Reflections: People Have a Tendency to Conform, Even Swarm

Human beings may have an instinct for group conformity and swarm behavior.  Even staunch individualists should take notice.

Conformity is the basis for social structure, and is not by itself a bad thing.  Psychologist Stanley Milgram, that same Milgram who gave us the six degrees of separation, demonstrated an unconscious conformity with his colleagues Bickman and Berkowitz in a classic study in 1969.  This study is precious.  On a sidewalk in New York, a lone individual gazed skyward at nothing in particular.  Only 4% of pedestrians stopped to check out what he was looking at.  When five people were employed to gaze skyward, the number of people joining in jumped to 18%.  When 15 people were employed to look up at nothing, a full 40% of people passing by also stopped to look up, flowing over into the street and nearly blocking traffic within a minute.  We might assume these people all had things to do, places to go.  Nevertheless, they became part of a crowd that had no clear reason to exist, other than the gravity of the crowd itself.  Psychologists call this social validation.  In other words, following the crowd.   We are social animals, so the fact that we are predisposed to participate in social behaviors should come as no surprise.

The degree of individual participation in a given “crowd” varies, but there is no question that at times the individual can become merged with a group.  Scientists call this swarm behavior.  In fact, pedestrians have been observed following in the footsteps of other pedestrians – even when that route does not seem to be the most efficient means to get from point A to point B.  In areas where foot travel dominates (or dominated historically), whole neighborhoods are said to have developed from the swarm travel of re-routed pedestrians.

In describing the perceptual streams that dominate participation in social memberships, I would take this deeper. We are predisposed to connectivity, the gravity of which can pull individuals into participation with a larger whole.  Some people are socially impressionable, made by nature to support social networks. Some people naturally pool shared interests.

We are streaming our encounters based on our participation in the Views and Circumstance that build our universe.  We are following the perceptual threads of our lives. Metaphorically, this may not be much different from ants following pheromone scent trails instinctively as part of the superorganism of Ant. In other words, people often behave as they do because of the alignments made through our participation in our various memberships – the threads of those group-mind connections.

The dark side of crowd behavior is well observed: mobs and riots.  The riots in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s may have motivated social scientists to research conformity and the power of groups.

Even with explorations of group and crowd behavior, there’s still something we may be missing: it is human nature to conform within the streams of perceptual membership.  What is “right” is based on the assumptions of our worldview.  And any view – left, right, center, or upside down – can become polarized and even vindictive toward “outsiders.”  Do you ever find yourself cursing the stupidity of a foreign view?  To be sure, some views are actively trying to harm or control.  Mindfulness will discriminate between actual threat and perceived threat.  It’s perceived threat that can make us into puppets by Controllers pushing our buttons. Sometimes it doesn’t even take a threat.  People often respond to accepted authority.

Again, the psychologist Stanley Milgram would like to inform us.  One set of experiments was designed to demonstrate that even “normal Americans” were capable of horrific acts (like the Nazis).  Beginning in 1963, he conducted a series of experiments in which research subjects demonstrated they were most likely to administer painful electric shocks to a victim when the victim was not physically present, but in an adjacent room.  Still, the victim could be heard screaming in pain, and even though some subjects were distressed, they continued to administer the high voltage electric shocks when instructed to do so by an authority figure.  That particular study is available for viewing on video.  Clearly, a lack of contact with the victim and the presence of an authority figure were dampeners of empathy in these studies. (By the way, no shocks were actually administered, but the experiment did cause the subjects distress.)  The victims were innocent unknowns.  Imagine if they had been painted up as some sort of enemy.

Participation in a group mind can carry a force that is synergistically larger than the sum of the parts. However, every group membership carries the potential for Jungian shadow.  It is important for awake people to be awake, in order to bring the shadow into consciousness.

I’m going to end this post with a true story that would validate Milgram, but which gives me pause. In the early 1990s, the Science Museum of Minnesota had an exhibit on the theme of psychology. One of the displays was an artificial hallway about 40 feet long that was set up in an open-ended cage. The floor of the hallway was set with alternating tiles of black and white linoleum. A sign read: “Patrons are to walk exclusively on the white tiles, avoiding all contact with the black tiles. Failure to comply with this directive will result in notification of museum staff.” I remember thinking that maybe they had sensors on the black tiles that set off an alarm. So as I began down the hallway I walked on the white tiles for my first two steps. Then I thought: “This is stupid. What possible difference could it make what tiles we stepped on?” At that point I began to walk normally, knowing nothing would happen as I hit black tiles. At the end of the hallway, a sign read: “This was an example of conditioning to authority…”

I was curious if others would blindly follow the ridiculous sign or think out the situation and act independently. I hung around the exhibit for about a half an hour. As I watched unobtrusively, not one person – regardless of age — walked on the black tiles. If I were clever I would find a way to use this little quirk of human nature. Perhaps on the cover of my next book I will include the words, in bold black letters: Buy this book by order of someone in authority — either your parents, your teacher, your boss, the President of the United States, or God, whichever motivates you best. Do you think it will work?  I may be joking, but there is a tipping point that is achieved on a regular basis with things like this.  Memberships expand, books are purchased, and the worldviews of people become vulnerable to change.  My hope is that these memberships carry the cleanest possible potential for the expression of human potential.

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1 Response to Reflections: People Have a Tendency to Conform, Even Swarm

  1. Richard says:

    Luckily “conditioning to authority” isn’t used today. 🙂

    I too, have a tendency to rebel in these situations and had you observed me walking that hallway, you would have seen me stepping on the black tiles too.

    Another great post, Jim.

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