Culture and Society,  Long-form,  Politics,  Psychology

The Humanity of the NPC Meme


An NPC, or “non-player character,” is any character in a video game which is not controlled by an human player. It is an highly limited AI which is capable of only a select number of preprogrammed responses to a player’s questions or actions. The NPC meme, which gained traction in late September of last year, compares these preprogrammed responses to those one tends to hear from the mainstream media and its proponents. Primarily used by conservatives to describe the left, usage of the meme had already led to the banning or suspension of roughly 1500 conservative Twitter accounts within a month of its rise to popularity.

The justification for the bans is unclear, as Twitter is notoriously vague about its rules and how it chooses to enforce them. A New York Times insider believed the NPC meme to be in violation of Twitter’s rule against “intentionally misleading election-related content.” However, coinciding with the rise in popularity of the meme, Twitter released a statement announcing its intentions to ban language which could be considered “dehumanizing.” Many of the NPC meme’s detractors believed that the comparison of liberals to AIs – much like the comparison of conservatives to Russian bots – fit this description.

But the great irony of the NPC meme is that it is surprisingly human. At its core, it describes the words and actions of individuals as the products of their environments. Whether its creators were aware of it or not, they were highlighting an aspect of the human experience which should be considered unanimous, for we are all subject – at least on occasion – to the power of social influence.

Standing with the Group

On an episode of National Geographic’s “Brain Games,” a woman came to a clinic for what she thought was a free eye exam. Instead, she became an unwitting participant in a social experiment. After checking in with the receptionist, the prospective patient quietly took a seat in the packed waiting room. Just then, a tone sounded over the loudspeaker, and curiously enough, the rest of the patients briefly stood before reseating themselves.

Moments later, the tone sounded again. And again, the rest of the patients in the room briefly stood before retaking their seats. The woman looked around in confusion at the strange behavior of the people around her.

A still from an episode of "Brain Games," "The Humanity of the NPC Meme"
From an episode of National Geographic‘s “Brain Games,” directed by Michael Nigro.

She had no idea that the rest of these “patients” were experimenters who had been told to stand each time the tone sounded. All she knew is that when the tone sounded, everyone in the room was united in standing…except for her. So, not wanting to isolate herself by breaking from the eye clinic’s strange customs, she stood up at the sound of the third tone and cemented herself as a member of the group.

This went on for some time, and the experimenters began slowly filtering out of the room as they were called in for their “exams.” But so strong was the power of the group’s influence that the participant continued to stand at each tone even when she was the last person in the room. She had no idea why she was doing this, but based on the behavior of those that had been around her, she knew that this was simply how things were done in this particular waiting room. And so when a second unwitting participant entered the otherwise empty waiting room, she kindly explained to him that he must stand every time the tone sounded.

Standing against the Group

The participant became increasingly “sick and visibly shaken” each time he answered counter to the group. At one point, the experimenter had to temporarily halt the trial so the participant could leave the room to vomit.

This is the power of social influence. We attribute a natural authority to a group acting together, and it is our instinct to follow that group. This is true even if it is made up of complete strangers, even if we hold only a temporary membership to it, and even if we aren’t aware of that membership. Like swimming with the waves instead of against them, it is simply easier to align ourselves with the movement of the group.

On the other hand, acting against the group is not only difficult, but it can even be physically painful. In Reflections on 100 Years of Experimental Social Psychology, Harold Gerard recounts the story of a conformity experiment in which a particularly resilient participant answered against the group – the rest of whom had been instructed to give the wrong answers – on every question in the experiment. The participant became increasingly “sick and visibly shaken” each time he answered counter to the group. At one point, the experimenter had to temporarily halt the trial so the participant could leave the room to vomit.

Still, he persisted through the duration of the 36 trial experiment, never once conforming his answers to those of the group. As Gerard recalled: “He did not yield, but at what a price! He wanted so much to be accepted and liked by the others and was afraid he would not be because he had stood his ground against them. There you have normative pressure operating with a vengeance.”

Types of Social Influence

Social conformity can occur due to either normative influence or informational influence. Normative social influence operates at the emotional level. When a person conforms to a group, it tends to elicit positive reinforcement and good feelings not only from the group, but also from his or her sense of belonging to the group. Every decision a person makes in life can be described either as movement away from pain or towards pleasure. So, the normative combination of internal and external reinforcement tends to be quite influential.

Informational influence, on the other hand, operates at the rational level. It refers to our tendency to trust in what Christopher Hitchens would call, “The false security of consensus.”

The more people believe in something, the more likely we are to trust that belief as valid. This is the source of groups’ natural authority and status. Additionally, the closer we are to a group, the more authority we attribute to it, and the more likely we are to accept any evidence it provides as consistent with reality.

