"If man were not a gregarious animal, the world might have achieved, by this time, some real progress towards civilisation. Segregate him, and he is no fool. But let him loose among his fellows, and he is lost—he becomes just an unit in unreason.”―
During a leadership camp in high school, we had a director who liked to perform psychological tricks on us for either entertainment, but more often to teach us a lesson. One time when we sat in a large room filled with rows of seats, he sat upfront in the middle of the room. He told everyone to turn around and greet the person behind you on the count of three.
I remember thinking to myself, “This is dumb. If we all turn around at the same time, then no one is going to be able to greet anyone.” Yet, by the time he counted to three, there I was turning around and greeting someone’s back.
We all got a good laugh at it. His point turned out to be to think logically. He said we should always listen to those above us, except for when we think what they’re commanding is unethical or harmful. He told us to not turn off our brains.
However, we turn off our brains and agency under three conditions: fear, authority, and conformity. In times of a pandemic, fear is high and we are all frantically looking for an authority to turn to, while still trying to feel connected to others.
When I started coaching middle school students when I was 18, I learned very quickly how impressionable they were, even though I was only a few years older than them. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I would hear my off-handed remarks replicated by their mouths later. That’s when I learned I had to be very careful with what I said around them and that I couldn’t talk freely. I was their coach. I was an authority figure to them. What I said had an effect on them.
Needless to say, adults are not as impressionable as children, but they don’t lose their inherent ability to listen to authority. In the famous Milgram Shock experiment, psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to test how obedient Americans were compared to Nazis, who often pleaded obedience as to why they committed so many atrocious crimes.
In the experiment, a group of volunteers thought they were participating in a learning experiment. They were paired with another participant, who was secretly an actor, and then would draw straws (which was rigged) so one would be the “teacher” and the other the “learner.” The voluntary participant would always be the teacher.
The teacher was required to administer shocks to the learner for every question he got wrong, and were to gradually increase the voltage. The learner would pretend to get shocked and exclaim things like, “Let me out of here!” “My heart’s bothering me,” “You have no right to keep me here,” and screaming. Listening to the clips, the learner definitely sounds very distressed whenever he gets shocked.
Whenever the teacher didn’t want to continue, the experimenter in the room, dressed in a grey lab coat and also an actor, would gently prod phrases such as, “Please continue. The experiment requires you to continue. It is absolutely essential that you continue. You have no other choice but to continue.”
The results were: “65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e., teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.” 450 volts would’ve killed the learner. Milgram concluded: “Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up. People tend to obey orders from other people if they recognize their authority as morally right and/or legally based.”
Milgram explained his results through his agency theory. In social situations, we are either in an autonomous state, directing and taking responsibility of our own actions, or an agentic state, in which others direct our actions and thus they have responsibility for the consequences of those actions.
For someone to enter the agentic state, Milgram says two conditions must be met:
- The person giving the orders is perceived as being qualified to direct other people’s behavior. That is, they are seen as legitimate.
- The person being ordered about is able to believe that the authority will accept responsibility for what happens.
This is shown most clearly in Milgram’s variation of this experiment – “For example, when participants were reminded that they had responsibility for their own actions, almost none of them were prepared to obey. In contrast, many participants who were refusing to go on did so if the experimenter said that he would take responsibility.”
In the variations, obedience dropped under conditions such as an “ordinary member of the public” dressed in casual clothing prodding the teacher instead of the experimenter in the lab coat. Obedience also dropped when they couldn’t see the experimenter, and when the location was moved from the prestigious Yale offices to run down ones.
This shows we are more obedient to those who look like there are in authority and are in a trusted place of authority. We are often obedient to authority figures who tell us to do something, even if it goes against our ethical values or logic.
Which is why Maryland received hundreds of calls “from residents asking about the effectiveness of ingesting disinfectants to treat coronavirus after President Donald Trump dangerously suggested that it could be a possible treatment for the deadly virus.” Similarly, Illinois and Michigan also saw an increase in calls to poison control about the president’s remarks.
Listening to authority can be good or bad depending on who we’re listening to. Many people have chosen to listen to doctors and experts about the coronavirus and how we should be handling it. However, when two doctors from Bakersfield went viral after “debunking” the coronavirus, many listened to them to.
