Going along with the crowd

It has been known for a long time that we are strongly influenced to conform to the group to which we belong. Early experiments showed that, even in a small group, an individual will abandon his natural, and – as it happens – correct judgment in the face of opposition from others. This has been tested under many different circumstances, and more recent studies, involving brain scans, have suggested the mechanism. It appears that when we act against group consensus the brain gives an error signal to whip us back into line. That is, we are naturally wired to learn from the judgment of the group.

Why are so many decent people quite content to see babies killed in the womb? The law signifies what is acceptable in our society, and this is reinforced by growing public opinion. Our brains follow suit and the result is grotesque. It is no surprise that the word “moral” is rooted etymologically in the concept of “customs”.

Of course customs and culture are inevitable and necessary. For the most part we need to conform to our own culture so that society can continue comfortably, minimising conflict and promoting mutual understanding. But the dangers are apparent. The growth in Germany of belief in the superiority of Aryan culture occurred at great speed and spread comprehensively throughout society. There were even Aryan mathematics and Aryan science. Young Germans today find it hard to believe how it happened, little realising that, in the same circumstances, most of them would have taken on the Aryan mantle too.

Broad cultures contain sub-cultures. Teachers in a school may have a subculture breeding common attitudes; so may members of a business. The educated will have a different culture from the uneducated. There is even, ironically, a sub-culture of those who habitually disagree with establishment authority. In practice we are likely to belong, either tangentially or directly, to several cultures, and unconsciously switch our behaviour according to the company we are keeping. Erving Goffman’s classic, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, provides splendid examples of how people can switch their whole stance instantly, as they move from one sub-culture to another.

Catholic culture is founded on belonging to an ekklesia which holds that we have been redeemed by Christ, through whom we attain the purpose of our lives in attaining salvation. It is delineated by its structure which unifies it, and it is publicly expressed through the Mass. While it exists within secular society, its nature obliges it to view society critically, and carefully to protect itself against aspects which may diminish or extinguish its principles.

But within its radical unity many sub-cultures are to be found. The hierarchy and the laity inhabit different cultures, a distinction recently re-emphasised by the Pope. There are those who accept the lightest word from a clerical source, to those who evaluate any such words before deciding to accept or reject – and many gradations in between. Since we naturally spend much time with those whose culture is close to our own, we are programmed to accept its values, and are often oblivious to, or ignore, other sub-cultures. We seek to confirm our identities and our priorities by continuing to absorb, and indeed to promote, the values of our own sub-culture. Nevertheless, culture in itself can never be taken as a certain source of truth. Realising that our brains are constructed to affirm cultural values, we have to stand back from time to time and verify or reject what habitually has seemed to be right and good. And standing back is hard because we are revolting against our own biology, and so moving out of our comfort zone.

Lawrence Kohlberg, an eminent specialist in moral development, listed the stages of moral development from the selfishness typical of infancy up to the moral heroism of, say, Martin Luther King. There is a cardinal point in his schema where an individual begins to subject the moral standards he has absorbed from his culture to his independent personal judgment. Many people do not progress this far, so the ability to stand back and review their moral judgments will not be possible for them.

Others must be ready to mature further. They might be helped – and this is in line with the kind of suggestion Kohlberg makes – by looking at attitudes taken for granted in history, sacred or secular. For example, slavery was not only taken for granted but seen as natural and necessary. Our view of the equality and rights of women today would have been seen as bizarre only a few generations ago. The tag “error has no rights” (a philosophical solecism indeed) led to the assumption that no one was free in conscience to reject the Catholic Church. So indurated was this idea that many would have taken it as infallible teaching, until it was reversed in Vatican II. Pope John Paul II once claimed that the Holy See “has always been vigorous in defending freedom of conscience and religious liberty”. There are a few heretics who would raise a scorched eyebrow at that.

We may understand the context in which such ideas were commonly accepted, but they put us on warning that we need to have a critical eye for what is taken for granted now, just as these were taken for granted in their time. As George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

“I am a loyal Catholic; you are a liberal dissenter; he is a downright heretic.” Where do you stand on the scale? And which orthodox attitudes do you take today, secular or sacred, will history repudiate?

O     O     O

While I didn’t want to be too hard on the ordinary, and dear, Catholic Herald reader, I thought that users of Second Sight were resilient enough to take the thought that anyone who could not think of any views taken for granted today which might, and perhaps should, change in the future, are probably brain dead. Prove me wrong!

