At the 2017 Latitude Festival in Suffolk, our editor Dr Jon Sutton introduced Professor Stephen D. Reicher in the Wellcome Trust Arena.
The rules of unruliness
What follows is an edited transcript of the session, which you can also listen to as a podcast via the Latitude Festival website.
JS: Hello everyone, and thank you very much indeed for choosing to come and see us this afternoon. My name is Dr Jon Sutton, I’m Managing Editor of The Psychologist, which is the magazine of the British Psychological Society. Please Google us, find us on Twitter @psychmag, we’ve got a leaflet out the front, all sorts of free resources on the website for you.
Just before we begin, I don’t know if you know, but one of the organising themes of the non-music content at this festival is ‘Revolution’. I think that it’s great to have that as an organising theme to guide us in what we’re doing here. I was in fact just saying that to Tarquin and Jocasta at the Pimms croquet lawn.
A lot of the catering is themed around famous revolutionaries as well, so you’ve got a Fi-Deli, which I think was supplied by Marx & Spencer; for fried chicken you’ve got Che-FC; and a lot of the admin before the festival, the temps were provided by Office Engels.
That’s it from me, thankfully we’re not in the comedy arena, and we have a genuinely revolutionary scientist to hand you over to today. There’s a bit of concern in psychology at the moment, and I think science in general, that there is a left-wing bias. We’re all probably familiar with this idea of a liberal echo chamber, and Latitude is perhaps the epitome of that liberal echo chamber, don’t you think? But Steve Reicher once said to me, ‘Jon, the problem’s not that there are too many liberals in psychology, it’s that there’s not enough socialists.’ So, he’s always been a genuine activist, a lifelong campaigner against racism and prejudice, and this has come together with his academic work, his studies of groups, power and collective action. So, as Wardlaw Professor of Psychology at the University of St Andrews, he’s now got some 300 books, chapters and academic papers addressing topics such as crowds, intergroup hatred, nationalism, and the psychology of tyranny. He’s written loads of stuff for The Psychologist, which as I say you can find on our website, and today, although it’s billed as ‘in conversation with’ me, I thought it’s much better if I let Steve do his thing. He’s promised a rant, so there’s no stopping Steve when he’s in full flow, so I’m going to step aside and leave the stage to him, to talk to us for a bit about the rules of unruliness, and to leave plenty of time for a Q&A with you at the end.
So the idea behind this session is that much of psychology, many of the classic psychological studies that some of you know a fair bit about – because some of these main studies of psychology have seeped into public consciousness – much of that serves to keep us in our place. It tells us that we’re inherently unequal, that we’re born to be greedy, selfish, and competitive, and that we’re naturally conformist. We just have to accept the status quo, resistance is futile. Yet, if you look closely at these studies – going back to the historical ones, conducting new ones – this is something that Professor Reicher has done, and when you do that, the more you do that, the more the claims fall apart. In particular, inspection of classic studies of conformity actually show us that resistance is rife. So what we’re looking at this afternoon is when do people adapt to the world as it is, and when do they band together in revolution? What are the rules of unruliness? Can they help us to create a more disorderly world?
Without further ado, I’m going to hand over to Professor Steve Reicher from the University of St Andrews.
SR: St Andrews; nearly as revolutionary a place as Latitude, I should say.
First of all, thank you very much for that introduction; I should stop at that point because it can only go downhill after that; you’re only going to be disappointed.
But if you ever feel disappointed in me, I must admit that I’m disappointed in you: I wonder if you haven’t got anything better to do?! There’s music on, there’s comedy on, there’s cabaret on, and you’ve come to see some old bloke talking about groups. You really do need to get a life.
But I just want to start off optimistically. In this beautiful wood, in these beautiful surroundings, on this beautiful day, it would be churlish not to agree with Louis Armstrong that we live in a wonderful world. That we have the knowledge of the ages, the wisdom of all the great libraries, phones in our pockets, possibly even watches on our wrists. We’re able to suck energy from the sun, the wind and the waters. We can now image what’s going on in your head, even as you’re thinking, we can map your genome, we can not only cure your diseases, we can predict your diseases so as to prevent them. We have enough productivity and enough wealth in this world to make sure that every single human being lives a fulfilling life.
And yet, of course, they don’t. Because while we live in the best of worlds, we manage to change it into the worst of worlds. Just eight people – eight men, actually – have as much wealth as the poorest 50 per cent of people on earth. That’s 3.7 billion people. There’s enough wealth for people, but not everyone has it. Every three seconds, a child is dying of a preventable cause in this world, much of it to do with malnutrition: every ten seconds a child dies of malnutrition at the same time as there is enough food on earth to feed everybody. At the same time as the average British family throws out the equivalent of 24 meals a month.
