I’m Portuguese and I’m aware of what is going on across the Atlantic Ocean, in Brazil. Current protests in Brazil are due to a raise in public transportation tariff, but also about challenging the money Brazil is spending on the World Cup instead of on health care or the poorly financed public schools. It’s not so much that Brazilians don’t want the 2014 World Cup or the 2016 Olympics, but that, according to most of them, they would like better planning and judgement on how the money is being spent. This has led to massive protests in Brazil for these and other subjects as they lead their public displays on the streets and on the web, even from people who were previously neutral to political issues. Most people are taking up arms, in a figurative sense, because you should fight for injustice, right? Or is that the whole story? Could it be that everyone feels compelled to do so because everyone else is doing it?
We feel an urge to do the same thing as the other person. These mimical behaviours are the result of mirror neurons that fire in a way consistent with what the subject observes. This is something that allows us to learn from others, a very functional and useful aspect of our system, however, it can have a dark side as well, because we might also be tempted to mimic violence as we see it. As the Bandura’s bobo doll experiment showed, exposure to violent medias tend to provoke more violent behaviours. Through observational learning, kids modelled grown ups that hit the doll, often escalating it by using toy guns and shouting names and hitting the doll harder than their elder.
Most Brazilian protesters are in their 20s and 30s. They’re not children, but that doesn’t mean they don’t follow the same inherent principle that makes us human. Since we are social beings, we crave to belong to a group, and we have a complex social structure that may affect the way we behave and conform. Solomon Asch’s Conformity Experiment showed that people would feel pressured to make the same choices as their peers, even if they were wrong. A group of people is asked to compare the length of some lines. Only one person is actually being tested, as the others are actors. The actors give wrong answers on purpose, and after a time, the real subject tends to choose the same wrong answers to belong to the group.
The same might happen not only with Brazilian protesters, but with most protests and revolts that have ever happened. It may not be so much the veracity of the cause of the events that led to the public display of anger or injustice, but the fact that our friends, colleagues or strangers around us are doing that, compels us to do the same. We should speak up for ourselves, but also take notice not to take things too far when we are conforming too much, which was what happened in the Milgran Experiment, when the subjects conformed too much to an authority. The study involved a teacher, learner and experimentor. The only real subject was the teacher, responsible to administrate shocks to wrong answers by the learner. Pressured by the experimentator (the person dressed as professor), the teacher would administrate potentially deadly shocks to the learner due to pressure by authority.
If something goes wrong, it’s also easy to transfer responsability of our behaviour to the group or the authority. This is not to say that we should do nothing, we should always speak up for ourselves, as shown by the aftermath of the Brazilian outcry, because bus tariffs ended up being lowered. What we do need is realize how we are conditioned to behave a certain way, and what we can do about it once we have that knowledge, so we can more clearly make choices that do not harm us or others.
NOTE ON THIS ARTICLE
This article was created as an assignment for a course I’m undertaking on Coursera.org, Introduction to Psychology . The assignment involves describing a current event that relates to a psychology concept and how it applies to the event in question. Link to class: https://class.coursera.org/intropsych-001/
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