I think that during times of fear, we are especially vulnerable to wanting to listen to anyone who we think has credible information or has our best interests in mind. We may not always do this logically, but as mentioned, listening to authority is no time to turn off your brain. We should be questioning and evaluating everything we hear and not basing decisions off of fear, especially since there is so much misinformation out there.
In Ed Yong’s article in the Atlantic, “Why is the Coronavirus So Confusing,” he says, “We hunger for information, but lack the know-how to evaluate it or the sources that provide it.” He goes on to quote Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, “This is the epistemological crisis of the moment: There’s a lot of expertise around, but fewer tools than ever to distinguish it from everything else.”
We want to listen to experts, but we are simply overwhelmed by information that seems to contradict itself and even change day by day. I think the best explanation Yong provided is that in academia, when new information is found, it is debated and reviewed by peers. There is often an oscillation of information as peers decide if the tools they used to come to those conclusions were sound and accurate, and if their data and results fits into the bigger picture. This is normal. The debates and information is usually only seen by the academic community.
However, now the world is taking in all this oscillating information as well without knowing how the process works. We are ready to believe every new piece of information not understanding it needs to be evaluated by others first. Yong’s point is, “that individual pieces of research are extremely unlikely to single-handedly upend what we know about COVID-19.”
Not understanding the process of academia puts everyone in a dangerous position of grasping what every “expert” or even self-proclaimed experts seem to say. If we are programmed to listen to authority, and two doctors come out saying the coronavirus is just like the flu, then I understand why so many people would want to believe it, especially since it’s also what they want to believe. However, this information doesn’t fall in line what most other experts are saying and thousands of doctors are experiencing.
At the end of the day, listening to authority is best useful when we are still using our own logic. When authorities say washing your hands and social distancing will help slow the spread of the virus, and this message is being repeated by many authorities all around the world and proven to be effective, then we know it’s information we can trust. If we’ve gone our entire lives knowing that ingesting disinfectant and bleach is deadly, then it’s safe to believe that it is still deadly despite the offhanded remarks of a single person in charge of an entire country.
Because this is a pandemic that has become about so much more than health, Yong has some advice:
“But pandemics demand both depth and breadth of expertise. To work out if widespread testing is crucial for controlling the pandemic, listen to public-health experts; to work out if widespread testing is possible, listen to supply-chain experts. To determine if antibody tests can tell people if they’re immune to the coronavirus, listen to immunologists; to determine if such testing is actually a good idea, listen to ethicists, anthropologists, and historians of science. No one knows it all, and those who claim to should not be trusted.”
Not only do we listen to authority, but we also listen to groups. That’s why I like to call the vast majority of people – sheeple (a term I did not make up, but is very fun to use).
In the article, “Herd Mentality Explained,” Rick Nauert, PhD says that research has shown the vast majority of us make decisions based off the actions of others. In a series of experiments, groups of people were asked to walk around a large hall. A select few were given a direction to walk, and it didn’t take long for everyone else to follow them even though there were no verbal cues and physical gestures to guide them.
They conducted this experiment with different sized groups and varied the amount of informed individuals, and found that, “it takes a minority of just five percent to influence a crowd’s direction — and that the other 95 percent follow without realizing it.”
In “TheFear and Pain of Going Against the Crowd,” David Zuckerman states another study that exemplifies how people conform. Neuroscientists conducted an experiment in which participants took a test in different settings, individually and in a group. In the first setting, participants took the test by themselves and correctly answered 90% of the questions. “When participants could see the answers given by other people in the group, however, only 59 percent of questions were answered correctly — a rate that it is statistically equivalent to flipping a coin to make the decision.”
Brains scans performed on participants during the test found that once the group had chosen an answer, “there was a decrease in activity in the parts of the brain that are associated with logical thinking.” They literally stopped thinking, or at least significantly thought less about the right answer.
When following the spread of information on social media platforms, this has proven to be incredibly dangerous. Yong points out, “On Twitter, false information spreads further than true information, and at six times the speed.” Renée DiResta of Stanford, who studies how narratives spread online, says, “this is not just a problem of the internet… For a lot of people, what is true is what the people I’ve chosen to trust in my community say is true.” This means that liberal and conservative Americans see this pandemic differently.
