Pay attention the next time you are on foot at an intersection waiting to cross with a group of other pedestrians.

Everyone stands restlessly looking at the orange hand of the "Don't Walk" sign. It's like they want to cross – there's no cross traffic preventing it – but some kind of social surface tension keeps the waiting pedestrians stuck to one another and to the curb. Is this light ever going to change? Finally whichever person is most impatient will start walking.
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Then, despite the "Don't Walk" signal that had them frozen in place a moment earlier, everyone follows him or her.

Psychologists and sociologists call this a permission effect, or describe the first individual to violate the (in this case minor, obviously) social taboo the "permission giver." Everyone wants to cross, since there's no effective reason not to. The "Don't Walk" sign is intended to keep the flow of traffic moving and to prevent pedestrians from getting hit; since there is no traffic, ignoring the sign will have no practical effect on anyone. But we know it's illegal anyway, and we know that we're supposed to obey signals like red lights and crossing signs regardless of whether they matter in our specific context. Then as soon as we see someone else throw caution to the wind, all those thoughts go out the window and we refocus on, "Well if he's gonna cross, I guess it's OK for all of us to cross."

It doesn't make any logical sense, but if you watch an intersection for a few minutes you'll observe this over and over. Everyone hesitates, one person transgresses, and everyone else follows. Clockwork.

Despite the pained, contorted efforts of old white men to explain how nothing that happens anywhere in the United States has anything to do with racism, anti-semitism, gay-bashing, misogyny, or anything else that has seen a resurgence in the political arena since 2015, we see evidence all around us, every day, that human beings are more likely to do something after they see someone else do it. This is neither a new nor an especially contentious finding. People, particularly more impressionable people like kids and the poorly educated, are more likely to say and do racist things after they watch someone else say and do racist things and – importantly – suffer no consequences. Steve Bannon rode a brief online career of rebranding anti-semitism for the digital age of journalism into the White House; other people will try to follow his lead. Success breeds imitation. As sure as the next few years will produce thousands of bad Chance the Rapper imitators, the internet will spawn a million wannabe Steve Bannons.

When we see racist or anti-semitic graffiti (or see Jewish property vandalized) the people making excuses for it may be right in a technical sense – a lot of it is probably the product of stupid kids, because vandalism tends to come from teenage boys. But the content of the vandalism is not a coincidence. It's a result of watching other people engage in a kind of social transgression (which teenage boys love, because it gets a rise out of people and brings them attention) without consequences. If they thought they would get arrested or go to prison for spraying swastikas on things, it would happen rarely. Now that they see that they can do it without consequences – or even with the potential of benefiting from it – there's no real reason not to do it. If the President says it, other people will naturally follow suit. If powerful people express ideas that were only recently frowned upon without any negative repercussions, others are going to follow their lead.
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It's not rocket science, but it's amazing the lengths to which people will go to deny it.

68 thoughts on “PERMISSION SLIP”

  • Ach. There is not REAL Anti-Semitism in the United States. After all, the only possible definition of Anti-Semitism is "Pan Germanism"

  • @Brian M
    "Pan Germanism", yeah, like in Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Lithuania, where many native citizens gleefully and actively participated in the murder of Jews (and where the SS did a lot of its recruiting).

    While the right-wing in US may be intrinsically more pro-Jewish due to the connections between Evangelicals and Israel, it has other, equally viable scapegoats (Muslims) that will get the brunt of the hatred first. Also, many of those connections are tenuous at best: subgroups of Evangelicals want to see less peace in the Middle East, because shit befalling Israel would signal the coming of the end times. The Jews are just convenient canaries.

  • All 100% except the whole traffic analogy falls apart in New York City. No one will ever wait and everyone will gladly cross the moment there isn't traffic, regardless of whether it's in the beginning, middle, or end of Don't Walk Sign.

  • @Andrew K: I think that proves the point: they have seen permission granted so many times they no longer even consider it.

  • Robert Walker-Smith says:

    It reminds me of Antarctic penguins. A cluster of them will gather at the water's edge, jostling and shoving. Eventually one gets pushed into the water. The rest look intently to see if a leopard seal attacks it. If not, it's safe to go in.

    And if so, well, it was a necessary precaution.

  • Massachusetts is a go-straight-on-red state for drivers, no stop first necessary. No pedestrian there was ever going to slow down for a no crossing sign if crossing appeared to be possible. It was war.

