What the Royal Prank Can Teach Us About Group Think

Dec 9
2dayFM hosts Mel Greig and Michael Christian pulled a prank call that led to tragic consequences

By now, everyone has heard about the “Royal Prank,” and most likely, the tragic turn of events that stemmed from it.  With the news that the victim of the prank call has taken her life, any mature and responsible person has to take pause and consider how we got here.

The reaction around the world has been predictable.  Outrage!  Scandal!  Demands for consequences!  I can’t even find fault in people for feeling that way.  Anger is the natural emotional response to a situation like this.  I was mildly annoyed when I read about the original prank, I won’t lie.

But that’s the key.  Having a feeling, experiencing an emotion, is almost if not entirely involuntary.  It’s a programmed response  triggered by past experiences and similarly evocative events.  With tremendous dedication (and lots of meditation) it’s certainly possible to reprogram your emotional motherboard.  But it’s not a task most people have undertaken.  So while the emotional state is, for most, involuntary…your response to that emotion is not.

And it’s the reaction to an emotional state that causes so many of our problems.

When someone cuts you off in traffic and nearly causes you to crash, you have an immediate emotional response.  You may honk your horn, curse and make gestures, but you wouldn’t stalk that person to their stop, pull out a gun and shoot them over this ridiculous slight….would you?

No.  Because at some point on this spectrum your rational brain takes the reins back from your volatile, hormone-pumped, hammering heart and says “That’s enough.”  And you make a conscious decision to interrupt and diverge from your seemingly subconscious path.

But when we encounter group think, good ol’ fashioned peer pressure is added to the mix.  Now your rational brain has a much more difficult time wresting control from your irrational heart.  When you see others experience a similar emotional response to yours, you begin to rationalize, and therefore justify, the crazy feeling.  Once you begin to justify the way you feel about something, it’s much easier to convince yourself to act on it.

So what does all this have to do with a stupid prank call on a cheesy morning radio program and a woman’s devastating decision to end her life half a globe away?  Plenty.

In the wake of Ms. Saldanha’s apparent suicide, the Interwebs are awash with trolls baying for blood, demanding that Mel Grieg and Michael Christian be fired and, one can only assume, live out the rest of their days locked in an underground bunker with no access to telephones, live mics or the Internet.  I have little doubt a great many of these commenters view themselves as concerned citizens of the world, speaking out to set right a terrible injustice.  Without question, however, none of these commenters perceive themselves as part of the phenomena that led to this very real and very sad consequence.

A tragic reminder of the power of words.

Back out a few steps and look at the bigger picture here.

If Mel and Michael had pranked a nurse at a local hospital in Sydney regarding the pregnancy of an old college buddy, would that nurse have committed suicide?  Certainly not.  The frenzy of attention that surrounds every breath drawn by the Duchess of Cambridge is precisely what made this prank seem so delicious to the pair in the first place.  I’m looking at you, British tabloid media.

Would their prank have received nearly as much attention if their show was not popular?  Doubtful.  In fact, the station had a “storm of ratings” earlier this year even as scandals from other programs in their line-up were still unfolding.  If there was no audience tuning into this kind of programming to satisfy their craving for shock value, 2DayFM would’ve gone out of business or changed their business model long ago.

Was it the simple fact that she was pranked, or the magnitude of the prank that led to Ms. Saldahna’s suicide?  We cannot honestly know, but if we frame it in terms of our own experiences, it’s easy to understand why the tide of publicity around the prank, and the certainty of much, much, much more publicity could have left Jacintha feeling like she simply couldn’t live with the outcome.  Which honestly just makes my heart ache.

But dealing with the tabloid culture and the shock jock industry, and what those things say about us a collection of human beings….these are much thornier problems.  And the even more complex issue is identifying what role you as an individual have in perpetuating these phenomena.  It’s so much easier to point the finger and say, “It’s their fault.”  Then we can channel all our anger onto them and free ourselves of the burden of having to ask the hard questions or do the hard work.

Fact:  Firing Mel and Michael will not undo what has been done.  It will not bring Jacintha back to life.  It will not undial that phone call nor erase the millions of Tweets and comments it generated.  The damage is done.  And any satisfaction you, some disconnected, unaffected random Earthling, derive from knowing “they got theirs” is vapid and transient.

Yet people continue to comment, saying things like “This pair have undone all the good work Australia have done in the last century.”  Really?  All of it?  Every single good thing Australia has done in the last 100 years?  Okay.