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Going along with the crowd

  1. RMBlaber says:

    ‘Mass’, as in quantity of inertia, comes ultimately from the Greek verb _massein_, to knead (as does the word ‘massage’!), by way of _m?za_, a barley cake, Latin _massa_, a lump, and French _masse_. This word also does duty for ‘a lump of matter; a quantity; a collected or coherent body; the greater or principal part; the lower classes of the people, etc.’
    Mass, as in _the_ Mass, comes from Old English _mæsse_, Late Latin _missa_, from the Latin verb _mitt?re_, to send away, to dismiss.
    So the words are not really cognate, but they are homophonic, and – as Quentin rightly points out – the Catholic Church, in contrast to Protestant denominations, attaches great importance and significance to the social dimension of the Church. The _ekklesia_ is no mere _qoheleth_, (Hebrew, ‘assembly’) – it is a _koin?nia_, a community and a _communion_.
    If we think about the willingness of people to obey authority, even when that authority tells them to do things that offend against conscience and moral law – as demonstrated all too clearly in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and in the Milgram Experiment – and if we also think about the effects of mass culture, mass advertising, and crowd or mob psychology, then we can easily see how it is that totalitarian movements and leaders can gain control – and could do so again, however unlikely that might be.
    I am not, of course, laying the blame for this at the Church’s door. It was just the word ‘mass’, and Quentin’s reference to the social aspect of Catholicism that provoked my thinking, as I am sure it was intended to.
    As for ideas that are acceptable now that will be regarded with horror in future – _assuming_, for the sake of argument, that _H. sapiens_ has a future, which may not be the case unless a great many things change, and very soon – I suspect that one such idea may well be that of starting a child’s formal education at the tender age of 5 – which all too often, in practice, means 4, since (like my youngest nephew, Toby), the child starts at Infant School in the academic year he/she _turns_ 5.
    With both parents out working as the norm these days (and more or less expected to, whether they want to or not), it is easy to understand why they acquiesce in the system – but school is not and should not be treated as a form of child-minding. If pre-school age children need to be cared for while their parents are out working, then nursery or kindergarten places should be provided, but that is not the same thing as formal school.
    In Australia, children do not start at school until they are 7, and a Primary Education Review conducted by Cambridge University has just concluded that formal schooling should start at 6.
    Most European children start school later than ours do, and most do better than ours when it comes to both literacy and numeracy, as well as all-round education – something which we have sacrificed on the altar of teaching to the narrow SATS test.
    The Government and the Opposition too, alas, have both rejected the report, in spite of the clear evidence it presents that starting formal education too early is actually damaging to children’s prospects.
    Some people, though, will _never_ learn, and you can guarantee that politicians will be prominent among them.

  2. James H. says:

    I have to say I’ve slid quite a lot along the scale as I’ve got older. Until my mid 20s I had the dissenting attitudes towards Catholic teaching on birth control, IVF and abortion that form the wallpaper of the modern church – they were simply never taught, either by catechism classes or by my parents. However, I had encountered some anti-Catholic attitudes among my peers and felt a need to find out about church teaching myself. Once I discovered Catholic apologetics on the internet (in the primeval era when it was new), I started to research ‘Why /does/ the church teach so-and-so?’ Once I started finding out the actual reasons behind the doctrines, I found them astonishingly sound for the most part. Practically all the Protestant/Evangelical attacks were shown to be groundless! Atheistic criticisms might have been more difficult, had atheist political systems not proved so murderous.

    Once I found the truth behind Catholic religious teaching and practice, the church’s moral teaching demanded more attention. First to go was my ‘necessary-evil’ attitude to abortion: I read a pamphlet in the student church at the Uni where I was working at the time, that described how foetuses are sometimes found on rubbish dumps. I was horrified, and had to admit that the reason why I was horrified, was because I knew the body was human, and deserved more respect.

    With that gone, my acceptance of IVF was the next to go: if a foetus (sp.?) was human, the dividing line of when it ‘became’ human was arbitrary at best.

    A few years down the line, having moved to London and married, I found out that NFP actually worked (where the culture told me it was nonsense). I started to question a lot more of the attitudes that had percolated in. My latest ‘dissent’ (in an opposite direction!) has been triggered by concepts like Demographic Winter (www.demographicwinter.com), though I haven’t quite staked my claim to one side of that particular debate yet.

    So, for me at least, I’ve become more orthodox at the same time that I’ve become more counter-cultural! I’m not sure, but I suspect, that it has ever been thus, even when the church was a national institution.

  3. Fariam says:

    I understand the point you are making very well from experience sometimes when one is swimming against the tide and under pressure. It is strange how taking a stand in the face of strong opposition provokes feelings guilt and uncertainty. I also see it in the way society generally acts on the hidden principle, “everyone else is doing it (so it must be right)”… I am once again reminded of “The Lucifer Effect – understanding how good people become evil” – http://www.lucifereffect.com/index.html .

