Saturday, 7 November 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

In 2012 a blogger called Nate Silver predicted the outcome of the US election accurately to everyone’s amazement. In 2015 the results of the British general election shocked many: most people thought Labour’s Ed Milliband would win or at least that another coalition would be formed. From this we could conclude that US analysts are better than their UK counterparts when it comes to psephological matters.

That would be wrong, though. The only field of expertise to which both groups could claim is to a lack of basic understanding of the madness of crowds.

I am not using the phrase “madness of crowds” randomly. This is the title of a regular column by writer Will Self in The New Statesman which is based on a book by Scottish-born 19th-century author Charles Mackay: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

I confess that I have not read the book yet, but I do find the subject fascinating. Why did people in the 1800s latch on to a catchphrase like "What a shocking bad hat!"? what motivated them? Likewise, how can you predict the results of a general election? What method(s) do you use to achieve your objective? What motivates someone to vote for a particular politician? Are people (crowds) so easy to second-guess? Are we that obvious in our motives and intentions, political or otherwise?

No, we are not. There was a method to Nate Silver’s approach, although by the time I read the job title “biostatiscian” (belonging to one of the experts who broke down Nate’s method into tiny little pieces) I was running in the opposite direction. To me, Nate just got lucky. Plus, he is an online poker player. Make of that what you wish.

Genius or just plain good luck? (Photograph: Mike McGregor for the Observer Mike McGregor/Observer)
The UK election, on the other hand, felt more “normal”, if normal is the right word here. I would say that in turning out to be so unpredictable it rendered the process human. We, humans, are completely unpredictable. If there is some succour to be had in our dealings with each other in real life is that there is something called civic society in which the rule of law still works.  Otherwise it would be daggers at dawn every time we rub each other up the wrong way. And still…

Generally speaking, polls and surveys make excellent material for Sunday morning shows and late-night television programmes, but really we are as hard to crack as the hardest nut there is out there.

This thought came to me recently when I read of the decision of Cardiff University women’s officer to no-platform the academic and writer Germaine Greer for comments she had made about transgender people, especially women. I did not agree with Ms Greer’s views, yet, was I surprised by her stand? No, she has always been polemic and may she continue to be so. In no-platforming someone of Germaine’s stature, the women’s officer, Rachael Melhuish was depriving Cardiff University students of a much-needed opportunity “to make the predictable unpredictable”. Incidentally, Germaine’s talk at the institution was about women and power in the 20th century, nothing to do with transgender issues.

To make the predictable unpredictable is to me the default setting of us, human beings. With so many identity markers around, why settle for one in order to please a crowd? It is precisely the nature of crowds and the madness of them that makes humans the unique beings we are. I would predict that nine times out of ten, if I were to stand in front of a lion, tiger, crocodile or swim with sharks, I would be attacked. Not because the animal “would want to harm me”, but because that is their nature: to hunt and/or to defend themselves from danger. I would be seen either as enemy or food. Or both.  They are predators, I am the prey. We, humans, are less predictable. If I pick a fight with someone on the street there is a good chance that one of us will try to talk sense into the other person. Or we could attempt to do one another in. Either way, there is not “nine out of ten”, scenario, because the outcome would change from human to human. To go back to my first example, had Obama had a stronger opponent in 2012, I dare to say that Nate Silver’s predictions would not have been so accurate. Over here if more people had “come out” as Conservative-supporting voters before May, we would have had none of that Ed-Milliband-as-Prime-Minister-in-waiting nonsense. It is, sadly, the stigma associated with voting Tory that made people hide their real voting intentions on election night. And I say that as a sandal-wearing, muesli-eating. Guardian-reading leftie. At the same time, I am concerned that in making assumptions about people (and what are polls but assumptions?) we ignore their individuality and the many traits that make up their personality. Why assume that the author of The Female Eunuch, a ground-breaking, trail-blazing feminist volume, would automatically sympathise with transgender women?  Likewise, why assume that a council-estate-raised, working-class man of Iranian descent will inevitably join the Labour party or vote for them?

In my short life I have learnt quite a few valuable lessons. One of them is about people, their motives and their identities. To condense someone into one single identity is almost to condemn them to a lifelong sentence of being seen through myopic eyes. We are more than that. We are the small components that make up the madness of crowds.

© 2015

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 11th November at 6pm (GMT)


  1. Hi ACIL - at least we can be individual ... and that to me is essential and we can be there or not as the case may be. Some discussion groups I have to bow out of - way too irritating and only taking one point of view. Nate would be 50% right, or 50% wrong ... either way he'd be fine!! We assume too much, and we over opine without thinking. However your psephology has me thinking about pebbles on the beach ...

    I need to be and am individual and hate following the crowd ... sadly so many do ... really interesting post with some thought provoking ideas - cheers Hilary

    1. I don't mind following the crowd provided I am also treated as an individual. Sometimes crowds provide protection, sometimes they are a threat. In Nate's case, I bet that many people in the US WANTED Obama to win which might have helped Nate's cause. certainly the media plays a part, and I mean old media and new social media. At the same time, as an individual I hate the feeling of being manipulated or taken for granted. That is why I read about Nate's theories and was glad someone was able to break down and explain them.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Greetings from London.

