mercredi 2 août 2017

The Power of Others

To many introverted types the refrain "Humans are social animals" sometimes jars. But the context of Michael Bond's volume is not about hosting dinner parties or joining a bridge club; it's a powerful documentation of the extent to which we are not running our own show even if we think we are. Rather, we seem particularly hard-wired to copy, identify with and be influenced by what other folks are doing. And we really want them to accept or at least acknowledge us. This is pretty universal and invariant with respect to personality types (except that everybody believes herself to be more immune to it than average).

Biologically the explanation for attraction to social identity appears to be its superiority in respect of evolutionary survival--co-operation with friends assists in the conflict with foes as well as having collaborative benefits when those enemies are not around (benefits such as division of labour). Chemically, acceptance by the society around oneself (or part of it anyway) delivers large helpings of self-esteem--to almost everybody--which makes sure that it gets sought out by most of us in one way or another, and explains why we may do all manner of things to preserve it. To some extent this book is a recount of the consequences of these enduring realities in myriad contexts that perhaps don't require them any more. Also it is a textbook of where they can be staggeringly useful. And harmful.

To take one rather extreme example (this book is quite full of extreme examples), lone terrorists who go on killing sprees would appear to be an antithesis of the individual seeking acceptance into a group; however according to Kathleen Puckett, clinical psychologist for the FBI, comprehensive social exclusion, the like of which many subsequent investigations of these individuals throw up, can be sufficiently bad an experience as to motivate some to embrace a (hate-filled) ideology and behaviour that, ultimately, provides for that yearned-for recognition by society (. . . albeit recognition as a lone therrorist.)

Forces that push and keep groups together can have bad effects. One is groupthink: aversion to criticising ideas because it means criticising one's group brethren (who may then cast one out). Harvard psychologist Solomon Asch showed that people will tend to nod to majority opinion even when it is fairly obviously false. His student Stanley Milgram revealed a darker exploitation of this in respect of obeying ostensible authority, in the latter's mock electric shock experiments. Philip Zimbardo of Stanford produced a now famous "prison experiment" simulation that was aborted early because it apparently turned good people evil too quickly. Polarisation is the behavioural twin sister of groupthink; group occupancy can come to resemble an echo chamber that delivers thinking that was more extreme than where it started. The author worries that unchecked (and maybe this is assisted by modern media), the effect is a "social centrifuge" that hollows out the middle ground, in politics, diversity and culture. He would seem to have corroboration in several parts of the world. Close-quarters living doesn't fix this, integration deep enough to fire up empathy is necessary.

But the foregoing phenomena are situational, not dispositional (even as the apparatus that makes them happen is more the latter). Conversely to being carried along in a group wave, it doesn't take many to dissent (and start a revolution). In what feels a bit like an attempt to have and eat cake, a chapter on "ordinary heroism" suggests that breakaway self-sacrificing acts are socially motivated too. Maybe to protect ones comrades, maybe because an emergency has created commonality and therefore cohesion in an affected group. Whatever it is, the ordinary designation implies that heroism can be a one-time thing and is more an emergent behaviour than an innate virtue. Your reviewer can testify to this with two personal data points of near-identical situations about ten years apart; in the first she fell prey to the "bystander effect" (doing nothing when someone needed help because others were also inactive); in the second much more recent case she rushed to help (and ruined her clothes with someone else's blood, but this was much more than offset by the reconciliation of a decade long negativity she had semi-consciously harboured against herself since the first event).

Yet this is double edged too. Almost anyone can be a hero, but also a villain. From the work of Nasra Hassan, a former UN worker who interviewed the families of dozens of suicide bombers and Amali, a Sri Lankan psychologist who de-briefed male and female Tamil Tigers, it becomes clear that social bonds and familial pressures are the drivers of atrocities that are colloquially (erroneously) attributed to be the doing of fanatics who are quite different from the rest of us. Not so says Amali, you can turn almost anybody into a terrorist if the conditions are right. Mob violence--long used by authorities to ignite public fright that allows illiberal policy to be waved through--is also not the collective indiscriminate madness often portrayed, but foremost an "us" alignment that later gets provided with a "them". The science in this area indicates why traditional policy responses to public disorder have usually made things worse.

Severe isolation challenges almost anyone (however people centric or otherwise they imagine themselves to be) But those who cope better with it--including August Courtauld who was confined alone in an arctic weather station for five months, not knowing if he would be rescued--manage to form associations with others who are not even present. Or, as solo sailors like Ellen MacArthur did on her record-breaking circumnavigation of the world, they build companionable relationships with their boats or their surroundings. Or like Edith Bone, imprisoned in solitary confinement in Hungary for seven years, any repetitive project they can concoct becomes a companion. In this way solitude can become manageable or even blissful for some (as Bernard Moitessier found when he dropped out of a solo RTW yacht race so that he could keep going) and not inexorably lead to loneliness which is the version nobody likes. Not even introverts.

via International Skeptics Forum

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