I confess that as a youth I was a member of a gang. My only excuse is that I was forced into it. I was made to wear a uniform and told to consider myself superior to members of other gangs. My gang was called Westcliff High School. The other big firm was Southend High School. When we met there was trouble.
Within my gang there was also a subculture. I was told I was in the Northside group. There were also Southside, Eastside and Westside groups. I was told that whenever we squared up – in rugby, cricket or whatever it might be – I was to do my best to pulverize the other group, even if I had friends in that group. And I had to blindly follow the instructions of the Northside leader, whether I agreed with them or not
But, ultimately, orders came from the Big Man or the Big Man’s son. We never saw the Big Man but we were told the Big Man could see us all the time.
After a while I became disenchanted with the whole gang thing. I began to suspect there never was any Big Man. The story just didn’t add up. As I saw it, people were using the threat of the Big Man to try to intimidate me. I told the gang leader and I got punished. I said I didn’t want to play gang games, or team games as they preferred to call them, and I was punished again. And I tried to stop wearing the uniform, especially the hated cap, and I was punished again. They said they were educating me to think for myself, but if I did I got into trouble.
Whenever I could, I used to slip away from the gang through a hole in the fence, or I’d just stroll out as if I had permission. Then I’d go home and try to think my own thoughts, free from the brainwashing. My own thoughts weren’t always right but at least they were mine.
I’m thinking about all this now for two reasons. Firstly, because of the rioting and looting in Britain. Secondly, because I’ve just finished work on Be Your Own Personality Coach in which I describe the famous Milgram, Sherif, and Stanford prison experiments.
In the Milgram experiment, volunteers were asked to operate a console which, they were told, was capable of giving electric shocks to another volunteer. This other volunteer, strapped into a special chair inside a booth, was to be asked questions. When there was a wrong answer the person at the console was to flick one of a row of switches labelled from ’15 volts – Slight Shock’ all the way up to ‘450 volts – Danger: Severe Shock’. Why would anybody do that? Because they were told by a man in a white coat that it was a useful scientific experiment into the impact of punishment on learning. About two-thirds of the volunteers went all the way to administering the maximum shock.
In the Muzafer Sherif experiment, boys at a summer camp were assigned at random into two teams and then encouraged to play competitive games. Within a few days the level of aggression and violence had become so great that the teams could no longer share the same dining room.
And in the Stanford prison experiment, volunteers were randomly assigned either the role of prisoners or guards. Again it took no more than a few days for each side to have completely conformed to the group role – and in the case of the guards that was one of extreme cruelty.
So there’s plenty of evidence of the dangers of conformism and the group mentality. Are politicians and educationalists taking any notice? No. They’ve always encouraged it and they’ll continue to encourage it. That’s why we’ll always have more My Lai Massacres, and more Rwandan Genocides.
If you’d like to read more about these experiments and personality in general you can pre-order Be Your Own Personality Coach (Teach Yourself) on Amazon.