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Selfishness, Co-operation and Leadership: Gossip and Other Forms of Social Suasion

By Dennis Loo (6/20/12)

One of neoliberal philosophy’s central tenets is that people are inherently selfish and driven solely by material incentives. They argue, as Margaret Thatcher famously did while English Prime Minister, that “there is no such thing” as society, “there are only individuals and families.” The way to get people to do what you want, according to these sages who are collectively in charge of all of our major institutions now (including, notably, politics, media, economics, and education), is to offer people material rewards because people are not going to act altruistically.

This is how the proponents of the privatization of public services such as public education and other public goods such as governmental services see things: everyone is out for themselves and the devil take the hindmost. Neoliberal views are based in part on Adam Smith’s “laissez-faire” economic philosophy: selfishness is the highest and best value. Gordon Gecko of Wall Street fame put it bluntly: “Greed is good.” Frederick Hayek and Ayn Rand are also central contributors to neoliberal thought, with Hayek being its theoretical godfather and Ayn Rand the arrogant Queen Bee lead cheerleader (along with her fellow cheerleader Milton Friedman, channeling George W. Bush at Yale, on the bullhorn).

What these geniuses in charge of our collective fates have never bothered to do is study what science can tell us about human behavior. If they have dared to venture into the strange and exotic realms of social psychology, anthropology, and sociology, they promptly got lost, rejecting the findings of these scientific endeavors as so much hogwash. Once in a while I have a student taking a sociology class from me who is majoring in a field like business who experiences great cognitive dissonance when studying sociology because its findings and its perspective so directly contradict the philosophies that they have been imbued in. “You mean individuals are not the sole determinants of why society is the way that it is? You’re saying that social structure matters more than individual values and choices? What?!”

In the June 15, 2012 issue of The New York Times comes this article about the upside of gossip:

Bianca Beersma, an associate professor of work and organizational psychology, and Gerben van Kleef, a professor of social psychology at the University of Amsterdam, told a group of people that they had been randomly chosen to distribute 100 tickets for a lottery with a cash prize. The participants could either generously distribute the tickets to others or selfishly keep many tickets for themselves.

Half the time, the participant was told the choice would be kept private and no one would know. The rest of the time, the decision would be publicized in the group.

In addition, participants were sometimes told that other group members were likely to gossip; other times they were told their actions probably would not be discussed.

Now, people being people, all the players acted selfishly to some degree, keeping more for themselves than they gave to the others. But when they knew their actions were public and the chance of gossip was high, they became quite a bit less selfish, Professors Beersma and Van Kleef found.

Their study, “How the Grapevine Keeps You in Line: Gossip Increases Contributions to the Group,” appeared in the April 12, 2011, issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

In other words, when people know that others are observing them, they generally act differently. In a related event, the other day I was leaving the grocery store and one of my bags filled with baby food (for the cat) spilled onto the floor. A bystander came to my assistance immediately to help me collect the bottles strewn on the ground. I thanked her and thought to myself: “Now what would the Ayn Rand say about this woman’s actions? What is this woman getting out of this altruistic action?”

In governments and businesses around the globe the trend is for authorities to be insulating themselves more and more from the watchful eyes of the public, with governments treating protest as a form of terrorism and businesses being given license to be self-policing. We all know how well self-policing works, don’t we?

When cooperation is the expected norm (because people know this without having to be explicitly told this), then that will be the overall guiding principle. As I wrote in Globalization and the Demolition of Society:

In any society the mainstream is going to conform to mainstream values, institutions, ideas, and leading figures. In a feudal society the mainstream supports feudal values and norms. In a socialist society the mainstream support socialist values and norms. In a capitalist society the mainstream supports capitalist values and norms.

If the existing authorities embark on a radical turn in policy but mask the magnitude of their actions with persuasive rhetoric, and if the mass media go along, then how can we reasonably expect society’s mainstream to break with the leading authorities? Is the average person, or are even the most highly informed citizen, going to be ready to break with both the leading political parties and the mass media by concluding that their reading of the situation trumps that of the leading institutions and individuals? The mainstream will not do so unless and until a powerful enough alternative political and moral authority emerges that contends against the existing authority. Such an unusual scenario happens, when it happens at all, in part because the alternative authority does its work very well; but it mainly happens because the existing authorities become unable to hold things together. As a rule, people in any society are reluctant to break with convention. Conventional ways of doing and thinking must be at or near the breaking point, while simultaneously beset by a major challenge from an alternative path and alternative leadership, in order for a significant portion of the people to rupture from the existing system and its leaders. This is not a process that happens slowly and gradually, even if there are some building actions involved. It is a process that occurs in a concentrated span of time, in an accelerated fashion, under conditions of crisis.

This is what happened for a time in the 1960s when the existing authorities suffered from a “credibility gap” and the Left exercised broad influence, even though its actual numbers were small. As one indicator of this, during the high tide of the 1960s, a large majority of college students endorsed the idea of a revolution. The way that people defined revolution varied widely, but the mere fact that eighty percent (in at least one poll) believed that revolution was necessary was indicative of the mood of the times, the degree of crisis of the system, and the strength of the Left relative to the Right.

