Today's post from Strangers Call Me Sunny is kind of hybrid of the posts I do there, as well as the kind of stuff I used to post over here. So I figured that I would post this on both blogs, and use this as an opportunity to plug the other blog and try to bring some of you stragglers back into the fold.
Over the years, I've heard about plenty of psychological experiments which demonstrate our human tendency to conform to a group, as well as many of our other unflattering propensities. There was one experiment I learned about in school where they put a subject in a room with two other people that were secretly working with the psychologists who were conducting the test. The three of them were ostensibly left alone to fill out some paperwork, but the experiment was purposely set up so that at one point someone would call out for help from somewhere down the hall. The two plants would just ignore it and go on filling out their paperwork like they didn't hear anything. The test was to see what the subject would do. More often than not, they would look up at the other two, see that they were doing nothing, and they would ignore it too and go back to filling out their paperwork. Meanwhile, the subjects in the control group were left in the room by themselves and they almost always got up and went to respond to the call for help.
People get an odd kick out of sharing these kinds of things - myself included. I freely admit it. There's a mischievous satisfaction in deflating people's pretensions about themselves, in telling someone something like, "They did an experiment where 80% of the subjects drowned in their Alphabet Soup after all the letters except for the Q's had been removed.", and watching the ground give way beneath them. In this particular case, we'd all like to believe that we'd respond to a call for help. We'd all like to think that we always act on our own judgment without being so easily swayed by a group dynamic. But the above experiment suggests that a good many of us are wrong. That's a sobering thought. We all like to think of ourselves as the hero. No one wants sheepish conformity on their resume'.
Ah, but there's where the plot thickens! Because you have to wonder: Why is that? Doesn't that indicate another, mitigating, tendency, one where we all like to think of ourselves as trail-blazing rebels, where deep down we tend to believe that only fools trust in other people's judgment? Isn't there some test for that? Well, as it turns out, I have seen such a tendency in action. I may not have the funds or the inclination to conduct my own experiments, but sometimes, if you keep your eyes peeled, the world can serve as your laboratory, and life itself can set things up perfectly.
Before my bank changed their hours, I used to show up early and I'd often find myself standing around with a group of people, waiting for the bank to open. As I stood there, I would watch whenever someone new walked up. Almost every time, they would stride right past everyone like they weren't there, and they'd go right up to the door and give it a nice hard jiggle to see if it was locked. And it was like, what were they thinking? Did they just assume that the rest of us were idiots and none of us had hit upon the brilliant idea of checking to see whether the door was still locked? You begin to see how this scenario mirrors the experiment above. In the first case, the subject was intimidated by the thought that everyone else knew something they didn't. Here the subject boldly charges forward under the assumption that they know something everyone else doesn't. They're special. They have important business to conduct inside the bank, while the rest of us bumpkins are apparently just standing around waiting for the Salvation Army to come along and pass out free cheese.
It's not so easy, after all, is it? It's not just a simple matter of charging to the rescue when you hear someone crying out down the hall. There are conflicting forces at play. It's a double edged sword. We ignore the calls for help because no one wants to be like the asshole that jiggles the door handle. On the other hand, we jiggle the door handle because no one wants to be like the chump that sits there while someone's calling for help. Ain't that a bitch? And the sad thing is that we ended up fucking it up on both counts. I guess if there's one consistent message in this, it's that people are a lot bolder when it comes to their money then they are when it comes to helping people.
So hopefully you'll remember this the next time you encounter a crowd standing around waiting for the doors to open. Hopefully you'll realize that jiggling that door handle is a big "Fuck you!" to everyone there. Or maybe, just maybe, it's one of those experiments you always hear about. They get 15 people to stand around, and they wait to see if anyone tries the door. You don't want to end up as some statistical footnote to the embarrassing traits of the human species, right? You don't want to be the perennial punchline passed down through the ages, the loser who stood there with a group of people around an unlocked door. You never know. You better give it a little jiggle just to be on the safe side. There, don't you feel better now?