The West´s Obedience, The West´s Demise

How our high levels of obedience are creating a fracture in the West´s societal fabric — a social science perspective.

‘They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.’ Benjamin Franklin

Part 1: The 5 psychological principles that make people unthinkingly comply with requests/orders.

Part 2: Humanity and pandemics — long time siblings.

Part 3: Obedience is causing a large fracture in the West.

I have been reading a lot of social sciences lately. At the core of it is the question whether we humans are really autonomous creatures and if so, to what extent? Do we have free will at all? Regardless, how easily can our minds be programmed to satisfy the requests of any third party? Robert Cialdani, Phd. opened my eyes to this question in his book “Influence”. It talks about the 5 psychological principles that will get anyone to mindlessly comply with a request. One can apply these 5 principles in ascending levels of cunningness, to the point where any expert in the field could easily fall prey to them. They seem to be particularly easy to apply at the collective level, since most individuals are totally unaware of them. Also, science shows that even if subjects are aware of them there is not much they can do to protect themselves from them at all.

For instance, consider the principle of reciprocity. You may not be aware of this, but we are very reciprocal creatures. When someone gives us something, we feel an urge to give back. This may not manifest immediately, but it slowly creeps up and makes us feel uncomfortable. This is because reciprocity has been interwoven into our culture through millennia, since it has yielded great benefits to us as a species. Trade and family, arguably the basis of our civilization, is based on this principle.

Precisely because this principle has yielded so many benefits to us through history, it has become embedded into us as a default behavioural option. We simply default to being reciprocal, because most of the time it is actually the right thing to do. This is what makes the principle of reciprocity and the other 4 so dangerous — manipulators can leverage them because we are most likely to default to very predictable behaviors, if presented with the right stimuli in the right way.

Consider face masks, for instance. I won´t get into the science of whether they work or not, because I haven´t looked at it. What I can tell you is that we are all wearing them now because authorities have tapped into the principle of reciprocity to enforce them (in Spain you have to wear one outdoors at all times). If you don´t wear a mask, you aren´t protecting thy neighbour. If you don´t wear one, you are likely to receive many begrudging stares as you walk down the street and eventually, you will simply default to being reciprocal. If masks actually work, this is a great thing. If they don´t, then we are simply running a marketing and value added tax for our governments, for free.

The other 4 principles work in the same way. Most of the time, defaulting to them is a good option. That is why when they are used against us, we are most often very vulnerable. They are as follows:

  1. Commitment and consistency: we will go a long way to come across as being consistent to other people.
  2. Social proof: if other people do it, we do it too.
  3. Liking: we tend to give in to people we like.
  4. Authority: we tend to succumb to authority very quickly, regardless of how real the authority or how nefarious the orders may be.
  5. Scarcity: we feel compelled to seize that which is scarce.

Here´s a simple and fascinating example of the principle of social proof. If you are looking for a restaurant to dine in and you come across two options, one with a long queue and the other with a short queue, which one would you choose? Probably the first one. A cunning restaurant owner, understanding this principle, could simply hire some actors to look like they are waiting to get it and you would be very vulnerable to this construct.

If you put your social sciences glasses on, you will see that the world around you is full of constructs of this sort. People often stay in jobs longer than they need/want to just to come across as consistent and stable folks. We tend to buy from salesmen that we think we like. We tend to follow orders from authorities without questioning them much. We go visceral as soon as we perceive some form of scarcity threatening our lives (remember the toilet paper mania this year).

Anyone who understand these principles is firstly somewhat more immune to them and secondly, can use them freely to get other people to comply. R. Cialdini argues that the unthinking compliance these principles yield, will become more and more prevalent into the future, due to the ever accelerating information crush we are experiencing. I believe that at this time, these 5 principles are being leveraged to their fullest effect by our leaders.

I can´t remember who it was that I heard a few weeks ago saying that, the more you learn, the more moderate your views become, because the world we live in is so complex. Such complexity leads to things not ever been straight forward and hence the need for moderate approaches that enable one to balance all sorts of views on a topic.

To gain some clarity on the times we live in, I read “The Great Influenza” by John M. Barry. It´s a history book about the Spanish Flu, that is estimated to have killed more than 50M people worldwide, between 1918 and 1919. It´s a hard thing to read psychologically speaking, because the main takeaway is that humanity and pandemics are siblings. Illnesses like the one we are seeing sweep through the world now are no novelty in our history. I was very shocked to learn that whilst the Spanish Flu was on, so to speak, the world was experiencing all sorts of epidemics in different places simultaneously. Dying from one of these illnesses was far more common than dying of COVID19 today.

In reading this book, I have gained an appreciation for the incredible work that has been done by the scientific community and by all manners of organizations to get rid of illnesses such as diphtheria, cholera, tuberculosis and others that plagued us until very recently. We have gone a long way from a public health perspective. I believe that much of the “extreme” views of the current events stem for a disconnection of the current generations from the reality that I am outlying above. For many people, pandemics are a completely new reality- something that has very surprisingly entered our lives.

Any assessment of what we are seeing today, from a social science perspective, needs to factor in the fact that pandemics are a long time reality and are very likely to keep reoccurring. As a society, we need to factor this into our collective psyche and revert to the mean, as far as a realization that this is part of a our reality goes. However, the next part of my analysis is about also reverting to the mean from a governmental point of view, because not doing so is likely to create some very deep fractures in our societal fabric.

The same studies that have given me a more moderate view on what we are seeing from an epidemiological standpoint, have also allowed me to put into a historical context the level of freedom that we are trading in and the level of safety we are getting back. It is clear to me that we are not living through the Black Plague or through the Spanish Flu and yet we have completely surrendered many of our basic rights. Citizens are becoming impoverished, mentally, economically, spiritually and physically, in exchange for some extra security. The trade may be currently priced as if we were living through a Spanish Flu of sorts.

I am not going to argue whether this is justified or not. I have written previously about how modifying the reward function of our governments could perhaps palliate these secondary effects of the management of the pandemic. This time around, I would like to discuss the implications of the levels of obedience that allows this to happen.

Fundamentally, people are losing trust in the system. People are currently unable to stop obeying rules and laws (because of the 5 outlined principles) that are bringing far greater damage to them than actual benefits — at least this is largely perceived as such. In turn, this is causing people to increasingly reject a system, that they like less and less every day but that they can´t opt out of. In contrast, for a large part of the Spanish Flu, media actively encouraged people not to be scared because no one would dare to wonder out of their hiding place.

This is creating a considerable fracture in the societal fabric of the West. At this time, we are very vulnerable to someone coming along and saying that because capitalism and democracy doesn´t work, here´s a new thing that´s going to be great and you should all do as I say. If you keep your eyes open you are likely to see a figure with a funny accent doing just this in the next few months.

One book that has terribly inspired me is “Zero Marginal Cost Society” by Jeremy Rifkin. It talks about how when technology crosses a threshold, everything will be very cheap to produce and so most things will be free and eventually, we will live in total material abundance. I do believe this day will come and the world will be like the Star Trek movies, in which all we care about is exploring the universe and so forth. When this day arrives, perhaps in a few hundred years, we will be able to fundamentally shift the way we are organized as a society. Until then, however, we have two options: capitalism or socialism. Furthermore, until then, freedom and the rights to private property go very much hand in hand.

Investor, Technologist. Post opinions, not financial advice. Do your own research. Follow me at TW:alc2022

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