Could We Control Other People’s Minds? Should We?

Last week at an NG Live event here at National Geographic Headquarters in Washington, D.C., Emerging Explorer and swarm theory biologist Iain Couzin joined Nobel Laureate and chemist Mario Molina for a conversation led by Boyd Matson, host of National Geographic Weekend.

These two scientists come from different research backgrounds but have a shared interest: understanding why groups behave the way they do.

2012 Emerging Explorer Iain Couzin. Photo: Simon Garnier

Mario was one of the discoverers of the negative effects that CFCs were having on the ozone layer. Realizing the worldwide dangers, he then worked with individuals and groups, large and small, in industry and government, to cease the usage of these chemicals. By pulling together humans on a large scale, he was able to help avert what could have been an ecological disaster.

Iain’s work on the other hand tracks locusts swarming in a plastic bucket. Or birds flocking. Or fish schooling. Or people milling about. By tracking their movements with advanced software, and comparing them with computer simulations, he and his team are discovering the simple underlying factors that sometimes determine seemingly complex group behavior.


The Big Question

Given the example of Mario having important information that he needed everyone to respond to, and Iain’s insights into how simple influences can control the action of large groups, host Boyd Matson asked about the implications for all this research: Could we use learnings from swarm theory to control people’s behavior for the betterment of society? More importantly, should we?

Iain Couzin was quick to clarify that he is not interested at all in controlling human group behavior, whether for commercial or political reasons, good, bad, or ugly. He’s simply in pursuit of knowledge of how these things work. He then set everyone’s fears to rest by pointing out that in experiments, as in real life, people are a lot more complex than locusts, and no one’s going to control them any time soon.


What’s Your Take?

So what do you think about all of this? Do you think it’s just a matter of time before people can steer crowds to do their bidding?

Would you use that influence if you had it?

Are there some times where it would be acceptable and other times where it wouldn’t? Would you steer a crowd to save them from a natural disaster? Would you steer a crowd to keep them from smoking?

Weigh in using the comments below!



Learn More

Upcoming NG Live Events

NatGeo Weekend’s Boyd Matson interviews Iain Couzin


Photo Gallery: Swarm Behavior

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Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.
  • Debbie

    Certain people have always been able to steer crowds to do their bidding – witness everyone from Alexander the Great to Hitler to Justin Bieber. Have these people just had an innate sense of swarm theory? I kind of think yes.

  • blair

    as it may seem true that there have been crowds following celebrities with charisma throught history, we also should notice that there will always be cetain people with questions and doubts, which ultimately break the frenziness

  • Michael

    Videos are not a good way to convey information, especially on the web. Texts accompanying videos should always back up the videos, not supplement or frame them.
    As an example, the text accompanying this video is pretty much devoid of information, save about the scientists. If you cannot watch the video, the whole post is useless.

  • Ed

    Thanks for the tip, Michael – watched the video. Like Blair and Debbie, I agree that people historically have been and regularly are controlled by others (in ways that both enrich and destroy civilizations). Rather than responding to local physical cues (as with the locusts), humans are able to respond to information transmitted through linguistic, print, and now digital mass media. Memes or belief systems are powerful determinants of human perception and (as a result), human behavior. Health-conscious people are careful about what they put into their mouths, but how many of us regulate our exposure to potentially toxic memes? Neuromarketers routinely engineer media and belief systems to control our buying habits…Can/should we intentionally engineer media and belief systems to bring about a positive, enlightening effect on ourselves/others and our culture as a whole? Would we call this “educational” even if it was “entertaining?”

  • Taylor

    Of course the first question is, can we use it on people? Ridiculous. What do people think society is composed of anyways? Like this is some sort of brand new secret knowledge wake up world we are the locust.

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