Now, it is wrong to suggest somehow that the world is poor and Britain is rich, because as you know, there are divisions within as well as between countries. And so to use an example that’s in all our minds, and I think all our hearts, you probably know the figures I mean, I looked them up last night, the average flat in Kensington and Chelsea costs £1.4 million. The average terraced house in Kensington and Chelsea costs £4.2 million. The average semi-detached house in Kensington and Chelsea costs £6.1 million. And yet at the same time, we are told that the council cannot afford to spend £1000 per flat to put sprinklers in high-rise buildings. At the same time as Kensington and Chelsea uses its £245 million reserves to reduce the tax burden on those poor souls who live in £6.1 million houses.
We live in an absurd world, we live in a mad world. If the proverbial anthropologist from Mars was to come down to our planet and look at our planet, she would say, ‘This is so profoundly wrong that there’s no room for discussion.’ And she would look at us and ask, ‘Why are we not permanently outraged? Why are we not angry? Why are we not doing something about it? Surely’, she would say, ‘you would change it if you could.’ And there’s the rub. If you could. No-one can deny the inequalities. No-one can deny the figures. They’re not false news, no-one would even pretend that they are. They are stark realities. They cannot be denied.
How do we live with this inequality? Partly, I suspect, it’s simply familiarity. We forget about it. We get on with our lives. We allow things to happen. We do nothing, and it goes on. But partly, there’s an industry devoted to legitimating this inequality, devoted to telling us ‘No you can’t’. To telling us that perhaps the world isn’t perfect, but we live in the best of all possible worlds. And that industry is called academia. We have recently been outraged by the fact that the likes of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson tell academics that they are part of the elite establishment. Now, it is true that for Gove and Johnson to argue against elitism is a bit like Gary Glitter arguing for child welfare, but nonetheless, they do have a point. Because academics are institutions, we are funded by governments, and historically, every time you find inequality, you find the intelligentsia at the core of it. You find the universities at the core of it. There is a debate, for instance, about the relationship between education and racism. It is argued that racism is ignorance, and the ignorant are racist. But if you look at the great, the hideous racist regimes, in Romania, in Nazi Germany, and it is always the intelligentsia that are at the core of them. There is an industry, an academic industry devoted to telling us: ‘No, you can’t.’ That inequality is our lot, and we have to get on with it. Forget about it. Ignore it. And at the core of that industry is my own discipline, psychology. And that’s why I became involved in psychology. Because every time I found myself arguing about the obscenities of our unequal world, people would say, ‘human nature. People are like that. We have to live in a competitive world, because people are naturally competitive. We have to live in an unequal world because some people are clever and some people are less clever.’ If you look at the history of IQ research, there were people arguing in the 1920s and still today that there’s no point giving the same to everyone, because the likes of you and me can appreciate it, but the likes of them, they would spoil it. They couldn’t appreciate it. They don’t have the sensibilities that we have. They don’t have the abilities that we have. Women, black people, whatever, particular groups lack the abilities to appreciate wealth or to do the work to earn it.
There is a variant on this, a popular variant, you will see it everywhere. It’s said casually. It’s said that people are so flawed, the human psyche is so inadequate, that we have to distort information in order to cope with our world. We are full of heuristics and biases. We are full of little devices to help us cope with the complexity of the world, it comes with costs, it’s inevitable, we can’t estimate probabilities. We can’t deal with complexities. We have to leave it to our betters to rule us. So many ways in which the discipline tells you, ‘you have to stay in your place. You have to live in an unequal world.’ My work centres on one aspect of this argument. It’s not the argument about inequality, it’s the argument about challenging inequality. Because if you are poor, or if you are oppressed, or if you are weak, you only have one resource on your side. You don’t have control of the media. You don’t have control over employment. You don’t have technologies on your side. What you have, are your numbers. The basic slogan of all trade unionism, the power of the powerlessness lies in their combination. It is when people get together they are powerful. And so the powerful always fear combination. They always seek to isolate people. They always seek to divide people. They always seek to individualise people.
There is, for instance, a wonderful book, a horrifying book, by a man called Sofsky, The Order of Terror, he’s looking at the Nazi death camps. Now these death camps brought people together, they concentrated people, they brought thousands, and indeed millions of people squeezed together in camps, and the Nazis could only make this work if they made sure that people did not come together psychologically as a group – that they looked past each other, that they atomised. That control depends on atomising people. Stopping us from coming together as members of groups to challenge the inequality of our world.
