A kind reader sent me information on a revealing psychological study at Emory University reported in the 22 June 2005 issue of the professional journal Biological Psychiatry. Subjects were asked to make simple determinations (e.g., which line is longer, which shape is the same?). Without social pressure, the answers would have been obvious. But the study was carefully controlled to include a group of actors, impersonating subjects, directed to agree in some cases that an apparently wrong answer was in fact the right one. In this test of social conformity, on average, the real subjects went along with the fake answers 41 percent of the time.
The real subjects were hooked up to brain scanners, which showed emotional activation when they went against group-think, indicating merely calculation when they went along with the misguided majority.
I like the way New York Times reporter Sandra Blakeslee summed up the findings in her 28 June 2005 report:
The unpleasantness of standing alone can make a majority opinion seem more appealing than sticking to one’s own beliefs.
If other people’s views can actually affect how someone perceives the external world, then truth itself is called into question.
There is no way out of this problem, Dr. Ariely said.
But if people are made aware of their vulnerability, they may be able to avoid conforming to social pressure when it is not in their self-interest.
I thought about it few days ago as I listened to David Edelstein on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” reviewing V for Vendetta, a new film with a political theme. “With even Supreme Court Justice and Reagan appointee Sandra Day O’Connor warning recently of the beginning of a dictatorship in this country,” he said, “it seems like the perfect moment for this movie…”
I started asking everyone I met if they knew where and when O’Connor had issued her warning. It took some research to discover the particulars: O’Connor was addressing a group of lawyers at Washington’s Georgetown University on March 9th. Her remarks were neither taped, broadcast nor transcribed, and only a single reporter was in attendance, NPR’s Nina Totenberg. Her notes of O’Connor’s remarks are the source for all the commentary issued since Totenberg’s March 10th NPR report. Here’s the punchline:
I, said O’Connor, am against judicial reforms driven by nakedly partisan reasoning. Pointing to the experiences of developing countries and former communist countries where interference with an independent judiciary has allowed dictatorship to flourish, O’Connor said we must be ever-vigilant against those who would strongarm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies. It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, she said, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings.
The blogosphere has been all abuzz: why isn’t the story being covered as news? O’Connor’s speech seemed an equally newsworthy echo of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell speech warning the nation of “unwanted influence…by the military-industrial complex.”
Editors and press ombudsmen have responded in lockstep: that there was no footage or transcript of O’Connor’s speech (i.e., no primary source) and that it was old news anyway, as she’d given several speeches on threats to judicial independence during her Supreme Court tenure. Their defense comes down to social conformity: that almost every editor in the nation made the same decision.
But here’s the interesting news: a great many people seem disinclined to go along with this explanation because it is counter to their own perceptions. Indeed, given the state of the nation, many more people are now willing to listen to warnings like O’Connor’s, no matter how many authorities say it’s not newsworthy.
The blogosphere is working well on this story, so I trust it will continue to percolate into public view. Here on the left coast, as the story began to pick up steam, the San Francisco Chronicle made it the subject of an editorial on March 15th, right after Britain’s Guardian newspaper carried two pieces about it on the 13th. It seems to be spreading, with the effect that the real story will be why so few paid attention to O’Connor’s remarks, which seems like a good thing.
Meanwhile, President Bush is being forced out of his citadel into public to answer citizens’ questions. On Sunday, at the Cleveland City Club, George Bush delivered a long, upbeat account of an Iraqi town he considers a success story, hoping this symbolic victory would persuade audience members to ignore the evidence of their own eyes, agreeing that what he sees is what’s really there. Judging from the questions they asked, it didn’t work. Yesterday in Washington, Bush gave an hour-long live press conference. Not much new in his remarks, all of which tend to repeat the same point: “I’m in charge and I don’t care what you think about it.”
What was new was the real, live and anything but docile questioning that came from the White House press corps, which may be experiencing signs of wakefulness after its long slumber. I wonder if the buzz over O’Connor’s speech sounded anything like an alarm clock.
As the Times reporter wrote, social conformity is the problem and awareness is the antidote: “If people are made aware of their vulnerability, they may be able to avoid conforming to social pressure when it is not in their self-interest.” May it be so!