The great unwatched

“Watched people are nice people.”

Psychological experiments have repeatedly shown that when people are watched, they are nice: they cheat less, give more​ (Ara Norenzayan, Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict (​​Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), pp 20-22)​. Indeed, even the least concealment increases anti-social behaviour—such as the wearing of tinted glasses. On the other hand, exposure to audiences, cameras and even mirrors generates prosocial behaviour. Stylised representation of eyes have a remarkable effect: when psychologist Mary Rigdon and her colleagues set watching “eyes”—three black dots arranged to look like a schematic face with eyes (in the form of an upside-down triangle standing on its pointed tip)—on her American subjects, thereby activating the face-recognition, or fusiform, area of the brain, selfishness declined markedly among the “observed” relative to the “unobserved”, with men showing greater sensitivity than women, although men are known to be more selfish players in the Dictator Game.

Then how to explain this video by Channel 4?

It’s been watched countless times, here and worldwide: but it hasn’t changed behaviour. Indeed, it depicts an old, recurrent behaviour pattern.

Which raises two questions:

Watched by whom?

Nice according to whom?

For after the events depicted here, several polls by international organizations showed a marked increase in the popularity of the ruling party. Obviously, not everybody found the footage unnice.

During peaceful protests by school children demanding safe roads and university students demanding a more meritocratic public service exam, both groups, including journalists, were beaten up by thumotic student thugs of the ruling Awami League—and their pictures and names were published in newspapers and on the internet by, for instance, Channel 4. ​One university protester was beaten with a hammer before the cameras; two bones of his right leg were broken, there were eight stitches on his head and bruises all over his body. He was hounded from hospital to hospital.

(The protesting students were perceived as disobedient and their tormentors as obedient, to the government. Disobedience, perceived or real, carries enormous costs in society, not only in Bangladesh, but in South Asia. Louis Dumont, in his book Homo hierarchicus (1970) has suggested that Indians be described by that expression rather than by Homo aequalis, the western, individualistic type (Philip K. Bock, Continuities in Psychological Anthropology (San Francisco, W H Freeman and Company, 1980), p 128).

Despite these incidents fresh in the memory, despite the extrajudicial killings, despite the disappearances, despite the publication of former Chief Justice Sinha’s tell-all book, A Broken Dream, a staggering 62 percent of the people felt that the country was headed in the right direction, according to a survey by the International Republican Institute; and CallReady polled 1,186 young people and found that more than 51 percent wanted the current government to stay in power.

When Ara Norenzayan observes that “When cameras are installed in shopping malls, the temptation to steal is dampened. Politicians and corporations are less corrupt when they are held accountable to voters or shareholders, respectively”, he stands on firmer ground in the first case than in the second. Voters as the “eyes” of society seem, not only a priori or prima facie but on the basis of solid experiments by social psychologists, to be a reasonable safeguard against anti-social mischief. This is the traditional liberal argument for a free press, and, today, a free media, such as the likes of Channel 4 (though the less said about the local media, the better).

The quality of the electorate, according to historian Norman Davies, lay behind the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany. “Hitler’s democratic triumph exposed the true nature of democracy,” he affirms. “Democracy has few values of its own: it is as good, or as bad, as the principles of the people who operate it. In the hands of liberal and tolerant people, it will produce a liberal and tolerant government: in the hands of cannibals, a government of cannibals. In Germany in 1933-4, it produced a Nazi government because the prevailing culture of Germany’s voters did not give priority to the exclusion of gangsters (Europe: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 969).”

This view is shared by Jason Brennan: “In general, the lower the epistemic and moral quality of an electorate, the worse government policies will tend to be. Whom the voters select as a leader does make a significant difference (Against Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016​),​ p 161)”. Indeed, Brennan extends the idea of pathological electorate-choice to the case of Venezuelans who happily elected Hugo Chavez. (The Bangladeshi choice of Sheikh Mujib in the election of 1970 would fit the pathological electorate-choice scenario quite snugly.)

Indeed, the conundrum posed by the Channel 4 video and the experimental findings suggest one plausible explanation: that the subjects of the latter are WEIRD. No, they are not strange, but WEIRD: White, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic (Norenzayan, pp 52-54).  An American undergraduate student is 4,000 times more likely to be selected in a psychology study than a random person outside the West: 96% of research participants come from Western industrialised countries, which represent a mere 12% of the world’s population.

WEIRD populations are atypical of other human populations.  WEIRD people are characterised by “hyperanalytical thinking, experiencing of the self as autonomous and independent, emphasising choice and personal control, and having a narrow conception of morality that revolves around caring/not harming, fairness, and justice”. WEIRD societies are characterised by strong secular institutions and the rule of law, high levels of public trust and low levels of corruption. In diametric contrast, in non-WEIRD societies, secular institutions (police, courts, juries, contracts) are either non-existent, or, where they exist, unreliable and corrupt. “People have little faith in them. Instead, they have faith in religion.”

The Corleone family is nice—to its own members, and to its own audience. It isn’t fictitious: there are Corleones throughout the worldin Italy (the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, the Camorra in Naples, Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia), in America, in Mexico, in the Czech Republic, in Albania and even in Japan.

According to The Economist (“Mafia Management”), the Camorra is especially loved for their Corporate Social Responsibility, like taking care of the bereaved families of those who die—a “submarine” delivers money and groceries  to kin on Fridays. Locals invariably take the gangsters’ side during police raids, forming human barricades, pelting law enforcers with rubbish and setting fire to their cars.

This is despite the fact that the Camorra were responsible for 3,600 deaths between 1979 and 2006. Their drug-trade also ruins lives.

Since the police in Bangladesh abet the ruling party student thugs in their vandalism and thuggery, they do not receive such ignominious treatment from ruling party goons.

Mafias thus have a subculture—not admired by wider society, they still have loyal followers, members and admirers. They are highly successful businesses.

But nobody would think of voting for them. Kneecapping isn’t nice; carving up a face isn’t nice.

Unless of course mainstream society share​s​ these values.

And we do.

Iftekhar Sayeed was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he currently resides. He teaches English as well as economics. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in Postcolonial Text (on-line); Altar Magazine, Online Journal, Left Curve (2004,2005) and The Whirligig in the United States; in Britain: Mouseion, Erbacce, The Journal, Poetry Monthly, Envoi, Orbis, Acumen and Panurge; and in Asiaweek in Hong Kong; Chandrabhaga and the Journal OF Indian Writing in English in India; and Himal in Nepal. He is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh.

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