Saturday, August 20, 2005

SEP Field, etc: The Logic of Inaction

It is an intriguing thought: The more we know, the less we act.

With the information explosion - countless TV channels, newspapers, internet, travel, etc. - we are, undoubtedly, more aware of the world and people around us (and beyond our immediate circumstances) than the previous generations. A hundred years back, our great-grandparents lived in a world, in which they knew maybe 100-500 people in their lifetime, and barring a few exceptions (and exceptional circumstances) only got a few rare glimpses of the world beyond their limited life-space. Today, as an article in The Economist noted, we can "know" at least 20,000 other people in our lifetime - through media and over phone, internet, or videoconferencing.

Compared to earlier generations, we (i.e., the social strata which would be reading this post) are also far more aware - on a daily basis - of the great happy happenings in the world...

...and about the dreary footnotes of contemporary history...

...mutilated bodies, bombs exploding, emaciated infants dying of hunger, immobile bodies lying on footpath as we walk to work, whole communities forced to migrate and become homeless (due to politics, war or large infrastructure projects), global warming, human trade (a polite name for modern day slavery), polluted rivers, sweatshops, AIDS, honour-killing, lives getting downsized/rightsized out of their job, identity and self-esteem...

Perhaps, once in a while, we think about these, or maybe, even discuss them with some others. But our personal life goes on in its comfortable schedules and routines - and none of these moves most of us to act.

I guess, to understand this curiously contemporary phenomenon in the lives of urban educated global citizens, we need new concepts.

I could find three:

1. SEP Field:
Douglas Adams (of The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy) was smart, when he created the fictional technology called SEP (Somebody Else's Problem) Field:

An SEP field can be erected on, or projected around a bizarre and unbelievable scene so that the unconscious minds of the observers instantly abdicate responsibility for its existence, assert that it's "somebody else's problem", and therefore don't perceive it at all.

2. Pluralistic Ignorance:
A curious group/social phenomenon in which people act contrary to their beliefs, because they misperceive beliefs of others - because others are behaving contrary to their beliefs.

Or in other words, as an individual, I think that my perceptions, beliefs and attitudes are different than others in the group/organisation/society. However, I behave like the others (and contrary to by beliefs), because their behaviour shows that they all are unanimous in their perceptions, beliefs and attitudes...

The irony being that each person individually thinks the same way... because everyone who disagrees behaves as if he or she agrees, all dissenting members think that the norm is endorsed by every group member but themselves. This, in turn, reinforces their willingness to conform to the group norm, and not express any disagreement.

And so, we conform to a perceived consensus, instead of acting on their own perception and thinking.

3. Bystander Effect:
Another curious phenomenon, observed by social psychologists, that people are less likely to intervene in an emergency situation, and help others, if there are more people around.

This is a corollary of the Pluralistic Ignorance - that each person monitors the reactions of others in such a situation, and concludes from the lack of initiative of others that other people think that it is not necessary to intervene. Since everyone behaves in this way, no one may take any action, even though some people privately think that they should do something.

The hopeful factor, however, is that if only one person manages to break out of SEP field - and starts throwing starfish back into the sea - others are more likely to follow, actively get involved and make a difference.

SEP Field
Pluralistic Ignorance
Bystander Effect
Perspective on "Making a Difference"


The Arbit Council said...

how about:
* there's a dead cow on one of the roads near my house since the last two days - but no motorist stops to do anyething abuot it (apart from the fact that it's too heavy) because we are all aware that it is *already* someone else's responsibility, viz. the MCD

* there is believe or not (and i say b or not, because most people seem to be quite readily ignorant of this) a quiet fear in the mind that if _I_ took action about that_problem_in_the_middle_of_the_road (dead cow, bleedin scooter driver etc), the others might mock me as a, (well, for want of better words) - "leader"/"hero"/"enthu guy" etc. Hence I avoid that consequence. BTW, I think this is more predominant in the Indian culture. Sorry but i don't think I could describe it properly.

How sad, tho, that so often we are just 'bystanders'.

The Arbit Council said...

well just after readin your post, I came across this!

it's a good blog

aparna said...

Very interesting post. My friend Charu has also been talking of the same idea of about synchronicity! Do check out her post at

WestEnder said...

I didn't read the link above, but I think the bystander effect you describe is the same one known as "groupthink" by psychologists who study businesses. It's common in corporate meetings and is linked to the "yes men" phenomenon.

I think it's fair to say it's manifested in politics as well. Most Americans are poorly informed and thus their decision-making is more susceptible to group think than would otherwise be the case.