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Monday, 5 September 2016

Pleasing the Herd: Leftist Group-Think Seen Through the Lens of Evolutionary and Social Psychology

by Tim Murray

Gay activists

United, together, we will not be defeated.

United, together, we will not be defeated.

United, together, we will not defeated...Bah.......

Tell me if this has not happened to you. You are at an apparently innocuous social event when — amid the light banter about recipes or hair stylists or bargain stores — suddenly, without warning, a gratuitous, snide and negative reference is made about Donald Trump. Ah yes, the socially mandatory anti-Trump remark. I know it well.

What I don't know, however, is the exact reason that the comment was made, and why it was made in an inappropriate setting. But I have a few ideas. Here goes:

Humans have a strong need to "belong." In fact, this need is among five basic needs that Abraham Maslow identified as a prerequisite of "self-actualization." Acceptance is fundamental to our well-being.

Our need to belong is driven by rewards and punishments, carrots and sticks. The carrot is the secretion of neurochemicals like oxytocin which makes being together feel good. The stick is the well-founded fear of rejection and exclusion. Due to innate neurological mechanisms, perceptions of "belongingness" are linked to depressive symptoms. People respond very poorly to exclusion, which has been found to contribute to negative behavioural, cognitive and emotional outcomes. It is interesting that the effects of rejection are even more potent than the effects of acceptance, and the psychological pain inflicted by rejection involves the same region of the brain as does acceptance.

From an evolutionary perspective, this all makes perfect sense. Human survival strategy, after all, is based on "team work," and one cannot play a team game without feeling a sense of belonging to the team. This would suggest that we have a genetic predisposition to conform.

There are a bushel of 'conformity' studies that illustrate the universal human need to obtain social approval, and how many people in a given group succumb to "normative" influences. The famous experimental trials conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s provided the launching pad for this research. Thus, when trial subjects changed their perceived correct answer to conform to the blatantly false answers of the rest of the group, it became known as the "Asch effect." It refers to a willingness to attain social rewards and avoid social reprisals.

In our current political climate one might be tempted to describe the Asch effect as a desire to win PC brownie points and avoid public shaming and ostracism. And when such craven cowardice and skin-saving is practiced by 'progressive' men, it could be described in Darwinian terms as a strategy to improve mating opportunities. Gain social status by making the right noises and you become a chick magnet. Fifty years ago a guy needed "wheels" to get a girl, but now he has to confess his White male privilege.

Asch found that almost 37% of the subjects he tested in his 'staged' trials went along with the clearly erroneous answers given by the majority of participants. Most telling was the finding that if the one solitary dissident — the subject — was supported by even one of the rest of the group, the chances of that dissident changing his answer dropped substantially. Equally revealing was that some of the subjects who changed their correct answer to harmonize with the group, actually came to believe that their initial answer was wrong. In other words, they renounced their inner voice and bought into the shared illusion of the group. Orwell would not have been surprised.

Asch sadly concluded that "The tendency to conform in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black." Today these young people are called university students.

In summary, humans have a need to belong . To be accepted by the group. To gain their approval and avoid reprimand, rejection or punishment. Hence the need to belong is coupled with a need to conform. To get along, one must go along.

Fine. It's all good. But it is neither novel nor interesting. Robin Dunbar's work, however, is a different story. I make specific reference to his book, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language.

As far as I understand it, it does much to explain the current plague of politically correct discourse and the unwarranted insinuation of politically correct opinions even into the most informal of conversations. If I could integrate Dunbar's insights with the speculations of other theorists, I would offer the following hypothesis:
  • Our precursors shared the forest with monkeys. They relied on ripe fruit for a good portion of their diet. They were not big meat eaters. But the problem was, monkeys could eat unripe fruit, so they got to it first. Consequently, we were pushed out to the perimeter of the forest, where we were exposed to predators. Those of us who formed larger groups were better able to protect ourselves, and those larger groups had greater reproductive success.
Each day primates spend an incredible four or five hours grooming each other. Grooming is an essential bonding mechanism. The problem is, when we formed large groups, we didn't have the time to groom all of the members. So instead of picking nits out of each other's hide, we used language as a substitute. This is Dunbar's thesis. Language is vocal grooming.

I recall reading a book many decades ago by a psychologist who advanced the idea that as social animals, in order to ensure mental health, we need to earn so many "points" each day. We earn these points by simply exchanging words with other people, much in the way that dogs greet each other by smelling butts. This is crucial: The CONTENT of what we say is not important. What is important is that we say SOMETHING just to touch base. But that something should not be "Up yours," or "You cut me off jerk." It should be a harmless banality or a pleasantry. Something non-controversial. "Hello" could suffice. Small talk is the staple of human communication, an essential lubricant of social interaction. In other words, there is nothing small about small talk.

My belief is that what we want to do is to gain acceptance from the group. We want to say something that indicates that we are a legitimate part of the group, that we belong, and that we want an acknowledgement that we belong. Just as my dog, when meeting other dogs, wants them to understand that he is a dog, and that he recognizes them as dogs. He does so by following dog etiquette. We do it by saying something that is calculated to please the group. Something like, "Gee, it sure is a beautiful day isn't it?," or "Wasn't that a great game last night?" Again the content doesn't matter. It is the signal that counts. You want to signal your desire to belong and to be accepted. And want the other party to confirm that your club membership card has not expired. They do that by responding in the affirmative.

