Conforming to the majority, however wrong they may be

A few weeks ago I was ranting on my Facebook author page about Ghostbusters: Answer the call—i.e. the new Ghostbusters movie. I loved the movie and I was rather pissed to see all the gratuitous hatred towards it not only after it was released, but well before. As the Latins said, de gustibus non est disputandum (‘you don’t argue over matters of taste’), so while I had nothing to say about people who genuinely disliked the movie, in my rant I conjectured that the negative criticism on the movie after it was released might (and I emphasise might) be mostly a product of all the conditioning that people underwent in the months prior to the movie’s release—in other words, since everybody around you on the Internet kept talking shit about the movie, you were negatively influenced by the predominant opinion, even if nobody expressing it had seen the movie yet, so that after you went to see the movie (if you did) you eventually joined the choir of haters, either because of the ‘brainwashing’ that actually convinced you the movie was bad or because you didn’t want to break from the crowd and dare saying the movie was not so bad after all.

This was all just wild speculation, but then my girlfriend pointed out a series of studies about the influence of the majority’s opinion on individual judgement—the so-called Asch conformity experiments—which seemed to hint there might be some truth to what I conjectured. You can read the page I linked, or even look up the original studies, but here’s a brief account of the experiments anyway.

Groups of eight subjects were presented with two cards: One bore a single vertical line, while the other had three lines of different lengths labeled A, B, C. One of the three lines was the same as that on the first card, while the other two were clearly of different lengths; the subjects were supposed to say which of the three lines matched the one on the first card. Now, seven out of the eight subjects in each group were actually actors who had been given prior instructions on how they should answer the question in each run of the experiment, so that the number of actual test subject each time was in fact one. The seven ‘confederates’ were instructed to always unanimously nominate one of the three lines. In some cases they were instructed to give the right answer; in some other, they were supposed to give the wrong one. The point of the experiment was to see whether the test subject would dare giving the right answer even when all the other supposed test subjects gave the wrong one.

While in the control group the error percentage was ridiculously (and understandably) low, in the remaining groups results varied: 36.8% of the real test subjects conformed to the (incorrect) answer of the majority; 5% of them always gave the same answer as the majority. One-third of all the responses were incorrect, matching those of the majority, and overall 75% of the test subjects gave at least one incorrect answer out of 12 trials. During the post-experiment interviews of the subjects, Asch spilled the beans and told them what the experiment was really about. He got some rather interesting responses, for example from the ‘independent’ subject who did not follow majority, who said: ‘I do not deny that at times I had the feeling: “to go with it, I’ll go along with the rest” ‘; and the ‘yielding’ subject, more prone to aligning with the majority, who said ‘I suspected about the middle – but tried to push it out of my mind.‘ Some of the conforming people gave the same wrong answer as the majority because they doubted their own judgement and concluded the majority had to be right; some others didn’t want to go against what the majority was saying, even though they knew what the right answer was. Even though the majority of subjects did not conform to the wrong answer just because it was what the majority of the participants was saying, it is still impressive that nearly 40% did. We’re not talking nuclear physics here: We’re talking about which line was longer than which other.

Before you complain that you don’t give a flying about the new Ghostbusters movie or which line is the longest, let me come to the point of this post. If people are hesitant to disagree with the majority even in cases where they could easily prove the majority wrong, I would imagine they are even more so when the majority is very entrenched and disproving them is not so easy, as in the case of people maintaining that ageing is a good thing and that all kinds of shit would hit the fan if we tried to change it in any way. The fact your health goes downhill as time goes by is something nobody is too fond of and probably not too many people like admitting that they’re not very healthy any more. Denialism is often the first reaction to something unwanted and inevitable, and while you can’t deny the fact you’re ageing, you can deny it is a bad thing and attempt all sorts of pseudo-philosophical acrobatics to convince yourself and others that ageing is a good thing after all. Since everyone has ageing, this reaction is exceedingly common, and we end up with seriously large groups of people all agreeing that ageing is good (despite the fact it makes you sick and kills you) and that if we stopped ageing we would be struck by all the catastrophes you can imagine—regardless of the total lack of evidence in favour of these claims and of all the arguments (if not evidence) against them. After all, often all it takes to make a lie true is to repeat it long enough and to get others to repeat it too. Considering that the issue of biological ageing is at least as old as humanity itself, the first attempts to rationalise and sugarcoat it are probably very old as well; therefore this cycle of communal reinforcement has probably been going on for centuries if not millennia, earning the alleged desirability of ageing a place in folk wisdom. As the Asch experiments suggest, even if some people may in fact privately think that ageing is not so good after all and they’d rather not age if they had the choice, there’s a good chance that in public they’ll stick to the majority opinion, no matter how questionable it may be. If you’ve ever tried to bring up the topic of rejuvenation with other people, you’ve probably seen this phenomenon in action many times. Before you know it, you’re covered in a tidal of overpopulation, eternal boredom, and everliving tyrants; then, when you start patiently dismantling each objection, the conversation is turned into an exchange of witticisms and eventually killed. Hardly anyone will ever dare changing their mind and admitting to it, especially in front of other people. The reasons may be several—fear of breaking from the majority, fear of appearing silly, fear of deluding oneself, you name it. Some people may be genuinely convinced of their position on ageing, but I wouldn’t be too quick to trust anyone who claims to think ageing is a good thing. Especially when you think about how people’s negative reactions to rejuvenation are all so quick—too quick, in fact, to believe they’ve actually given the matter any thought—and all eerily similar to each other, chances are good their wish to align with the majority has taken over. Just my two cents.

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