Interestingly enough, in a 2014 study conducted by Chapman University, even the fears of Democrats and Republicans differed – “Democrats were most likely to be worried about personal safety, pollution, and man-made disasters. Republicans, meanwhile, had the highest levels of fear about the government, immigrants, and “today’s youth.”” I think we still seeing these leanings during this pandemic.
DiResta says that in a disaster people share information “to be useful to their community.” So, the intention isn’t to spread misinformation and fear, but it’s definitely a consequence. Yong says, “Since the pandemic began, scientists have published more than 7,500 papers on COVID-19.” Everyone has been frantically trying to find and share information that they think will be the most useful to the community and world.
Despite all these publications and findings, Carl Bergstrom, an epidemiologist and a sociologist of science at the University of Washington, says there have not be “a lot of huge plot twists” in what we know and have been learning about Covid-19. Consider that. So much information is shared that it seems we’re learning something new every day, when in reality, we’ve only solidly learned a few small things.
So every time you hear a new piece of information about this virus, consider the process of academia and how information must be weighed and debated. Consider that just because one group of people says one thing, and that group aligns with what you believe or want, it may not be the most accurate information.
We have leanings to want to believe some information versus others. But whether Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, following this news network or another, business owner or healthcare worker, working or unemployed, student or parent, we are all affected by this pandemic. We all want the best solutions and it will take a lot of creative expert minds to find what’s best for everyone.
And if you are inclined to believe that you have your own independent mind and are not just a follower, or part of the sheeple, statistically, that just isn’t probable. With that being said, during times of crisis, the sheeple mentality can be used for good or bad, but this, I believe, is directed by our fear.
One of the prominent feelings going around is that many of us are afraid and for different reasons. We are fearful for our health and the health of our loved ones. We are fearful about job instability and financial hardship. There are even those fearful about the government and liberty restrictions. Collectively, I believe most people in America, if not the world, are afraid of something right now.
Nadya Dich, Ph.D., addresses fear during a pandemic in her article, “What Fear and Anxiety Can and Cannot Do for (and With) You.” She explains fear and anxiety are part of a stress response meant to keep us safe. She says, “It mobilizes our energy, both mental and physical, so we can either escape from the threat or cope with it. We think and react faster, are more alert and awake, and engage in behaviors that will keep us safe.”
So, fear is useful, until it’s not. Past a point, “the surge of stress hormones that accompanies intense anxiety and fear diminishes our access to higher-level cognitive processes. When the brain is on stress hormones, seeing perspective, out-of-the-box thinking, and creativity may be temporarily unavailable to us, impairing our abilities to solve problems and make decisions.”
I find it interesting that the same emotion that activates brain activity also diminishes it when we have too much of it. It’s safe to say that during a prolonged pandemic with increasing and new fears arising, we have too much fear.
In “The Psychology of Irrational Fear,” written during the time of Ebola, Olga Khazan says we fear the unexpected or unknown, when it’s “too close to home” or affects us personally, and even are more afraid of outside occurrences when we feel physically vulnerable. Fear can lead us to avoid people and places simply because others are avoiding them. However, the feeling of loss of control is likely to bring out our worst phobias.
Madhukar Trivedi, chair of the University of Texas-Southwestern’s Mental Health Department, says, “people are more afraid of flying than of driving cars because “in a car, at least I know when to brake. In a plane, I have no control.”” During times like these, I think fear of loss of control is what drives us predominately.
We fear spreading the virus and infecting others, so many of us have chosen to adhere to stay at home orders and stay home, which I believe is a good thing. Fear is, afterall, meant for our survival.
On the other hand, having places of business close down is outside a business owner’s control, as well as customer participation and the overall economy. With the closing of businesses, finances are much less in their control, which means security and stability, and not knowing how to feed their families is not in their control. This is when panic sets in.
In Karen Thomspon Walker’s Ted Talk, “What Fear Can Teach Us,” she explains what role the imagination plays in fear. She tells the story of a real life event in 1819 about 20 American sailors who were shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean 3,000 miles off the coast of Chile. They found themselves with three options.