So on the one hand, there’s a huge industry in psychology, which tells us we are natural conformists, we are born to obey orders, we are born to obey rules, and some of our work has sought to challenge that. To show that actually, no, people are not designed to obey orders, but actually if you give people orders, people will react against them in order to claim their freedom. Seduction is more powerful than coercion. But more basically still, in our discipline and in our society, because these things are important not because they exist in academic journals that two or three people read, but because in our society there is a notion that groups are bad for you. That alone, you’re a rational individual. Alone, you think sensibly. But put you in a group; well you lose your rationality. You lose your morality. You lose your agency, you become like a zombie. Morally, we are told, just say no to groups. Groups make you take drugs. Groups make you drink alcohol. Groups make you riot and kill people. Groups are bad for you. It’s everywhere. It’s everywhere in our culture. A week doesn’t go by that I don’t get some journalist phoning up and asking me to explain mob behaviour. Mob is not an explanation. Mob is pejorative. Mob is a way of disqualifying the mass. In fact, if you look at this psychology, it grew up at the end of the 19th century. Specifically in France, because the Third Republic was very weak, and feared the mass, particularly because it was borne out of the Paris commune, where people genuinely had come together and taken power. And when the commune was defeated, in the Third Republic, these ideas grew up, formed into a group psychology, a crowd psychology, which told us that when we get together in a crowd, we become submerged. We lose our conscious personalities. We lose our capacity to judge. And because we become submerged, we stop thinking, we just go along with any passing ideas, contagion, so we are capable of things we’re never normally capable of. It was explicitly in the context of trying to stabilise the regime against mass challenges that this discipline came into being, that these ideas of the group came into being, this science is deeply, and profoundly, politicised.
Now, in my first year at university, in 1975, a long time ago, I came to university probably like many of you who’ve been to university thinking it would be an intellectual place where you would sit in corners, intensely talking about things that matter, about philosophy, about politics, and found that on the whole you got drunk and didn’t think about very much at all. And in my first year at university we had an occupation… it was a time when these things still went on, it was about trying to get a nursery. It was about access, about women’s access, it was of course about childcare for women who had been excluded. And being a nice, middle-class boy, I was afraid of occupations, but I went into it. And in that occupation, I found that in the crowd, in the mass, people staying up until three, four in the morning discussing strategy, principles, how we make the university more open, more accountable. At last, I found that intellectual thrill. But as that was happening, I learned about the intellectual thrill of collectivity, two things were going on at the same time. First of all, I was learning my first year social psychology, telling me that groups were bad for me, and secondly, I went to meetings where our vice chancellor used this psychology to discredit what we were doing. He would say, ‘ah, well, they’re just emotional. They’re just in a crowd. It’s just an explosion of affect. It’s really not the way to go forward.’ I saw, in practice, what these ideas are like, and this made me passionate about my discipline. I discovered it wasn’t just an intellectual word game, it mattered. It affected people’s lives, it affected issues of equality, and access.
Over the years, over many years, as you can tell from 1975, I studied groups and crowds. I go to other things, but I come back because I love being in crowds, so it is a pleasure to be here today. In fact, I have students at the moment studying the different types of festival. We’ve looked at religious festivals in India, we’ve looked at football fans, we’ve looked at music festivals as well. And completely opposite to the mainstream ideology of groups, you find three things when you look at crowds. I’ll illustrate them, sometimes with my own work but sometimes from other work.
If you wanted to notice an example of the irrational group, the irrational crowd, the explosion in the crowd, well, you might think, the simplest of crowds surely is the food riot, where people get hungry, people see food, they grab it and run off. Simple. Why do you need academics to explain it to you? Except that food riots aren’t like that. There is a wonderful study by the historian E. P. Thompson, which I’m sure many of you will know, on the moral economy of the crowd, looking at about 700 food riots that happened in England between about 1780-1820. He shows first of all that these riots happened not when people were at their hungriest: they happened when grain was beginning to go into the granaries, where the dearth was beginning to come. They happened around specific moments where grain was transported out of the area. The form they took was not a mad explosion, it was people taking the grain, often leaving the money and giving the grain sacks back to the merchants. He argues that this reflects a popular ideology, what he calls a moral economy, that this is a period of transition in Britain’s society, from feudal to market-based society, from a society based on the locality, to a society based on the market. For peasants, the locality was everything. So if there was no grain, well, people starved, but if there was grain, it was to be sold locally. For market ideology, of course you take grain from wherever you can make most money from it. Those two ideologies clashed when the grain was transported out of the area. The riots are an imposition of the peasants’ own view of how society should be organised; they are not an explosion, they are a way of affirming our view of society over theirs. Now, if even the food riot is not this mad explosion, but shows meaning, how much more is that true of other crowd and group events. And the first thing that happens when people form a group is they stop thinking ‘I’, ‘my personal values’, ‘what makes me distinctive from another individual’; they start thinking ‘we’, they start thinking in terms of social identities, what we have in common that are different from other groups. And they start acting in forms of the norms, and the values, and the interests of that group. If you define yourself in terms of, say, of being a supporter of a football club, what matters is not what you do, but how the team does. You define yourself in terms of a nation. What matters is not how you do, but how the nation does. In 1989, in Timisoara, in the uprising against the brutal Ceausescu regime, people literally opened their shirts and said, ‘shoot me, kill me, there is no point being alive if I am not free, if we are not free’. In other words, the future of the group, the future of thriving of the group and the nation is more important than people’s lives themselves.
