Congratulations to the graduating class of 2021.
For students to have reached this point in their learning journey is always worthy of celebration – in case you haven’t noticed, you have left school! Yes, that’s it, you’re no longer school children; one phase of life is over – and another phase begins. I’m sure you’ll find it interesting.
But before you embark on your new adventures, it must be said, for you to have achieved this milestone in your self-development with such resolve during a period of unprecedented frustration and inconvenience makes your achievement all the more remarkable.
It falls to me now, therefore, to say a few words to some remarkable people. Words that are intended to stay with you as you take leave of ICHK for the last time and step out into the world beyond, with all the challenges, intrigues, complications, pleasures, and rewards it promises.
The few words I offer you concern the Crutchfield Situation.
The Crutchfield Situation: now what’s that? Let me explain.
The Crutchfield Situation was a series of experiments conducted by the American researcher Richard Crutchfield in the mid-1950s.
Crutchfield’s interest lay in human psychology and particularly in an area of human behaviour that was receiving a great deal of interest at the time. Together with other luminaries such as Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, Crutchfield was concerned to measure human conformity, that is the extent to which people tend to shape and adapt their behaviour to fit in with the behaviour of those with whom they share an environment.
Working in the immediate post-war years and with the horror stories of fascism still fresh in their minds, these psychologists sought to understand better the ways in which people respond in situations that challenge their ‘agency’, that is their ability to exercise control over their own decisions and actions.
Milgram and Zimbardo’s work went on to capture the popular imagination and is now quite well-known outside of specialist, academic circles. The notorious Milgram experiment demonstrated the uncomfortably high percentage of individuals who would continue to inflict suffering on others if ordered to do so “in a good cause” by “experts”. Zimbardo’s equally unsettling Stanford experiment seemed to illustrate how quickly people will fall into abusive treatment of others if they are convinced that their “authority” is at stake.
In both cases, the results of the researchers’ work are disturbing, but also, I think, lurid and extreme to the point where they appear almost other-worldly. Insights that are too foreign to our experience to apply to our everyday lives.
Not so with the Crutchfield Situation.
Crutchfield’s work is less sensational and, because of that, more recognizable in our own experience and more relevant to our own conduct. Maybe that is why it has not received the same popular interest. It’s too immediately uncomfortable.
The Crutchfield Situation runs as follows. Picture a group of volunteers in a room, where they are placed in isolated booths. They are told that they are being assessed for their ability to judge the physical properties of various lines and shapes. They will be shown a number of simple lines or shapes, they are told, and asked to estimate comparisons between them – which is the longest, which has the largest surface area, which is the widest, and so on.
As they make their selection, a series of lights above their own screen will indicate the decisions being made, at the same time, by their fellow volunteers. Or so they believe.
Actually, the experiment is set up so that they are not, in fact, seeing the real decisions made by the other people at all. They are being fed false results, which indicate unanimous agreement on one option by all the others in the room. On some occasions the consensus points towards the correct answer, but, equally, on other occasions the consensus is clearly wrong.
The experiment focuses on the decisions made by individuals as they find themselves caught up in a situation where they have two options. Either fall in line with consensus, despite knowing the consensus is mistaken; or stick to their guns and insist on the rightness of their own decision, even though it is at odds with everyone else’s.
Now, hearing about this kind of experiment, almost everyone claims that there’s no way they would have conformed at the expense of truth. They would have stuck to their guns. But the research doesn’t tell that story.
The results of Crutchfield’s research were both fascinating and sobering. First, he found that everybody who participated in his experiment was seen to exhibit increased symptoms of stress and anxiety. The moment that people were placed under this kind of scrutiny, when their thoughts and actions were being compared with others, they found themselves under psychological pressure and burdened by expectation.
Next, he found that it was common for participants to delay their response until the lights above their screen indicated other people’s decisions. Once a pattern was clear, they would themselves fall in line – even when the pattern was clearly wrong. Having joined the gang, these people immediately began showing reduced symptoms of stress.
However, Crutchfield also found that some people did hold fast to the evidence of their own eyes and judgment. And this included on those occasions when their judgment appeared to be at odds with the opinions of everyone else in the room. These people, knowing that their views were not widely shared, manifested increased levels of stress and anxiety, but nonetheless refused to conform with what they did not believe to be true.
In a phrase, they had the courage of their convictions.
So, what conclusions to draw? For the findings of the Crutchfield situation to offer us hope rather than despair, we must have faith in two features of human behaviour.
First, we must believe that, provided with the right upbringing, leading to the right kind of experiences and access to valid and accurate information, humans are capable of making intelligent evaluations of their world. Second, and no less important, we must believe that this same upbringing, undertaken in a spirit of care and moral decency, in an environment that promotes personal goodness and integrity, will equip these intelligent, evaluative humans with courage of their convictions, so that they are capable of withstanding social pressure and of upholding the values that they espouse.
It is my hope that the education you have received at ICHK has provided an important dimension of this upbringing – and, in so doing, has provided further grounds for our two-fold faith in the goodness of human nature.
By having successfully completed the IB Diploma or Courses, you have provided proof of the first requirement. You have given evidence of your intellectual prowess, your capacity to think deeply, to inquire with an open mind, to collaborate with others, and to place yourselves in the service of your community.
Proof of the second requirement – proof that you have the courage of your convictions – will begin to accumulate from this moment on, as you leave the well-known territory of school and move into the less familiar landscape of the wider world.
As you do, I encourage you to remember the Crutchfield Situation, to keep in mind the human tendency to crave the approval of the majority, even at the expense of being deliberately false to one’s own beliefs, and to resist that tendency as you strive to live in ways that are authentic, decent, well-intentioned towards others, and, finally, courageous. In doing that you will live a life of which you can be justly proud.
Good luck for the next steps.