With limited food and navigational equipment on their lifeboats, they could go to the nearest island 1,000 miles away, which was rumored to have cannibals. Another option was Hawaii, but the crew feared the storms that happened during that season. Their last option was to sail 1,500 miles south in hopes of reaching winds that would push them to the coast. That journey would be the longest and their food supple was sure not to last.
They eventually decided on the longest journey, and when the crew was finally found by another ship, half the crew had died, the rest were starving, and some members had resorted to cannibalism.
Walker explains logically, going to the closest island would’ve led to the highest chance of survival, but instead they chose the most illogical choice. She explains, “Of all the narratives their fears wrote, they responded only to the most lurid, the most vivid, the one that was easiest for their imaginations to picture.”
Whatever is most visceral to us is easiest to fear most. In this way, fear is very illogical. It’s why most people fear shark attacks more than car crashes, even though the latter is far more likely. Just as that 1819 crew could most vividly picture being eaten by cannibals more than starvation.
What we can imagine vividly and see right in front of us seems like a more real threat that something possibly far away or invisible. This is similar to how during this pandemic, there are those who believe it’s a hoax, or that lockdowns have been overexaggerated. Tufekci says, “There are two lessons one can learn from an averted disaster. One is: That was exaggerated. The other is: That was close.”
Yong says, “Last month, a team at Imperial College London released a model that said the coronavirus pandemic could kill 2.2 million Americans if left unchecked. So it was checked… The death toll is still climbing, but seems unlikely to hit the worst-case 2.2 million ceiling. That was close. Or, as some pundits are already claiming, that was exaggerated.”
However accurate the models are or not, the point still lies that much death has been averted. Yong goes on to say, “I can still read accounts of people less lucky—those who have lost, and those who have been lost. But I cannot read about the losses that never occurred, because they were averted. Prevention may be better than cure, but it is also less visceral.”
Prevention and averted death is not something we can tangibly see. What’s right in front us is massive unemployment, financial insecurity, and many other problems caused by the lockdown. Thus, these fears have been looming bigger to many people.
I strongly believe that had we done nothing, and our healthcare systems got overwhelmed and hundreds of thousands died, there would instead be protests for the government to step in and do something.
There has also been the other argument of who the virus primarily affects, and for those who don’t fall into the category, they think they have less to fear. For those people, fear of the economy failing is much greater than fear of the virus.
Combine these fears from all ends of the spectrum with the fact that heightened fear impairs our thinking, then it completely makes sense why protestors would huddle in groups without wearing masks. Protesting is a liberty granted to us. Protesting without the measures that have been provided to us is just plain stupid.
To combat fear, Walker says we need the coolness of judgment of a scientist. The fact is that this pandemic has affected all of us, but not all of us in the same way. A suffering business owner has to weigh the risks of his own livelihood, as well as his employees, with the health of all those who his business comes into contact with. A nurse must weigh the danger of infecting his/her family by not coming home. Teachers and parents must weigh the education of students.
There is no one size fits all solution. Everyone is scared of something and acting from that fear. If a struggling business owner talked to someone who has lost a loved one to the virus, I wonder what kind of insights would be gained.
When we listen to authority, we turn off our agency and critical thinking skills. When we conform to the herd, we let others decide for us. When fear dominates our life, logic goes out the window. These reactions are justified and normal, but this is not a time to turn off your brain.
I still often think back to that leadership camp in high school. A room filled with at least 50 students and every single of one of them turned around to greet someone’s back. It’s silly really. Especially since I had thought it was dumb and followed anyway. Not only was I being given an order, but everyone else was turning around too.
I’m not a high school student anymore, and I doubt anyone who reads this is. What would have happened if I had stopped, questioned a little longer, and followed my own logic? What would happen if the world did that?
Maryland Receives "Hundreds" of Calls
Calls to Poison Control Spike
The Fear and Pain of Going Against the Crowd
The Milgram Shock Experiment
What Fear and Anxiety Can (And Cannot) Do For You
The Psychology of Irrational Fear
Why the Coronavirus is So Confusing
Herd Mentality Explained
What Fear Can Teach Us