Studying Sheeple (for lack of a better word)
January 6, 2006 8:34 PM   Subscribe

Are there any studies on combating the groupthink phenomenon that seems to arise in situations like My Lai, where in a group otherwise "normal" people come up with and perform the most horrific crimes? Studies like the Asch and Stanford prison experiments seem to imply this phenomenon exists, but I'm wondering how (if?) someone can "break out" of the "hive mind" once they're trapped inside.
posted by anonymous to Science & Nature (24 answers total)
I've trained people on military decision-making algorithms, flowcharts for planning and executing operations. They make sure people don't forget anything when they are tired, hungry and being shot at.

I tell them while the format is a good one, it can also channel them into groupthink. Leadership, I tell them, is what stops it. And it's their responsibility.

I haven't seen a more formal process, but I'm new.
posted by atchafalaya at 9:15 PM on January 6, 2006

Don't know if that helps.
posted by atchafalaya at 9:15 PM on January 6, 2006

Well, I went looking for something for you based on a distant memory of a study I learned of in college. It turns out to be the one described below, and was motivated in part by curiosity on the part of psychologists as to why people didn't intervene in the 1964 public murder of Kitty Genovese in New York. Since you seem to be asking if anyone has studied non-conformity to social expectations, I think the stuff below will interest you.

The one I remembered was this:

In one of their studies, the volunteer was asked to wait for the experimenter in a waiting room. In this waiting room, there were already two students, reading magazines. After the volunteer had settled into his chair, a puff of smoke would enter the room through a crack in the wall near the volunteer. The other students (stooges, of course) showed no reaction. The puff became a stream; the stream became a flood; and eventually you couldn't see the other side of the room. Through all this, the stooges remained in their seats, reading their magazines... and so did most of the volunteers!

In fact, only 10% of the students responded within 6 minutes. Even if they used three actual students -- i.e., people who were not instructed to do nothing -- only 12 1/2 % responded. When alone, 75% of the students responded within 6 minutes.

Some of the search terms that might be productive in turning up more of this stuff: Bystander apathy, bystander effect, and bystander intervention, studied by Latane and Durley; , non-involvement, conformity and obedience.

When people do step in to help, or step up to oppose cruelty to others, it can be called 'Prosocial behavior'. Try that as a search term, too. Altruism
is one example of prosocial behavior.

The "conformity and obedience" link contains a list of variables which increase conformity (group size, group diversity, group cohesivess, . So, to answer your own question, you might look for (or construct) studies which reverse those variables and test for reduced conformity.
posted by Miko at 9:46 PM on January 6, 2006

This desire is at the core of a lot of anti-racist training, which tries to break out of such ingrained reactions and passive reactions to injustice. It might be an interesting place to look.
posted by allen.spaulding at 10:14 PM on January 6, 2006

It's indirectly related, but you may also want to read up on the leadership philosophy/tactics of Harvard's Ron Heifitz.
posted by nyterrant at 11:01 PM on January 6, 2006

I would say that all such behaviours stem from our innate voluntarily to authority, which in turn was born out of us being such social animals. Our infants imitate nonsensical, stupid behaviour more readily then apes; our inner monkey are stupider then real apes. So to do what you ask is going against much of our natural urges. A solution could be found in refusing to be controlled by your inner monkey and think for yourself in all situations. Your question seem to concern more about morality then ordinary mistakes so in that case: ask yourself what is right and wrong and then keep asking “...but why?”. If you're honest enough in your quest you'll end up in nihilism. True as it might be it offers no guide of behaviour at all, so you settle for the idea that you need to find a purely subjective kernel of what is right and wrong (some form of utilitarianism, perhaps) which you could then consult in situations such as the prison experiment. That rule would always be there and should you consult it, you would be free from the kind of intuitive behaviour you dislike with such passion. Your inner ape would be dead, that is, until you see the bare skin of a beautiful woman and you realise that, escaping nature is all but impossible—but trying, although constantly failing at it, is a noble pursuit. The wisdom of the inner monkey served your ancestors well though, at least in an evolutionary sense, you think you know better? True heroes tend to die young.
posted by JeNeSaisQuoi at 11:36 PM on January 6, 2006

First, beware the conclusions of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

I'll stop short of calling Phil Zimbardo a hack (though he's a terrible lecturer and more self-promoter than valuable researcher these days), but the Stanford Prison Experiment is totally overblown. Don't believe the hype.

You may be familiar with the infamous Milgram experiment, in which hierarchical pressure causes perfectly normal people to knowingly (some even willingly) injure another, unseen individual. It's a prime example of diffusion of responsibility.

The Milgram experiment was originally expected to prove exactly what you've asked, schroedinger. From the wikipedia article: "Before the experiment was conducted Milgram polled fellow psychologists as to what the results would be. They unanimously believed that only a few sadists would be prepared to give the maximum voltage." They were dreadfully wrong.

