Social Influence

The real power driving our socioeconomic polity today seems not to be rationality as we all presume

Why do humans do bad things? How did the Nazis come to power? Why did the German soldiers and scientists obey the "kill all" order by Adolf Hitler on Jews? In retrospect, these events seem odd; we like to believe that we are innately moved to do good things, especially when we have nothing to lose by doing it; our brains even reward us with dopamine when we do it, and they seem rational, so how do humans muster the heart to do or support something that seems so explicitly evil, a horrible dictatorship, slavery, and racism.

Social influence is mostly the reason why! Psychologists have proven time and time again that group thinking actually exists; when something is so common (everyone does and believes it), we find reasons in our minds to justify it. It doesn't matter how ridiculous it is.

A psychologist once conducted an experiment whereby he hired four people to accurately measure a line; unbeknownst to one of those people, the other three were fellow psychologists, and they insisted that the obviously wrong option was the correct one, and surprisingly most of the innocent participants went with the crowd when the option was obviously wrong.

This is why most dictators value propaganda; it is their biggest weapon, and it saturates the newspaper, the airways, and the television. In Hitler's Germany, the news and propaganda chief owned the airways up until Berlin was neutralized; Mubutu's Congo, at the peak of his dictatorial power, had a TV ad of him descending from heaven every morning. If propagated well, propaganda works like a spell on the people.

It is why massive companies like Nike, Apple, and Louis Vuitton spend fortunes on celebrity ads, it works like magic, and that need to belong is a very powerful flaw when exploited well.

In economics, neoclassical economists base their idea of individualistic capitalism on the concept of free will, the notion that individuals know what they want and are inherently and selfishly self-indulgent; as Adam Smith himself states, "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest." This school of economics submits that the individual is the single indivisible part of society, a well-oiled thinking machine that examines all the evidence, the pros and cons before taking a major decision, and since this individual is inherently self-indulgent, that decision would probably be self-serving.

But are humans really that rational? Does social influence not exist, and do advertisements serve mainly as a source of information? Evidence suggests; otherwise that society, religious beliefs, peer pressure, and the mass media all serve as covert and overt influences in our lives.

This is not to suggest that humans are not rational; as psychologist Daniel khaneman said, we have two thinking systems; system one, which runs almost automatically with little or no help from our consciousness, a system we use on an ordinary everyday challenge to expend little amount of energy.

System two is more conscious and is brought to the fore when we face more complex challenges; for instance, if I asked you to calculate 26 x 15, this would present a new challenge for your brain, and you would consult the more conscious system, the first system is rendered helpless, and the second system has to step in. Neoclassical economics assumes humans run exclusively on the second system, which is not factual; habits, lack of will, and societies are mostly controlled by the first system, and those three examples control a lot of decisions humans make.

For instance, if you organize 20 students to contribute 10 dollars every month, and after the contribution, you double it (10 dollars by 20 students = 200 dollars, doubled = 400 dollars). Shared equally, one gets double their money (20 dollars).

Then suppose one person decides not to contribute initially (10 dollars contributed by 19 students = 190 dollars doubled = 380 dollars) divided equally amongst everyone (including the recalcitrant one) would give everyone 19 dollars, still a 9 dollars gain. But you possibly guess what would happen because someone would be getting all 19 dollars for free, and the system would inevitability fall apart. A neoclassical economist would say it shouldn't because humans are rational creatures, but with outside influence, is that true? What we see in the above example is a good case of the societal influence of Justice and fairness; since one person is cheating, another would join in, and slowly but surely, the whole system would ultimately collapse, "If you were watching weight, would rather eat something with 25% percent fat or something that is 75% free of fat?".

Influence has always existed in human society, when noticeable it is decried and derided, our fierce spirit of Independence kicks in, and we demand freedom, such as we have seen in many large scaled visible influences and control in our society, from slavery to colonialism, from communist dictatorship to military occupations.

What we find difficult to decipher is the subtle ones, that is why the colonial governments were banished, but their religion and culture remained; it is why communism failed throughout the 20th century, but ruthless capitalism succeeded (despite its slave-like ruthlessness and lack of empathy) one is involuntary while the other is a "voluntary choice." 

This is not to say that direct influence and order don't succeed, the military is an apt example, and fear is a very sound motivating factor when discussing obedience. But even military dictators go all the way to erect symbols of personality cults and welcoming portrayals of themselves because forceful influence can only go so far. 

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