The Misinterpreting of Crowds: the “Sadistic” Tea Party

–Richard E. Vatz

“By cheering in favor of letting a young man die if he’s sick and uninsured, Republicans unwittingly dumped on its head the proposition that they are the ‘party of life.’ ” — Lewis W. Simons, member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors, USA Today, Why Americans Don’t Just “Let Them Die,” September 20, 2011

I could have easily produced a score of significant observers who parroted the line that in the recent Republican presidential debate Tea Partiers cheered broadly a man’s dying because he took a chance by not acquiring health insurance and could not afford necessary intensive care.

The analysis that follows is applicable as well to the alleged cheering of the relatively large number of executed criminals in Texas.

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I will never forget as a teenager seeing my Pittsburgh Pirate hero, Roberto Clemente, booed at a game when he was in a rare slump. How confusing — I heard the jeering which seemed to envelop the stadium, and yet I saw literally no one booing.

How could that be, and how does that apply to the analysis of the Tea Party-sanctioned recent Republican presidential debate?

Let me sum up with reluctant testimony (the New York Times’ Paul Krugman) what happened at the debate: “CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Representative Ron Paul what we should do if a 30-year-old man who chose not to purchase health insurance suddenly found himself in need of six months of intensive care. Mr. Paul replied, ‘That’s what freedom is all about — taking your own risks.” Mr. Blitzer pressed him again, asking whether ‘society should just let him die.’ and the crowd erupted with cheers and shouts of ‘Yeah!’ “

Well, the crowd didn’t erupt; very, very few people “erupted,” but it sounded loud. Look at the videotape.

There is a universal misperception: the booing and cheering of crowds almost always leads many observers to infer — erroneously — that a large proportion of the crowd is participating.

A number of observations need to be made without ambiguity:

1. It takes but a tiny percentage of booing crowd participants to sound as if the entire crowd is booing.

2. It takes a larger, but still a relatively small, percentage of cheering crowd participants to sound as if the entire crowd is cheering.

3. Crowd opinion has low stability and is prone to buyer remorse; people may, moved by crowd contagion, boo or cheer a person or point and regret it soon.

I am not a Tea Partier, but I know many. Almost all are well-motivated conservatives, and only a few are irresponsible. The latter is simply unrepresentative of the group as a whole, but when they boo or cheer, they sound like 10-100 times their numbers.

Journalists should remember that — always.


–Prof. Vatz teaches Persuasion at Towson University and is author of the just-released The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012)

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