Humans Are Dangerous in Groups

 

Much has been written about the tendency of smartphones to isolate us rather than connect us, as you might expect. You may be sitting with friends in a restaurant, but you can be conversing digitally, and thus more emotionally connected to, someone on Instagram or a blog. Someone you’ve never met, perhaps. While your friend, sitting next to you, is also involved in an emotional exchange with someone else who is not there. While you and your friend largely ignore one another. I can see how this could be interpreted as making people more isolated, but the recent coronavirus fiasco has suggested to me that we are not more isolated, but more connected than ever. And that is a Very Bad Thing.

I like people. I even like people that I don’t like all that much, if that makes any sense. One advantage of being a person as deeply flawed as myself is that I tend to accept others as they are, and I try to avoid criticizing others. So in general, I get along great with basically everybody. I love people.

But I fear mobs. While people tend to be reasonable, intelligent, and pleasant; groups of people, for various reasons, quickly become irrational, passionate, and dangerous. And I would argue that the ubiquitous nature of smartphones has reduced us from a civilization of individuals who, together, can handle extraordinary crises; to a mob which is by definition irrational, passionate, and incapable of developing a carefully reasoned approach to just about anything.

Allow me to preface my argument the way I normally conclude my arguments: I really hope I’m wrong about this.

I mentioned to my wife the other day that I thought that the old media (CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc.) was doing more harm than good by fostering panic in our response to the coronavirus. She said maybe, but that she thought that social media was more damaging than conventional media outlets.

I thought this was a profound observation.

Don’t tell her I said that.

But I think that if the average person read a story in a newspaper, this would be different. By the time you read anything in a newspaper, the information is at least 24 hours old, and probably two-three days old. So the reporter, and his/her editor, has had time to study the issue, attempt to research the facts of the story, and then present a thoughtful summary of what they learned.

No chuckling please – I’m talking best-case scenario here…

So the average person reads that news story, considers the data presented, and thinks to him/herself, “Hmmm… I think I might skip church tomorrow, and I’ll be a bit more conscientious about handwashing.” Which would be an entirely rational response.

But suppose that person gets on Facebook or Instagram, reads the trending articles (which by definition will be the most dramatic and inflammatory interpretations of the topic at hand), then that person starts exchanging comments with others who are similarly panicked about whatever is going on. That person is going to go to Costco and buy 100 rolls of toilet paper. Logic, reason, and contemplation go out the window.

The information age has reduced us — nearly all of us — to a mob. It has reduced our innate skills at reasoning and consideration of risks vs rewards to … um … to a Whack-a-Mole game. And that’s it. Our reason is gone, and our passions are exaggerated. Instead of brains, we now have Whack-a-Mole games. All due to the information age. So in response to a serious threat from a global infectious disease, we neglect typical protocols for managing contagious diseases, and we buy lots and lots of toilet paper. This is unhelpful. This is potentially dangerous.

And this is not what I thought the information age would offer humanity.

There was a brilliant post about this a few years ago. But despite its profound insight, that post did not anticipate the coronavirus.

I acknowledge that this is not all bad. Sometimes, over-reacting to a serious threat is not a bad thing. If you have pneumonia, and you can’t breathe, then whatever dose of antibiotics you’re taking could be described as, “Not enough.”

But there are side effects to over-dosage. Side effects which are not always immediately apparent.

If you’re insufficiently despondent about our response to the coronavirus, ask yourself this: “How would Robespierre have responded to the coronavirus crisis?” What about Saul Alinsky? Or even Bernie Sanders? Or perhaps even Joe Biden facing poor polling numbers?

President Obama once said, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” That sounds nice. President Obama had a gift for making horrible things sound nice. But those things remain horrible, even if they sound nice.

Humans are strange animals. The things we do as individuals tend to be rational and cooperative. But when we join together into cooperative groups, we become a mob. And then the things we choose to do together tend to be irrational and uncooperative. Not always. But often.

The information age, and smartphones, have made us more interconnected than ever before.

God help us.

As a wise man once observed, “I really hope I’m wrong about this…”

Note: Despite my previous righteous rantings against the evils of semicolons, in the third paragraph of this essay, I found myself with little choice but to indulge the natural human temptation to include these infernal forms of punctuation (twice!) into what is otherwise a carefully thought out essay.

Please don’t judge me. If anyone flags this post for COC violations, I will completely understand. I know that this is a family website, and children may be reading.

I will do my very best to see to it that this never happens again.

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  1. Tex929rr Coolidge
    Tex929rr
    @Tex929rr

    • #1
  2. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.

    — Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841)

    • #2
  3. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    “Man loves, men hate. While individual men and women can sustain feelings of love over a lifetime toward a parent or through decades toward a spouse, no significant group in human history has sustained an emotion that could honestly be characerized as love. Groups hate. And they hate well…Love is an introspective emotion, while hate is easily extroverted…We refuse to believe that the “civilized peoples of the Balkans could slaughter each other over an event that occurred over six hundred years ago. But they do. Hatred does not need a reason, only an excuse.”