  2. "We are the small components that make up the madness of crowds."
    You and brain expert Dr David Eagleman speak of the same stuff, the many facets of our brain we don't know about, just as we think we do. What we think we know about our decisions is quite small, as our brains receive and respond to so many stimuli, internal and external, present or imagined. We might get better in the future in our scientific understanding of how we decide; or not.

    1. Exactly. Probably the main reason why I still do not believe there is a god. My atheism and humanism are rooted in the belief that if there is a higher force out there, that force is within us. So, it's not "out there", but "in here". We just have not figured out how to maximise it yet.

      Greetings from London.

  3. Olá,obrigada pela visita e comentário.
    Abraços.Carmen Lúcia.

  4. How true it is.
    Mind you, I worry that 'mob rule' will take over. It often seems so much easier to go with the crowds...

    1. Thanks for your response. I share your concern. I have seen mob rule up close and it is not pretty. Part of the reason for this post is that I have been fascinated for years by crowds and the rules that govern them.

      Greetings from London.

  5. Sometimes sheep like to follow the leader though. But yeah, there is much more in store

  6. Good thoughts... "To make the predictable unpredictable" makes living worthwhile for who would want to live in a predictable world without surprises!

  7. "To condense someone into one single identity is almost to condemn them to a lifelong sentence of being seen through myopic eyes. We are more than that. We are the small components that make up the madness of crowds." I certainly agree. Life would be so very different if everything were predictable. We are more than the sum of our components and this is what makes a lot of people interesting.
    I like the title of your next post!

  8. Behavior, individually or collectively, is highly predictable among all species, including human, I think. Those best able to capitalize on it among humankind are those who are able to recognize that fact and who have the charisma to charm the lemmings -- in a manner of speaking. Certainly the actions of no one are one hundred percent predictable, but success is measured in degrees.

    Even in primitive societies, the most successful were those whose hunters studied their quarries, learned the habits of their quarries and based their hunts on predictable patterns observed through study of the habits. Contemporary politicians do the same thing.

    Another problem with humans in modern societies is that charisma and peer pressure outweigh common sense, therefore predictability is obscured. I think anyone who would not have predicted Barack Obama to be the winner in 2008 would have been a fool; I think anyone who voted for him in 2012 based on his first term was a fool. That election was an instance of charisma (and a few other things) overpowering common sense, in which case predictability was unpredictable.

    Thought-provoking post and neat music, CiL.

  9. Thanks for the Schubert this morning ~ LOVELY....I vote for at button on our TV or radio that when a political slamming ad comes on (oh and there will be so many coming!) that it is replaced by some Schubert....wouldn't THAT be nice :)
    Thanks so much for stopping by must have caught our thoughts we were just thinking of you yesterday and wondering how things were ~ we hope well!!

  10. So true that we can't condense people into a single identity; but sometimes in this country, the USA, it amazes me the identity some people tend to assume for themselves. This next Presidential election scares me. How people can identify with some of these candidates amazes me.

  11. I really love your closing message here because I think all too often we try to force a single identity on society, when it is compromised of individuals. Individuals who are largely unpredictable as you say. I have to admit crowd mentality scares me, while it can be a force of good, humans working together for a loving and compassionate goal, it can also be a force for disaster. I will never understand some of the rationales we have for choosing elected officials, like voting for someone simply because they are a familiar evil.


  12. It seems that the curse of market research is forever trying to push us into various slots so it will be easier to sell us stuff. And just when the pundits think they have this species all figured out, something always throws things out of whack.

  13. " madness of crowds." yes, and lots of it going on right now. :(

  14. Hi Cubano-- you are right. I read that madness of crowds book many years ago. There is a wonderful section on tulipomania-- it really is fascinating. Thanks for your thoightful piece. K.

  15. We human beings are completely unpredictable. I fully agree with this. In the recently concluded elections in Bihar, India, every one thought Narendra Modi's BJP will win but to everyone's surprise Nitish kumar's party won. Even the TV channels and News papers were betting on BJP but everyone had to eat their words when the results came out.

    Very interest post.

    Best wishes

  16. Gosh...a really thought-provoking post.
    That "madness of crowds" really scares me sometimes.
    There is an element of uncontrolled energy that seems to erupt from huge masses of people...and it makes me wonder how far that energy can be controlled once it has been aroused.
    It does become easier to just "go with the crowd" when to go against them would seem isolating and would appear to leave one in a vulnerable position.
    After having said that...I do like having my own individuality...and sometimes that has brought a lot of trouble my way! *smiles*

    A great post!

    Greetings from Hampshire.:)

  17. The media played a huge part in the '08 & '12 elections, simply because the American media, for better or worse, always slants towards the left (i.e. liberal/Democrat) and truly believes that society should always roll that way.

    In regards to that teacher who was censored, welcome to the miserable bubble of political correctness that exists on college/university campuses. At least in the U.S., most corporations lean moderate and more often than not, would not put up with crap like that. Sad to say, these students are going to get a harsh reality check when they start working in the real world and realize that no one is going to save their tender ears from being offended by an opposing point of view.

    Father Nature's Corner

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