    James H.´s comment is very interesting because it highlights how counter-cultural “orthodox” Catholics really are, and how much false information and ignorance abounds in western sociteties where people think they are educated and free!

    I also agree that we need to have a critical eye and go to the root of things. I find that it usually enriches my understanding and shows the inherent “common sense” in my Catholic faith.

    This phrase amused me: “For example, slavery was not only taken for granted but seen as natural and necessary”. The same reasoning is being used by animals rights activists today when they point out the similiarity between the treatment of slaves and the treatment of animals on factory farms, in laboratories, in blood sports, etc. They have a point, not least when one remembers that at one point slaves and women were also considered not to have souls by some!

  4. Vincent says:

    Fariam makes a good point about the counter cultural nature of the Church. And James has clearly arrived at a position in which he has applied his independent judgement. But, if I read Quentin aright, he is also saying that there may be aspects internal to the culture of the Church which may change in course of time. One can only fly a kite or two here, this is my list.

    While preserving her essential unity, the Church will escape from acting as a medieval monarchy. The bishops will become much more active, both in their own dioceses, and in national conferences. The pope will become a leader rather than a ruler, reserving his final powers only for the most serious situations. The Curia will be reformed root and branch – becoming much smaller and with a higher proportion of laity (including women of course). High ecclesiastical office in the Curia will require at least 10 years of former direct pastoral experience.

    The Church worldwide will lose its paranoia about the laity, learn to trust them and use their gifts to the fullest extent.

    Celibacy will no longer be required for secular priests. Debate at all levels about women priests will be reopened. And, at the least, women will be ordained as deacons.

    The uncompromising teaching on contraception will gradually lapse, although the Church will still be adept at permitting the changes, while maintaining that there has been no change. (See for instance “Outside the Church there is no salvation”). But it will be a very long time before the Church can escape from the reputation of being instinctively anti-sexual. Only then will its teaching about the important issues of marriage and sexuality be heard, both internally and externally.

    Will that do for starters?

  5. Juliana says:

    I have just read an interesting plea from Archbisop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin when addressing a conference in Gdansk last week which relates exactly to this blog. Some of you may have read it too.

    He believes that Christian values in Europe are under threat because believers keep their faith private when out in the work-place or in public life. He calls this nine-to-five atheism and those who practise it “nine-to-five atheists”.

    ” There are some who would seem to imply that the Christian, in a secular society, must only act in the public sphere as what I would call a nine-to-five atheist: a Christian in private life, an atheist in the work place. In “Caritatis et Veritate” Pope Benedict strongly rejects such a concept” said the Archbishop.

    I understand exactly what he means and it is the point Quentin’s article is making. We are scared of standing out. It is more comfortable to go with the crowd we are with at a given moment and keep our thoughts and beliefs to ourselves if, by owning up to them, we might rock the boat, or our job. Obviously it is irritating to be noisy about one’s beliefs but it is necessary to be calmly courageous and point out to others where you disagree and why, when required. As Miriam says, it is so difficult in the face of strong opposition (and may I add, ridicule). It is counter-cultural to be a Christian today…as said James….but in this country it has been so for Catholics since the Reformation.

    In “Peer Gynt” the Button Moulder says two things to Peer of relevance to this blog: “To be oneself is to slay oneself” and that what is needed is “to stand forth everywhere with Master’s intention displayed like a sign board.” If one is a chameleon in every crowd this cannot happen.

    Now, at the risk of irritating Vincent, I do not think the Church is ” instinctively anti-sexual”. I would have said that by making marriage a sacrament, it has tried to lift sex out of the market-place and give women status. Its teaching on sex is for good reason, that it is for marriage and children, because if you play around you get into a mess with diseases and illegitimate offspring and one-parent families. All self-evident. But with the advent of anti-biotics and contraceptive devices the world can get around these pitfalls of unfaithfulness, serial relationships etc so the Church is under pressure to change too. Of course the Church’s teaching is a huge problem for those who are not married but in a relationship…both heterosexual and homosexual…and most of us have been there, in love but out of wedlock…which I was told by a priest in confession was not in the same league as adultery, which is rightly judged a heinous sin.

    So, back to the Archbishop: I would like to say to him that when the Church had Friday fasting and holy days of obligation it was easier to stand out and be counted!

  6. Iona says:

    Quentin – could you give me a reference for the brain scan evidence of a brain mechanism which “keeps us in line” with the people around us? If there is one, I imagine this is one of the differences between autistic and “neurodevelopmentaly typical” people, – the mechanism will be faulty or non-existent in autistic people.

