The Gabriel Effect
A Modest Educational Proposal
The psychologist Robert S. Crutchfield reports disturbing results in his article, ‘Conforming and Character’. (A.Psy.10: 191-198 ). His work confirms Dr. Asch’s finding that ordinary unprepared individuals will conform with a false social consensus rather than appear to be exceptional, even when the consensus is blatantly absurd.
I call this the ‘false consensus’ effect a ‘crutchfield’. The word ‘crutchfield’ is in honor of its verifier; it also has a quantum-physics connotation. A ‘crutchfield’ is a pervasive psi-wave field effect of virtual crutch quanta; everyone leans on everyone else, and a false vacuum persists. It’s called a Bubble, and also the Emperor’s New Clothes.
Dr. Crutchfield tailored the Emperor new Imperial garments in this elegant fashion; while teaching a class of young students, he would stop, then send one student out of the room on a trivial errand. While that student was out, the devious Dr. Crutchfield would conspire with the other students, and so prepare the scam in advance. The other brats would always agree with his scheme.
When the hapless patsy comes back, what does he or she find but an entire classroom laboriously and repeatedly making the exact same mistake!
“Lisa, which is longer, line A or line B?
“David, which is longer, A or B?”
And all the while, maddeningly, it’s plain to see that A is by far the longer of the two lines! One by one, the other students agree that line B is longer than A, which is obviously false. Eventually the questioner pauses at the chosen student (whom I shall here call the ‘focus’ student). “Tell me and the class, which is longer, line A or line B?”
And what does the student do? Well, what do you expect? Most kids just caved in. Only a brave few defied their peers for the sake of truth. Most children are not the child hero of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”!
- or at least, not when deceived and misled by a clever psychologist! For it is obvious that Drs. Asch and Crutchfield (and their disciples) found what they were looking for. How Heisenbergian! They sought negative, pessimistic results by destructive, self-confirming methods.
I say this all the more freely, having witnessed such an experiment when I was a child. It was a lesson in human psychology for the kiddies, if you please. Luckily for me, I wasn’t the focus student, who caved in.
I have long contemplated this experiment, and think it needs a different protocol in order to yield a useful result. The Crutchfield result depends upon a naïve, unprepared or intimidated subject; and inducing such experimental conditions on a human child is counter to the concept of Animal Rights. In the spirit of wildlife preservation, I propose a noninvasive procedure based on a warned, prepared and encouraged subject.
For consider this; is the Crutchfielf result true science? Is it reproducible? To ask the question is to answer it! Were Dr. Crutchfield to run the same experiement on the same students a second time, he might discover that the second run differs from the first!
As a thought experiment, let us imagine what would happen the second time. This time the focus student would be in on the joke, and have several minutes to prepare psychologically. When the question finally arrives, surely foreknowledge of the challenge would ease the task of rising to it. The second time around, they are more likely to rebel. The Emperor is naked!
Indeed there is a sense in which conformity here, paradoxically, favors the cause of free thought. For how could that student face the others later, unless they defy them for the sake of truth?
Thus the Crutchfield Effect is weaker on the second time, and weaker still on the third time, and so on. The Crutchfield effect, each time, requires a new batch of naïve subjects; in that sense it is not reproducible, and not really science!
Crutchfields have strange powers, but also strange weaknesses. Whistleblowers collapse crutchfields; I call this the Gabriel Effect.
Can the Gabriel Effect be experimentally induced? Let’s find out! Consider this experiment; the students are told about the Crutchfield experiment, and also told of the rare ones who defy. The teacher discourses learnedly to the wary kids about conformity and character.
In the middle of the next lesson, the teacher suddenly choses a student to be sent out. Once the focus student is out, the scam is arranged; this time A is supposed to be longer, though it is not.
The focus student returns, and the charade is on.
“Tommy, which is longer, line A or line B?
“Alice, which is longer, A or B?”
Yet, plain to see, line B is longer! One by one the students agree that A is longer than B, which is obviously false. Eventually the questioner pauses at the focus student. “Now tell me and the class, is line A longer than line B?”
Now what does the student do? Well, I think this way we are more likely to get a loud “NO!”
And if the focus student thus proves worthy of the challenge, then I think it would be fitting for the classroom to give that student applause, a cheer, and perhaps a food item. (Perhaps an apple.) Then dismiss the class.
Now suppose we run the experiment again! For this is not a crutchfield experiment; it is not about building false consensus. This is a crutchfield collapse experiment; it is about breaking false consensus. In this whistleblower training experiment, the researcher is allied with the subjects; the enemy is falsehood. If the Crutchfield Effect is a disease, then the Gabriel Effect is a vaccine.
The second time, the new focus student comes back to break a different crutchfield. Which figure is a triangle and which is a circle? This time rebellion should be almost easy. Subsequent runs should collapse lies more difficult to detect and refute. Up the ante into challenging politics and philosophical crutchfields.
The valedictory crutchfield collapse should, I think, be this; the focus student finds the class agreeing that this very experimental protocol is unbiased and accurate; that this Whistleblower training reflects social reality and is therefore perfectly safe to practice. Whistleblowers are always rewarded, never persecuted!
- when in fact they often are!
Let the focus student face down that lie, cheer that student loud and long, then end the class for the semester.
This method should train for bold skepticism.