HUMANS are smart enough to make it to Pluto. But that’s only if we use our brains well. At the instinctual level nature condemns our species to conformity and uniformity. Our brains are hardwired in a way that belief often gets precedence over reason, and conformity over individual judgement. Clever experiments in social psychology and cognitive neuroscience are now confirming this. Amazingly, neuroimaging techniques can even identify parts of the brain responsible for group behaviour.
Our herd instinct developed as lower animals transformed into humans over thousands of centuries. Without it our ancestors could not have banded together to fight off wild animals or help each other harvest crops. Our species still needs cooperation and a strong group instinct — in fact we need it more than ever before. But the downside is that in places where critical thinking is unusual, herds are readily manipulated by political leaders and demagogues.
Pakistan’s political scene reinforces this dismal truth. Just look at the nonchalance of Imran Khan and his followers after the judicial commission issued its report last month. A patient sifting of the evidence had decisively repudiated their claims of systematic mass rigging in the 2013 elections. But the heroic kaptan and his herd were unapologetic. During their dharna carnival last year, they made Islamabad grind to a halt. Perched on his container, Cricketer Khan, together with the jet-setting cleric, Tahirul Qadri, had demanded fresh elections and promised to make milk and honey flow. They vowed to eliminate corruption but neither had a plan. Their groupies didn’t ask for one.
Why do people repose blind faith in leaders or ideologies?
Ditto for the worshipful cult of Bhutto jiyalas who flatly deny any wrongdoing by father Zulfikar, daughter Benazir or husband Zardari. As that clan sees it, no evidence is evidence if it makes the Bhuttos come out looking bad. Jiyalas won’t read the Hamoodur Rahman report on Zulfikar’s role in East Pakistan, they’ll avoid studying the evidence of corruption that led to a guilty verdict by a Swiss court for the Bonnie-Clyde duo, and refuse to see the copiously documented big-money transactions from their offshore accounts. Their ownership of the magnificent Surrey Palace and other properties doesn’t matter. Instead, airports and roads bear the lady’s name today.
As for brother Altaf, the less said the better. He is, of course, immensely entertaining and his renditions of old Hindi film songs are hilarious. For sound and fury, his rants are incomparable. Although there are good chances that he will deny tomorrow what he says today, to the faithful this makes no difference. Wall-sized pictures of their great leader adorn MQM meetings. All charges of money laundering, extortion, kidnapping, torture, or murder are vociferously denied. Please don’t bother with the evidence, they say, because we will never believe any.
Of course, the world has seen much worse: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others. But why do people repose blind faith in leaders or ideologies? How is it that otherwise sane and sensible people become moronically incapable of grasping reality? The culprit: our brain. Still evolving and still primitive, it readily sacrifices rational evidence-based conclusions in favour of primal ones. And so conformism trumps individual judgement. But now scientists are inventing ever sharper probes in the hope that one day we might transcend these limitations.
In 1951, the devastating impact of conformism upon human judgement was investigated in a simple but brilliant experiment. Social psychologist Solomon Asch organised volunteers who were asked to judge a line’s length by comparing it against three sample lines. The real answer was clear as day. Left to themselves, the volunteers got the correct answer 100 per cent of the time. But Asch had secretly planted in the group a majority of goons who had been instructed to mislead by choosing the wrong answer. The goons disoriented the volunteers. The result: 74pc conformed with the wrong answer at least once, and 32pc did so all the time. The herd triumphed over the individual.
More recently, Prof Jens Krause of Leeds University showed that humans follow classic animal grouping behaviour. His team performed a series of experiments where volunteers were told to randomly walk around a large hall without talking to each other. A select few were then given more detailed instructions on where to walk. The scientists discovered that, like sheep following the flock, people end up blindly following one or two people who appear to know where they’re going. Many were unaware that they were following someone. The published results showed that it only takes 5pc of ‘informed individuals’ to influence the direction of a crowd of around 200 people. The remaining 95pc follow without even realising it.
When people are like sheep, a democratic system cannot function well. But it doesn’t stop there. The frequently unscientific behaviour of Pakistan’s
scientists owes directly to their tragic inability to think independently. Example: after the famed nuclear bomb-makers Dr A.Q. Khan and Dr Samar Mubarakmand endorsed the so-called water car, hundreds of Pakistani scientists joined in the chorus praising this fake invention. They followed their leaders, ignoring common sense. But, to their lasting embarrassment, the episode turned out to be fraudulently staged and the inventor was a failed bank robber.
It is not easy to resist group conformity anywhere in the world. Our desire to somehow fit in moulds attitudes. We value social acceptance, seek assimilation, and fear rejection of our views. In fact the smaller a minority, the more it hesitates to express a contrary opinion. In repressive societies the penalties for not conforming can be severe, even death.
Men go mad in herds but recover their sanity one by one. Weak individuals never mend but strong ones can. At some point you may choose to trust your own eyes and refuse to follow the crowd. This is precisely what makes human progress happen. If you are open to hearing facts and arguments that violate your current beliefs, and if evidence can make you change those beliefs, then you too can walk the new walk.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2015