The Delusions Of Crowds: Why People Go Mad in Groups by William J. Bernstein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Why do people go mad in crowds? Good question. Despite the subtitle, this book does not provide a succinct answer, although it does present several historical accounts of when people did succumb to irrational economic and religious beliefs. Underlying them all is the premise that humans are not rational creatures. Not predominantly, anyway. Sure, given sufficient time to examine a situation, they may make rational choices, from time to time, but for the most part, nope. Most human behavior is based on instinct, learned heuristics, cultural narratives, beliefs, habits, and emotions. That’s not news. Any casual observer of human behavior will notice the same.
About half of this book (a rough, personal estimate) is devoted to apocalyptic doomsday type cults, from Anabaptist to Islamic State, and how the believers in these narratives react when their fiction hits fact like a bug on a windshield. It’s a scary, even depressing topic because of the harm a small, devoted, and utterly insane group of people can cause before it ultimately fails or evolves into something a bit less extreme (like Millerites becoming Adventists). And if this kind of pathological behavior is indeed based on our evolutionary heritage, one has to wonder if we are, ironically, doomed. Will all future generations be plagued by this kind of madness? Will our species be destroyed by it?
Well, maybe, and this brings up another omission I thought existed with this book. A few possible ways to mitigate such insanity are mentioned at one point. It seems that affluence has some effect on the formation of apocalyptic cults. Scientific and historical education might help. I would assume that greater equality of income, wealth, and opportunity would also tend to suppress the formation of irrational narratives, but the question is never pursued and no summation is provided.
This isn’t a bad treatment of this important subject, but I felt it could be better.
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