Groups Can Be Therapeutic


Coming Together

Individual commitment to a group effort - that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilisation work.

- Vince Lombardi

A small group of thoughtful people could change the world.  Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

- Margaret Mead

by David Canter

A review of the book, The Making of Intelligence by Ken Richardson, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99

An axiom of much modern psychology is that intelligence is inherited.  Claims abound for the localisation of its supposedly measurable aspect, IQ, in genes and areas of the brain.  If these conceptual conjuring tricks were laid on merely for the amusement of other scientists, it might be appropriate to allow them to indulge themselves in the confident knowledge that they would eventually grow out of it.  But, as Richardson argues in this book, notions of what intelligence is, and how it comes about, lie at the core of political ideologies.

In a society increasingly devoted to the processing of information rather than the manufacturing of goods, we regard intelligence, rather than strength or stamina, as the measure of human worth.  Assumptions about what intelligence is, how it should be assessed and why there is such individual variation underpin the value we assign to individuals and our debates on the future of education.

Richardson investigates accounts of intelligence in a carefully and clearly argued whodunnit.  He ropes in all the usual suspects - IQ tests, genetic makeup, brain structures - and looks at propositional logic and "connectionist" computing as well, in order to interrogate them closely on what they can reveal about intelligence or whether they might be responsible for it.  As in the best detective stories, not only are the obvious suspects found to be innocent (of intelligence in this instance, not culpability), but we also come to see how naïve we were to think that they could be implicated at all in anything so exotic.

The huge qualitative differences between human beings and any other animal is one of Richardson's subplots.  In such a short book he does not have room to explore all the crucial differences language, for example, makes.  He does manage to touch on just about every claim of parallels between human and animal intelligence, showing in the process how different we are from even the nearest neighbour in the phylogenetic tree.  It is out of this qualitative leap from the animal brain to the human mind that Richardson fashions his own definition of intelligence.  He emphasises what sociologists, anthropologists and even some social psychologists have always taken for granted: that the essence of humanity is the interactions between people in groups.

The problem of human organisations requires what he calls "sensitivity to hyperstructural information", that is, knowledge of how knowledge is organised, of how knowledge of knowledge organisation is organised, and so on.  Intelligence is a sophisticated creation of social interactions embedded in particular cultures, not the genetic endowment of any individual.  The ideological implications of this notion are enormous, and in The Making of Intelligence Richardson shows clearly where he thinks they should take us.  He calls for a ban on all IQ testing, a call that has been echoing through the corridors of psychology since the inception of IQ tests nearly a century ago.

It is still not at all clear what IQ tests are actually measuring or what they predict other than results of similar sorts of tests.  By default, intelligence has come to be defined as "what IQ tests measure".  By banning them it would require much more in-depth thinking about what we are actually looking at when we are attempting to determine the complex influences of genes and cultures processes on intelligence.  Most importantly, it would require a determined examination of what evolutionary theory really has to tell us about being human.

The dominant trend in all evolution, as Darwin pointed out and as many political thinkers from Prince Kropotkin onwards have emphasised, is cooperation within a species.  Species are actually defined as groups having productive transactions between their members.  In the complex societies that have characterised human beings since their earliest days, survival depends on effective interaction between people, and recognising this is what makes human beings intelligent.

Richardson is certainly no slouch at one such transaction - communication - and his book is an intelligent look at the issues.

David Canter is professor of psychology at the University of Liverpool where he directs the Centre for Investigative Psychology

Source: New Scientist 4 September 1999

See also:

bulletPrinceton's Global Consciousness Project - ...groups of people sometimes experience a special resonance of feelings and ideas; recent scientific evidence indicates that effects of coherent group consciousness can be detected with appropriate instruments...

For more on IQ tests, see also:

bulletDumber Than You Thought - for an illustration of the cultural bias that can creep into IQ tests.
bulletAnswer Me! - four modern questions from Mensa.
bulletCan This Be True? - short visual test of an area problem.
bulletAre You a Professional? - a test of creative thinking.
bulletPassing the 8th Grade, 1895 - for a final exam covering what junior-high students were once expected to know.
bulletWhat Does It Mean to Be Schooled? - These questions are just like the ones asked in the pubs on Trivia Night — because that’s just what they are — trivial...

