The Emperor’s New Clothes’ is a tale that raises questions about self-deception, conformity and obedience to authority. Like all good fairy tales, it conveys a charter for human behaviour – learning to speak first, like the boy, is good practice and will help you develop psychological resilience to mindless conformity.
And yet for most of us it is hard to speak up first. We often like the safety of the crowd.
Human beings are very social animals, having evolved in tribes. It makes evolutionary sense to follow the crowd: we don’t have the time or the energy to think through every decision in detail, and if everyone else is doing something, it’s probably correct. If everyone is screaming and running away, you probably ought to as well.
We look to others whom we perceive as better informed, and we like to stay on the right side of people. Conformity has its upsides. Feeling identified with the group can feel safer and even be literally safer in a physical sense – we don’t eat the berries from the bush that everyone else avoids. We rely on social cooperation. You could even say that our most basic foundational need is to belong.
But there are dangers.
Groupthink can stifle independent thinking. Gustave Le Bon put forward one of the earliest and most influential theories of group mind theory in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. He believed individuals can lose their sense of self in a group and become both anonymous and more powerful at the same time. Once an individual is submerged in a group, ideas and sentiment are contagious; think of individual fish moving as a shoal. Our powerful tendency to conform is supported by reams of scientific experiments – and it is mercilessly exploited by manipulators.
There are examples of using conformity and ‘social proof’ throughout advertising (‘eight out of 10 cats prefer Whiskas’) online shopping (the ubiquitous ‘customers who bought this item also bought…’) to Government communications (most people pay their taxes on time) to propaganda (one study claimed 99% consensus among academics about human-caused climate change). The theory of ‘nudge’ – used in advertising, social media, public health, Government, basically everywhere – is heavily predicated upon conformity.
Crowds can be dangerously weaponised. Aldous Huxley wrote about how Hitler assembled people by the thousands to make them form mass-like, lose their personal identity and become excitable. Huxley called it herd-poisoning. We see ‘us vs them’ exploited by politicians and in partisan media on a weekly basis.
There are many examples of history proving the group was wrong, while the lone voice, the ‘boy who spoke up’, was right. Galileo was right about the Earth moving around the Sun, not vice versa, but was judged to be a heretic and put under house arrest for the rest of his life. As Steve Jobs said, the misfit, rebels and troublemakers are the ones who change things and push the human race forward. Yet since then, we have come to prize homogeneity and conformity.
So how do we observe our own conformity, separate ourselves from the crowd and speak up first?
Whistleblowers are the vanguard. Lee was a volunteer cop, what’s known as a ‘special constable’. He reported fraudulent behaviour to senior officers within his own police force. They didn’t take this report seriously, so he then subsequently reported this to the Home Office who did. He was suspended and investigated for allegations of gross misconduct. Ultimately, after a long investigation, none of these allegations against him were proven to be true. However, the investigation team later went on to make a further accusation of racism and gross misconduct.