The problem in the US today, in brief, is not mainly that the people are bad or indifferent or gullible or immoral or consumed personally in pleasurable pursuits, though these elements exist in abundance. The main problem is that the established and widely recognized opinion leaders upon whom people rely and from whom they receive their overall orientations have been installing neoliberal policies in the driver’s seat. The American psyche’s degradation, to the point where Americans in all too many instances are going along with explicit and monstrous violations of international and national laws and widely and readily understood principles of morality and decency, is not primarily a product of average Americans forsaking their consciences. Leaders are primarily responsible. The soldiers guilty of committing atrocities at places like Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Bagram do not commit their acts because they are particularly depraved individuals; they were and are doing what they were and are expected to do and are ordered to do by their superior officers. This does not make those frontline soldiers guiltless of awful crimes; it does, however, make them relatively less guilty than their superiors.

Social psychologists have shown in experiments designed to measure people’s willingness to go against the group that most people will adopt the group answer, even when they know indisputably that the answer given by everyone else around them is wrong. In experiments, for example, where five people sit around a table and are asked to answer very simple questions (such as which straight line is longer even though both lines are obviously the same length), and when four of the respondents have been secretly instructed by the experimenters to give the same wrong answer, about eighty percent of the time the fifth respondents adopt the group’s wrong answer. Most people do not wish to be socially isolated and will do what they know is wrong, even deeply immoral things, rather than be isolated from the group. Breaking with the group not only means possible social isolation, the consequences for which can range from being made fun of to being killed, but it also means that you have to be willing to stand out and say to the others that they are wrong and you are right. Most people are not comfortable assuming that stance.

When people come into a group and see that everyone else is behaving in a particular way, they assume—erroneously—that everyone else is acting that way because they have all consciously decided to act in such a manner. Not wanting to assume that they know better, most people will then adopt the group’s behavior. Social psychologists call this process of reasoning “pluralistic ignorance.” It is more commonly seen in the story of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” in which the only person in the crowd willing to point out that the emperor is stark naked is a little boy; all of the adults are too embarrassed and afraid to point out the powerful emperor’s obvious nakedness and instead celebrate his (nonexistent) marvelous new clothes.

People are first and foremost social beings. While Descartes’ famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” captures something critical about what it means to be human, an even more accurate descriptor would be “I adapt, therefore I am.” Most people in any situation go along with the group norms not primarily because they agree with those norms but because they are adapting themselves to what they see most of the others around them doing. This rule of human behavior exists not primarily because people are sheep but because we all recognize that our survival depends on being in good standing with others. In a recent study that reproduced the famous Solomon Asch conformity experiment (with the difference that in the recent study MRI’s were taken of the participants’ brain activity), when people gave answers that agreed with the group, even though the group’s answer was obviously wrong, their brains showed no emotional distress. When they gave the right answers but those answers differed from the group, however, their emotions were triggered. In other words, when we are doing the wrong thing, so long as that wrong thing agrees with what the group is doing, our brains do not evidence emotional distress. But doing the right thing when it means departing from the group’s actions is emotional. The study further found that the group’s stance actually influences people’s individual perceptions.[i]

As social beings, we also follow leaders’ examples. When recognized leaders provide examples that are egregious, those examples set a negative tone for most people. When leaders set a positive tone, they have a similarly powerful impact on those who follow them, this time in a positive direction. How far a leader can go, it is true, depends on what his or her social base is capable of handling. A leader does not have unilateral power to determine what a group will do. But the initiative rests with leaders to determine which of the contradictory aspects of his/her group come to the fore. Stanley Milgram found that in a particular variation of his famous obedience experiment:

The rebellious action of others severely undermines authority -- In one variation, three teachers (two actors and a real subject) administered a test and [electrical] shocks [to the subject in another room]. When the two actors disobeyed the experimenter and refused to go beyond a certain shock level, thirty-six of forty subjects joined their disobedient peers and refused as well.[ii]

That is a variant of the Milgram Experiment that has not received the amount of attention it richly deserves.[iii] I discuss the Milgram Experiment further later in this chapter.

One measure of the difference between admirable leaders and those who are not is whether they appeal to the better, higher sentiments of the people or to lower sentiments and narrower concerns. In either instance the leaders are resonating with some strain of their social base, but the direction in which the whole group moves depends upon the leaders’ initiating actions. Rather than spending their energy bemoaning the backwardness of Americans, people would do better by actively engaging themselves in providing leadership and setting examples for others to follow. The so-called problem with “the people” always primarily involves the role being played by those in leading positions, whether they are the official authorities or those leaders among the groups who are trying to change the direction of the group/society. (Emphasis added. Pp. 330-334)

[i] Sandra Blakeslee, “What Other People Say May Change What You See,”, June 28, 2005,, accessed June 30, 2008: “The researchers found that social conformity showed up in the brain as activity in regions that are entirely devoted to perception. But independence of judgment—standing up for one’s beliefs—showed up as activity in brain areas involved in emotion, the study found, suggesting that there is a cost for going against the group.”

[ii] Stanley Milgram, “The Perils of Obedience,” Harper’s, December 1973, 62-77. The article can be found also at “The Perils of Obedience,”, accessed February 14, 2011.

[iii] Subjects administered electrical shocks to a stranger in another room when the stranger failed to answer a question correctly. The experiment was to see if subjects would follow authority’s injunctions to continue the shocks or refuse to obey. Milgram was pilot-testing his 1960 experiment in the US, planning to take it to Germany to test Germans who he thought were particularly obedient because of their allowing the Nazis to rule in the 1930s and 1940s. Milgram never did go to Germany because he found his answer right here at home: Americans, just like the Germans, were all too willing to follow authority.


0 # Nike Mens 2014-05-31 01:46
bookmarked!!, I like your blog!
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