For more on the importance of groups (or, rather, on their modern-day scarcity):

The "Local" in Local Control

by Nicholas Hoffman

It's true that the associational criss-cross that has made up American community life in the past has disintegrated fastest among lower-income people, but it is also rotting everywhere.  Over the last 20 years, the percentage of people who socialise more than once a year with a neighbour has dropped from 72% to 61%.  Participation in every conceivable kind of local activity has been dropping for 30 years.

We all know what has happened with the base module of community life, the family, in our time, but secondary social activities have been unravelling also.  Attendance at religious services and membership in church-related groups is down by 15%.  Parent Teacher Association membership, which stood at 12 million in 1964, is at 7 million now.  The League of Women Voters recently marked the 75th anniversary of its founding with a big show at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, and nary a word about having lost 42% of its membership in the past 25 years.  If that were not alarming enough, in the past 30 years the National Federation of Women's Clubs has shrunk by almost 60%.  Union membership is down to levels not seem since the 1920s.

Service organisations, the operational bond of small town and urban neighbourhoods, are drying up and blowing away.  The Wall Street Journal recently reported that "the Shriners - mainstays of Fourth of July parades, drivers of funny little cars, Everyman philanthropists - are fading away in record numbers, having lost an average of about 28,000 members a year since 1990.  North American membership now stands at about 634,000, down 32% from its peak of about 942,000 in 1979.  Those left are ageing fast: the average age of the fraternal order's membership is 62."  The Jaycees have seen their numbers shrink by more than 40% in the last 15 years.  Once upon a time, it was fun to snigger at the Jaycees and the Rotarians, and the Elks, and Moose, and the Odd Fellows and all the rollicking, silly-assed organisations we associated with Babbitism, but now that they are vanishing before our eyes, we see how valuable they were.  They were the engines of community good works, of a raucous, philistine neighbourhood solidarity without which social life threatens to become frightful in the most literal sense of the word.

While King Fig and the other mouth-waving expositors of triumphant Republicanism deliver lectures about how volunteerism will step in and take the place of sclerotic government agencies, in the actual towns and neighbourhoods of the nation where, apparently, Republican or Democrat seldom venture, Red Cross volunteers are down by a staggering 60% in the past 25 years.  In rural areas, where the Grange meeting hall dominated the the physical, social and political landscape, chapters of this once-potent organisation are padlocking the doors and wondering how to dispose of the real estate.

Some associational activity has grown in the past generation, but it's not of the kind to reinforce and strengthen community life. Twelve-step organisations have been multiplying like microbes on a petri dish.  They are, however, the most conspicuous form of proliferating therapeutic narcissism.  These people don't give their last names at their meetings - "Hello, I'm Steve, and my personal problem is so big I don't have room in my life to think of anybody or any thing else."  If it comes to going to a school board meeting or the neighbourhood Christmas celebration, you won't see Steve.  In 1993, a whopping 13% of the population reported that they had attended a town or school meeting at least once in the previous 12 months, down from 22% 20 years ago.

Some organisations have grown like cancer in the last generation.  The American Association of Retired Persons now claims more than 30 million members, a large percentage of whom can be mobilised by mail and phone to visit retribution on an errant Congressperson.  Yet almost none of these million have ever attended a local AARP meeting.  As a living presence in community life, as an organisation which can recruit people to take the hand at the oar, the AARP is next to useless.  For the purposes of this discussion, such organisations are phantoms, good for getting theIr way in Washington, good for eliciting symbolic allegiances, good at exciting hope and fear, but not good for helping with the children or visiting the sick or assisting at cake sales or neighbourhood celebrations, not for the stuff of self-government at the local level where ordinary lives are lived.

Whether the old organisation and ways can be resuscitated or not remains to be seen.  One way or another, however, a great work of rebirth and renewal, done quietly, in minute detail, small place by small place, must be carried out.  The foundations must be strengthened and restored, and until they are, a renewed reliance on localism or local control will not have the happy outcomes promised by blithe speechmaking in Washington.

Source: Anderson Valley Advertiser May 1996 (or thereabout)

Bowling Alone

by Robert D Putnam

Once we bowled in leagues, usually after work; but no longer.  This seemingly small phenomenon symbolises a significant social change that Robert Putnam has identified and describes in Bowling Alone.