The key to breaking from the hive mind, if I remember from classes and research, is that within a given group, a critical mass of individuals must dissent. As you might have noticed in the Asch article, "when the confederates were not unanimous in their judgment, subjects were much more likely to defect than when the confederates all agreed."

In other words, having a few dissenters on your side, even when surrounded by a majority, will often provide the social comfort needed to voice the dissent to that majority.
posted by sellout at 12:10 AM on January 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

At least one dissenter, even if they're obviously totally wrong. Just the presence of another person that dissents has been found to be enough. For the more Kitty Genovese type stuff, looking at someone and asking for help or telling them to help will do it. In Genovese type scenerios, people convince themselves that the situation isn't a problem because no one else is reacting. If they're reacting, it must be a problem after all.
posted by stoneegg21 at 12:35 AM on January 7, 2006

I'm assuming that the My Lai question was sparked by this obituary which is in a link posted to Metafilter. Note that simple dissent was not sufficient to stop the massacre. This guy landed his gunship in the line of fire and and had his gunners target american troops. Some of the answers given about the presence of a dissenter seem to assume that My Lai is some sort of aberration rather than the predictable outcome of American tactics in Vietnam. When policy makers decided to fight a war by relocating civilians to pacified villages and declaring free fire zones they were repeating a mistake that states often make. They were trying to win a civil war by terrorizing civilians. When actions are motivated by a policy that is fundamentally corrupt then simply pointing out the actions are immoral isn't likely to work.
posted by rdr at 3:40 AM on January 7, 2006

Not an academic study of course, but there was a segment on a U.S. nighttime news magazine-type show recently (probably 60 Minutes) and maybe someone here can identify it. They had a male and a female actor pretend to be in the midst of an argument in the middle of a public park, with the man clearly intimidating and abusing the woman. They also had a woman playing a babysitter shout at and demean a little kid. Most bystanders passed by, some watched from a distance, but a decent handful of people intervened.
posted by kmel at 7:43 AM on January 7, 2006

The problem with the groupthink mentality is that to break out of the mentality, you have to break out of the group. We found this out recently when, as an elder of our church, I dissented with were several carefully crafted groupthink kinds of decisions our church was following. I stood up in a meeting and said my piece as to why they were bad decisions. Although several others expressed sympathy for my views, no one else wanted to go on record as going against the consensus.

As I had strong disagreement with the direction the church was going, I decided to resign from the board and my wife and I are currently looking for another church.
posted by Doohickie at 9:27 AM on January 7, 2006

I don't know how to get other people to not be idle bystanders, so what I do in all these situations is not be a bystander myself. If I see an accident at which the police have not yet arrived, I call 911, instead of assuming someone else already has. If I witness an accident or crime, I always, always stick around. When I saw some drunk idiots harass and then punch a guy minding his own business, I pulled them off of him and held them at bay with a friend until the police arrived. I am not saying this to be self-aggrandizing or sound cool or whatever, just to remind that the only way to be sure that injustice is fought is to fight it yourself.

I hate the mind-your-own businessers and I think that they are vile little cowards; I also think that they will always be with us.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 9:45 AM on January 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

There was a great thread on this last fall: The Psychology of Tyranny. An experiment at the University of St. Andrews specifically addressed the broader question of what social conditions predispose a group to abuses of power. At that time, they hadn't looked more closely at what strategies might be appropriate to interrupt the slippery slope, but it seemed that research in the area was ongoing.
posted by dhartung at 9:47 AM on January 7, 2006

the only way to be sure that injustice is fought is to fight it yourself

Very true. So a follow-up question: what kinds of training, nurturing, and influence can make people more like you in this regard? Is it just that you were well brought up; is it a biochemical predisposition or a personality type; or could it come from learning? Could there be types of experiences, classes, or skill development workshops that would help us raise more people who step in?

I too have taught myself to react faster in emergencies, mostly because of jobs in which I had responsibility for minors who might get hurt. But I still have trouble with scenarios such as the domestic abuse in the park. I know enough about abuse to know that intervening when the blood is running high carries tremendous risk. Not only for you, the intervener, (the abuser may turn the aggresssion toward you), but toward the victim, later. The embarrassment and powerlessness the abuser feels can result in increased violence toward the abused party when the two are once again in private, with no witnesses.

It's often recommended that if you want to intervene in those situations, you don't talk about the terrible behavior directly, but instead try to provide a distraction and/or show sympathy with the out-of-control person ("Tough day, huh? your daughter is beutiful, though'), rather than take the abuse on directly. And with egregious domestic abuse, as much as it hurts not to kick the abuser's ass, probably the best way to combat that sort of problem is to increase the awareness of resources available to victims.