    –Ralph Peters

    • #3
  4. Chris O. Coolidge
    Chris O.
    @ChrisO

    Social media also tends to amplify the loudest voice, or let’s say the one that gathers the most attention. We make the mistake, then, of  associating this voice with the broadest swath of the general public. All we really know is it provoked a reaction.

    • #4
  5. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    The mass hysteria over the Russia hoax shook my faith in a lot of things. I’m not saying Coronavirus disease is a hoax. It isn’t. But I’m not so sure about the mass reaction.  

    • #5
  6. Matt Bartle Member
    Matt Bartle
    @MattBartle

    Dr. Bastiat: in the second paragraph of this essay

    Third paragraph.

    And I love semicolons.

    • #6
  7. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Matt Bartle (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat: in the second paragraph of this essay

    Third paragraph.

    And I love semicolons.

    Dang.  You’re right.

    I’ll fix it.  Thanks.

    • #7
  8. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    I think the personal social media pages on Facebook at least are great. I really enjoy reading my kids’ posts and those of their friends. But I know what you mean. I see a lot of negativity on the news websites.

    It would be funny if I get to heaven and I can ask the Good Lord someday, “You can tell me now. There were actually only 10 people writing millions of negative comments, right?”  :-)

    • #8
  9. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Dr. Bastiat: Despite my previous righteous rantings against the evils of semicolons, in the third paragraph of this essay, I found myself with little choice but to indulge the natural human temptation to include these infernal forms of punctuation (twice!) into what is otherwise a carefully thought out essay. 

    I’m not exactly sure of the rules for using semicolons, but I’ve been assured that they’re racist, sexist, and homophobic; so I use them every time I can.

    • #9
  10. Chris Hutchinson Coolidge
    Chris Hutchinson
    @chrishutch13

    Dr. Bastiat: Despite my previous righteous rantings against the evils of semicolons, in the third paragraph of this essay, I found myself with little choice but to indulge the natural human temptation to include these infernal forms of punctuation (twice!) into what is otherwise a carefully thought out essay.

    YES! I noticed! A comma there definitely would have looked messy.

    I tend to agree with you. I’m pretty critical of MSM but I’ve often discussed with friends that the problem is more to do with the ever shortening news cycle due to social media. I’ve even gotten to a point where I question if the explosion of bloggers was a net positive or not. The pressure to get stories out under these conditions must be intense.

    • #10
  11. Ilan Levine Member
    Ilan Levine
    @IlanLevine

    After reading “Thinking: Fast and Slow”, I have even less faith in the rationality of individuals.

    • #11
  12. RandR Member
    RandR
    @RandR

    David Foster (View Comment):

    “Man loves, men hate. While individual men and women can sustain feelings of love over a lifetime toward a parent or through decades toward a spouse, no significant group in human history has sustained an emotion that could honestly be characerized as love. Groups hate. And they hate well…Love is an introspective emotion, while hate is easily extroverted…We refuse to believe that the “civilized peoples of the Balkans could slaughter each other over an event that occurred over six hundred years ago. But they do. Hatred does not need a reason, only an excuse.”

    –Ralph Peters

     “No significant group in humans history”? I believe there has been, is now, and will continue to be, one group: christians.

    • #12
  13. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    RandR (View Comment):
    “No significant group in humans history”? I believe there has been, is now, and will continue to be, one group: christians.

    But consider: just about *all* of the belligerents in the First World War were Christians.

    • #13
  14. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Yes, humans are dangerous in groups. This is why the police use impact munitions, and chemical agents to break-up violent demonstrations. Pain compliance changes group think, and group actions into individual thought and actions. Such as; “I need to get out of here”, because rubber bullets hurt, especially when they start bouncing off the pavement about groin high.

    • #14
  15. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    Yes, humans are dangerous in groups. This is why the police use impact munitions, and chemical agents to break-up violent demonstrations. Pain compliance changes group think, and group actions into individual thought and actions. Such as “I need to get out of here”, because rubber bullets hurt, especially when they start bouncing off the pavement about groin high.

    Pepperball ammo works well, too.

    • #15
  16. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Percival (View Comment):

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    Yes, humans are dangerous in groups. This is why the police use impact munitions, and chemical agents to break-up violent demonstrations. Pain compliance changes group think, and group actions into individual thought and actions. Such as “I need to get out of here”, because rubber bullets hurt, especially when they start bouncing off the pavement about groin high.

    Pepperball ammo works well, too.

    With a little luck that guy will be sterile and keep his genes out of the pool.

    • #16
  17. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    RandR (View Comment):

    David Foster (View Comment):

    “Man loves, men hate. While individual men and women can sustain feelings of love over a lifetime toward a parent or through decades toward a spouse, no significant group in human history has sustained an emotion that could honestly be characerized as love. Groups hate. And they hate well…Love is an introspective emotion, while hate is easily extroverted…We refuse to believe that the “civilized peoples of the Balkans could slaughter each other over an event that occurred over six hundred years ago. But they do. Hatred does not need a reason, only an excuse.”

