We value individuality, but often fall for emotional group-think | In Focus

Fear is a bigger motivator than pleasure.

Most human decisions are based on emotional reactions [and calculated guesses] rather than on rational analysis…. Not only rationality, but individuality too is a myth. Humans rarely think for themselves. Rather, we think in groups” (Yuval Noah Harari, “Twenty-one Lessons for the Twenty-first Century”).

These words ring true. Let’s examine each part of Harari’s quote in the light of the recent election.

When you voted, were your decisions based on reason or emotion? Did you vote because of how your group voted?

If you feel strongly about an issue, emotions are playing a part in your thinking. Based upon a 1991 study by Tversky and Kahneman: “Generally, avoiding pain motivates people more than seeking pleasure…. Most voters find it intensely painful to imagine their least favorite candidate winning the election” (Michal Ann Strahilevitz Ph.D. “Which Emotions Have the Most Impact on Voters?”, Psychology Today, Oct. 28, 2012).

That’s why you saw so many negative ads before the midterms. Three of the biggest issues were inflation and the economy, abortion or pro-choice, and crime. These three topics stir up a lot of emotions. If you see gas and food prices rising, it tends to elicit fear. The natural tendency is to look around for someone to blame. Usually, the president takes the heat, deserved or not. If you see a rise in crime, then the thought arises that you or loved ones might become victims.

The question of abortion is very personal and brings up the question, “Who controls my body, me or the state?” or, on the other side, “Who has the right to murder an unborn fetus?” Americans don’t like to be told what to do by the government. That’s true of abortion as much as it is about being required to wear masks due to COVID. How could anti-maskers demonstrate by holding up signs stating, “My body, my choice”, yet at the same time ignore the same argument about a woman choosing to have an abortion? Emotion plays a part in both perspectives.

Harari’s argument that individuality is a myth seems to play out in the recent election. Many people chose sides based upon what their group decided was right or wrong. You can see this being played out when people get angry when questioned about why they believe as they do. Rather than considering another person’s argument, their answer seems to be, don’t bother me with the facts, my mind is already made up. Their perception is that “This is what my group believes. How dare you question its premises?”

Harari echoes Strahilevitz’s research when he states:

“… False stories have an intrinsic advantage over the truth when it comes to uniting people. If you want to gauge group loyalty, requiring people to believe an absurdity is a far better test than asking them to believe the truth…. If all your neighbors believe the same outrageous tale, you can count on them to stand together in times of crisis. If they are willing to believe only accredited facts, what does that prove?”

There were several candidates in this state as well as across the nation who stated that they believed the 2020 election was stolen. They ran on that very issue and got wide support, although, in most cases, ended up losing the election because the majority of Americans actually relied on another group’s opinion.

We humans tend to make decisions based on emotions rather than reason. We tend to believe what our group believes. While we may value individuality, that only means we value the group that shares our definition of individuality. Your group sees negative traits more quickly than positive ones.

You’ve had a chance to observe these behaviors in other people. Can you see that you also may fit Harari’s observations? The problem for all of us is that while we can so clearly see others’ flaws, it’s really hard to see our own. Harari is talking about you and me. If we can only be individualistic enough to break away from groupthink and arrogance, we will make better decisions.