Where children are concerned, of course, there are a lot of legal requirements for teachers, medical personnel, camp counselors and so on that you report any sign of abuse, and even just the suspicion of abuse. But again, that's different from walking into the middle of a public altercation.
posted by Miko at 10:24 AM on January 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

fwiw, there's an amazing example here of groupthink on askme.

maybe the first question, before "can you train people to avoid this?" is "does this depend on the person?". perhaps we're all pretty much the same, but only question what's happening 5% of the time, say. i suspect that's not true, but i don't know that it's proven, and it seems to be an assumption here.
posted by andrew cooke at 10:52 AM on January 7, 2006

perhaps we're all pretty much the same

Well, there are so many ways to demonstrate that people have measurable characteristics which can vary wildly within a population, and that they result in different behaviors. I don't think it's an assumption that we're not all the same - there's a lot of evidence, scientific as well as anecdotal and biographical (you know, serial killer over here, Mother Teresa over there). The field of psychology has certainly spent a lot of its time developing tests and instruments to discover how people vary and in what ways.

When you set up a simple continuum for almost any aspect of personality, you'll of course get two extremes and a big middle, and often most people cluster into the big middle. I think this helps create that illusion that 'we're all the same', and provides the basis for the concept of 'normalcy'. And we are social animals, and find great utility in identifying with the majority. But there's still the question, what elements of personality might make you more willing to step out from the majority? Also, if those elements exist in a person, might they go in a bad direction just as easily as a good? For instance, sociopathic criminals might share with altruists a lack of interest in what the majority of the group thinks. Both might have some similar personality characteristics, just inclined in different ways.
posted by Miko at 11:11 AM on January 7, 2006

Isn't this all part of the Abilene Paradox and here?
posted by TheRaven at 12:24 PM on January 7, 2006

sure, people aren't identical, but look at it this way: is it better to train people with new skills so that they avoid behaving like sheep, or should the emphasis be on encouraging the "dissenting" behaviour they sometimes show anyway? the practical answer is probably "both", which is fair enough, but the emphasis above, to my reading, has been on "training new responses" rather than "developing existing behaviour".
posted by andrew cooke at 1:56 PM on January 7, 2006

(which is ironic, because i suspect that the reason for the emphasis is that people are pushing for yet another group to belong to - that of "the dissenters", much more cool than the stupid sheep, but a club all the same)
posted by andrew cooke at 2:03 PM on January 7, 2006

the emphasis above, to my reading, has been on "training new responses" rather than "developing existing behaviour".

Yes, and I would say that's not because of sheeplike need to belong, but because it is much easier to influence the development of thinking habits when people are younger. I'm more interested in what we could do in social institutions like schools and colleges than in how we can encourage 40- and 50-year-olds to somehow dissent more. In maturity, people are far more fixed in their range of behaviors.
posted by Miko at 2:51 PM on January 7, 2006

Not an academic study of course, but there was a segment on a U.S. nighttime news magazine-type show recently (probably 60 Minutes) and maybe someone here can identify it. They had a male and a female actor pretend to be in the midst of an argument in the middle of a public park, with the man clearly intimidating and abusing the woman. They also had a woman playing a babysitter shout at and demean a little kid. Most bystanders passed by, some watched from a distance, but a decent handful of people intervened.

Well, I wouldn't have intervened either. In the first case, you have no idea what their relationship is, and in the second, um, what are you supposed to do?

In rare cases where physical violence seems imminent I always stick around or try to mediate until I'm certain that the situation has been resolved to my satisfaction.

I think the best way to combat this is to simply make sure people are aware of the phenomenon, and that the 'correct' thing to do is always make sure situations are under control, rather then assuming that other people will correct it for you.
posted by delmoi at 5:20 PM on January 7, 2006

As a student of decision science, I've taken organizational behavior classes, and studied group think to a certain degree. Generally, professors offer The Cuban missile crisis as an example of how group think can be avoided. There are certain guiding principles, but most are fairly obvious once you understand the phenomenon. Things like: nominating a person to always play devil's advocate, analyzing all ideas completely, and always remaining open to change the course of action are a few ways of avoiding group think in the decision making process.
posted by Packy_1962 at 6:12 PM on January 7, 2006

fwiw, there's an amazing example here of groupthink on askme.

Not really. If you're referring to the lack of action on the part of the miners, they were not victims of groupthink but rather of their training. Just as people tell you when you are lost to stay put until help arrives instead of wandering around, the miners were trained to stay put if there quality of air is uncertain and to wait for rescue.
posted by Doohickie at 6:07 PM on January 12, 2006

i was referring to the initial blanket condemnation of the question and then the complete reversal once people started to think about what had happened.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:18 AM on January 13, 2006

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