Mentality of the Masses

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Polarized Politics Series: How We Got Here

Series Synopsis: In recent years we have seen our country become increasingly polarized. Political campaigns turned into a war zone, with propaganda permeating through both sides of the battlefield. This has turned Congress into a stalemate, often causing conflicts between the House, Senate, and Executive. This state leaves the country without any new policies, honest discourse, or hope. I would like to use this series over the next weeks or months to discuss what components of human nature, technology, and culture have led us to this point, and perhaps introduce some solutions.

The concept of the herd mentality has long existed. Throughout the entirety of human existence, people have generally followed leaders that represent a given minority. This concept rings true in the animal kingdom as well, and is quite likely something that will never disappear, but, that being said, it is something that we can focus on reducing — or at the least something of which we can be aware.Research has shown that even just a minority of five percent can influence the direction of an entire crowd (or in this case population). This particular study showed that as the group size increased, the percentage of the crowd required for influence waned — I would think it reasonable to extrapolate this to say that perhaps on a national scale even one percent may be sufficient. Although this concept has been in existence for millennia, I believe that the proliferation of social media has amplified its impact by providing smaller minorities within society greater access to the whole of the population while significantly reducing costs.

The economics behind a herd mentality are fairly simple in the context of politics. For any given issue, a large proportion of a population will feel slightly to the left or right of center. As opinions move closer to the extremes, they become less common, but more intense. If you think about it as a Bell Curve, people with neutral opinions are in the center, and are highest in number, then the very tails of the curve contain the least number of people with the strongest opinion. Despite the fact that the tail contains few people in number, it often will contain a significant portion of people who will highly prioritize the issue. Given that people will always face a decision of how to prioritize their time, those who care the most about an issue will be most vocal about the topic. Unfortunately, these views that are most often expressed are also often the most radical. The rest of the population under the curve will tend to follow the closest person/group willing to take a leadership role. People slightly to the left of center will then attach themselves to those in the left tail, and vice versa for the right. Individuals, who on their own may care very little about the issue in question, will suddenly be part of a movement with a highly intensified version of their thoughts.

Historically very few have had the means and access to reach the entire population. This means that there have likely always been extremely polarized tail groups regarding any issue in history. But, unless a person or group already in power was the entity that held this view, it was unlikely that it would garner the attention required to draw in a nation on a wide scale. Social media has entirely changed this age-old structure. Suddenly, you can read my article. An individual in Wyoming can write a Tweet and instantly be heard by other compatriots in California, New Jersey or Texas. The only cost to the individual for this access is the ability to have an internet connection, which is increasingly universally available. Keeping in mind the same economics discussed above, those with the most intense opinions will be responsible for the lion’s share of Tweets, Facebook statuses, and blog posts. As others with more centralized views see these posts, they will likely dissent with the opposing tail view, and see their closer tail opinion as being more correct. Since there are frequently few alternatives to these tails, as most people in the middle care too little to spend time posting on the subject, the population begins to migrate to one of the two extremes.

Facebook, Twitter, and whatever sites are to come are not likely to disappear anytime soon — quite the opposite. Luckily, they needn’t disappear for us to overcome this problem. The solution is as simple as utilizing the resources we have at our disposal. As stated previously, theory on herd mentality will teach us that people will aggregate around the leader proposing a solution most similar to what they believe. Currently we exist in an infrastructure that shows us there are always just two options: two parties, two poles, and two extreme ideas. We forget that this is far from the truth; the two sides presented infrequently offer me a solution with which I can live. However, if more opinions surrounding a topic are introduced to the population, the fewer individuals will feel they must attach themselves to a pole that honestly does not suit them.

This means you and me. My generation often is critiqued with thinking we matter too much. This may be true in some instances, but your opinion could be the one that I see as reasonable. You could be the individual that pulls me, or others away from an extreme, and towards a middle ground that those who fall on the opposite side of the center can work alongside. Yes, herd mentality exists, and people will often attach themselves with the leader whose view is closest to theirs, but in today’s world you and I can be that leader. The next time you are frustrated with the lack of reasonable options being presented around an issue in public discourse I challenge you to say so. Tell a friend, post online, or send a response, but most importantly be heard. Be your own leader instead of following one of the conveniently available paths. You’d be surprised how many people may agree.