So the first thing that is happening in a group is not a loss of identity, a loss of rationality, it’s a shift. A shift so that we think in terms of the collective. We think in terms of the ‘we’. Our ideas shift from personal predilections to shared beliefs. Perhaps it is only in the crowd, the great historian [Henri] Lefebvre said, that we lose our petty day-to-day concerns and become the subjects of history. But it’s not just that within the group, or within the crowd we align our ideas, there is another shift: and it’s a fundamental shift. It’s a shift of social relations. You see, one of the aspects of the human condition is that it in many ways – and many writers have written about this, and many existentialists have written about this, Camus and Sartre and others – is that sense of existential isolation. Of division. Of not knowing how we relate to others, how others see the world. And it’s a profoundly troubling thing. I don’t know if I say something to you, you’ll agree with me, and support me, or whether you’ll look at me in amazement and think I’m a fool, or worse. We are divided. And yet when we have shared identity, when we are a ‘we’, we start assuming that others have the same ideas as us, the same values as us, the same sensibilities as us. And there is a transformation of social relations towards intimacy.
There’s a lot of work on this. People trust and respect each other more in groups. They support each other. They help each other more in groups. When people are a ‘we’, they act together. They affirm each other. They validate each other’s views of the world.
Let me give you two examples of this. One trivial, and one consequential. One of the things that keeps us apart is not just ideas, but our physicality. The fact that we are living bodies, smelly, oozing, sweaty bodies. Disgust is the great social ordering emotion. And yet when people see each other as members of the same group, when you are not other, but you are part of ‘us’, people literally find a smelly t-shirt less disgusting. We lose disgust. In exactly the same way, and I speak as a father here, when I had my child, I thought nappies. I thought, ugh, I’m going to have to shovel someone else’s shit. And then I realised that my son was not other, my son was part of me. And to wipe his bottom was no different and no more disgusting than wiping my own bottom. When we get rid of otherness, things transform. And now for a more consequential example. I said to you that when we see other people as part of a common group, we tend to support them and help them. And we have experiments, laboratory experiments, that show this. But at one point, we were trying to explain one of the greatest acts of solidarity; one of the few good news stories to come out of the Holocaust, the so-called miracle of Bulgaria, where not a single Jew was deported from the land of Old Bulgaria, twice the Nazis tried, twice the Nazis failed, because people mobilised against them. And we looked at that mobilisation, we looked at the arguments, and when you look closely, you find that the argument is fascinating because it rarely talks about Jews. It’s not that they’re deporting ‘them’, they’re deporting ‘us’, they’re deporting a national minority. If there’s mention of Jews, it’s to stress how Bulgarian they are. They have the same desires as us. They sing the same folk songs as us, they have the same heroes as us, and so on. Being part of ‘us’ can make the difference literally between life and death.
So two transformations, first of all we think the same when we see the world in common terms, we agree. Secondly, we align our efforts, we work together, in order to realise those. When you put those two things together, and in groups we are empowered to reach our goals. In groups, we can make the world on our own terms; we call it collective self-realisation. In the group, we don’t live in a world imposed on us by others, in a group, we live in a world that we make ourselves. This leads to great joy. That leads to the effervescence of which many people speak, often they think that this joy and passion of crowds is a sign of lack of rationality; it’s quite the opposite, it’s because the reason, or the basis for which we organise the world is ours and not theirs; that groups are passionate places. Quite passionate places. I told you that I work on a festival in India, on the Mela, on a 12-year cycle, every year millions come. Every sixth year, tens of millions come. Every twelfth year, you’ve probably seen on TV, up to 100 million people come. And it’s so crowded that by all the evidence of psychology, it should be an adversive place that turns you pathological. It’s so loud – it’s louder than here! – for a month, people are there at noise levels, according to WHO guidelines, should cause you problems after 45 minutes. As for the sanitation, well if you step in the Ganges, do not ask what is sloping past your ankles, that’s my only advice. And yet if you talk to people, they talk in terms of bliss. It’s a blissful occasion, because they think together, they come together, and they can live as Hindus should. And not only that, despite all those factors I spoke about, if you measure their wellbeing, groups improve your wellbeing. Groups aren’t just good for you psychologically, they don’t just bring you together, they don’t just empower you, they make you feel mastery over the world, they take away stress, they improve your immune function, they make your health better.
