The Real World

January 2012 The Psychologist, 25 (1), 5.

What do airplane safety announcements, riots, and a girl group on the X Factor have in common?

It was the day before the deadline for this column. In these dire days of cuts and pending catastrophe, life seems busier than ever. We hadn’t written a word. Alex had just returned from a trip, Steve was just flying down to viva a history Ph.D. on the UK riots of 1980 and 1981. When would we have a moment to draft something? What would it be about?

The plane sat on the tarmac. The safety announcement began. The flight attendants tried to enjoin people, even (especially?) seasoned passengers, to stop talking, to put down their papers and to listen. But to no avail. All around, people pointedly continued to chat and to read. In a scene that is played out on most flights, the message was almost totally ignored. To attend would be a sign of being an ingénue, of being  inexperienced, of being a hick rather than a sophisticated and seasoned traveller. Listening is for the inferior other. It is not for the likes of us.

The flight was uneventful. It took as long and cost as much to get a taxi from the airport to the University. But the trip was worthwhile. The thesis was superb. Using a combination of mathematical modeling, network analysis and oral history (ethnography in our language) it demolished the notion of ‘copycat’ rioting – as if people take to the streets simply because they see someone else throwing bricks on TV. It showed how riots spread non-randomly, partly through shared sub-cultural networks and partly when people recognize themselves and their own experience in the rioting of others. If you don’t share that, then watching a riot will probably make you more likely to condemn than to join in a riot yourself.

Back home, at last – a taxi, a bus, a flight, another bus and a drive – and no good for anything but a mindless evening. The X Factor is on the TV. What determines which act gets through? Let us first discard the absurd notion that it has much to do with contestants’ ability to sing. After all, a rather discordant girl group (Little Mix) remain in the last four out of the tens of thousands who originally auditioned. They might even have won by the time you read this. As much time is spent on constructing a narrative about the contestants as hearing them sing, connecting them to the audience, displaying their emotions so we empathise with them. Perhaps those viewers who are young girls (a large proportion of those who vote) see individual girl singers as individual competition to be brought down, but see a group of ordinary girls as reflecting a shared collective identity.

So what do airplane safety announcements, riots, and the success of Little Mix all have in common? They are all about social influence. What is more, they all show that social influence is bound up with social identity. Who and what do we listen to? To those who we see as sharing our identity and to that which affirms our identity. When there are multiple voices clamouring for our attention, for our support or for our votes, who do we heed? Those who are most successfully represented as being one of us and one with us. This is true of the most trivial of phenomena, but also the most consequential.

This is a lesson that both of us learned from John Turner (who supervised both of our Ph.D.s). John died in August and his death is a huge loss to us personally, but also to psychology. However, his influence endures.