Drawing on vast new data from the Roper Social and Political Trends and the DDB Needham Life Style - surveys that report in detail on Americans' changing behaviour over the past 25 years - Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbours, and social structures, whether the PTA, church, recreation clubs, political parties, or bowling leagues.  Our shrinking access to the "social capital" that is the reward of communal activity and community sharing is a serious threat to our civic and personal health.

Putnam's groundbreaking work shows how social bonds are the most powerful predictor of life satisfaction.  For example, he reports that getting married is the equivalent of quadrupling your income and attending a club meeting regularly is the equivalent of doubling your income.  The loss of social capital is felt in critical ways: communities with less social capital have lower educational performance and more teen pregnancy, child suicide, low birth weight, and prenatal mortality.  Social capital is also a strong predictor of crime rates and other measures of neighborhood quality of life, as it is of our health: in quantitative terms, if you both smoke and belong to no groups, it's a close call as to which is the riskier behaviour.

A hundred years ago, at the turn of the last century, America's stock of social capital was at an ebb, reduced by urbanisation, industrialisation, and vast immigration that uprooted Americans from their friends, social institutions, and families, a situation similar to today's.  Faced with this challenge, the country righted itself.  Within a few decades, a range of organisations was created, from the Red Cross, Boy Scouts, and YWCA to Hadassah and the Knights of Columbus and the Urban League.  With these and many more cooperative societies we rebuilt our social capital.

We can learn from the experience of those decades, Putnam writes, as we work to rebuild our eroded social capital.  It won't happen without the concerted creativity and energy of Americans nationwide.  Like defining works from the past that have endured - such as The Lonely Crowd and The Affluent Society - and like C Wright Mills, Richard Hofstadter, Betty Friedan, David Riesman, Jane Jacobs, Rachel Carson, and Theodore Roszak, Putnam has identified a central crisis at the heart of our society and suggests what we can do.

Source: book jacket for Bowling Alone by Robert D Putnam.  To find out more about ways to rebuild social capital, visit the author's website at

We Have Reached Utopia - and It Sucks

by Richard Tomlins

Whatever you want, the market will provide.  But this triumph of individualism has some ugly side-effects.

If advertising holds up a mirror to society, then the slogan that best reflects our times is surely Have It Your Way, used by Burger King in the US to convey the idea that customers can have their Whoppers made with whatever toppings and dressings they want.  Witty or elegant, it is not.  But sometimes it takes a burger slogan to tell you what is going on in the world.  And in this case, Burger King has succeeded in highlighting a phenomenon shaping not just the Whopper, but also the rest of western civilisation: the fragmentation of society into millions of individuals who are no longer prepared to accept what they are given, but want it their way, now.

In developed countries, the "we" people have become the "me" people, insistent on doing their own thing as never before.  Reluctant to conform to social pressures or stereotypes, they no longer defer to their "betters" or submit themselves to the authority of government, Church or the traditional family structure.  Life has become a supermarket in which people pick whatever makes them happy from the almost infinite array of choices on the shelves.  If they do not like their marriage, they get divorced; if they do not like their mood, they get drugs; and if they do not like their looks, they get surgery.

The empowerment of the individual has brought many benefits.  People have more freedom.  Elitism and paternalism have become less prevalent, widening the opportunities available to those outside the traditional ruling class.  Greater diversity has made society less censorious.  But empowerment has come at a price, too.  The erosion of society's traditional structures has taken some of the stability out of people's lives, contributing to feelings of confusion and uncertainty.  Greater individualism means people are more likely to put their own interests above those of the common good, leading to a loss of civic mindedness and community spirit.  And some commentators worry that the personal gratification implicit in the have-it-your-way approach has led to a decline in civility and moral standards.

This last is a particular obsession in the US, where conservatives and others blame the loss of a golden era of consensus and shared values on the counterculture revolution initiated by postwar baby-boomers in the hippie years of the 1960s.  According to this view, typified in Robert Bork's 1996 book Slouching Towards Gomorrah, the children of middle-class liberals spent the 1960s laying the foundations for civilisation's decline by trashing authority and responsibility in an orgy of self-indulgence.  Now, as adults, they have succeeded in imposing their values (or lack of them) on mainstream society by taking control of the institutions they once set out to destroy.