There is a whole movement, incidentally, that I’m sure you’ll come across in the next few years, called The Social Cure, that shows that the most powerful thing in terms of improving health, are not the drugs, not even the diet, it’s being members of groups. For those of you who are around my age, if, on retiring, you lose two group memberships, there’s a 14 per cent chance you’ll be dead within two years of retiring. If, however, on retiring you join two new groups, there’s a 0.5 per cent chance that you will die, a 28-times difference. Or again, in terms of depression, if you are a member of one social group, with one group, your chance of being depressed reduces by 50 per cent, about ten times as powerful as any drug you can imagine. What’s the best predictor of recovery from coronary heart disease? Being a member of groups. Now, the pharma industry won’t like it, because they won’t make a lot of money from it and therefore it won’t be publicised in all sorts of ways, so we need to publicise ourselves, but groups in many ways are fundamental to our individual well-being. Groups are empowering. Groups make us agents. Groups make us healthy. I remember a number of years ago, I did a seminar on crowd behaviour at St Andrews, and I had told my students to experience it, go out, go into a crowd and the students came back the next week, in tears of joy. Now, I stress, if there are tears in my seminars, they’re not normally tears of joy, so I said to them, ‘what’s going on?’ ‘It was wonderful’, they said. They’d gone to the G7 demonstration, the Make Poverty History demonstration, that happened in Edinburgh in 2005. They said ‘for the first time in our lives, we were telling governments what to do’.
So, what does that mean in terms of the rules of unruliness? What does it mean in a sense of how Jon introduced this session, in terms of liberals and about socialists? For me, the fundamental difference between liberalism and socialism is the attitudes towards the group and the collective. For liberalism, it’s the individual that matters, the individual rationality that matters. For socialism, it’s the collective, not that socialists are anti-individual but they realise that people can only be agents, can only determine their own fate when they come together. Collectivity is fundamental to our agency, it doesn’t take it away. It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s the way of achieving. And rationality also, is much overplayed, because passion is important. Passion doesn’t describe the world, it tells us what matters in the world. Reason without emotion is like having a powerful car without any sense of which direction you’d like to go in in it. Collectivity is critical.
So if I had to give you rules of unruliness, my first and simplest rule would be this: embrace the power of the group. Don’t be afraid of groups. Come on in, the water is lovely. Come on in, the group is affirming. Embrace the power of groups. The second rule I would give you is that the most revolutionary thing you can do is to reframe the way in which we define ‘we’ and ‘them’ in our society. You see, there’s another simple truth, and that is that most societies are divided, and here I draw on nobody in particular, between the many and the few, between the people and between the powerful, between those who work and those who own the means of production. Most societies are fundamentally segmented, and so there’s a real fear of democracy, in most societies. Remember that the real meaning of democracy, ‘demos’ and ‘kratos’, is the power of people, it’s not just voting, it’s the people being in control of their lives, not just in the political sphere but the economic sphere and social sphere as well, and to deflect democratic anger at inequality we are given all sorts of other divisions, often that division is between ours as a nation and other nations, or divisions between the deserving and undeserving. The sign of a new politics is the emergence of a new sense of ‘we’ and ‘they’, and I think that is emerging since the election, and since Grenfell.
Let me give you just one example of how the issue of ‘we’ and ‘they’ is fundamental to the way we see the world and the way we act in the world. Let me take the question of immigration. A while ago, we looked at the immigration speeches of all the major leaders before the 2015 election. From Farage to Miliband. And they all said, ‘we’ve got a problem of immigration. Immigration is a problem’. But before I try to address that, let me look at the term ‘immigrant’. Why do we see people as immigrants? What is the implication of seeing them in these terms? First of all, an immigrant is ‘other’. An immigrant is defined in terms of ‘other’. What’s more, they’re not just defined as outside our nation, because an immigrant isn’t somebody who comes from another region, if somebody comes from the north, the south of England isn’t an immigrant. Somebody who comes from Norwich to Ipswich isn’t an immigrant. Somebody who goes from one suburb to another isn’t an immigrant. An immigrant is strictly defined in national terms, it presupposes a national category. The term ‘immigrant’ is ‘other’ to the nation, but ‘other’ to the whole system of nationhood. Nationhood is about fixed identities, place identities, the immigrant is somebody who moves. And all the pathologised groups in the world of nation are those who are defined in terms of movement. The Jew, the wandering Jew. The gypsy, the wandering gypsy, and now, the immigrant. What is more, ‘immigrant’ has connotations of criminality, of threat, of dangerousness. So if I ask you, ‘are you for or against immigrants?’, I’ve loaded the dice. Do you want somebody who is completely alien to you, who is threatening to you, who is probably criminal to you, is it surprising that a lot of people say no? But why do we see them in terms of immigration? Why don’t we see them in terms of mothers or fathers or families. When Aylan Kurdi died, briefly, we didn’t see immigrants more positively, we started seeing people as mothers, fathers, families, and things changed. Why don’t we see them as fellow workers?
The problem we have in this country is not an immigrant problem, it’s a problem of labour flow. It’s a problem that if you bring people, whether they come from the next suburb, the next town, the next region, or from a different country, when you bring them into a particular place, there has got to be infrastructure for them, there has got to be the jobs, there has got to be the social ways, there has got to be the hospitals and the housing. It’s a problem of managing labour flow. We don’t have an immigrant problem, we have a labour flow problem, and if we do have an immigrant problem, it’s this: we’re an aging population. To pay for old codgers like myself in years to come we need more young people. It’s estimated we need a million people a year to maintain the tax base. Our immigrant problem is that we don’t have enough immigrants.