    In New York City, it was more a matter of personal freedom combined with "I'm in a hurry", as if someone in NYC, not a tourist, was not. As usual, New Yorkers were brusque, but not rude, and if you studied them long enough you'd recognize the difference and stop being such a primadonna.

    It was a shock moving to Seattle where people actually would stand around at crossings waiting for the light to change, and this in a city with half its sidewalks closed for construction necessitating dozens of extra crossings even on a modest walk. I've noticed that as the construction has approached its crescendo more pedestrians are giving up and crossing against the light.

  • I don't see why you didn't bring up this mental illness when Obama was up there race pimping when that thug Trayvon Martin was gunned down in self defense by that hero cop George Zimmerman. Obama was the one up there pushing this fake news race war narrative. Trump comes in to save the ship, cut taxes, resuscitate the country and you're out there saying he's hitler… SAD!

  • Downtown Portland, OR I'll see people cross against the light without even pausing, with oncoming traffic. Their faith in the drivers' attentiveness is….impressive. Or Darwinian.

  • So, Matt's either being a Poe or, and I hope this is not the case, he's very, very sick.

    I'm leaning towads, "Poe"; his spelling is too good.

  • As noted above, in true liberal bastions (New York City, Massachusetts) no one waits for the walk sign. A sign, perhaps, that in the indigo parts of this country people do actually think for themselves?

  • @Robert Walker-Smith:

    I love that story about the penguins, it's in The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (which is a great book, by the way). I love his description of how the penguins are jostling and shoving, but as soon as someone gets shoved in they all calm down and look in the water to see what transpires.

    But I think it's a different situation; the penguins aren't getting permission in any sense, but are simply rationally testing the situation to see if the water is safe to enter.

  • Boston story — could be apocryphal, but totally believable.

    A guy visits his college-student grandson in Boston. Kid meets him at the station. As they leave, the kid just charges out into traffic. Grandfather yells, "Watch out. The cars, the cars." Kid says, "Don't worry. They'll stop. They'll stop." Later, they get in the kid's car and the kid charges right toward a group of pedestrians crossing the street. Grandpa yells, "Watch out, the people." Kid says, "Don't worry. They'll stop. They'll stop."

    The unwritten motorist-pedestrian rule in Boston is "Whoever makes eye contact first has to stop."

    Oh, and "Don't Walk" signs — what are those?

  • @ diana:

    I used to walk from North Station to the Financial District, Mon-Fri, when I worked at Verizon. Not only did the pedestrians cross at will, drivers, per Kaleberg's account would go through a red light/stop sign at will, woe betide the pedestrian who was in their path.

    One morning I had just stepped off the curb when some asshole cut from the left lane to the right and stepped on the gas. He missed me by inches. That one time when I wished a cop was there–a cop was there. He almost got run down as well. As I continued on across the street I could hear him shouting, "Pull that fucking car over!". I'm guessing the driver received a forceful lesson–traffic tickets in big cities tend to be expensive items.

  • NYC is not Disneyland and the residents are not there for the caretaking of the tourists. People have places to go, transportation to catch. If you stand around waiting for a walk sign, you're likely to miss your train and have to stand around waiting for the next one. If your commute includes a bus, a train, and the ferry, the last thing you want to do is add another hour to your commute if there's no reason to.

  • I grew up in Boston and I've never been able to get used to the stupid, inefficient way people in, say, the West where I live now, cross the street. You *look*. Pedestrians flow around the traffic. Cars (have to) move slowly enough to make it possible, but they'd be moving slowly anyway because they're looking for non-existent parking places. I'm certain that if you measured travel times everybody, pedestrians and cars, get to their destinations sooner than using the mindless model.

    Of course, those were the days before cell phones. It might be a lot more Darwinian now. Plus, it might be like piano playing. To be good enough, you have to start learning in childhood.

    All that said, I have to admit that California drivers saved my life one day when after a moment of inattention (I was trying to learn to use a cell phone) I wound up in the middle of a huge intersection with six (eight?) lanes each way. In Boston they would have had to call out some sort of special road scraper to remove what remained of my car. Here, everybody, dozens of cars, just waited till I got my act together and got out of the way. They didn't even honk.

  • You write something about traffic and don't expect a China post? How much space do I get?

    First, let me admit things are getting better. (Either that or I'm just getting used to it.) Apparently the Chinese gvn't is trying to fix things, so now I do see people paying attention to light signals, somewhat anyway. But lane markers? Lane DIRECTIONS? You know – all going the same way in the right-most lane? NOT DRIVING ON THE FUCKING SIDEWALK? Pfft. That's for European/American wimps.