A weakness in this argument is that it does not satisfactorily explain what gave rise to the counterculture revolution in the first place.  It seems too obsessed with the symptom to have noticed the cause: the extraordinary rise in material wealth that took place in developed countries after the second world war.  In the early postwar years, the idea of consumer choice was relatively undeveloped.  There was not enough manufacturing capacity to meet consumer demand in the UK, many goods were rationed so manufacturers or governments decided what products should be available, and consumers were grateful for what they could get.

People did not think of themselves as important.  They were deferential towards shopkeepers: they sought favour with the butcher in the hope of getting a good cut of meat, and did not enter a department store with a rival's carrier bag in hand for fear of giving offence.  Deference extended to other aspects of life, too.  Conformity was the order of the day: nobody wanted to be seen as an outcast.  The rules were set by those in charge the government, the rich, employers, labour unions - and for the most part, people did as they were told.

And then, something happened.  As economic growth accelerated, incomes rose, but productivity rose faster still, until finally, in the 1950s, manufacturing capacity outstripped consumption, turning the relationship between manufacturers and consumers on its head.  From this point on, people were no longer supplicants for the manufacturers' favours.  They had choice, and choice meant power.  Companies had to compete for customers' loyalty; they had to flatter and coax people with increasingly tempting products and seductive advertisements, and start giving them better service.

For consumers, the realisation that they were in charge was slow to take hold.  Their first reaction was suspicion: they wondered what manufacturers were up to.  In 1957, their worst fears were confirmed when Vance Packard's book The Hidden Persuaders accused marketers of using sinister mind-control techniques to hoodwink people into buying things they didn't need, turning them into the unwitting slaves of consumerism.  Eventually, the scare died down, and people started growing more comfortable with their new-found power.  But they never took it for granted in quite the same way as their children-the baby-boomers.

Yes, the baby-boomers were indulged.  Their parents experienced a period of unprecedented economic growth, and many used their increased prosperity to give their children things they never had themselves, such as higher education and the opportunity to travel.  But more important was the fact that the babyboomers were the first generation to be born into an era where consumers were placed on a pedestal and companies set out to satisfy their every whim.  "You want it, you got it" became the mantra of this new society, and it is scarcely surprising that baby-boomers took full advantage of the offer.

The impression left by the counterculture revolution is that it was anti-business.  But in reality, forward-looking companies enthusiastically embraced the revolution because they had everything to gain from it.  Freedom of expression and greater individualism created new wants and needs that businesses were only too keen to fulfil.  Instead, the biggest casualty was the Establishment.  The more important people were made to feel, the more they questioned why they should conform to society's norms or let others tell them what to do.  Their diminishing respect for those in charge was reflected in the popularity of British television's Monty Python's Flying Circus, with its merciless lampooning of royalty, the upper class, the Church, politicians, civil servants, the army and the police.

A generation later, people are getting more important every day.  Globalisation has increased competitive pressures to the point where any company that does not have the words "fanatical devotion to our customers" somewhere in its mission statement is consigned to ridicule and oblivion.  People are becoming gods, and expect to be treated as such.  Whatever they want, the market will provide.  People no longer want to keep up with the Joneses; they define themselves by making their personal selection from the ever-increasing proliferation of goods and services on offer, proclaiming their individuality through what Freud called "the narcissism of small differences".

In a way, the triumph of the individual was always the goal of free-market capitalism.  So its arrival has enabled people such as Francis Fukuyama, in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, to argue that liberal democracy has achieved its ultimate purpose, leaving it with no particular place to go other than to spread itself around the world.  Paradoxically, the triumph of individualism has also brought an accidental victory for Marxism, in the sense that the balance of power in society has shifted away from the boss classes and now rests decisively in the hands of the people.  Whichever way you look at it, we have quietly reached Utopia.  And that would be excellent news indeed, were it not for one small flaw: a feeling that it sucks.

Of particular concern to grumpy conservatives is the fact that anything associated with the era of authority and deference - manners, discipline, censorship, shame, standards of dress, respect for tradition, the veneration of grumpy conservatives - has been chucked into the trash can of emancipation.  High culture is on its last legs, too; since no one has the authority to dictate artistic standards any more, the only definition of "good" is what attracts the most attention or sells in the largest numbers.

