We all like to believe we’re good people, and because of that, we’re incapable of doing evil. Our propensity to do good or evil has nothing to do with our innate character; it has far more to do with the circumstances we find ourselves in. We assume that we’d be the person who will stand up to injustice and that our individual sense of right and wrong would prevail over the mob mentality. History and psychology shows, however, that given the right circumstances, only a quarter of people have the fortitude to stand up and say “I’m not going to participate in this.”
Apart from the numbers in the infamous Milgram experiment bearing this out, the Stanford Prison Experiment concluded with similar statistical outcomes. On a non-experimental level, we can also see a number of scenarios that prove this rule. In two of Michael Lewis’ books, Moneyball and The Big Short, we see small groups of people who have a grasp of a situation that everyone else lacks. They try to convince others but are always laughed off or ignored by the majority for not thinking in line with the status quo. Even when they are eventually proven right, the mob doesn’t capitulate and concede that they were wrong. The mob’s hate for the small group only grows; they are often despised even more because they proved everyone else wrong.
Those are two examples of people willing to go against the grain for positive reasons. That there are so few is notable. What about when there are negative consequences for speaking out against mob rule? If you were a German soldier in World War II protesting the killing of Jews, you likely would have been killed on the spot. If you’re a corporate whistleblower, there’s a good chance you’ll have your career destroyed. It’s interesting that we tell our children to stand up for what they believe in but that the likelihood of us doing the same is only one in four, and, if they do protest, likely everything they have worked towards will be destroyed.
A lot of the time, we go along with the mob simply because it doesn’t seem so bad at the time. Because we’re social animals, we tend to follow social norms. It’s incredibly difficult to do things that go against what’s socially acceptable. If you want proof, go and lay down in the middle of the mall for 10 seconds on a busy day. You won’t do it, and you’re likely thinking, “That’s absurd, why would I do that?” That’s because your prefrontal cortex is kicking in, the part of your brain that enforces compliance with social norms. That compliance with social norms is an important part of our evolutionary psychology, because back when we lived in tribes, conforming to those norms meant we didn’t get exiled into the wilderness for acting the wrong way.
Unfortunately, our compliance with small things ensures that when the big, bad things happen, we’ll either be complicit or will even participate.
SWAT teams are a great example. Their recent militarization due to receiving surplus military equipment has caused a significant change in their tactics and motivation. As the saying goes “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” So it is with SWAT teams now dressing and being kitted out as though they are an occupying military force. This trend likely didn’t begin with cops raiding every suspected drug house all of a sudden. It starts with a little more force here and there, or maybe fudging a tiny fact here or there for a court order. You want to use that new gear and training, so instead of erring on the side of caution and doing a full investigation, you find circumstantial evidence that confirms your suspicions.
Where once it was common procedure to search suspected drug houses, the default has now changed to a full blown raid. One even ended with a baby spending weeks in an induced coma in the burns unit because the breaching team threw a stun grenade into its crib.
Group mentality among the police has resulted in many lives lost unnecessarily, but our propensity as humans to do evil increases by many orders of magnitude when the situation is chaotic and the pressures are too great for our brains to process. In Lt Col Dave Grossman’s book, On Killing, a veteran described the various pressures that caused incidents such as the Mai Lai massacre to occur in Vietnam:
“You put those same kids in the jungle for a while, get them real scared, deprive them of sleep, and let a few incidents change some of their fear to hate. Give them a sergeant who has seen too many of his men killed by booby traps and by lack of distrust, and who feels that Vietnamese are dumb, dirty and weak, because they are not like him. Add a little mob pressure, and those nice kids who accompany us today would rape like champions.”
Lest we conclude that only the pressures of combat cause some kind of insane bloodlust and deplorable behavior in men, we have another excellent example of how outside circumstances can cause deliberate human cruelty from a study conducted at NYU. College females were asked to administer electric shocks to test subjects who were instructed to remember material under stress. When those subjects were made anonymous, i.e. their name was taken off their clothing and they had a hood placed over their heads, the college females shocked them twice as often as before.
Let’s consider the implications of this propensity for violence against others in the online world. We’ve already seen the mob effect on Twitter, where people’s lives have been ruined because others deemed that they had said the wrong thing. Twitter is often the ultimate example of dehumanizing someone—all you see is an avatar, which may or may not be a picture of the person themselves, and their Twitter handle. It’s often hypothesized that online trolling and harassment occurs because there is anonymity and a lack of consequences for the perpetrator. While this is certainly true, there is another side to the coin: The lack of humanity that the online world sees in the victim.
When you’re having a conversation in person with someone and you disagree with them, you don’t just go nuclear in response, even if their argument is stupid. Why? Unless you’re a sociopath, people don’t like hurting other people, physically or emotionally. However, online your target is dehumanized. We can say horrible things and won’t see the effect it has on our victim. We’re also not at risk of a beatdown for pissing off the wrong person.
We complain about people becoming more polarized, that the online world is so abusive, and that people say such horrible things, but it’s almost guaranteed that those doing the complaining have been the perpetrator themselves. Oh, they may not have said some of the more vile stuff, but they’re likely guilty of speaking to others far too harshly and of disagreeing in a disrespectful, insulting way. That’s the thing: it’s really easy to make small transgressions and believe you’re not the guilty party because others are doing worse. But it’s a slippery slope. Psychology shows that the first step—however innocuous it may feel at the time—is the most dangerous.
This is especially true for those in the AntiFa movement right now, because they identify themselves as the “good people,” and everyone who disagrees is a racist, bigot or transphobe. All of a sudden, it starts to become much more reasonable to do unreasonable things. This is why we have a whole bunch of people right now constantly screaming that Trump is a fascist and that they’re protecting freedom of speech—while being violent and destructive to anyone who disagrees with them. Jordan Peterson remarked recently in his interview with Joe Rogan that the people who have protested against him speaking at universities have a glazed look in their eyes and that they’re incapable of seeing reason or of even listening. They’re so riled up by their group that all they want to do is shout slogans. They can’t even think for themselves.
That psychological studies have shown that 75 percent of people will ultimately go along and participate in evil acts is a chilling reminder of how easy it is to be persuaded by the group. To look in the mirror and say, “It’s far more likely than not that if I was a German in WWII, I would have been complicit and actively participated in the genocide of six million Jews” is a sobering experience. It’s a realization that few will experience because it’s far easier to convince ourselves that we’re one of the good guys.
And that’s why, no matter who you are or what movement or group of people you identify with, you need to look yourself in the mirror and confront this fact. You have to confront the fact you will do evil if the people around you are doing evil. It’s time all of us examine ourselves and ask, “Am I too caught up in everything to see reason? Can I think for myself right now, or do I dismiss everything that doesn’t fit my narrative?”
You may not like what you find.
Pete Ross deconstructs the psychology and philosophy of the business world, careers and everyday life. You can follow him on Twitter @prometheandrive.