Friday, the Silicon Valley Mercury reported that 21 people were treated at a local hospital for burns after participating in a firewalking activity at an event organized by inspirational speaker Tony Robbins. (Source)
My first reaction was that I find it hard to fathom how 21 people were injured. One or two, okay. But 21? You'd think that even by person number 5, the rest of the crowd would see that persons number 1 through 4 were writhing on the ground, screaming with agony, and would say, "Hmmm. Maybe not. I think I'll just watch from the sidelines, thanks." But that's not what happened. Mr. Robbins kept telling the participants, "C'mon! You can do it! This time it's really going to work!", and for some reason they kept believing him. Perhaps he had them lined up in reverse order of IQ, so that each person in line was incrementally stupider than the previous one.
The interesting thing is that even now, Robbins and the events staff aren't admitting that walking on hot coals is basically a stupid thing to do. "We have been safely
providing this experience for more than three decades, and always under
the supervision of medical personnel," a spokesperson told reporters after the fiasco on Friday. "We continue to work with local
fire and emergency personnel to ensure this event is always done in the
safest way possible."
And even the injured firewalkers aren't willing to say that the problem is that "hot things will burn you." One participant, Andrew Brenner, told reporters that he did get burned, but it was his own fault, for not having enough "faith and concentration." "I did it before, didn't get
into the right state and got burned," Brenner said. "I knew I wasn't at
my peak state. I didn't take it as serious."
What strikes me about all of this -- besides the general observation that given a contest between "faith and concentration" and "extremely hot object," the hot object is going to win every time -- is how this is indicative of the lemming-like aspects of human behavior. All of us, when in large groups, tend to participate in behavior that we would never dream of doing while alone or in smaller groups. Look at the kinds of things that can happen at athletic events, concerts, and festivals. I think it unlikely, for example, that I would paint my face, shoulders, and chest red-and-white (Cornell colors, for those of you who are non-New Yorkers) in any group with less than ten members, and the number might rise to 25 if we were talking about a freezing cold day in early March. However, at the ECAC hockey finals, buoyed up by the energy of thousands of cheering Big Red hockey fans...? But perhaps I've incriminated myself enough already.
It all comes from being a social primate, really. We do what the group does, for a variety of reasons. Most of such behavior is probably pretty harmless, honestly, and the sociologists would point to its importance in group cohesion and our sense of belonging. Of course, the dark side of this tendency is the capacity for mob violence. In groups, people will often break their own moral and ethical precepts, not then (if ever) recognizing the point where they crossed that line, because a sort of group mentality takes over. As Stanislaw Lec said, "Every snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty." And from one of my own personal favorites, Terry Pratchett: "The IQ of a mob is equal to the IQ of its stupidest member, divided by the number of people in the mob."
Leaders, from corporate CEOs to high school principals to motivational speakers, take advantage of this tendency, often with the best of motives. Get the group stirred up; get them excited about something. Identify a few of the major power brokers in the group (the Head Lemmings), and get them on your side. At that point, you can propose damn near anything, and the whole group will follow you. I've seen it accomplish great things; in my own school, five years ago, the creation of our highly successful electives program was accomplished using just such a method. Of course, it's also resulted in riots, crusades, and wars. Any tendency in human nature can be used for good or for evil.
Or just to make people do stupid stuff, like walking across a fire pit after the first twenty people burned their feet up, just because some silly motivational speaker was shouting, "do it! I believe in you!"