    The thing that still pisses the hell out of me EVERY SINGLE GODDAMN COMMUTE is the Chinese person's belief that honking the horn will magically make everything in front of them disappear. I ride a scooter. If I'm behind something I can't get around I…um….don't go around it. Sure as shit the asshole coming up behind me will get as close as possible and then lay on their horn, because, well, I (and whatever is in front of me) am in their way, doncha know.

    Sometimes there's justice, however. End of winter term all the parents came to the school to pick up their little darlings with all their luggages. (This is a miss-statement the bullet trains say all the time – "….or forget to pick your luggages up by mistake…" Why China Rail can't afford to hire a native speaker for the recording is beyond me. But I digress….So anyway, 1000 cars come to the 4 lane street in front of the school. But of course none of them followed any sort of organized path, so the first parent who got there parked directly in front of the school in some angle, and the next parent did the same at a different angle and the third parked in between them at yet another angle…when I left the school there were cars as far as the eye could see packed in cheek to jowl (do cars have cheeks and jowls?) at every possible angle for about a mile each way. I was able to get out being a small scooter, but I'm sure it took HOURS to untangle that mess.

    Tee hee hee.

    Off now to battle the commute. And BTW I took Matt's comment as satire – if he didn't mean it that way, he should have.

  • @ Nunya:

    They're not USAians! They're Vancouverians in "sleeper cells" (if they were from Quebec they'd be in Cellules dormantes and you'd be able to smell the poutine!). They're going to destroy MurKKKa by introducing MANNERS, oooh, the humanity!

  • @April

    Sounds like the super-sized pickup truck or SUV driver that's always parked on my rear bumper because they think that's somehow going to make the mile-long solid line of cars ahead of speed up somehow.

  • Follow the leader. Yeah. Right. Short step off a steep cliff. And here we go folks . . .

    On another note, back in my urban days, Boston, Philly, Seattle, it was me stepping off the curb and fuck the light. Was a Boston driver too. Heh.

  • @MK…It's insane. If there is something blocking up ahead, EVERY SINGLE CAR is on their horn because surely that will remove the blockage.

    Right? RIGHT?

  • In Sydney, Australia, every major downtown intersection has traffic lights (and beeps) that apply to pedestrians crossing the street, and everybody moves as a herd. Even when one bad sheep crosses when they're not supposed to, the rest of the herd sticks together on the sidewalk and waits. The reason is: Consequences. Jay-walking is a $70+ fine there, and the police enforce it. Aussie adults are encouraged to act like… adults.

  • Well, in Albuquerque you wait because pedestrians are endangered species. If you have the light in your favor you or your estate can at least collect insurance from the driver who ran you over. Unless, of course, the driver is one of the 8 out of 10 drivers without insurance here.

    Now, in Germany or Switzerland, if you try to cross against the light and there is a native anywhere near, you will get a severe talking to about the rules and how they need to be followed. People like their rules over there. A lot.

  • @mothra – In the 70's I did a hitchhiking trip over Europe and N. Africa. I was in Germany and there was a patch of grass with a sign "Verboten". So I stood next to the sign. Every single German who saw me pointed out that it was verboten to stand there. Every single one.

  • jcdenton: I was being sarcastic and, (hangs head in shame) dragging over the reeking carcass of an argument by Concerned Citizen from the previous thread.

    I am suitably chastened for my INDB failings, but I understand all that. :)

  • @mothra and @April: Holland is the same way with a population that generally obeys the rules. The biggest cultural clash I had was when I did some doofus-y thing and my customer was aghast because it was Against The Rules. I put some thought into it and I suppose part of the American attitude comes from knowing that in the USA, the rules only apply to certain people. Additionally, in the case of big cities, the logistics of just living life mean if you're not bold, if you don't seize the opportunities as they arise, a 16-hour day will turn into a 20-hour day.

  • @Major Kong: omg, the entitled SUV drivers! The other morning, 5:20 am, I'm in the rightmost lane doing 70 in a 55, with a Canyonero on my bumper flashing his brights at me to make me speed up. Nobody was in the left lane.

    So I slowed down to 55. Eventually he swung his bulk into the left lane, flipping me off with both hands and screaming out the window. I just laughed.

  • quixote – yeah, I spent 3 weeks in Boston, and quickly learned that walk signals were guidelines only. And the skateboard gangs were totally awesome.