Perhaps more seriously, there are fears in the US, where Utopia has reached its finest form, that society is being torn apart by the forces of individualism.  Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community has recently caused a stir by painstakingly cataloguing the symptoms of a civil society in the process of breaking down: among them, the declining interest in team sports, club membership, family dinners and time spent socialising with friends.  The worry is that, as the ties that bind are loosened, people feel less compunction about turning against their fellow citizens.  And by an unfortunate coincidence, people are all the more likely to do so because their increasingly mighty personages become so easy to affront.

One result is the growth of "rage" incidents explosions of anger over minor setbacks, often accompanied by violence.  Another is people's propensity to sue anyone who comes between them and their perceived right to a perfect life.  Also worth noting are the extremes of asocial behaviour seen not just in the recent outbreak of mass or multiple killings, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, the Unabomber campaign and the Columbine High School massacre, but in less high-profile incidents.

In July, the father of a 10-year-old beat and killed the referee of a children's ice-hockey game after his son was elbowed in the face by an opponent; in August, 8 people on a domestic Southwest Airlines flight beat and choked to death a fellow passenger who became disruptive; and in October, a woman who wanted a child obtained one by murdering a pregnant woman and cutting the live baby from her womb.  Meanwhile, the US and other developed countries are experiencing a form of silent anarchy as people's diminishing respect for politics and politicians translates into declining election turnouts, undermining the legitimacy of governments.

And a more vocal anarchy is building up in the form of public demonstrations against the very global capitalism that encouraged people to find their individual voice in the first place.

And so we come to the big question.  What is the alternative when you've tried having it your way and find you don't like the result?  Disappointingly, as the anarchists have discovered, it is a question that has no answer.  The reason is that the Utopia of triumphant individualism is not a staging post on the way to something better: it is a final destination.  There is no better Utopia beyond it.  The only way forward is to go back.  But to what?  The Dark Ages, or a renaissance?  And if a renaissance, of what?  The golden age of poverty?  And who will volunteer to help turn back the clock?

Source: The Financial Times 16 December 2000

I wonder if Richard Tomlins hasn't sidestepped the point: community and conformity don't equate.  Just because we have lost a sense of community doesn't mean we no longer conform - one need only look at the number of SUVs on the road in the US - yet SUV drivers don't honk at each other and give each other secret "SUV-owner" signals as members of a SUV-drivers' community.  It is the size of the group which often makes the difference.  (For more information on group size, see Getting Along with Your Crew - a review of the book Psychology of Sailing: the Sea's Effects on Mind and Body.)

I think one of the major functions of the public school system is to inculcate a degree of conformity under the rubric of "socialisation." (See Zero Tolerance Policies for Schools.)  I feel a certain degree of tolerance for differences is an essential ingredient for fostering a sense of community.

Communities engage in numerous forms of activity, some of which have a greater significance for demography values than others.  Perhaps the most democratically significant activities are those through which communities conduct their collective cognition - the group thinking through which a community's members share experiences, maintain memories, conduct conflicts, and perform work of solidarity with regard to all of the other communities to which it is structurally related.  It is an obvious fact that, in society as we know it, some communities have more effective means for engaging in these kinds of group thinking.  A core democratic value is broad access to the means of collective cognition.

What are the conditions of collective cognition?  In some cases they might include physical meeting spaces and it may be important for these spaces to serve a range of other functions in addition to formally organised discussions.  In other cases, they might include the existence of a viable community publication such as a newsletter or newspaper.  It probably matters whether the community is concentrated or dispersed in geographic terms and whether it can travel.  It probably matters whether other communities derive benefits from the shared thinking of the community's members.  It probably matters whether the community's members have some way of accumulating capital by serving as thought leaders, circulating among the community's members and synthesizing what they hear into a form that is broadly useful.

It's the warm feelings toward one's fellow man which have been diminishing.  And It is those "warm" feelings which belonging to a group foster (NOT just conforming to a group; conformity is a one-way street, not an interaction - it reduces negative feelings without raising positive ones).  "Warm" feelings (caused by two-way interactions) can actually increase our abilities.

