Saturday, September 01, 2007

Stick to the group

In his book, Ordinary Man, the historian, Christopher Browning, narrates the gory incident involving German (Order Police) Reserve Unit 101 that was ordered to massacre and round up Jews for deportation to the death camps in Poland in 1942. The orders were to shoot the Jews, if there was not enough room for them on the trains. The commander of the Unit, Wilhelm Trapp, was horrified, and gave his men the choice of opting out of duty if they found it too pleasant.

Only twelve out of the five hundred stepped out. The others participated in the massacre, though they were later disgusted with what they had done.

So, why did they participate at all, when they were so reluctant? It could not have been mere fear of authority, as in the Milgram experiment, for here they were given the choice to opt out. Anti-Semitism was also not so strong in these men, as they were ordinary middle-aged men of working-class background who hailed from one of the least Nazified parts of Germany and had been drafted but found unfit for military duty and so were placed with the Police unit.

The conclusion of the book was that the men of Unit 101 obeyed a simple rule that had been hardwired in them, namely, that they should stick with their comrades at any cost and not break ranks. This rule prevailed over their moral judgement and values.

Members of any given group feel the need to conform and to cling to the default setting. This gives a greater sense of identity and comradeship. To break away is to act against this comfort-providing rule. Even, if in some situations, obedience is at the cost of a troubled conscience.

What the army and the police try (or claim to) to inculcate for a positive cause, terrorist outfits try to duplicate, while pursuing their own agenda. Members can be convinced to let go of their reasoning powers and even set out on suicide missions, exploiting this programmed instinct for kinship. Call it brainwashing, indoctrination or simple peer pressure.

Gerd Gigerenzer ( he of the ‘catch the ball’ heuristic) discusses the above incident, in his book, “Gut Feelings”, to illustrate that most of the decisions we take in our lives is based not so much on analysis and reasoning, but on simple rules of thumb. The book “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell had blazed this trail, but Gigerenzer gets deeper into the subject.


Toxic Survivor said...

This is a rational analysis, consistent with well-known realities about normal people in violent situations. Terrorists are mostly normal folk, as were these German cops. We will do well to prepare for normal, rational people driven by predictable circumstances to do violent, self destructive things. Those who claim modern terrorism as a chaotic, anger-driven movement that has no rational plan or predictable pattern are blind. We can and must understand the simple rules that drive these violent individuals and groups. If we don't learn from history, we ARE doomed to repeat it.

dipali said...

This potential for overriding any moral belief in order to remain part of the herd is frightening indeed.

Raj said...

toxic survivor: yes, we need to recognise that some of the so-called terrorists are caught in that "Dont-break-ranks heuristic".

dipali, it is the flip side. There are many useful results that stem from this heuristic.