  • On the other hand, while in Austria, our herd of dutiful pedestrians waited on the curb until the Walk signal appeared, only to have those in front nearly mowed down by a driver making a fast illegal right turn. I still remember the dude in the Complete Austrian Kit – lederhosen, tweed jacket, hat – waving his fist and bellowing "Schweinhund!" Until then, I did not know that people actually still said that totally juicy German epithet.

  • I grew up in a racist redneck small town in Ohio and ended up in a racist redneck part of Greater Indianapolis.

    Just an observation. When growing up it was my best friends Dad's who were the racists. That somehow made it somewhat more acceptable to me at that time.

    When I grew up and moved away from my home town I soon enough felt zero tolerance for racism.

  • Drivers running red lights in Boston has become so common and predictable, it's as if it's just become legal. So now one can't rely on the walk signal, you have to look and wait for three cars to charge through wayyy after the light turns. Because it's 100% risk free. Nothing could possibly happen.

  • That's an interesting comment about Sydney, because I was there for 4 days last week and saw literally everyone cross against the light. There was a certain amount of permission giving, if one person did, lots would. As a tourist, I didn't know the lights well enough and would often wait, to the consternation of my British friends who would chide me as being from a place that punishes jaywalking. I stayed in Kings Cross, and saw it everywhere from there to the Maritime museum.

    In Melbourne now, and I'd argue the locals would give New Yorkers a run for their money. At least here there's often a tram rail in the middle to give you a bit of respite before dashing through more traffic.

  • jcastarz,

    "Rules are rules and should be followed blindly" is a four-year-old's (or a police officer's) moral philosophy. The adult thing to do, however, is to realise that rules were implemented to achieve a goal, and that they can and should be ignored if the underlying goal is more efficiently achieved by ignoring them.

  • Or, as we do in America, "The rules are only for others to follow. I'm a Special Exception, because I Have Things To Do."

  • Gods, if that isn't a thing I hate about people…any fucking thing to push your boundaries. Americans HATE HATE HATE being told "no" for any reason and will not respect it 90% of the time. See: "The customer is always right" and other such narcissistic entitled bullshit.

  • @Aurora – Eh, I confess to being a rule-breaker, if the rule is bullshit. (Three AM, small town, one light, absolutely no one but me is awake…I'm not going to wait for the light to change. Stop, look and go. Also, see standing on a patch of grass above..) I agree that this is a trait of yanks, but, in general, I think it's one of the things that made (make?) America great. It's that kind of fuck-it-I'm-doing-it-anyway that enabled us to achieve the things our country has achieved.

    Like everything, it can be abused. But, in general, I prefer an independent spirit to one where "if authority says it, it must be true and be obeyed."

  • "It's that kind of fuck-it-I'm-doing-it-anyway that enabled us to achieve the things our country has achieved."

    Yeah, there is a downside to that, as you noted right after.

    The problem is that for a lot of folks (most reptilican pols of the last, oh, 60 years or so in particular) rules are for everybody–but them, their friends and corporate owners.

  • I have never seen a comment section miss the poster's point more completely. Sheesh! Meanwhile, the Trump administration just put targets on the backs 11 million undocumented people.

  • It's perfectly logical to wait for others to cross against the light before you do, too, because the odds of being ticketed go down. You think a lone cop, or even a pair of them, is going to corral the whole bunch and write them all up? It's also why vandalism and looting occur more often during large protests than on quiet nights when nobody else is on the street.

  • There's an intersection that I go through when I'm out riding my bicycle.

    The light is on a sensor, and a bicycle doesn't have enough metal to trip the sensor. I could sit there all day and never get a green unless a car happens to come by. So my one option is to very cautiously go through the intersection.

    I hate to do it because I don't want to be "that" cyclist, but what can you do?

  • @ Major Kong:

    Have you considered wearing armor from the 14th century?

    @ Fiddlin' Bill:

    I didn't miss the point. Otoh, we just had a rather lengthy and due to some cranky, potty-mouthed commenters (democommie finishes his absinthe–laced with crank–and lights another Gualoises with his pitch smeared torch) we had a bit of a dust-up. So, maybe people are just kicking back for a post or two.

    Immigrants are currently being fucked sideways by overzealous pols and and their alwaysreadytoberacistassholes Sturm Abteilung–both in and out of unis.

  • Katydid:
    What? Holland is a country where people follow the rules? What part of the NL were you in, pray tell? In my experience the Dutch are flagrant rules-flouters. Particularly the cyclists. Can't tell you how many times my friends have been exasperated by me stopping for a red light when out riding with them….

