“Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”
This line has stuck with me for decades from one of my all-time favorite comedians and one of humanity’s all-around greatest thinkers, George Carlin. Like virtually all younger people, much of my life I believed the majority of us were just that, stupid people. God, how everything would run much better if only we weren’t all so stupid. At least, as long as everyone else wasn’t so stupid. As I’ve gone on a bit more, half a century. I’ve come to a very different understanding of us, of our intelligence. To include begrudgingly having been forced to accept the rather limited extent of my own so-called intelligence.
Interacting with thousands of people around the world, in all manner of situations and from all conceivable ethnic, cultural, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds. I’ve come to believe less in the stupidity of my fellow human. This, due to, here and there, having had the most unexpected of individuals explain with great sophistication, answers to some of the most complex of problems have haunted humanity its long existence. These experiences have forced me to a place where I must agree with Agent K in Men in Black, “a person is smart: people are dumb.”
Given personal engagements with a vast swath of humanity, I might nuance George Carlin’s statement a bit too, “never underestimate how dumb smart people are when in large groups.” It’s true. And it’s built right into our millions of years evolutionarily developed and refined brain. The most complex system in the known universe the smartest among us share with the dumbest. With respect to smart people being dumb in groups, “research led by the University of Exeter has shown that individuals have evolved to be overly influenced by their neighbors, rather than rely on their own instinct. As a result, groups become less responsive to changes in their natural environment.”[i]
At this point, you might be asking credulously or even indignantly, “what about the wisdom of crowds?” Erroneously believing, “all of us are smarter than any one of us!” Not so fast. Daniel C. Richardson over at Eye Think Lab at University College London researches this extensively, stating,
“group conformity stands in marked contrast to the “wisdom of crowds” effect, whereby aggregating the opinions of large numbers of people gives answers or predictions more accurate than those of any individual. This happens only when members of a crowd make their judgments independently of each other, and it is most effective when a crowd is diverse. In cohesive groups, on the other hand, where members share an identity, the urge for unity overrides all.”
But what about our ever-greater access to information and increasing ‘diversity’. Doesn’t the Internet, fact-checking, trusted information sources, differing backgrounds and our ability to quickly communicate on the large scale overcome this historic problem. Not so fast. Richardson further states,
“We think of the internet as an information superhighway. It’s not, it’s a bias superhighway” [ii]
While a brilliantly true statement, perhaps I should express the reason why. In today’s always and ever more connected world, given the nature of the Internet and social media in particular, we’re stuck in a crowd, perpetually locked in a collective movement we cannot break free of. We find ourselves, connected with and perpetually in communication within our ever more narrowly defined ‘tribes’ composed of ever more ethnically, educationally, and economically diverse, but intellectually and emotionally ever less diverse individuals.
Collectively this means we’re increasingly bound in a place where all our waking moments are committed to maintaining unity among our tribe, even when this unity requires setting aside our intelligence, our independent critical assessment ‘for the good of the tribe’. Only rarely, for the good of the tribe and that of another tribe, as long this doesn’t come at the good of our tribe. Which in all situations of crisis, it most certainly does.
If people are smart and if brains are wired such smart people do dumb things when in a crowd, setting aside independent thought, seeking to conform. How do we not fall into mass hysteria and panic when our tribe is threatened? Well, just so happens there’s one extreme circumstance, faced by a specific community, where this doesn’t actually occur, where instead entirely different neural wiring is tapped into which prevents just such. Or at least, does with those highly trained in this unique domain, stress inoculated to it.
That circumstance is a firefight, a gunfight. Particularly a gunfight conducted by members of Special Forces. More specifically, those few elements in a war or conflict, whether overt, clandestine, or covert, intentionally seek out these gunfights. I highlight Special Forces, due to my own background with and to nature of their work, but let us not forget our Tier One assets, and fellow Infantry and select Special Operations Forces who also fall into this human vs human gun fighter category.
– Be an honest broker — Speak only the exact, precise truth, nothing more than what your eyes see right now, not stating anything beyond the extent of what your own education/training and experience in this specific thing make possible you can know as hard fact.
– Don’t over-analyze — What is, is and at our individual level can’t be changed, only embraced and moved through by fully accepting the hard reality of the most immediate threat, what comes immediately after and committing to doing what we need to do to keep moving forward.
– Reduce the universe — When the bullets start flying the only part of the entire physical universe that exists is the small part in which we’re now slinging lead, the geographic footprint in which we can actually make a difference, in which our decisions lead to life and death for us and those around us.
– Survival first and foremost — Forget the war, forget career, your agenda, politics, forget absolutely everything but you and those immediately around you, focusing instead on only the many small immediate decisions and actions you actually have the right now capacity to carry through.
– Embrace the sardonic — When it happens, when confronted with a real crisis, there’s no place for what you wish was or for recriminations against anyone or anything, leaving only accepting life as brutally hard, with the only way to get through sane, is to laugh in the face of failure and death.
Don’t get me wrong, George was right. A good number of us are just stupid, and at times we stupid people do gather, the world beware. However, fortunately, this is rarely the case. Generally, as with this current ‘crisis’, we tend to be a lot of smart people coming together in a crowd, setting aside our own intelligence and critical judgment, and acting rather stupid. If gunfights teach us anything, it’s that we each have to keep our head about us in a crisis, never set aside our own intelligence. That we must resist the natural inclination to seek unity, to conform, which so easily leads to group panic, only making us less flexible and able to respond to the threat right in front of us now.
Don’t worry, we can all get back to being pissed about how stupid other people are. But only after we survive this gunfight.
- [i] Herd mentality: Are we programmed to make bad decisions?, 2014, Science Daily, University of Exeter
- [ii]Why People Get More Stupid in a Crowd, 2016, BBC Future
E.M. is a Silicon Valley techpreneur and later Private Equity investor and Investment Banker with an emphasis on very early-stage technology companies. After completing active duty service with 1st BN 1st Special Forces Group, E.M founded the Honos Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to empowering local entrepreneurship in violence repressed areas, and Founder and Managing Director of Emerio Group, an early-stage investment advisory. Following a degree in Strategic Studies and Defense Analysis at Norwich, he is now pursuing Ph.D. studies in Interdisciplinary Engineering, with an emphasis on Computational Engineering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.