It is a human tendency that’s impossible not to notice during wars and revolutions – and a dangerous one to forget when resting between them.
In psychology they call it deindividuation, losing yourself to the will of a crowd. In a mob, protest, riot, or even an audience, the presence of others redraws the borders of your normal persona. Simply put, you will think, feel, and do things in a crowd that alone you would not.
Psychology didn’t discover this, of course. The fact that being in a group recasts the character you usually play has been the subject of much reflection ever since people have had the time to reflect. No, today psychology is trying to chip away at the prevailing wisdom on what crowds do to your mind and why.
I recently collaborated with Joe Hanson of the YouTube channel It’s Okay to be Smart and helped him write an episode about pattern recognition.
The video is all about how our hyperactive order-generating brains can lead to us to incorrect assumptions, and how those assumptions can lead to widespread, social phenomena causing millions of people to do completely ridiculous and futile things, sometimes for generations. In our video, Joe talks about blowing in Nintendo cartridges to get them to work (totally pointless, and damaging), but you can substitute that behavior with a lot of other silly things that we did until science came along and tested to see if we were wrong.
“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
You’ve heard the expression before. You’ve may have, like myself, smugly used it a few times to feel like you made an intelligent point in an office conversation. It’s one of those great comebacks that we’ve decided is ok to use in professional settings like congressional debates and televised political arguments about everything from gun control to foreign policy. But, it might surprise you to learn who wrote it, how young the above quote is, and why it was written in the first place.
When you work from home, do you produce better results in pajamas or professional attire? Do casual Fridays damage productivity? Does a jeans-and-T-shirt startup have an edge over its business-casual competitor?
Researchers are just now getting to the bottom of questions like these. The answers depend on the symbolic power the particular item of clothing has in the mind of the particular wearer, but the answer to each question is never “not at all.”
Up until now, most psychological investigations into clothing have dealt with how clothes communicate status or facilitate rituals. For instance, if you put a person in a police uniform and have them ask questions or make demands you’ll get completely different results than if you had the same person wear a pirate costume. But what about the person in the uniform or the costume? Are the clothes affecting his or her behavior, thoughts, judgments, and decisions? The evidence collected so far suggests that yes, the clothes we wear affect our minds in ways we never notice. In fact, it’s likely the same person in the same situation in the same clothes will behave differently depending just on the color of those clothes.
It’s a good time for science-y things. Over the last few years, at least in the USA, the media empires and content hamlets have discovered that people like reading articles and watching videos about the things scientists are doing. In an age skeptical of agendas, unsure about where best to get a daily ration of awe and wonder, right now pop-science is a trusted source.
This has upset some very educated people who know a lot more about how science really works than the average consumer of popular media. I continue to read a variety of curmudgeonly opinions from public thinkers on things like Cosmos, Radiolab, Freakonomics, Malcolm Gladwell, I Fucking Love Science, and the tidal wave of YouTube channels devoted to the kind of programming that used to be the staple of The Discovery Channel. I disagree with the curmudgeons who prefer less gloss and more bar graphs (I think we can enjoy both), but that’s not where I’m headed with this post. Allow me to drop a quote to escape this tangent and move on.
In the 1950s, in an effort to better understand group conflict, a team of psychologists nearly turned a summer camp into Lord of The Flies.
The story of how and why it was so easy to turn normal boys into bloodthirsty, warring tribes (and how those tribes eventually reconciled and became peaceful thanks to brilliantly conceived cooperative exercises) can teach you a lot about a common mental phenomenon known as the illusion of asymmetric insight – something that helps keep you loyal to certain groups and alters the way you see outsiders.