But that’s not my point. My point is that the whole way we think about this fundamentally depends on how we see ‘we’ and ‘they’. Do we divide in national terms? Do we divide in terms of class? Do we divide in terms of ordinary people, versus elites? We are stuck in this debate because we are stuck in particular categories. There is nothing more revolutionary than changing the way we see categories through which we see ‘we’ or ‘they’. Or even changing the way in which we understand a given category. What does it mean to be British? There’s no right or wrong answer to that. It’s a domain of struggle, where we can claim diplomatic values, values of inclusiveness, values of concern, whereas others claim imperial values.
My first point then, was: embrace the power of the group. My second point, was defining ‘we’ and ‘they’ is the most revolutionary thing we can do. My third point is embrace the passion of the group. We’re often afraid of passion, we’re afraid of passion in academia. We think that if somebody is passionate, they’re likely to be biased. And therefore our most phenomenal skill is taking interesting things and making them incredibly dull. You’ve studied, haven’t you? I can tell. Don’t be afraid of passion, because passion is not in contrast or distinct from reason. You can’t have reason without passion, you can’t have passion without reason. If I say to you, ‘I am furious about Grenfell Tower’, I’m telling you something about the way the world is organised, and how I see it as being organised, and what’s wrong with the way I see it being organised. Through emotion comes reason, and if I tell you that people in Grenfell Tower died for want of £1000 for a sprinkler, when money is spent on reducing the tax burden for people in £6.2 million houses, I would be amazed if you didn’t feel a little bit angry, and if you don’t feel a little bit angry, I would be a little bit worried about you. Embrace passion. Passion is critical to politics. Passion mobilises, and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. Embrace the joy of the group.
One of the problems of revolutionaries, and of people in politics, who are obsessed by things political – when I was a student, I remember I was very involved in student politics, I was on the exec group for the National Union of Students, I remember going to conferences where we would stay up until 3am discussing the situation in Nicaragua. That to me was interesting, and exciting, but I’m weird. People become involved in politics when politics is part of your life. When the politics is seamless, when it’s part of the joy of being with others, where you drink with others as well as think with others, there’s a Puritan streak in our revolutionism which we should discard; the examples we should look to are more South American than they are European. Because there’s a point that needs to be made about all groups. Groups inescapably have ideologies and are about ideas. And to make groups just about being together misses that point. Of course they’re political, but groups are also about being together, and as I described to you earlier, the fact that we come together, and we feel support from others, and others validate our view of the world, is something which is a wonderful experience. Which commits people, which makes people want to come back, and any politics which misses out on that misses out on the glue that brings us together.
So, don’t be afraid of groups, construct we-ness, embrace the passion of groups, embrace the fun of groups. And there’s one final point I want to make. If I have to say one place where our notion of psychology gets it wrong, it would be that we start from the premise that to understand what you’re going to do, I should look at what you think. There’s whole industries based on this. Opinion polling. Every day, every hour. But one of the things that psychology – at least, some work in psychology – tells us is that a lot of the time, what is most important in terms of what I do, and certainly what we do collectively, is not what I think, but what I think you think. Not representation, but meta-representation. My understanding of what is normative, what we believe in, not what I believe in. There is research for instance that before the Gulf War, before the invasion of Iraq, most Americans didn’t believe in it. Most Americans believed that other Americans believed in it, and therefore people didn’t protest because they thought that if they did, they would be on their own, and people would look down upon them. Meta-cognition is absolutely central. Dictators understand this. There’s a literature say, on the fascist salute. Why did they institute the Nazi salute? Does it make you change your mind? Probably not. You could give a Nazi salute but know you were giving it, but not believing it. Know you were giving it, because if you didn’t, you’d be repressed. But if I see another person give the salute, if I see you give the salute, I can’t afford to take the chance that you don’t mean it, and therefore it leads me to believe that you believe it. And therefore you can have a society in which nobody believes in something, and everybody believes that others believe in it, and yet it still functions.
Just a few weeks ago, I found this magnificent old story, it always stuck in my mind and I was talking to someone else and they said, ‘yes, I remember that’ and they sent me the link. And it’s a story that won a Sunday Times Short Story Award in about 1978. And it’s a story about time travel, if you could go back to any period of your life. These people went back to the Crucifixion. And they are told, you can do anything you like, but you’ve got to accept the outcome, you have to go along with whatever happens in history, you can’t violate it. So when Pontius Pilate says, ‘Do you want Jesus to be crucified?’ they cry, ‘yes!’, and then they look around and they realise that everyone who is crying yes are time travellers who don’t want to change history by doing what they think that other people should do.
