People Are Stupid.

by Lori Dwyer on May 1, 2012 · 8 comments

Human beings are psychologically stupid creatures.

As a species, human are pack animals– we live together in groups, and we function as a society. Unfortunately that means that– like most good pack animals, including dogs and sheep– we go with the flow.

We’re told what we’re told. We do what everyone else does. We follow the pack leader, or whoever that appears to be at the time.

The basis of any good society is order and, to some extent, compliance. That’s what people do– obey. Comply. Bend with the wind so we don’t break with it. Authority figures are just that because they hold some kind of power over us– whether that power is based in respect or fear or something altogether different, we’re reluctant to disobey their orders when the power is in their hands, as are the consequences of your actions.

In the 60’s– back when science was cool and nobody asked too many questions– they performed what was called the Milgram experiment. Basically, they asked people to do things they knew that technically, morally, they shouldn’t. In greater detail, they instructed their subjects to electrocute people every time they answered a question wrong. And they answered all the questions wrong– they were plants of Dr Milgram (who may or may not have been a bit of a sadist). The instructor– also a stooge– told the subjects to administer electric shocks that ranged from 15 volts to 450 volts for every wrong question, increasing the voltage every time. 450 volts. Despite the buttons being marked with big red warning labels that basically said “Danger! Burnt skin! Frying hair!” and their victims shrieking audibly in pain and moaning about having a heart problem, they continued to follow orders.

Just because they were told to.

Over two thirds of people willingly electrocuted someone with a heart condition who was screaming in pain… because an authority figure they’d only just met and had no substantial reason to trust was instructing them that they should.

Is that one of the most disturbing things you’ve heard today, or what…?

Added to that, most of us– Australians in particular– tend to be inherent ‘people pleasers’. We want to be perceived as likeable and helpful– we want to be accepted. We want to be helpful. Craving acceptance, it’s another one of those tribal things.

WorkSafe Victoria reenacted, to some extent, the Milgram experiment (slightly less sadistically) on an average Australian street recently. Have a geeze. It is utterly terrifying how many of us will risk electrocuting another person, just because were asked to.

Lots of terrifying stats here, in fact… it kind of makes me even more grateful I work from home and the only one requesting I do stupid things is me. Most work supervisors will put a $1000 bonus over your health and safety, and their own. Over seventy percent of those surveyed admitted that productivity is far more important than personal safety.

It comes back to that biological undertone I’m always waffling on about. Think like a Neanderthal– if your fellow human are running, and fast, it could literally mean your life to go pelting off in the other direction. Obviously there’s a reason everyone’s fleeing…. or so you’d think.

Survival is everything.

This pack mentality has led to a few amusing psychologically scientific discoveries. Most people, when they don’t know what to do, will follow the actions of those around them. If two or more people stand in a particular spot and stare at the sky, there’s every likelihood more will join them, wanting to know what it is they’re looking at… and it will be quite a few minutes before they either give up or realize they’re looking at nothing at all.

If you’re in serious trouble in a relatively public place– you know “Trent, come back, you’ve got my handbag!!” kinda thing– you’re far better off to be somewhere where there’s only a handful of other people around– one of them might actually help you. The larger the crowd of people, the greater the sense of displaced responsibility– no one steps in to help because there are plenty of other people there who’ll do it… all of whom are, of course, thinking the same.

The phenomena dubbed ’group think’ exists across many different languages and countries– it’s less a cultural phenomenon than one that belongs to homosapiens in general. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been sucked up into it at one time or another. It’s those situations that end with three or four or more people looking sheepishly at other wondering how they ended up driving to Bondi at 2am for ice cream when none of them actually thought it was a good idea. Once the idea is verbalized and no member of the group speaks in objection, it becomes the norm and everyone assumes that everyone else is engaged in a genuine enjoyment of the activity, while everyone else assumes the same about them; and no one speaks up at all for fear of rocking the boat, unsettling the status quo.

Thinking about it, that may be how a lot of riots start out. Or at the very least why you see row upon row of yellow bins when it’s actually green bin week on your street.

I worry about the human race sometimes. All those biological instincts have got us this far… but it might be sheer sheep–like stupidity that ends us. People are natural compilers and obeyers– when it comes right down to it, most of us really are ’yes’ people.

People are stupid. Try not to encourage that by asking them to do stupid things.

*This post sponsored by Nuffnang.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa May 1, 2012 at 8:27 pm

Oh crap. It's tuesday. Comment fail.


Melissa May 1, 2012 at 8:27 pm

Deep thoughts on a Monday morning. As a nurse, I learned in my emergency training that you have to give people *very* specific instructions if you are out in public in an emergency. If you simply shout, "Call 911!" while you provide CPR, it is likely that no one will do it. You have to single someone out and give orders. Otherwise folks will stand around like … well… sheep.


Karen May 1, 2012 at 5:25 pm

I have honestly wondered how I would have reacted to that test. I think of myself as a very caring and thinking person, but I just know I would have pressed that button…
…disappointing, but embarrassingly true.


Samantha Mawdsley May 1, 2012 at 3:07 pm

If you're interested, Google Kitty Genovese. Her stabbing murder was witnessed in part by around a dozen people and everyone else assumed that somebody else was doing something. She was attacked twice in a few minutes and still nobody did anything. It's now what is known as "Genovese Syndrome". I find this stuff fascinating! I saw a documentary recently on the Milgram experiment too! :) xx


The_Hawk May 1, 2012 at 12:58 pm
Wanderlust May 1, 2012 at 9:33 am

I wouldn't electrocute you Lori. Even for a bowl full of jellybeans. Though I might drive to Bondi at 2:00 a.m.


lou lou May 1, 2012 at 8:57 am

Hello Lori,

To think outside the "square" is a unique and divine gift.

I hope I have something going on in the upstairs computer department called a brain.

good reading Lori – I will return to this again.



Peaches & Maple May 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Great post Lori. Back when I was at uni I studied psychology and anthropology and I too was struck by how stupid we really are, in comparison to how intelligent we can be. Very interesting subject indeed.


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