Opinion: Collective versus the individual

Group Behaviour

Cyber world Shaping collective opinion.

During an election, do you cast your vote based on the analysis of a candidate’s personal strengths or with regard to her party affiliation? Are you an early adopter of new technologies? Have you ragged your juniors in college? Do you always have a ready opinion about things or do you wait for a popular consensus to emerge? Do you compulsively update your Facebook status message every half hour? Are you a rising star in ‘Mafia Wars’? Do you like the feeling of control it gives you?

If you see a pattern to this cross examination, if you’re familiar with the problems posed here or even take a strange comfort in responding to them, it’s because they all deal with easily identifiable instances of group behaviour, where the collective assumes importance over the individual. Are you a cog in the machine or a spanner in the works? Easy to answer. Very few people would own up to the former, while most would happily claim to be heroes or rebels of some sort.

Mind control

Less easy to relate to, however, is, say, the strange connection between the torture and abuse of prisoners of war under the Bush Administration, and the Internet Movie Database functioning as a scale-free network. Over the past 50 years or so, however, we’ve learnt to slowly understand and quantify such odd dynamics, from the results of numerous studies conducted by behavioural psychologists. Abu Ghraib and IMDb, for instance, are the descendants of two far-reaching social phenomena studied by the highly regarded American psychologist Dr Stanley Milgram.

Back in the early 60s, having observed the trial of Adolf Eichmann, intrigued by the process of assignation of responsibility and blame for Nazi atrocities, Milgram began a series of controlled experiments at Yale University that tested the willingness of regular people to bend to a superior will. Milgram’s theories were also informed, tellingly, by the thesis of fellow psychologist Solomon Asch’s Conformity experiment: That most individuals will unquestioningly side with a majority, even if the majority were obviously wrong in its conclusions.

Milgram’s ‘obedience to authority’ experiments consisted of three people — an experimenter, a trained actor complicit with the experiment, and an outside volunteer — and a simulated shock generator.

The experimenter presided over the study, giving orders to the volunteer. The volunteer, assigned the role of ‘teacher’, would be required to read out a series of memory puzzles to the actor, who took on the role of ‘learner’. This learner would be placed in an adjacent room, separated by glass, and connected to a set of wires. Every time the learner answered a puzzle wrong, the experimenter would order the teacher to administer an electric shock to the learner. As the experiment wore on and more questions were answered wrong, the voltage of the electric shocks would be raised incrementally — from mild 15v shocks all the way up to a fatal 450v.
The shock box, unknown to the volunteer ‘teacher’, was a fake, and the actor merely pretended to receive shocks, but the effect of the deception was real. The actor’s reactions ranged from a show of slight discomfort to screams of pain to feigned unconsciousness. Contrary to all optimistic expectations, the results of the experiment proved that a massive 65 percent of the ‘teachers’ tested went all the way up to the 450v mark, especially if assured by the experimenter that they were absolved of responsibility for their actions.

Milgram concluded, frighteningly, that “ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.” So. Have you ragged your juniors in college? Were you in complete control of your actions?

The question — and illusion — of control takes on new meaning in the Internet age, where all spaces are linked up seamlessly and all information is digital. In this age, the authority figure becomes the network, and its behaviour becomes less predictable as it is scaled outward. The behaviour of social networks is predicated, once again, on research by Dr Milgram. He first discovered the ‘Small World’ phenomenon, which postulates that there are six degrees of separation between any two random persons. This idea, which Milgram studied using chain letters, is now practically evident in Internet super-networks like Facebook, Twitter and Orkut. Upcoming products such as Google’s Wave will serve to further sever boundaries between communication devices such as email, chat, content-sharing and social networking.

The phenomenon has dramatically shrunk our world, but it also poses new questions about the merits of collective thinking. There’s anonymity behind avatars and in groups, but there’s also lack of accountability. Social networks contribute greatly to the wealth of human knowledge, but they also eat up large chunks of your personal information and convert them to market statistics that eventually dehumanise you. Do you compulsively update your Facebook status message every half hour? Think about who profits most from these updates.

Taking a larger view of society, looking on it as if it were an anthill, is never an easy proposition. You’re constantly forced to deal with the possibility that your thoughts and actions take place at the mercy or behest of strangers. Of course, knowing your restrictions is half the battle won. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

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