“They’ve brought disgrace on your country – and the whole world knows it!”  Because everybody loves a self-righteous prick, and I’m sure that dude hails from the Land O’ Perfection where people never make tragically stupid decisions with horrific unintended consequences.

Then there is that all-too-common refrain: “You have blood on your hands.”  I have news for you, Lady Mac.  Your hands aren’t so clean either.

Double-Down Fact:  There is nothing you can say or do to Mel and Michael that is worse than what they are feeling right now, nor the burden they will have to carry the rest of their lives.

If I sound like I’m preaching to let bygones be bygones, I’m not.  I’m simply acknowledging that I have nothing of value to contribute to the debate about whether or not something that can’t be undone should ever have been done in the first place.  But if there is anything of value to be gained from this, it will only come through honest self-reflection and a desire to learn from the mistakes of others.  Which is what got my brain churning on the dangers of group think.

To put this in a more relatable context:  Think of the last time you were in a situation at work where there was bad juju.  Perhaps you were facing a round of layoffs, wondering if you’d be next.  Maybe your company had a really bad quarter and dropped your stock value by half.  Or imagine it’s 2010 and you work for BP, or AIG in 2008.

When bad things happen at work, suddenly your livelihood feels threatened, and you sink into survival mode.  Your rational brain takes a nap and your irrational heart gets behind the wheel.  Desperate for a clear path forward, you need to figure out how you got here.  What went wrong?  These are uncomfortable questions that rarely come with simple answers.

So while you’re sitting there, feeling protective of yourself and your livelihood, your irrational, stupid self declares that you are a victim of someone else’s malfeasance.  And since you obviously are not at fault, you start looking for someone to blame.  In situations like these, you run into other irrational, temporarily-stupid homo-sapiens, who’ve reached the same conclusion you have:  Someone is to blame, but it damn sure isn’t me!

That’s where group think takes hold.  You cluster together and reassure one another of your absolute innocence.  You begin to discuss likely candidates for the blame.  Once you’ve settled on an appropriate villain, you begin to feel better.  If you were operating on your own, this is the stage where your rational brain would probably wake up and put on the brakes.  But when you are surrounded by a group of people stuck in a similar emotional spin, you’re just along for the ride.  And blaming someone else for you feeling shitty is a very, very comfortable ride.

One of the more challenging consequences of our new social, mobile web technology is that group think can now become a global movement in the span of a few hours.  And the more people see something repeated, the more they assume it is true.  Now you have hundreds of millions of temporarily stupid people with access to a platform that allows them to broadcast their stupidity into an environment where it reproduces and multiplies.

But don’t blame Twitter and Facebook for this.  The tools that enabled the propagation of this stupid prank and led to this devastating outcome…..are the same tools that roused an entire region of people to rise up against their oppressive government and cast them out.  Or have you already forgotten the Arab Spring?

The tool is not to blame.  The people are.  You are.  Yes…  Every time you allow yourself to get swept along in the mania of the moment and become temporarily stupid, you are part of the problem.  Every time you tune into programming that encourages this kind of activity, you are part of the problem.  Every time you fixate on what Princess Kate is wearing or what scandal the President is wrapped up in now, you are part of the problem.  Every time you repeat something you haven’t personally validated, when your first reaction is Like>>Share and not Stop>>Think, you are part of the problem.

If you’ve never done any of those things, tell us your secret.  I’m guilty, I’ve done it.  I’ve given in to my temporarily stupid self.  But then I woke up and put my rational brain back in the driver’s seat.

When you find yourself in a situation where people are pointing fingers and assigning blame, or engaging in an activity that no one seems to question, your first impulse should always be Stop>>Think.  If more people did this, we’d save ourselves a lot of anguish and stress.  If most people did this (and I realize I’m being more than a little Pollyanna here), then maybe Ms. Saldahna would still be alive today.

Ultimately we are all responsible for our own actions, and not anybody else’s.  The only person who is really responsible for ending Ms. Saldahna’s life is Jacintha.  The only people really responsible for the prank are Mel and Michael.  But everyone who reads the British tabloids, and everyone who tunes into 2DayFM’s programming, and everyone who’s commented on the story since….all of those people play a role in creating an environment where such a thing was possible.

The key to defeating group think is to recognize your personal responsibility.  Whether we’re talking about company layoffs, community events or global phenomena….you have a role to play.  Choose consciously, and you will act wisely.

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