21 February 2012

A Contemptible Conformity: Humans as Hardwired Herd Beasts

Some people conform more than others. Across different contexts, this tendency is a fairly stable trait [1]. This stability suggests that the tendency to conform might have an anatomical correlate [2]. Values that one associates with available options, from foods to political candidates, help to guide choices and behaviour. These values can often be updated by the expressed preferences of other people as much as by independent experience. In this correspondence, we report a linear relationship between grey matter volume (GM) in a region of lateral orbitofrontal cortex (lOFCGM) and the tendency to shift reported desire for objects toward values expressed by other people. This effect was found in precisely the same region in each brain hemisphere. lOFCGM also predicted the functional hemodynamic response in the middle frontal gyrus to discovering that someone else's values contrast with one's own. These findings indicate that the tendency to conform one's values to those expressed by other people has an anatomical correlate in the human brain. _Current Biology Campbell-Meikeljohn et al
Current Biology Campbell-Meikeljohn et al

We have known for many decades that humans can be moved to behave in irrational and fanatical ways, by perceived popular or group opinions and attitudes. Following the disturbing Nazi Germany experience of WWII, psychologists attempted to determine how decent people could be led to conform to indecent behaviours. From the Asch experiments to the Milgram experiments and more, psychologists unfolded an image of human conformity to crowd pressure which is most uncomplimentary to the species.

The research cited above looked at how easily a person's opinion of a piece of music could be swayed by the opinions of "reviewers." Those subjects with larger volumes in the orbitofrontal cortex were more easily swayed by "expert opinion." Popular media article describing the research

One example of the dangers of conformity to the herd is climate activist Peter Gleick: His fraud and deception is but the latest in a series of contretemps for the "climate consensus orthodoxy." Such acts of consensus-inspired insanity force thinking persons to scratch their heads in wonder. What is it that compels nominally intelligent persons to blissfully surrender themselves into a sea of fanatical conformity, convinced that the "safety in numbers" will protect them no matter how deeply they descend into a consensual mindlessness?

But if there is something hardwired into the brains of conformists so that they truly cannot help themselves, should we deal with their contemptible behaviour differently?

Difficult to say. Although consensual herd conformists tend to behave abysmally en masse, we are required to deal with them individually, on a case by case basis. We must also admit to ourselves that the rehabilitation from herd conformity to rational, independent thinking, is not likely to be successful for most affected persons.

We would like to think that the group hysteria which brought Adolf Hitler to power in Germany, will not be repeated in more modern times. But we would probably be deluding ourselves by believing that, particularly in light of a declining demographic, the coming Idiocracy, and the clique-like nature of academia, media, popular culture, and politics. In light of all that, a "Lord of the Flies" future may be the best we can expect.

Here is a sad addendum, and a hint of future uses of advanced technologies which should have been used to improve the human condition.

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Blogger Bruce Hall said...

In a similar vein:


Tuesday, 21 February, 2012  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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