I learn how to manipulate the masses (in 1963)

I recently recalled the time, in primary school, when I was able to control the behaviour of my entire school.

Admittedly it was a small school of only around fifty pupils, and as one of the older kids I was part of the “moving and shaking” √©lite: we were either coming up to taking our 11+ exam for grammar school selection, or had already done so and were kicking our heels in our final two terms.

Howe’er it was I’d noticed, as I suppose is the experience of everyone, how crazes seemed to sweep through the school spontaneously from time to time. Suddenly everyone would be playing a particular playground game, or bringing in their Dinky Toys to race, or being addicted to marbles.

This was a less explicable phenomenon than the crazes triggered by obvious things like the conker-season or popular TV series – in my first year in grammar school, some first-formers were imitating the newly-invented Daleks in their play. How childish, I thought, though I appreciated the then innovative (and now woke and hackneyed) Dr Who. Spontaneous crazes differed, too, from the more recent corporately manufactured crazes for mass-produced and expensive must-have toys and games.

Back in primary school, it occurred to me it would be interesting to see if one could deliberately start such a “spontaneous” craze. In lunchtime discussions with my politburo of party commissars, who at that time, if I remember rightly, consisted of Adrian Bentley, Simon Clarke and John Angell (none of whom went on to take over the Political Institutions), we decided to try our hand creating a craze for paper darts.

The strategy was simple: we would each make paper darts according to the standard pattern, or with variations, and fly them either together, or as we ostensibly fortuitously infiltrated other playtime-units. It worked a treat. Within a week, everyone was flying darts around, except for the infants with insufficient skill to make them – they hung around the older kids, and maybe begged for goes with their paper planes. The craze lasted just as long as “real” ones did, even after we, as its initiators, got on with our more mature activities of sniffing at a discarded sherry-bottle we’d found, in our secret den.

In retrospect this was quite a valid field study in social psychology, with as big a sample size as many of the real ones. As it was, I was too innocent to realise that this is the way that the world is run by the strong, and certainly too innocent to consider that I might become a leader of men if I took the experience to heart. Instead I soon became a particularly small fish in a much bigger school, which was undoubtedly better for my character.

But notice that my experiment was, in actuality, a true conspiracy, even though all those affected by it, apart from my inner caucus of those in the know, were totally ignorant of the fact they were part of it. They just followed the zeitgeist, as they did with the Dinky toys and the marbles, assuming that somehow the idea of darts was just the way things were, and had to be just then. I have no reason, from experience, to doubt that the majority of them, like me most of the time, take the norms we’re fed by society in the same way, as givens.

That applies even when the issues are a lot more serious than what to play between lunch and Latin. But just because it appears that everyone appears to be thinking the same way spontaneously, and could probably give some reasons for their beliefs, or their votes, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t, somewhere, a group of people who kicked the thing off quite deliberately, knowing how to influence minds and behaviour. That, after all, is the aim of the whole edifice of the sciences of public relations and propaganda that kicked off in the 1920s and now control almost everything in our world.

Today I picked up the tail-end of a BBC news item about an influential scientific study recommending coronary artery stents and bypass urgery, for relatively young and low-risk patients. It seems that much of the adverse data gathered for the paper was suppressed. It was commissioned by a stent manufacturer, of course, though predictably the firm has distanced itself from the study after its dangerous errors were exposed.

I haven’t dug into the details today, nor followed the story in the past, but I did pick up on a YouTube video a couple of weeks ago, by a “dissident” doctor, ruining his own career by questioning the cavalier use of these invasive procedures without sufficient regard for the down-side, for commercial gain. In this case it seems the “cardiology denier” may well have been right.

However, the BBC news item mentioned that the cardiologists’ professional body here “stands by the study.” Do they, I wonder, speak as those with enquiring minds about the true nature of things, or could they be more like the group-think sheep at my school, whom I and my chums proved able to bend to our own (fortunately fairly benign) agenda? Most of the kids at school would undoubtedly have baulked at the idea that their temporary obsession with paper darts was, in effect, the result of their submission to our arbitrary will. Nevertheless it was just that, as the stuff I’ve read on propaganda more recently shows.

Are my ideas my ideas, or those that someone with an agenda wished to impose on me? That’s a useful question to ask about anything said by news outlets, politicians, commercial organisations, NGOs and, indeed, even by scientists and academics (sad to relate). Is the NHS really up for sale to America (as whoever carefully spray-painted the protest against it I saw in London this weekend evidently believed)? Are Attenborough’s polar bears really learning to hunt beluga whales from rocks because global warming is starving them – or not?

Take home message: most participants in conspiracies have no idea even that there is one.

PS: Lest you conclude that paper-darts are merely kid’s stuff, my most memorable memory of them was at Cambridge, where a particularly boring lecturer began to receive them from the back of the lecture theatre as his series progressed. In the last session, somebody threw a huge dart about three feet long, which circled round behind the good doctor and landed gracefully by the door. He didn’t even blink.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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