Exit Viewer

Popular Delusions: How Social Conformity Molds Society and Politics By Stephen Colem ...

Chapter 1:  Social Conformity: The Collective Dimension
image Next
Popular Delusions:

The more often people see others doing something, the more likely they are to believe that action is correct and follow along. From this simple truth unfold a myriad of effects that shape, constrain, and diversify society; that break society down into competing groups; that lead to stereotypes, discrimination, and ethnic violence; that control crime or sometimes encourage it; that become battlegrounds for public opinion, political parties, and national elections; and that sometimes cause the destruction of social groups, economies, and entire societies. Normally social conformity is self—limiting; not everyone will conform to a social norm or do what the group expects. If there are alternative social norms, groups may coalesce around each, some people conforming to one norm, some to another. Even the most popular fads die out fairly quickly. But in rare instances conformity can get out of hand, leading to “tyranny of the majority” or a social disaster.

In 1841, Charles Mackay published a sobering compilation of such social disasters—he called them “moral epidemics”—in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. He described when thousands were killed because they were alleged to be witches; fashions of poisoning, dueling, and belief in omens; the Dutch tulip craze and other financial bubbles of the past; and so on, almost without limit. He writes,

We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in pursuit. …We see one nation suddenly seized, from its highest to lowest members, with a fierce desire for military glory; another as suddenly becoming crazed upon a religious scruple; and neither of them recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of groans and tears, to be reaped by posterity.3

The 20th century showed many terrible examples of the same. Over the last few decades, however, a more positive view of collective social behavior has emerged. Assembling newer research on group decision making and the efficiency of markets in a recent popular book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki gives an optimistic view of society, pointedly in contrast to Mackay’s historical depiction. Surowiecki concludes that collective decisions are often highly accurate and better than individuals could do with the same information, as individual errors tend to cancel out in a group average.