In the book Competence Considered edited by Robert Sternberg and John Kolligian Jr, I read that in a series of studies on the nature of the layperson's conception of "smart" people, Yale psychology professor Sternberg found that a random sample of people defined intelligence as

bulletacts politely
bulletdisplays patience with self and others
bulletgets along well with people
bulletis frank and honest
bullethis emotions are appropriate to the situation.

Experts, meanwhile, said

bulletreads with high comprehension
bulletshows flexibility in thought and action
bulletreasons logically and well
bulletdisplays curiosity
bulletlearns rapidly
bulletthinks deeply
bulletsolves problems well.

In other words, experts value all the things that cause them to be able to become experts.  "Commuters" as a group considered the ability to function well in daily life as more important.

I feel the primary incubator of a sense of community is a good home life.  When home becomes the stressor rather than a place to relax and be renewed (see Time Bind), often work becomes the community and home becomes work.

See also:

bulletLiving Dead: Ants and Infertile Humans Are not Alive - however, since an ant colony is, presumably a group of people, even including old ladies and the neutered, might be...

Common Sense: Surprising New Research Shows that Crowds Are often Smarter than Individuals

by Michael Shermer

In 2002 I served as the "phone a friend" for the popular television series Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.  When my acquaintance was stumped by a question, however, he elected to "poll the audience" instead.  His choice was wise not only because I did not know the answer but because the data show that the audience is right 91% of the time, compared with only 65% for "experts."

Although this difference may in part be because the audience is usually queried for easier questions, something deeper is at work here.  For solving a surprisingly large and varied number of problems, crowds are smarter than individuals.  This is contrary to what the 19th-century Scottish journalist Charles Mackay concluded in his 1841 book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, a staple of skeptical literature: "Men, it has been well said, think in herds.  It will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." T his has been the dogma ever since, supported by sociologists such as Gustave Le Bon, in his classic work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind: "In crowds it is stupidity and not mother wit that is accumulated."

Au contraire, Monsieur Le Bon.  There is now overwhelming evidence, artfully accumulated and articulated by New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki in his enthralling 2004 book, The Wisdom of Crowds (Doubleday), that "the many are smarter than the few."  In one experiment, participants were asked to estimate the number of jelly beans in a jar.  The group average was 871, only 2.5% off the actual figure of 850.  Only one of the 56 subjects was closer.  The reason is that in a group, individual errors on either side of the true figure cancel each other out.

For a group to be smart, it should be autonomous, decentralized and diverse.

A similar result was discovered in an example so counterintuitive that it startles.  When the US submarine Scorpion disappeared in May 1968, a naval scientist named John Craven assembled a diverse group of submarine experts, mathematicians and salvage divers.  Instead of putting them in a room to consult one another, he had each of them give a best guesstimate - based on the sub's last known speed and position (and nothing else) - of the cause of its demise and its rate and steepness of descent, among other variables.  Craven then computed a group average employing Bayes's theorem, a statistical method wherein a probability is assigned to each component of a problem.  The Scorpion's location on the ocean floor was only 220 yards from the averaged prediction.

Stranger still was the stock market's reaction on 28 January 1986, the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded.  Of the four major shuttle contractors - Lockheed, Rockwell International, Martin Marietta and Morton Thiokol - the last (the builder of the defective solid-rocket booster) was hit hardest, with a 12% loss, compared with only 3% for the others.  A detailed study of the market (a sizable crowd, indeed!) by economists Michael T Maloney of Clemson University and J Harold Mulherin of Claremont McKenna College could find no evidence of insider trading or media focus on the rocket booster or on Morton Thiokol.  Given four possibilities, the masses voted correctly.

Not all crowds are wise, of course - lynch mobs come to mind.  And "herding" can be a problem when the members of a group think uniformly in the wrong direction.  The stock market erred after the space shuttle Columbia disaster on 1 February 2003, for example, dumping stock in the booster's manufacturer even though the boosters were not involved.

For a group to be smart, it should be autonomous, decentralized and cognitively diverse, which the committee that rejected the foam-impact theory of the space shuttle Columbia while it was still in flight was not.  In comparison, Google is brilliant because it uses an algorithm that ranks webpages by the number of links to them, with those links themselves valued by the number of links to their page of origin.  This system works because the Internet is the largest autonomous, decentralized and diverse crowd in history, IMHO.

Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic ( and author of The Science of Good and Evil.