I think that’s a beautiful metaphor for politics. Meta-cognition is really powerful. It’s a means by which people can dominate us, because they dominate the means of communication. We know what we think, but we don’t know what you think, because we get our understanding of what you think from the media, in various ways. If we want to be revolutionary, if we want to turn things around, we need to turn that around as well. We need to use the new social media to overcome those problems. We need to sign publicly where they stand. A badge is not about what I believe, it’s about what we believe, and what we see in others.
The public nature of protest can be incredibly creative. For instance, in the changes in Eastern Europe, one of my favourite examples, people in Poland wanted to show they didn’t support the regime. They started by not watching the telly. The news broadcasts were just propaganda. And then people realised that had no effect. So then they went for a walk, publicly, when the news broadcast was on. That was a public act, a political act. And then, people either went out with trolleys with a TV in it to show they weren’t watching the TV. We can use humour, and we can use creativity, to tell each other, not just ‘I am outraged’, but ‘we are outraged’.
I just want to finish by saying this: don’t be afraid of outrage. We should be outraged. A world that could be so wonderful, and yet is so obscene. Let’s not be afraid of the resource that we have to overcome it, which is each other, which is collectivity. Let’s embrace the group. Let’s come together in the group. Let’s tell each other about our membership of the group. And let’s do something to make this world a little better, and not just for a few.
JS: Thank you, thank you very much Steve Reicher. Stick around, because we have got time for a few questions. The reason I’ve always loved Steve, he’s been an academic hero for a long time, he’s got that combination of the passion, the emotion that as he says we shouldn’t be afraid of in science, in psychology. Underpinning that is real intellectual rigour and some great work that he’s done over the years. So, let’s go straight into two or three questions to finish off with. I think the first I noticed was the guy in the back there, you’re going to have to shout very loud.
Audience member 1: Time and time again, revolution has collapsed into tyranny. Could you say a few things about how that happens?
SR: A nice simple question, I’ll also cure cancer and teach you how to play the flute in my answer.
I do lot of work on leadership, the different forms of leadership relating to different forms of politics. Now, I think leadership is important. But I don’t think that the agency of the leader and the agency of the followers is a zero sum game. Leadership is in a sense about a communal process, it’s about ‘us together’ defining who we are, what the group is about, and what we should be doing. Democratic leadership, where the leader genuinely facilitates a conversation, ‘what does it mean to a socialist? What does it mean to be British? It’s asymmetrical leadership, where a leader still allows a conversation, but then says ‘I have special knowledge, I can tell you what it really means to be British, or Socialist’, and then there is tyrannical leadership, where the leader is elided with the group. The leader becomes the physical embodiment of the group, such that to disagree with the leader is to disagree with the group, to be an enemy of the people. And that’s really dangerous. It makes a point that I think is fundamental to democracy; you could say that fundamentally what democracy is about is an attitude towards difference, the Enlightenment ideal, and I think it’s an ideal worth clinging on to, the notion that we are in a common community, where we differ, and through conversation with each other we move forward. It allows a loyal opposition, it allows political debate. But once you start saying that difference is eliminated, anyone who differs from me is not a true member of this group, that’s the road to tyranny. That’s the process which takes you towards a Stalin, or even a Donald Trump.
Note how to Trump, if you disagree with him, you’re not an American having a debate about how we Americans move forward, you’re a criminal, you’re a Mexican, you’re a fool or whatever. And so I’m not going to go into a full historical analysis but one thing that is diagnostic, and is critical, and what we should all look at, is attitude towards difference. Do we respect difference, or do we see those who differ as enemies? One way of closing things down is the notion that the leader is the people. Anything the leader says is what the people believe. Any disagreement with the leader is treachery in different ways. And we see those elisions happen in different ways, in nearly all the major dictatorships.
JS: Just to mention our website again, Steve did a very good explanation of the rise and fall of Claudio Ranieri in terms of leadership and collectivism. Not a dictator, a very nice man! OK, next…
Audience member 2: I keep thinking about online radicalisation, where a person is on their own, but yet they come to have an idea that they’re in a big group where they may or may not be. Do you think this is what’s going on during online radicalisation? Is the group still important? What can we do about it?
SR: Thank you for that – I should just say on Trump, we also wrote a piece which is on the Scientific American Mind website, and we also wrote something on radicalisation, because radicalisation is something that’s really interesting to me. You see, the mainstream notion of radicalisation is a group notion, but it’s wrong. Underlying the Prevent strategy, we’ve all heard about it, the notion that the way in which radicalisation happens is that somebody is vulnerable for one reason or another, it could be bullying, it could be the loss of a parent, it could be racism. That makes them vulnerable, creates a demand, and extremist groups supply the warmth and the connection and they just go along with anything. The problem with that analysis is that it doesn’t ask: why do people go along with those groups and not others? Why do they accept the ideas of these groups and not others? People in the area call it the problem of specificity – why, specifically, do they take on board the ideas of groups like ISIS?