  7. Iona, a good, professional, summary is to be found at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090114124109.htm
    This will also give you a reference to the original study. Interestingly it has been suggested, after my column went to press, that social learning is a better explanation of altruistic behaviour than evolution. Memes not genes. That ‘s at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/10/091012230456.htm

    I have not read a suggestion that this brain mechanism may be related to autistic behaviour, but it sound plausible.

  8. Vincent says:

    Of course I am not irritated by Juliana’s disagreement, though I question her reading of history. Throughout most of the last 2000 years the Church has regarded sexual expression, even in lawful marriage, as so close to sin as inevitably to be tainted by it.
    Here is in interesting little quote from a book of meditations for seminarians in the late 17th century: “For the manner of thy begetting is so foule that the name, nay the lightest thought of it, defileth the purest minde, so that our B. Sauiour refused none of our miseries but onely that; and the matter so horrid, so foule, that all other dung is pleasant and greatfull in respect of it; nay we dare not in discourse giue it a name, for our owne shame and others offence…” That will give you the flavour. Incidentally, when investigated, 20th century seminarians have typically reported higher than average incidence of self abuse.
    It was only in the 20th century that theology was able to contemplate the marriage act as being justified by anything other than conception. The introduction of the legality of using the safe period was revolutionary.
    Of course the Vat II document was excellent, and matters have undoubtedly got better – but then there was considerable room for improvement. If Juliana were to make a list, even today, of behaviours which are cited as “intrinsically wrong”, she will find that a high proportion are concerned with sexuality.
    The tragedy is that the deep and fundamental teachings of the Church on marriage and sexuality, which I am sure Juliana and I share, are not heard because the Church is associated both internally and externally with institutional prejudice against the sexual function.
    Incidentally, I should have added to my list that bishops should be chosen by their own National Conference, i.e. by the community in which they will lead. The Pope would only retain a right of veto, which would be rarely exercised and only in extreme cases.

  9. Juliana says:

    Vincent…that 17th Century teaching to seminarians you quoted
    is the teaching of Catharism and therefore, heretical.

    The late 17th century was infected by Calvinism and had moved away from the “Merrie England” of the pre-Reformation.

    Or maybe they were frightening the seminarians in case they felt inclined to leave for marriage?? Where did you find this?

    But back to the crowd. Without the changed attitude of the crowd towards Jesus, Pilate might have not crucified Him.

    Jesus said He was the Truth .

    And to quote from an essay of Kierkegaard’s

    “There is a view of life which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also, that it is a need in truth itself, that it must have the crowd on its side. There is another view of life; which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth, so that, for a moment to carry the matter out to its farthest conclusion, even if every individual possessed the truth in private, yet if they came together into a crowd (so that “the crowd” received any decisive, voting, noisy, audible importance), untruth would at once be let in.”

    And a further famous quotation from William Blake which also makes the point that the crowd is not searching for truth but is happy with the status quo of the moment.

    If he had been anti-Christ, creeping Jesus,
    He’d have done anything to please us,
    Gone sneaking into synagogues,
    And not used the Elders and Priests like dogs;
    But humble as a lamb or ass
    Obeyed himself to Caiaphas.

    Just a few thoughts that have been racing around my brain in the early hours!

  10. Vincent says:

    Juliana, the thought behind the seminarian quote may well be Catharist, and so heretical, but its origin lies in the thought processes of the orthodox Catholic view of the time. Which is exactly my point. After all if you were male (perhaps you are, one never knows on a blog) and a seminarian, full of testosterone and gross sexual fantasies – frequently relieved by mortally sinful activities – you might very well develop a disgust for sexual nature.

    The quote comes from “Meditations collected and ordered for the vse of the English colledge of Lisbo … English College of Lisbon” 1663. (Spelling sic) Google its title, and you will see the cover,

    Here’s another;

    “I cannot imagine any prison so darke, so straight, so loathsome, as the wombe of a woman, in which the child is enclosed. & enwrapped in most foule, bloudy and matterous skinnes or membranes, for no less than nine whole moneths’ so straighned and pressed, that neither hand nor foote can he stirre or moue: his food the filthy menstrous bloude of his mother, a thing so nasty and poisonous, as that, what soever it toucheth it infecteth, like the plague or lepry.”

    I wonder whether our English clergy so delicately prepared on such fare were ordained as mature priests ready to pontificate wisely on marriage for the benefit of their flock.

