In 1784, the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote down his hope for his age and all those that followed. In a famous essay titled “Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?,” he urged men and women to think for themselves instead of relying on the minds of kings, priests, and other “self-appointed guardians of the multitude.” Although critical in tone, Kant’s views were optimistic: It’s not an inability to think clearly and feel deeply that prevents the common person from embracing his or her autonomy, he argued, but rather a matter of overcoming laziness and cowardice. As an official motto for the Enlightenment, Kant offered the following: “Have the courage to use your own understanding.”
In modern times, the challenge of thinking for one’s self persists. Except now, it seems, pressure to conform comes less and less from the guardians of the multitude than it does the masses themselves.
Researchers based in England, the United States, and France recently came out with a study suggesting that a natural inclination to be a member of the in-crowd can leave animals overly dependent on the organisms surrounding them. Using mathematical models to observe how a group of animals in nature collectively process new information, the team discovered that individuals were heavily reliant on conforming to the decisions of those around them, even when those decisions were less than optimal in the context of a changing environment.
Kant urged men and women to think for themselves instead of relying on the minds of kings, priests, and other “self-appointed guardians of the multitude.”
Although this particular study focused on animal behavior—and it’s important to remember that the leap between animal to human should not be made lightly—academic research in the fields of economics, psychology, sociology, and political science demonstrates that we, the rational animal, have a tendency to fall into similar thought patterns.
“Copying what other individuals do can be useful in many situations, such as what kind of phone to buy, or, for animals, which way to move or whether a situation is dangerous,” said lead author Colin Torney of the University of Exeter in a statement. “However, the challenge is in evaluating personal beliefs when they contradict what others are doing. We showed that evolution will lead individuals to overuse social information, and copy others too much than they should.”
Today, more than ever, social information gets exchanged through social media. Fresh data from the Pew Research Center, for example, shows an increase in users between 2013 and 2014 on sites such as Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Pinterest. (User rates for Facebook—by far the most popular social media platform—remained steady over this period.) The market research firm eMarketer predicts that by 2016 around 5.4 million more Americans will join the nearly 180 million U.S. users already on social media. This is presumably why 70 percent of marketers plan to increase their advertising budgets for social media in the coming year, according to recent survey results published by Adweek. It’s where all the action’s heading.
While Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube all provide great opportunities for us to express our local tastes, unique styles, and nuanced views of the world, we too often don’t. Herd mentality rules. Last August, for instance, the Pew Research Center released a report titled “Social Media and the 'Spiral of Silence.'” Citing research from the Journal of Communication back in 1974—which suggests most people would rather not express their personal views on policy if that means going against the crowd and potentially alienating friends, family, and co-workers—Pew researchers found the same sentiment holds true online. Focusing on Edward Snowden's decision to reveal that the NSA is tracking the phone and email records of both suspicious and non-suspicious people alike—a highly divisive issue—Pew survey results indicated that people are less willing to discuss the Snowden/NSA affair on social media than they are in person. Furthermore, those unwilling to discuss the affair face-to-face don’t consider social media as an alternative platform to share their opinions either. Despite proponents of Web 2.0 claiming that diverse discussions on politics and life are on their way, they just haven’t arrived quite yet.
“As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers,” wrote Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT and the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, in a 2012 New York Times opinion piece. “To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters. It is as though we have all put ourselves on cable news.”
Then, there’s the outrage of the day, which more often than not seems to result from mob mentality gone wild online. It’s a cathartic kind of anger that many seem keen to take part in. Those brave enough to speak out against the status quo, such as the video game critic Anita Sarkeesian, must also be strong enough to withstand a torrent of vitriol.
While Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube all provide great opportunities for us to express our local tastes, unique styles, and nuanced views of the world, we too often don’t. Herd mentality rules.
All of this contributes to an increasingly polarized nation. In another study that examined 2.2 million politically engaged Twitter users who followed at least one congressional candidate during the 2012 elections, researchers found that 90 percent of candidate tweets seen by Democrat voters came from Democrats, while 90 percent of candidate tweets seen by Republican voters came from Republicans. In this sense, social media helps create that much-talked-about echo chamber of opinion. We are currently flirting with what Cass Sunstein, a professor of law at Harvard, described in his 2001 book Republic.com: a future where you “see only what you want to see, hear only what you want to hear, read only what you want to read.” It’s a time of ideological isolation, in which people can arrange their lives so that all unwanted viewpoints remain at a distance, caught in a filter.
But, again, we are social creatures. Sometimes we’d rather be liked than struggle to stand up for what’s right. In the 1950s, for example, the social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted his famous experiments on conformity, finding that group pressure was so powerful it could cause individuals to warp their own visual perception of a line’s length—or at least admit to seeing what they didn’t see for the sake of not sticking out. Indeed, research published in the journal Child Development in 2011 suggests children as young as four already have a tendency to conform to the group—even when they think the group’s wrong. Recent research published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, however, indicates that if parents give their toddlers more autonomy, those toddlers will develop better cognitive skills.
Sometimes, of course, there’s nothing wrong with putting our faith in others. Doctors who replace kneecaps and engineers who build bridges come to mind. And no one has the time or energy or resources to cultivate an informed opinion on everything, either. A little bit of specialization helps everybody. But the ability to stand athwart to the crowd, to swim against the flow, to think for one’s self, is, and always will be, a virtue. It’s badly needed when ideas go stale, and the mob is marching toward a cliff.
Kant wrote his famous Enlightenment essay in a different time. The American Revolution had just occurred, and the French Revolution was yet to come. But his point remains relevant. We should still remain vigilant, always fighting against the temptations of laziness and cowardice to think like everybody else.