Our argument, to cut a long story very short, is that those ideas become powerful when they match lived experience. The fundamental rhetoric of ISIS and other groups is that there is a black and white division between Muslims and the rest. They will always be at war with each other, Muslims will always be humiliated in the West unless they come together and fight back. So anything which tells people ‘you don’t belong’, or ‘you’re excluded’, feeds into the credibility of that discourse, of that rhetoric. One of the aims of terrorist outrages by groups like ISIS is not so much to terrorise per se, but to provoke governments into reactions that cast all Muslims under suspicion. If we react in ways which say we’re slightly suspicious of you, which treat you differently when you go through security at airports, when you treat me slightly differently when you use the NHS or whatever, it begins to give credibility to that discourse. So that’s what I mean when I say that to understand groups, the warmth is one element, but you have to look at the ideas and ideologies and ask why they make sense to people. The biggest thing we must avoid doing is to help groups like ISIS by doing things that give credibility to their view of a world divided between Muslims and the rest. Every single hate crime against a Muslim is doing the best propaganda work for ISIS that can be done.
JS: Is there a young person who wants to ask a question? I say that because the other years that we’ve done sessions, the best, most insightful questions have come from a young person. How young are you, mate? 24? Ok, if no-one can go any lower…
Audience member 3: You were talking about groups being good for health and happiness. Surely that’s of considerable interest to Big Pharma, if there’s a molecular mechanism for that?
SR: Okay. My God. So now I’m going to give to profits of Big Pharma. I never realised I’d do that! So I think that’s an excellent question, and my simple answer would be yes, there obviously are, but we’re not sure what they are as yet. One of the ways in which we know for instance that stress impacts health is through its effect on immune functioning. So of course, one of the most stupid things in the world is the counter-posing of different levels of explanation. To say it’s either social or it’s biological. For me, the joy of psychology, and what makes it so exciting as a discipline, is that we are irreducibly biological beings. I wouldn’t be talking to you now if I didn’t have the neural structure. Terry Eagleton says that however much you read Kierkegaard to your cat, he will not become an existentialist. My cat of course is very intellectual. But it’s the way in which as well as being entirely biological, we are also entirely social, and the way in which we use our neural capacities is moderated by social context, by social processes, and as a social psychologist, that’s what I try and understand. Not to say, ‘we’re more important than you’. Every empire dies through hubris, overextending itself. That’s true of intellectual empires as well. I explain a certain amount of the variance, a certain level of those processes, but then asking how those articulate with neural functioning, with endocrine functioning, there are people who do that work, it’s fascinating work and it needs to be done. So, it’s an excellent question.
JS: I think we’ve got time for one final question, just about. One final question?
Audience member 5: You were talking about leadership styles… people are singing ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ around the festival, what does your team make of the emergence of this leader, and the following of thousands who turn up to hear him speak?
SR: Well, there’s a big issue that really fascinates me. I’m interested in both right and left populism. In a way, one of the things that a leader has to do to be effective is to make themselves ‘one of us’, to define who they are such as they represent the group to which they belong. And that’s what Corbyn has done so skilfully, and what May has got catastrophically wrong in many ways. For a long time, because he is not a seasoned politician, and stands outside politics, that’s a disadvantage. But when you begin to change the political categories, so that the political becomes part of the problem, politics becomes being part of ‘them’, then not being seen as political, but rather relating to and understanding ordinary people, having ordinary emotions becomes intensely powerful. And so, in some ways the Labour campaign was powerful because they brought together, if you like, a change in the notion between we and they, and Corbyn’s performance which perfectly represented how he represented the many and not the few, whereas May went in exactly the opposite direction. The relationship between how we define categories, and how our leaders define themselves, is critical, I think to success in general terms, but also critical to Corbyn’s success.
I did give him a copy of our book, The New Psychology of Leadership, because we were doing some work around the leadership campaign, but I can’t take any credit for him using it. But intuitively, he got it right.
JS: We have to develop an ‘Oh, Steven Reicher’ chant to thank him for that. Thank you so much Steve, a pleasure as always. For those of you asking about his work online, there’s a lot of it available as Steve says on the Scientific American Mind website, on our own website… there’s so much we didn’t get a chance to talk about, such as classic studies of psychology, he’s looked again at things like the Milgram experiment, the electric shock one that many of you will have heard about, the Zimbardo one, the Prison Experiment. He’s got a very different way of looking at things like that, to show that conformity isn’t the norm, that there is plenty of evidence of resistance throughout those classic psychological studies. It’s fascinating work, and I thank you once again for coming. Put your hands together for Steve Reicher.
- Thanks to Latitude Festival and the Wellcome Trust for hosting the event, and to Kate Brennan for transcription. Listen to a podcast version.
- Find lots more from Steve Reicher in our archive.
- Also see the transcript of our other session at this year’s festival, Professor Peter Kinderman and Professor Victoria Tischler in conversation with Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones. A podcast version is due in the new year.
- Read the transcripts of our sessions in previous years; Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on teenagers debunked; and Professor Elizabeth Stokoe on how to talk so people listen.
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