Source: Skeptic December 2004 issue

Photo by Spencer Tunick Source: 6 May 2007

Once, many years ago, when I lived in the San Francisco Bay area, I was riding BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to work one morning when one of the passengers collapsed.  The car was exceedingly crowded and the man who had fainted had been one of those standing.  I was seated in a far corner, unable to get up without difficulty (that was MY excuse).  The unfortunate reality is that no one did ANYTHING for a couple of minutes.  Everyone wanted someone else to handle it.  Finally, one young man broke away from the crowd and knelt beside the stricken man.  He found a pulse but could not rouse him.  Just then, the train made a stop to pick up more passengers.  The helpful man ran out onto the platform to pick up a courtesy phone to call for help (this was before cellphones).  Just then, the doors closed and the train moved away from the station.  Within seconds, the man who had fainted roused, sat up, rubbed his head, stood, and resumed his commute in silence.  No one said or did anything.  The one really nice man was the one left behind to wait for the next train and to be late for work.  I don't know who he was, but I have never forgotten him.  He did a lot more good than he ever knew by setting a sterling example for everyone in that train car.

Not everyone waxes rhapsodic about groups.  Here's another opinion...

Demonic Males

by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson


Deindividuation is the formal name for the mindless sinking of personal identity into the group of Us.  There is no particular reason for it to appear in the temperament of a species that lacks intense intergroup aggression.  But when we view humans at full length, as a smart and upright species emerging into the present from a 5-million-year history of selection for effective intergroup aggression, deindividuation makes perfect sense.  Deindividuation produces, in the words of sociologist Georg Simmel, a "noble enthusiasm and unlimited readiness to sacrifice."  That it also produces irresponsibility and deeply unpleasant behaviour is only relevant from the point of view of Them.

One social science textbook characterises the "wild, impulsive behaviour" and antisocial actions of a group this way: "It is precisely in such settings that human beings may turn upon their fellow men and women with a savagery and a brutality unmatched by any other living creature on earth."  In reality, that savagery is matched by several other living creatures.  Human savagery is not unique.  It is shared by other party-gang species.  And in those species that share our propensity for tearing an enemy to pieces, we will likely discover, in cruder form, the same processes that cruelly increase a group's effectiveness in destroying a villain.

Our ape ancestors have passed to us a legacy, defined by the power of natural selection and written in the molecular chemistry of DNA.  For the most part it is a wonderful inheritance, but one small edge contains destructive elements; and now that we have the weapons of mass destruction, that edge promotes the potential of our own demise.  People have long known such things intuitively and so have built civilisations with laws and justice, diplomacy and mediation, ideally keeping always a step ahead of the old demonic principles.  And we might hope that men will eventually realize that violence doesn't pay.

The problem is that males are demonic at unconscious and irrational levels.  The motivation of a male chimpanzee who challenges another's rank is not that he foresees more matings or better food or a longer life.  Those rewards explain why sexual selection has favored the desire for power, but the immediate reason he vies for status is simpler, deeper, and less subject to the vagaries of context.  It is simply to dominate his peers.  Unconscious of the evolutionary rationale that placed this prideful goal in his temperament, he devises strategies to achieve it that can be complex, original, and maybe conscious.  In the same way, the motivation of male chimpanzees on a border patrol is not to gain land or win females.  The temperamental goal is to intimidate the opposition, to beat them to a pulp, to erode their ability to challenge.  Winning has become an end in itself.

It looks the same with men.

In his book The Making of Intelligence, Ken Richardson said that, "...the essence of humanity is the interactions between people in groups..."  What does the following article say about the humanity of inmates in supermax prisons?  Bear in mind that many of these inmates will one day be freed to return to the community.

Human Rights Furor Over US Supermax Prisons

Tough justice is meant to be for hardened criminals, but some prisoners may be becoming the victims of a blind system

by Alan Elsner

Imagine being locked alone in a small, bare cell for 23 hours a day.  Your meals are slid through a slot in the metal door.  You cannot see or talk to another human being.  You cannot see out the window.  You cannot make telephone calls or have direct contact with visitors.  When you do briefly leave your cell for showers or solitary exercise, you must strip, permit a visual search of your body, including bending over and spreading your buttocks.  Your legs are shackled, your arms cuffed and you are led by two guards, one of whom presses an electric stun gun against your body at all times.