  11. Vincent says:

    On second thoughts, not Catharist I think. The Cathars were against heterosexual intercourse because it obliged spirit (good) to enter into matter (bad). The Church could scarcely deny that sexual intercourse was according to God’s will, for procreation was its necessary purpose and only excuse. It was enjoying it – lustful pleasure – which was abhorred. Mind you, it’s a bit tricky without, but, if we are to be good Catholics in the old conservative tradition, we must be careful to keep our passion down to the necessary minimum response. It’s not clear that women should entertain any sexual response whatsoever. After all, they are enjoined to obey their husbands so they must ‘render the debt’. After that they can just relax and think of the Vatican. Oh, and missionary position only of course. Anything else might inhibit conception.

  12. Iona says:

    Thank you Quentin, I looked up your reference. I have not checked back with the original research, but what strikes me about the referenced article is how vague it is in terms of what is actually being conformed to. It is sometimes referred to as “behaviour”; – and of course we do tend to conform to the behaviour of whatever group we find ourselves part of, e.g. a new workplace, because if we’re the newcomer we need to know the ropes, not stick out like a sore thumb, not be a square peg in a round hole, not rock the boat at least until we’re established as a member of the group. Then it slides into talking about “opinion” which is not the same as behaviour, though I suppose you could say that expressing an opinion is a form of behaviour. The opinion which is used as an example, moreover, is an opinion about somebody’s facial attractiveness, which really IS very much a matter of opinion. When it comes to beliefs, or acceptance of specific statements as matters of fact, this is a very different matter and does not seem to be considered at all.

  13. Iona, I can see the point which you are making. The problem lies in the need for me to pre-digest a good deal of research which will only result in a summary sentence or two in the column. The report is not trying to argue that people are influenced by their group either in opinion or behaviour. Social psychologists have known this to be true for decades. In fact I wrote a book published in 1990 in which this factor was a big element. I have followed the evidence for well over 20 years.

    The point of the study in question is that there is now good evidence that a brain mechanism has developed to give an “error signal” to a member of group who steps out of line. This discovery has become possible because of the availability of functional magnetic resonance imaging.

    This, and other modern methods of investigation, are being used to find the neural mechanism which lies behind aspects of human behaviour which have been observed and measured scientifically over a long time.

  14. Iona says:

    Quentin, what I’m wondering about is whether the “error signal” is given only in relation to non-conformity about matters of taste, e.g. whether someone is attractive or not, or whether it is also given in relation to matters of ascertainable, measurable fact. If someone knows a fact, or firmly believes something as true, and the rest of the group is in disagreement with him, does his brain still give him an error signal?

  15. Iona, I am not clear whether you have a deeper question which lies behind your interrogation of the study. But the study, perforce, only gives the information which it sets out to give.

    Most social studies use simple, one-issue, criteria because it very difficult to control adequately for anything more complex.
    The classic study in this area uses judgment about whether one line is the same length as another. Essentially this is objective because you can use a ruler to check.

    But perhaps more useful than this is a book like Zimbardo’s “Lucifer Effect” which looks in considerable detail at major incidents in which ordinary people are influenced by group pressure into behaviours which are absolutely contrary to their own value systems. It’s hair-raising.

    Yes, I think one often has to fight quite hard to resist group pressure, but the real danger lies in being ignorant of its strength and insidiousness. When you understand its strength you have the chance to resist. Realising that there is good evidence for brain functions which encourage conformity must, I think, help this resistance. This is why my message has always been that we should regularly exercise our capacity to stand back from the group and develop our capacity of independent judgment

  16. Superview says:

    Going along with the crowd often results in better, if not best, outcomes and we call it democracy, and most people generally prefer it to non-democratic systems. Sometimes, it can result in the dictatorship of a majority – as in Northern Ireland for example, and in other societies with tribal or religious partisanship – but, in a nutshell, it seems most often to produce a form of government that, with the inbuilt opportunity to change through reason and argument, and voting, is preferable to dictatorships.
    Vincent poses interesting questions about how the Church might change. I wonder which is more terrifying to those who desire to keep things as they are – the idea that the Church might develop some democratic elements, such as electing local bishops, or that it might be compelled by cultural realities and practical problems to change iconic principles, by, for example, embracing the proper equality for women in all things, rejecting the notion that celibacy is more virtuous than marriage (as we know, a long-standing, and curious idea that, had it actually been fully embraced by the early Church, would have bizzarely led to its extinction), and addressing sensibly the impending collapse in the numbers of priests as the current ageing generation fade away, instead of waiting for the roof to fall in?
    I suspect the former, as the attachment towards absolute authority is deeply ingrained, as it was, of course, with medieval monarchies and other historical forms of rule that, understandably, put order and control of the ignorant masses above all other values.
    In a world where it can seem that almost every other person is his or her own Church, perhaps there is no alternative?

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