  • "I have never seen a comment section miss the poster's point more completely. Sheesh! Meanwhile, the Trump administration just put targets on the backs 11 million undocumented people."

    Upon re-reading the OP, this just jumped off the page:

    "Everyone stands restlessly looking at the orange hand."

    I would have been much quicker picking it up if Ed had typed, "tiny, short fingered orange hand."

  • And then there are places where pedestrians explicitly have the right of way, eg Corvallis Oregon, and possibly Sydney (above)?

    In Corvallis, a pedestrian has the right of way, everywhere, at all times. Except where there is a sign saying "No Pedestrian Crossing" — I think maybe two or three places in town.

    Of course, one is expected to use good sense and also to not block emergency vehicles ….

  • We had a local thread featuring a photo of a sea lion snarfing down a gull while a gull nearby seemed to be hovering and watching. A fisherman posted that he's witnessed many occasions where nearby gulls just don't seem to get it that one of their group has been dragged underwater and eaten, and keep stupidly paddling around. He wondered if, faced with a similar situation, we humans would do the same.

    Yep. Hang together, obey rules, feel validated … imagine you won't be the one who gets et.

    Always a difficult problem, locating the sweet spot between herd protection and breaking away to freedom.

    But now we know, authoritarianism was a determinant for Trump voters. Plus racism and misogyny. So fuck that herd.

  • I totally get the point of the diary. I'm sure there's a psychological term for it, I just don't know what it is. A form of group-think perhaps?

    People will do things in groups that they would probably not do as individuals. The fact that everyone else in the group is doing it makes them feel like they have tacit permission.

  • @Major Kong:

    So, why couldn't the Trumpliguturds have just gone to a nice nearby cliff, bridge, grain elevator, church steeple or skyscraper instead of the voting booth? Would that have been so fucking hard?

  • I would have guessed the Bronx–and been right.

    OTOH, according to the article you cite:

    "Zimbardo observed that a majority of the adult "vandals" in both cases were primarily well dressed, Caucasian, clean-cut and seemingly respectable individuals. It is believed that, in a neighborhood such as the Bronx where the history of abandoned property and theft are more prevalent, vandalism occurs much more quickly as the community generally seems apathetic."

    So, I'm not sure what your point is.

  • @Totoro

    This theory has come under a lot of criticism, partially because its criminal implementation "stop and frisk" destroys any bonds of trust between the community and the police (especially when it's combined with filling crime quotas and racism). Stop and frisk tends to harass a large number of innocent or semi-innocent citizens (often on a racial basis) and prevents any kind of constructive co-operation.

    The idea also suffers from kind of a negativity ratchet. If general crime/decay/racism desensitizes people to crime/decay/racism and therefore causes more crime/decay/racism, then how did communities ever climb out of these spirals? (i.e there are countervailing mechanisms that can come from within such a community, not just imposed from above)

  • @democommie

    The basic idea is that people in a broken, disorderly, crime-ridden community are more desensitized to crime and therefore this creates tolerance for crime. This idea isn't entirely wrong, but it fails to explain how communities are able to climb out and transform themselves without external forces imposing order.

    The paradox comes when we realize that historically we all started in a state of supposed tolerance for higher crime rates (because crime and disorderliness was higher in the past, and we lived in the midst of that society). If the surrounding crime rate/disorderliness were the only determinant of tolerance for crime, we would never be able to affect change (i.e. how do you get orderliness before orderliness).

    This sort of maps on to social acceptance for racism and anti-Semitism, but also has the same basic problems.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    There was an interesting psychological experiment that was sort of a riff on the first-to-cross phenomenon.

    Two persons were put into a room and set to filling out (meaningless) questionnaires. One was a confederate of the experimenters; the other was the subject. After a few minutes, harmless but ominous-looking thick white smoke would start billowing into the room through the air ducts.

    The confederate was instructed to ignore the smoke and continue filling out the questionnaire as though nothing were happening. If the subject tried to communicate with the confederate—"Hey, what the hell is that, think we should do something?" etc.–the confederate would shrug, murmur something like "I dunno," and continue ignoring the smoke. The point was to see how long the subject would wait before going to get help, if he or she did at all.

    Most people waited several minutes, and a lot didn't budge from the room.

    I think this points to the flipside of what Ed is talking about in this post. Just as people see the first transgressor as permission to transgress themselves, when people see others ignoring a situation that obviously is not right, it gives them permission to ignore it as well.

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