conditions, is more intelligent than the person. The old adage that two heads are wiser than one is true, and it scales - as long as the heads feel free to disagree with one another. Even when thinking alone, our thinking is improved if we’ve internalised other people’s opinions. (I wrote about “the inner crowd” here.)

Our individual brains are inherently limited instruments. We rarely know as much about a given topic as everyone else in the room put together, and even when we do, our perspective is always partial and biased in myriad ways. We depend on others to straighten out our own cognitive kinks. In groups where people freely deliberate and debate, inherent flaws in our thinking processes become strengths - even confirmation bias becomes a feature instead of a bug.

Yet it’s also undeniable that groups can make people stupid. We get frequent and visible reminders of this via social media, which can seem like an experiment in pack behaviour. Clever individuals will unthinkingly adopt a line and surrender their own capacity for reasoning and judgement. This ancient phenomenon can have much graver consequences than a Twitter storm. In the years after the Second World War, and revelations about the Holocaust, the human instinct to conform was extensively explored by social psychologists, several of whom were Jewish Americans. They wanted to play their part in figuring out what happened, and how to stop it happening again.

In 1951 Solomon Asch carried out an experiment that remains famous. There are different versions but in simplest form, an individual is put in a room with seven others who are in fact accomplices (“confederates”) of the researcher. The group is shown straight lines of varying lengths and asked to say which ones are the same length. The answer is blindingly obvious, but the confederates deliberately give the wrong answer - and at least some of the time, the “naive participant” goes along with them. The film below is a nice reconstruction of it, at least a version of it (for more context on the Asch experiment, its variations and nuances, read the Wikipedia entry).


There is inherent comedy to the situation. That’s even more true in this scenario, a kind of cousin of Asch:

By the end, even the poor woman who is the experiment’s main subject/victim can sense the absurdity of what she’s doing. If we laugh at these scenes, we’re laughing at ourselves; they’re funny because humans are funny. A lot of comedy comes from seeing some pompous ass brought back down to earth. Here, the ass is us. We go around picturing ourselves as sovereign individuals with unique minds, and try to forget that we have a strong strain of sheep in us. Humans reason and reflect, but they also herd and huddle, and the herding has more to do with the reasoning that we like to acknowledge.

My sympathies are with the “dupes” in these films. I can imagine myself behaving in the same way. In fact I don’t regard them as acting irrationally in any but a superficial sense. It often pays to do what the others are doing even if you don’t understand why you’re doing it, or why they are. Parents are fond of asking their children questions like this: “If your friends all jumped off a cliff, would you do the same?” But if the people I know and trust are all doing something, and I don’t have time to find out why, I’ll probably copy them. In this particular hypothetical, I’d assume my friends know about some even worse fate that also awaits me unless I follow. Or maybe there’s a giant trampoline down there.

People can over-conform out of a desire to be seen as cooperative or obedient. They can also irrationally rebel out of an urge to prove their independence from the herd (at least, from the larger herd - conspiracy-based communities are secessional). I shudder at anyone who styles themselves a “contrarian” or “maverick”. Individuals behave differently in different kinds of group. Tweak the conditions under which a group operates and one or the other of these predispositions, self-effacement or self-assertion, can get of hand. When thinking about the culture you want to create in a team or a workplace, you should be trying to help people locate the mean between these two extremes.

The injunction to “think for yourself” is simplistic and can even be self-destructive. Dirk Helbing, a Dutch expert on crowd behaviour, designed a computer model of a nightclub in which it was assumed that people would act from a mixture of individualistic and herding behaviour. He programmed his agents with a tendency to match the direction of their movement to the average direction of those around them. This herding tendency could be dialled up and down. What mix of behaviour would lead to the best outcome – that is, the fewest number of people trapped inside the club?

Helbing found that some herding was a good thing, because it multiplied the effect of good decisions: when someone found an exit, others were more likely to follow it too. The effect was self-reinforcing: the more people moved to one place, the more inclined others were to follow. As the herding instinct was dialled up (as might happen as panic rises) individuals in a room with several different exits began to leave more efficiently, because they were able to capitalise on any single individual’s success in find a way out (it’s an effect akin to an innovation being copied and spreading through a population). Beyond a certain herding level, things went bad, quickly. A single exit became clogged with individuals who had followed the majority, even as other exits went undiscovered and unused.

Terms like “herd behaviour” are never used as compliments. We associate it with dumbing down and irresponsibility. But this is itself a received view. Helbing’s study suggests what our own history shows: the human instinct to copy rather than think for ourselves is good for us, up to a point. Cultural anthropologists have done the most to establish that our instinct to copy parents and peers helps us to learn, to get along, to organise, to bond, and ultimately to build the shared behaviours that enable us to survive and progress. They’ve discovered that compared to other primates humans “over-imitate”: we copy even when there’s no reason to.

In a much-replicated experiment, a complicated-looking box is presented to chimps and the researchers demonstrate how to access a bit of food inside. They include some unnecessary steps: tapping the box three times, fiddling with a bolt, whatever. The chimps quickly work out all they need to do is pull a door and grab the food, and ignore the superfluous actions. Do this experiment with very small humans, however, and the kids copy all the actions. The chimps are more efficient and in a way more ‘rational’ but it’s the other primate which has built cities, ships and cathedrals.

