Friday, October 16, 2009

The Avarice of Automatons

Human nature is one of those things that resists easy definition. Some people tend to believe in the "inherent goodness" of humanity, while others tend to look at crowds with jaundiced eyes. Personally, it doesn't matter what side of the fence I'm on - human nature may be our most stalwart ally, or our greatest enemy, in the years to come. Knowing us, it will probably be both at the same time.

One of the most significant discoveries regarding human nature came out of the Milgram experiment, an investigation into social psychology and obedience. In the experiement, the person being experimented on was led to believe that he or she was "teaching" a learner through the application of progressively higher electric shocks, but the real purpose of the experiment was to see how many times the teacher would shock the learner with the experimenter, a stern man with authority and a lab coat. I first learned about it in university - it chilled me then, and it still does. I suggest you read it - if nothing else, maybe to inoculate you against something similar.

What I get out of this, and other news I've found, is the impression that a great many people would, subconsciously, like nothing more than to be automatons - to not have to be responsible for any of their actions. In the case of the Milgram experiment, people followed orders to do something with which they were uncomfortable because of the pressure of authority and the lack of perceived responsibility - the abdication of personal responsibility.

But what happens when, at the same time as a person considers themselves not responsible for their actions, they're presented an opportunity to do something they want to do?

Generally, that's almost all of what you need to get a riot started. Which is exactly what happened at a coat store in Columbus, Ohio earlier this week, as reported by, when a woman touched off a riot by claiming that she had won the lottery and the merchandise was on her. This is a recipe for opportunism and chaos regardless of whether you're in the grip of a recession. A Columbus police officer said that at least 500 people were in the store with another thousand outside trying to get in - if cell phones enable one thing, it's flash mobs looking for bargains or freebies - with no evidence other than the woman's own word that she had won $1.5 million and would pay for everything.

When she had her rented stretch Hummer take her to a bank but returned with nothing - in the interim, two dozen police officers had had to be brought in for crowd control, and hopefully no other crimes were made possible or easier because of this redeployment - the bargain hunters rioted.

"Everybody was like, 'I still want my free stuff,' and that started the riot," Detective Steven Nace was quoted as saying, which really gets down to the core of it. People adapt quickly, and people are able and willing to see salvation in the dimmest flickers of light. By then they'd probably already mentally identified whatever they were carrying as "theirs," and when they realized the erstwhile millionaire had only been winding them up, it was as if the store was stealing from them, and not reclaiming property that had never left its ownership.

Points like that don't really matter to a wound-up crowd that's got dollar signs in its eyes and has marked its territory, though. The store was practically torn apart in the riot. I would not be surprised for the footage to eventually make its way to YouTube. They knew what they wanted, they knew what they had, and when it became clear that they couldn't have it, they reacted with the fury of basest human instincts.

This is the well that charismatic dictators draw from, and it's the platform from which psychics and snake-oil salesmen wheedle you for your money. This may well be one of the sources of popular skepticism toward climate change - to their eyes, it's as if they're being asked to change their ways for something they can't see, and if they can't see it it might not even be happening. When someone wants something, and they're led to believe they can attain it or maintain it with no personal consequences - it's dangerous to be in their way.

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