Hence the obligatory anti-Trump comment. It is the fashion. I have heard it at least a dozen times in a variety of venues. What strikes me about these comments is that they are typically made totally out of context. Case in point:

I attended a luncheon of six people who convened to celebrate the recovery of a lost dog and thank those who joined the search. The lunch meeting was about dogs. Nothing else. Each of us at the table were not sufficiently acquainted with the rest of the group to know with certainty what our political convictions were. But since two in three voters in my community vote for Leftist parties, and the rest are likely moderate conservatives who dislike Trump, these people think that it is a safe play to slip an anti-Trump aside into the stream of conversation. They are prepared to go out on a limb just a little bit in the hope that their remark will be rewarded by nodding heads or a short "You got that right" or "Yeah, he's scary." If the bet pays off, as it almost always does, it's mission accomplished. Message received. It in a nutshell the message is this. "See, I am one of you. I belong." This kind of thing happens over and over again. Last year it was the mandatory anti-Harper comment, and this year it is the mandatory anti-Trump comment. Grooming through language.

Grooming of this nature, of making a political statement unrelated to the topic in question, is the gesture of a psychological weakling, a timid pack animal, a man or woman who feels somewhat insecure or initially nervous in the company of strangers whom he assumes to be of a certain orientation. To make an anti-Trump remark in the lair of the smart set in this political environment takes as much courage as it did for a German to say "Heil Hitler" in 1940, or Russian to praise Comrade Stalin during his reign of terror. It just doesn't take a lot of guts to join the chorus.

It should be stressed that this is not really about Trump, pro or con. If the cowardly herd animal lives in a red neck town in the heart of rancher country, or in the Bible belt of a red state, he might say something complimentary about Trump, even if he is not particularly political. If he lives in Ottawa or Toronto or the Gulf Islands of British Columbia on the other hand, he will likely take a superfluous swipe at Trump. It could be during a card game or a party or on the golf course — it doesn't matter. What matters is that people feel the need to bond, and telling people what you think they want to hear is good way of doing it.

But while the herd mentality is not exclusive to the Left, in present circumstances it is its defining characteristic. In fact, from the onset, the labour and civil rights movement has staked its success on presenting a united front. Their slogans say it all. "Solidarity Forever" and "United, Together, We Shall Not Be Defeated." Quiet obviously groupthink is more conducive to common action than independence of mind. One never wants an army where soldiers question orders. In this respect, authentic conservatives are at a distinct disadvantage. As a rule, they are temperamentally averse to 'solidarity'. It may be a political necessity, but it doesn't sit well with them. Intellectual mavericks are not the stuff that successful parties are made of.

In the post-national state of Canada, the Canada of Prime Minister Vacuous, it is assumed that people want to hear what is considered politically correct. Those who mouth the cant of progressive politics have the confidence that they will not be challenged. As Peregrine Worsthorne observed,
Liberalism is the air we breathe. Liberalism is today's ancient wisdom. To be a liberal, like being a conservative yesterday, you don't have to think for yourself; indeed you don't have to think at all. You just have to conform with the herd. Traditions increasingly means liberal tradition, liberal authority, liberal dogma; the status quo.
It is all about pleasing the herd. But what accounts for those of us who don't play this game? What about outliers and dissenters? What about those judged to be deviant? How did we manage to run the evolutionary gauntlet? Wouldn't mavericks have had a selective disadvantage? How did they pass on their genes, their proclivity not to "go with the program." Are we mutants? Do we have a death wish? Do we want to be ostracized and banished?

In hunter gatherer groups, banishment was a death sentence. Is it not, in some sense, still the case now? Is not excommunication or forced resignation or professional blacklisting a modern day equivalent of this kind of punishment? As Tyler Durden remarked, notwithstanding their delusional belief that they are rebels, Cultural Marxists are the establishment. They are the guardians of orthodoxy, vested with the power to expel those who contest it through the tactics of public shaming and smearing. The number of people who have been forced to recant, apologize and resign for a verbal misstep is staggering. The prevailing commandment is: Thou shalt not offend.

I thought about these questions on the way home from the luncheon, after I had reflexively countered the anti-Trump remark with a pro-Trump remark. As soon as I did that, as one would expect, there followed a long and awkward pause. The group was in shock. It was as if I had farted or confessed that I was involved in child pornography. With that one remark, I had sent the message that "I am NOT one of you."

In a small community environment, this can be socially fatal. There are discernible repercussions. Word gets out and news travels fast. Then you feel the chill. Put it this way, it is highly unlikely that I will be invited to these meetings again. I know, I have been there before. When I first set foot in this community, I was a guest at several dinners, beach parties and outdoor barbecues. By the end of the second year, I found myself on the outside looking in. Obviously I had violated their "safe space" by introducing ideas that were judged to be beyond the pale. There are mind guards everywhere.

The Left won the culture war for a reason. The same reason that they are winning the war on every front. They are plugged into human nature. They have been able to exploit the central feature of our species. We are social animals. Desperate to fit in.

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