Traditions we don’t understand ought not to be dismissed too quickly, since the collective intelligence of the past dwarves our own. In The Secret of Our Success, the anthropologist Joseph Henrich argues that individual humans are not nearly as smart as we think and that it is culture that makes us a successful species. The Naskapi, a foraging tribe from north-eastern Canada, hunt caribou. They have to decide where to hunt, which isn’t straightforward because if they visit one location too often the caribou know to stay away. The best hunting strategy therefore requires randomisation.

But individuals like to think they’re smart and left to their own devices, Naskapi hunters probably wouldn’t be satisfied with setting out in a random direction every day; they’d come up with brilliant plans which proved to be disastrous. Tradition saves them. To decide where to go, the hunters use a divination ritual which involves heating a caribou shoulder blade over hot coals until cracks and spots start to appear on it; the resulting pattern is then used as a map. In a sense it’s a mindless ritual, but it’s also a randomising device which helps the hunters overcome their decision-making biases.

Here’s what I like about the dupes. When everyone around them behaved in a certain way, their first thought wasn’t “I must be smarter than them”. It was, “They must know something I don’t”. There is an admirable humility to that, even if, in this case, it led them to say or do something absurd. The ability of individual humans to think for ourselves is crucial to progress; equally crucial is that we trust, sometimes unthinkingly, in judgements made by others, alive or dead. Societies where too few people are willing to question norms and traditions tend to stagnate and to perpetuate injustices. But there is a positive side to conformism, too. Just as in an imaginary nightclub on fire there’s a good chance that a passing group will lead you to an exit, there’s a good chance that whatever the people around you say is right, is right, even if you don’t fully understand why yet. Society functions best when we’re sheepish.

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MISCELLANY

  • Really enjoyed my conversation with David Powell on productive conflict in the context of climate activism. David’s podcast series, Your Brain On Climate Change, promises to be fascinating.

  • If you’d like a really deep dive into the global supply chain crisis, read this thread and the articles it links to.

  • Talking of supply chains here’s a good thread on why Apple under Tim Cook has been so successful (I’m old enough to remember that when he took over lots of smart people said that’s it, Apple is dead now, it can’t live without the Steve magic. In fact Cook probably took over at just the right moment, albeit for regrettable reasons.

  • Covid in the UK update: what we know about what’s to come this winter (generally quite encouraging, albeit with caveats). Also this sounds like very good news.

  • Absolutely terrific piece on Chic - the band, the production house, the sound - from Simon Reynolds. What an immense and influential body of work Nile Rogers and Bernard Rogers created. Along with those under their own name, some ‘Chic’ albums were fronted by other artists, like Sister Sledge and Diana Ross; Simon’s piece has inspired me to make a playlist of their oeuvre. Put it on shuffle.

  • If you’re interested in the origins of Covid-19, including the lab leak theory, watch this debate between scientists (expertly moderated for non-experts by Jon Cohen). It’s a superb example of open, constructive disagreement. As one of them says at the end, it’s the kind of discussion that should have been happening much earlier on (and not just on this particular aspect of the pandemic). NYT profile of one of the participants, Alina Chan, here.

  • Teresa Bejan on the problem with “problematic”. (Academic context but with broader implications)

  • UK sport authorities have issued new guidelines on transgender participation. They seem to have landed broadly in the right place. Ross Tucker will have the definitive take (that is, I haven’t listened to it yet, but he’s the person I trust most on this issue). Suffice to say for now that many participants in the review who held perfectly reasonable opinions did not feel free to express them openly. This is not healthy.

  • I like the BBC R3 show Inside Music. Each week a classical musician is given a couple of hours to play some of their favourite music. This one, with the African-American oboist Titus Underwood, is really special. It features some lovely pieces you probably haven’t heard, and his voice has a music all of its own. You’ll learn about how black composers influenced film music. You’ll hear this. This is what radio is for.

  • Poem: The Hot Dog Factory.

  • I didn’t mark the passing of the last Everly brother, Don, in August, so let me do it now. Alex Petridis wrote a beautiful appreciation of the Everlys that also works as a good place to start if you want to get to know their music, which you really should. I suggest listening to their reunion concert at the Royal Albert Hall in the 1980s (there’s an album of it). Their voices are even finer than they were in their youth, the band is great, and you get most of their best songs and covers, showing the full range of their influences. It includes this achingly gorgeous thing:


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Coming soon in a special edition of The Ruffian: a longread on a fascinating incident from the Second World War.

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HIRING ME
I give talks and run workshops on how to create cultures of positive disagreement and creative curiosity, and on the principles of effective communication. Drop me an email via my website or hit ‘reply’ here to discuss.

WHAT I’M READING
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro. Yes, I should be reading his latest but I’m behind as usual. Unusually for a ‘literary’ novelist, his prose is nothing special, deliberately plain. But his ability to plot a compulsive narrative, to animate characters and paint scenes, to create atmosphere and mood, draw out your emotions, to weave ideas seamlessly into story - yeah he’s good. There’s a big scene at the end I would have cut, other than that it’s brilliant. Recommended.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK
For man is a most unwise and a most wise being. The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species it always acts right.
Edmund Burke

How to buy CONFLICTED - links to your favourite booksellers (UK and US).

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