    –Ralph Peters

    “No significant group in humans history”? I believe there has been, is now, and will continue to be, one group: christians.

    I think Christianity is an individual thing as well even when celebrated together and with a good preacher.  Once they form a single large group, i.e. acting as one, they can easily slip into mob behavior if led in that direction.

    • #17
  18. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Dr. Bastiat: But I fear mobs. While people tend to be reasonable, intelligent, and pleasant; groups of people, for various reasons, quickly become irrational, passionate, and dangerous.

    I could not disagree with this sentiment more. Out of the crooked timber of individuals, human groups can never be built straight. To paraphrase James Madison, government reflects what we are. I like to think that the reflection is warped but government is still a reflection of our individual fallibilities. Humans are terrible and we should seek out religion to oppose what we are and we should seek out genetic engineering to fundamentally alter our nature. 

    • #18
  19. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    Randy Webster

    Percival (View Comment):

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    Yes, humans are dangerous in groups. This is why the police use impact munitions, and chemical agents to break-up violent demonstrations. Pain compliance changes group think, and group actions into individual thought and actions. Such as “I need to get out of here”, because rubber bullets hurt, especially when they start bouncing off the pavement about groin high.

    Pepperball ammo works well, too.

    With a little luck that guy will be sterile and keep his genes out of the pool.

    If not, he should be given a sex robot to prevent him from breeding. 

    • #19
  20. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat: But I fear mobs. While people tend to be reasonable, intelligent, and pleasant; groups of people, for various reasons, quickly become irrational, passionate, and dangerous.

    I could not disagree with this sentiment more. Out of the crooked timber of individuals, human groups can never be built straight. To paraphrase James Madison, government reflects what we are. I like to think that the reflection is warped but government is still a reflection of our individual fallibilities. Humans are terrible and we should seek out religion to oppose what we are and we should seek out genetic engineering to fundamentally alter our nature.

    Wow.  I thought took a dim view of human nature… 

    • #20
  21. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):
    Dr. BastiatPost author

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat: But I fear mobs. While people tend to be reasonable, intelligent, and pleasant; groups of people, for various reasons, quickly become irrational, passionate, and dangerous.

    I could not disagree with this sentiment more. Out of the crooked timber of individuals, human groups can never be built straight. To paraphrase James Madison, government reflects what we are. I like to think that the reflection is warped but government is still a reflection of our individual fallibilities. Humans are terrible and we should seek out religion to oppose what we are and we should seek out genetic engineering to fundamentally alter our nature.

    Wow. I thought took a dim view of human nature… 

    I was genetically designed to dislike people. 

    • #21
  22. Chris Hutchinson Coolidge
    Chris Hutchinson
    @chrishutch13

    I Walton (View Comment):
    I think Christianity is an individual thing as well even when celebrated together and with a good preacher.

    I’m going to take a page out of Henry’s playbook and use his wording… I could not disagree with this sentiment more. I definitely believe there’s an individual and a personal side to Christianity as well as a collective side. Personal in our relationship with God and His love for us individually. I read some good stuff the other day in Daniel J. Mahoney’s “The Idol of our Age” touching on its perfect balance:

    Christianity in particular, has a unique capacity to reconcile “personal freedom, dignity, selfhood and vitality with social discipline and coordination.” Like his great nineteenth-century liberal conservative forebear Alexis de Tocqueville, Kolnai cannot imagine the safeguarding of the mores of society without the survival of a vigorous and demanding religious sensibility. Religion helps to make human beings and societies “whole,” to reconcile the sacred and the mundane, the freedom of persons and the requirements of civilized order. Without religion, and in the West that means biblical religion, the person becomes a mere individual and society loses the capacity for a common good and the kind of collective action that respects the moral integrity of human beings. The Christian notion of the person affirms human liberty and the dignity while avoiding the illusion of thoroughgoing human “autonomy.” The dignity of man ultimately depends upon the primacy of the Good and the affirmation of the sovereignty of God (which, contra voluntarism, has nothing to do with the divine willfulness), a point well understood by Orestes Brownson. (…) Let us return to Kolnai. In important respects, he anticipated Benedict’s concerns and arguments. He saw that humanitarianism had a “fatal tendency towards materialism,” stressing material needs of human beings at the expense of their souls. He argued that in a “climate of irreligion,” or of religion distorted by humanitarianism, man’s “spiritual functions and capacities” would “inevitably by understimulated, undernourished, underexercised, and be condemned to atrophy.” An inordinate emphasis on man’s sovereignty would paradoxically degrade man, “displace his center of gravity into the nether regions of his being,” and undermine authentic humanism and moral decency.

    But I believe the second “Greatest Commandment” and many other parts in the Bible show that a true and deep relationship with Christ is impossible without sacrifice and service to others.

    • #22