Monday, July 10, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: Mass Psychology

We think individually, but we often react in groups, and when we do so we can lose our critical thinking skills. It’s an idea posited by Gustave Le Bon in 1895 as he described the concept of the “Group Mind.” Sigmund Freud developed the theory into what we know today as Group Psychology. First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization would take such considerations to a new level. Imagine the whole of humanity reacting to an entirely unique event in history? We would consider it, at first, as individuals, but that would quickly turn into group reaction.
The impact of First Contact on human group psychology would likely depend on the type of alien contact. The impact would be significant, but limited, if contact is simply human scientists discovering a far-off civilization through signals. The impact would be much greater if we could have an immediate conversation with aliens. That would probably only happen in a Direct First Contact scenario, where aliens come to our solar system. The challenge to the Freudian concept of Group Psychology would come from the size of the group. Psychologists have studied mob psychology, large group psychology and even the psychology of entire nations. But what of worldwide group psychology? In many respects there has not been a need to study the reaction of all humanity to a situation. Even our biggest Earth events are regional in impact. (The first moonwalk might be an exception). Direct First Contact would affect all of humanity in a psychological sense and that would, in turn, lead to group reactions.
Those group reactions will likely be caused by specific catalysts. Let’s say that a religious leader comes out condemning contact with aliens. That would lead to reactions within that religious group. The same could be said of a national government reaction. If a government speaks out in favor of contact with aliens, that could impact that national group. And yes, it seems likely that there will be much splitting of opinion here on Earth about First Contact.

Where does that leave the individual in that situation? They are now confronted with conflicting reactions from tribal groups close to them. They may also feel a threat to family and community and that is a fierce driver in human thought. It seems likely that there will be confusion for individuals trying to navigate this new perspective. The good news is that if the aliens are considerate they would not want to bring much physical disruption to our world. The mental perspective challenges would be plenty enough. The bad news is that those challenges could be considerable.
There are clear dangers, and once again we can learn much from the study of group psychology in the early 1900’s. Freud published his initial paper on the subject in 1921. World War One was the primary example of group psychology in action. Wilhelm Reich used those examples in drafting his book The Mass Psychology of Fascism in 1933. The timing was critical as the author also viewed the Nazi rise to power and the actions of the Soviet Union. Reich tied the growth of fascism to repressed sexuality. That may sound like a stretch in this extremely abbreviated description, but he was really speaking to a great number of human experiences tied together, not just sexual repression, but also threat to family, authoritarianism in education and economic fear. Reich shows how the Nazis used such human weaknesses to develop messaging based on those problems, to eventually rally the public. German propaganda used a number of psychological techniques to push the German public to support irrational acts.
New studies show how this works in the brain. Our moral code is actually suppressed when we are in a mob. Can one consider an entire nation a mob? Certainly not everyone in Nazi Germany agreed with the actions of the Reich, but the mob effect was strong enough to force others into submission.
It seems likely that human groups would use fear and weaknesses to persuade members of the public to take a particular stance in the wake of Direct First Contact. Fear could be harnessed to support specific views, most likely isolationism. Why would groups do this? For the same reason the Nazis did it: control. Human groups have gained control by firing up public support throughout history. The mob mentality, broadened to group psychology, can be a powerful weapon. The Manufacture of Consent is a technique often used by people who are trying to gain power or accomplish a specific goal, by influencing members of the public. The original term came from the journalist Walter Lippmann. He thought of it in a more objective fashion- as a necessary way that decision-making is made in public- through an orchestrated effort by a much smaller group, with a specific agenda.

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman took the term in a much more negative direction, calling it a propaganda model used by elites to maintain control
But back to the Lippmann use of the phrase- isn’t it likely that people who support a relationship with aliens would also try to be manufacturing consent in the public? Let’s face it, everyone uses the media, and especially social media, to manipulate groups. The Russians appear to have done it in the most recent American election.  But in the same measure, if you support the right of Killer Whales to be free, you were likely part of “manufacturing dissent” with the movie “Blackfish.” We can’t be naïve about the use of forces to control the public. It happens in every way imaginable.

Let’s get back to the human. What is an individual to do? Studies of consumer mentality can provide some useful tips for how individuals may want to handle alien First Contact. Forbes has a good article, taking ideas from a 2014 study in the Journal of Consumer Research. How do you avoid herd mentality?

  • Make a conscious effort to form your own opinion.
  • Take time to make decisions.
  • Be aware of ways that stress can affect your decision making.
I will add to those consumer tips these suggestions:

  • Check facts before reacting.
  • Don’t spread rumors
  • Consider long-term goals- what is the best way to provide a good outcome for future generations?
  • And most importantly: Take a deep breath.
Yes, First Contact would be surprising, awe inspiring, frightening and confusing. Perhaps all at the same time. Humans are resilient. We can take in this new perspective, learn from it, and grow. However, let’s be careful to consider whom is pushing us to do what. A little critical thinking will go a long way in the wake of alien First Contact.

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