Discover more from Random Minds by Katherine Brodsky
I had an interesting conversation last night on an X (formerly known as Twitter) Space for my subscribers. I like being able to speak with a smaller group and am fortunate enough that they are rather thoughtful individuals.
One topic that we’ve spent considerable time discussing is the human tendency towards wanting to hand over power over their own domain to others. This inclination toward relinquishing control often leads to compliance, which, while sometimes necessary, can also become a perilous path when taken to extremes. In history, blind compliance has contributed to some of the most significant atrocities we can recall.
Something that emerged in our conversation are examples of social experiments that examine this tendency. One speaker brought up an individual who had actually undertaken the infamous trolley experiment. In this scenario, inaction results in the death of five people, while actively switching the track causes the death of one.
It was astonishing to learn that, when participants were led to believe that this was a real-life situation with real-life consequences, only two individuals out of the entire group decided to switch the track (of note: one of them had suffered emotional distress following this “experiment”). The remaining participants opted not to act, not because they believed it made more ethical sense for five people to die rather than one, but rather because they wanted to avoid taking any action to maintain a clear conscience and evade personal responsibility for a difficult situation. This outcome was both fascinating and revealing about the human psyche. This inclination to avoid responsibility and action, even when it leads to greater harm, has profound implications for our society.
We can notice how it reflects a broader phenomenon that can be observed in the growth of populism in recent years, and its recurrent appearance throughout history. It is also not so different from whatever mechanisms attract individuals to cults, especially those with charismatic and larger-than-life leaders.
There’s something about a large number of humans that have an innate desire to relinquish control as well as responsibility. The populace is often drawn to charismatic leaders who hold the promise of solving complex problems—with easy solutions. There’s solace in relying on someone who appears confident while they may not be. Someone who is authoritative and willing to make difficult decisions—on their behalf. It allows the opportunity to shed responsibility and accountability for their own fate.
Benevolent dictators were really not so hated by the masses until things got particularly unbearable for them. As long as the dictatorship remained relatively comfortable and stable, the vast majority of people didn’t think too much of it. They were willing to trade their agency and freedom for perceived security and prosperity. Only when things got particularly unsustainable did the masses turn against these same dictatorial regimes.
There is something intrinsic in human nature that inclines us toward relinquishing control to others—particularly when packaged as some charismatic leader. And while we do need the population to follow some entity to an extent, or else we end up in a state of chaos and anarchy, it cannot be because they are abandoning their personal identity, values, as well as independent and critical thought.
We see almost a cult-like fervor with how some individuals worship political leaders (and so-called influencers). They can do no wrong and no amount of evidence to the contrary will move them. That is an extremely dangerous way of thinking. Whether that leader is exacting control or it’s a matter of self-hypnosis, someone in that state is unable to think clearly. They are trapped by their own mind. It’s important to provide them with a safe, non-judgemental space where they can explore any self-doubt that might arise without criticism or I-told-you-sos.
Very often people fall into a form of ‘groupthink,’ not because they all agree but rather because they THINK that everyone in that group agrees with a particular idea or stance and are afraid to challenge it or state their own perspective. What one might often discover is that once one person voices a disagreement, so will others. Sometimes you’ll find that NO ONE agrees with the ideas being espoused. It happens more often than one might think.
In a healthy society, it is imperative that dissenting voices are not silenced. A society or group with fewer outsiders is more likely to fall for conformity. Independent thinkers are not always the most popular, but they are more resistant to manipulation and control…giving them the freedom to speak will help challenge beliefs that might be more innate due to culture. Their critical distance is valuable.
Giving people concrete tools with which they can analyze information and evaluate evidence prior to making up their mind will make them far more resistant to emotional rhetoric and propaganda. Like we often say, “teach people HOW to think, not WHAT.” There is a reason, too, why in more authoritarian societies, access to information is limited and centralized.
There are often common soft tactics that are used to psychologically manipulate people. Being aware of them should be part of one’s critical thinking education. The most common ones include love-bombing or praying on people’s fears, worries, or insecurities. By recognizing these tactics, we are better equipped to resist them.
Fostering independence, self-esteem and emotion resilience are also key. Those who are confident in themselves are far less prone to be susceptible to giving up control due to fear or stress. They are confident they’ll be able to manage through it all and make their own decisions. They are also not in need of external validation either by a group or a charismatic leader. That makes them far more resistant to mind control.
Those with strong support networks consisting of trusted friends and family tend to be less likely to join dangerous networks out of loneliness and desire for connection. And even if they do, leaving those situations is easier because they don’t feel like they would lose their entire community. It’s no coincidence that cults tend to encourage members to isolate and break relations with those outside the group.
Lastly, knowing what your values and ethical boundaries are is also a good source of protection as you’re less likely to compromise on those principles for the sake of some leader or group. As the other famous quote goes: “If you believe in nothing you'll fall for anything.”
As humans, we are surely susceptible to certain weaknesses that embedded in us. We have our base instincts too. We need to recognize these aspects of our nature. But what’s special about us is that we can raise above them. We can do better, particularly when we are more aware of the pitfalls.
We need to be able to be led by good leaders, but not at the cost of abandoning healthy skepticism, critical thinking, our ethical frameworks and values—and in favor of blind compliance.
As illustrated by the trolley experiment, and more so, history, this could lead to dire consequences. We should listen to leaders we deem to be strong, useful, and ethical. We can allow them to help guide us. But we should never surrender control to unchecked authority.
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