2010-08-27

Why are people smart but groups stupid?

This is a magnificent review of a book that appears to be amazingly wonderful. I want to read it.

The book apparently explains why Americans, as a whole, listen to and believe so much nonsense from politicians and other powerful people, and includes references to Big Tobacco, Big Oil, and Sarah Palin, so it's not short on pseudo-controversial topics.

I had been wondering if collective stupidity was a new phenomenon, or if it had become apparent to me only after I became old enough to understand it. The book states that it is indeed relatively new, and the causes are many. Either way, the polarizing and sometimes ridiculous elections I have experienced in the past few years have driven me towards the None of the Above campaign (though I prefer Richard Pryor's approach). I hope that there's hope, and that we can get better. Here's one suggestion to fight extreme polarity, anyway.

3 comments:

THE KRIS said...

i wonder if groups haven't always been stupid but the problem is now magnified due to increased access to information (true and otherwise) as well as the ability to connect with so many people so quickly.

on a slightly related note, one of my favorite things about the simpsons is that the characters form mobs and rush off to do stupid things at the drop of a hat. just like in real life.

Ben said...

People have always been stupid. 90% of what we call "history" is a record of groups of people going off and doing foolish things - usually in the name of group identity, "honor", or fortune. the fact that people are sometimes successful in these boondoggles doesn't mean they were smart to do them in the first place - usually the successful ones had plenty of unsuccessful people go before them to soften up the enemy/environment they eventually conquered.

I don't think that we are any more stupid now than when thousands of European 12 year olds thought it would be a good idea to invade the holy land or when enslaving people because of skin color was "cool" or when military leaders thought using napoleonic tactics with modern weapons would turn out any other way than with an insane amount of bloodshed in the civil war.

Read up on the "know nothings" of the mid-19th century - a lot of tea party rhetoric is more mid 19th century than early 21st century. Actually, scratch that - if we transported ourselves to some random tribe of pre-history tens of thousands of years ago that was attracting members of less successful tribes the rhetoric would probably be the same. Tribalism is probably the strongest motivator to human thought and behavior after basic survival.

Simply surviving may have been harder for our ancestors - but they were selfish, impulsive, and open to suggestion from authority figures just as much as we are. People haven't changed - we just have short memories and we tend to honor our ancestors more than they deserve because - "hey, if it wasn't for them we wouldn't be here."

The other 10% of history does include people who were visionary and able to somehow go above and beyond their environmental circumstances to chart a course that ended up improving the human condition. The problem is that it's more difficult than you would think for people to know the difference between the 90% and the 10% at the time - emotionally they can feel like the same thing. That's why leaders try to pass themselves off as the continuation of some past movement that has credibility. That's why it's called the "tea party" - and why a mostly white nativist group that probably would disagree with 99% of MLK's policy stances is trying to connect their movement to his movement on the steps of the Lincoln monument today.

The Other BG said...

Kris, you might be right about the information (especially considering the higher number of formally eductated individuals who think they are smart) but you're definitely right about The Simpsons. South Park does it too, and the children are somehow the smart ones. Allegory? Possibly.

Ben, you make some interesting connections with specific groups. I didn't know much about any of them until you brought them to my attention, and from what I've read, you're right. People like "causes" and catch phrases better than critical thinking and the truth. Tribalism is a good term for it.