Such conditions are typical in so-called "supermaximum security prisons" - the hottest trend in the US prison system which now house at least 20,000 inmates.  Popular with politicians, supermax prisons are under increasing scrutiny in lawsuits and official investigations probing persistent allegations of serious human rights excesses.

Supermax prisons are designed for what corrections officials call the "worst of the worst" - prisoners so violent, so disruptive, so incorrigible that they cannot be kept in regular custody.  Politicians who want to be seen as "tough on crime" have championed the construction of such facilities which cost considerably more to build and operate than regular prisons.  But human rights organisations and a growing number of independent experts say many of those locked up are not violent or dangerous criminals but seriously mentally sick individuals.

Sometimes, nonviolent offenders who have never made trouble can get shunted into supermax facilities because it would be embarrassing to the authorities, having constructed such expensive prisons, to leave them half empty.  A report by Human Rights Watch said: "The conditions of confinement impose pointless suffering and humiliation.  The absence of normal human interaction, of reasonable mental stimulus, of almost anything that makes life bearable, is emotionally, physically and psychologically destructive."

The Justice Department is investigating conditions in Virginia supermaxes after two prisoners transferred from Connecticut died under suspicious circumstances.  One, a young drug offender, committed suicide 7 months before his release date.  The other, a diabetic, went into convulsions after allegedly being denied his medication.  Guards reacted by firing their stun guns at him and he later died.  The Virginia Department of Corrections said an investigation found that the firing of the stun guns had nothing to do with his death and the guards had acted properly.

In another lawsuit 108 prisoners from New Mexico who were sent to the Wallena Ridge supermax in Virginia alleged they were systematically beaten, shocked with stun guns and terrorised by guards who taunted them with racial epithets.  The FBI was looking into these charges.

A Virginia spokesman declined to respond but said Corrections Commissioner Ron Angelone would be willing to do so in an interview at some unspecified time in the future.

In June 2000 Angelone testified before a Virginia Commission, "I'm a little angry with all of this," he said.  "This is the same garbage that I heard from New Mexico - lies from convicted felons who don't like being locked up in tough prisons."  He said that since Virginia opened its two supermaxes, assaults on staff and other inmates dropped by nearly half in the State's other prisons.

In Illinois, four prisoners at the Tanuns supermax, who say they are seriously mentally ill, have brought a class action lawsuit alleging cruel and unusual punishment through "sensory deprivation based on near-total isolation."  One inmate, Ashoor Rasho, became so desperate and disturbed that, according to the court complaint, "on Aug 20, 1998, with his arms already infected from self-inflicted wounds, Mr Rasho again cut his arm and began eating small pieces of his own flesh in front of a correctional officer.  The officer allegedly ignored the medical emergency and also ignored Rasho's plea to speak to someone from the mental health unit."  He was eventually stitched up and returned to the same cell where he cut himself again, pulled his stitches out and lost more than half a pint of blood.

A spokesman for the Illinois Department of Corrections said he would be eager to respond to written questions.  A week after they were submitted, he had not done so.

In Ohio the American Civil Liberties Union fIled a federal civil rights action citing conditions that led to at least three inmate suicides in the Youngstown supermax, where psychotherapy is conducted with prisoners chained to a pole.  The Ohio Corrections Department says those in Youngstown are "the predators, the guys who have attacked inmates or guards, the people who need to be separated from the rest of the system."

Chase Riveland, who headed the Washington State prison system for 11 years and Colorado for four years said he was extremely concerned at the proliferation of supermax prisons.  "We don't know what we're doing to these people and what they will do to us when they return to their communities which most of them eventually will do," he said.

Indiana State University criminologist Robert Ruckabee, who conducted a study of supermaxes for the State of Indiana, said there had been little scientific study of the long-term effects of such incarceration on inmates.  While generally defending the use of supermaxes for extremely dangerous or disruptive prisoners, Ruckabee said the heavy presence of the mentally ill was an "issue of concern.  If we don't want mentally ill people in our prisons, we need to ask our judges to stop sending them and our legislatures to provide the money for other facilities," he said. - Reuters

Source: The Evening Post Wednesday 14 February 2001

See also:

bulletLocked in for Safety: Prisons and Legal - for lots more on the subject of incarceration practices

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