Monday, August 8, 2016

Is a 'strong' leader desirable? - III

 “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”  -  John F. Kennedy

I came across an account of another experiment in Nudge in which the task was a bit more difficult than in Asch's experiment. Here people were kept in a dark room and a pinpoint of light was placed some way in front of them. The light was actually stationary but appeared to move because of an effect called the autokinetic effect. The people were then asked to estimate the distance the light has moved.

When asked individually, the answers varied significantly, which was not surprising since the light was stationary and the answers were random guesses. But when people were formed into groups and asked to give their answers in public, there were big conformity effects. The individual estimates converged to a group norm and over time this norm proved sticky and the individuals in a group were strongly committed to their group norm.

In some experiments, a confederate was planted unbeknownst to the other members of the group. This confederate could nudge the group estimate if he spoke confidently and firmly. If the confederate's assessment was much higher than the group norm, the group estimate was inflated and if the confederate's estimate was very low, the group's estimate would fall. Thus consistent and unwavering people, whether in the public or private sector, can move people in their preferred direction.

What is even more interesting is that the group's judgments became thoroughly internalized so that people would stick to them even when they were reporting on their own or when participating in other groups that gave different judgments. The initial judgement also had effects across 'generations'.Even when the group members changed and the person who was originally responsible for the decision was long gone, the judgement tended to stick. Different types of experiments have been conducted to determine conformity effects. The authors write:
Consider the following finding. People were asked, 'Which one of the following do you feel is the most important problem facing our country today?' Five alternatives were offered: economic recession, educational facilities, subversive activities, mental health and crime and corruption. Asked privately, a mere 12 percent chose subversive activities. But when exposed to an apparent group consensus unanimously selecting that option, 48 percent of people made the same choice!
In a similar finding, people were asked to consider this statement: 'Free speech being a privilege rather than a right, it is proper for a society to suspend free speech when it feels threatened.'Asked this question individually, only 19 percent of the control group agreed, but confronted with the shared opinion of only four others, 58 percent of people agreed. The results are closely connected with one of Asch's underlying interests, which was to understand how Nazism had been possible. Asch believed that 'conformity could produce a very persistent nudge, ultimately generating behaviour...that might seem unthinkable'.

As a species, we seem to be predisposed towards believing that the most confident are also the most knowledgeable.Decisive, aggressive, confident, assertive, strong, etc are adjectives to be viewed with caution when used to describe political leaders. A political candidate who 'looks Presidential' or 'looks Prime-Ministerial' will get votes irrespective of his level of knowledge.

Election time is about making tall promises and bringing large crowds who will cheer at the proper prompts. Colourless, boring politicians are safer than flamboyant ones. (See talk by Prof Apurvanand on 3Ds: Demagogues, Demigods and Democracy.The talk is in Hindi.) As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in The Black Swan:
Alas, one cannot assert authority by accepting one's own fallibility. Simply, people need to be blinded by knowledge - we are made to follow leaders who can gather people together because the advantages of being in groups  trump the disadvantages of being alone.  It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one.  Those who have followed the assertive idiot rather than the introspective wise person have passed us some of their genes.  This is apparent from a social pathology: psychopaths rally followers.

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