Emotion over Reason

It may seem like these two types of influence would normally go hand in hand, but it’s not uncommon for the rational and the emotional to disagree. For example, people might internally – at some level – disagree with the logic behind some of their groups’ beliefs, but still outwardly agree with them due to the emotional motivation to do so. The negative influence of this cognitive dissonance is outweighed by the positive reinforcement – both internal and external – that results from agreeing with the tribe.

It is possible to conform behaviorally to the expectations of others and say things which one disbelieves but which agree with the beliefs of others. Also, it is possible that one will accept an opponent’s beliefs as evidence about reality even though one has no motivation to agree with him. – Deutsch and Gerard

While we may consider ourselves to be rational first and foremost, it would be more accurate to say that our rational brains only exist to serve our more evolutionarily primitive emotional brains. Or as said by Elon Musk:

Your (rational) cortex and your (emotional) limbic system are in a symbiotic relationship. (…) The cortex is mostly in service to the limbic system. People may think that their thinking part of themselves is in charge, but it’s mostly the limbic system that’s in charge.

Therefore, it is more common than you might think for emotion to trump reason in the decision making process, especially when we are in the presence of a person or group to which we attribute a large amount of authority. And even when not emotionally motivated to do so, a person might trust the word of such groups or authority figures simply due to their status. This can have disastrous results.

The Milgram Experiments

No examination of social influence and conformity would be complete without at least some reference to World War II. You may notice throughout this paper that much of the cited research was done between 1945 and the early 60s. This is no coincidence. The world became quite interested in the power of social influence following the events of the Holocaust, in which seemingly normal people allowed and actively carried out some of the worst atrocities in the history of mankind.

Some may bluster at the idea that these perpetrators could have been considered “normal.” Surely, no one with even an ounce of sanity could be led to do such horrible things?

Stanley Milgram set out to answer that very question with a series of studies, the first of which was published in 1963. The Milgram experiments, as they would come to be known, each used variations of the same paradigm, the basic design of which is as follows: The experimenter explains to two participants – one of whom is in on the experiment – that the purpose of the study is to test the effects of punishment on learning. They are then told that they will be randomly assigned to play one of two roles. The true participant is always assigned the role of the “teacher,” who will go down a list of randomly associated words, and the fake participant is assigned to be the “learner,” who will be asked to remember which words were associated with which.

Each time the learner gets a question wrong, the teacher must flip a switch that will give the learner – who is strapped into his chair – an electric shock. For each subsequent wrong answer, the teacher is asked to administer shocks of increasing voltage. (Unbeknownst to the teacher, the learner receives no actual shocks.)

The first few incorrect answers yield only minor shocks for the learner, with the first being just 5 volts. However, as the experiment goes on, the increasingly powerful shocks become evidently more painful for the learner to the point where he screams out in pain beginning at 75 volts. At around 150 volts, the learner asks to be taken out of the experiment. Even so, the experimenter insists that the teacher must continue with the questions and the shocks until the learner has correctly answered each question.

A participant in the Milgram experiment, "The Humanity of the NPC Meme"
A participant in the Milgram experiment, under visible duress, gives what he believes to be an high-voltage electric shock to the learner.

It would be reasonable to think that most participants would back out of the study as soon as the learner began crying out in pain, or at the very least that they would refuse to continue after the learner begs to be let out of the machine. But 50% of participants complete the entire experiment, continuing the shocks past the point labeled “Danger: Severe Shock” all the way to 450 volts, simply labeled “XXX”. Even though they hear the learner crying out in pain, complaining of heart discomfort at 150 volts, and refusing to answer the questions; they still continue to the very end. But why?

The Deflection of Blame

At one point during a video detailing the Milgram experiment, one of the participants says, “I refuse to take the responsibility of him getting hurt in there (…) Who’s going to take the responsibility if anything happens to that gentlemen?”

The experimenter then responds, “I’m responsible for anything that happens here.”

The participant then continues on with the experiment. Though he is still visibly uncomfortable, the alleviation of blame is enough to convince him to continue. And continue he does, to the very end of the experiment at 450 volts, which he gives a total of three times.

After conclusion of the experiment, the experimenter asks of the participant: “Is there anything that Mr. Wallace in there could have said that would’ve gotten you to stop?” The participant tries to subvert the question and comes up with multiple excuses to explain his very simple answer: “No.” He goes on to explain that though he was concerned for the “learner,” he trusted the doctor to know what he was doing, and therefore continued with the experiment. This combination of informational influence and the attribution of blame to another is enough for people to do things they would normally consider unconscionable.

Many people, not knowing much about the experiment, claim that subjects who go to the end of the board are sadistic. Nothing could be more foolish as an overall characterization of these persons. The context of their action must always be considered. The individual, upon entering the laboratory, becomes integrated into a situation that carries its own momentum. In further experiments we’ve attempted to analyze a few factors that contribute to the force of the situation. – Milgram

They found that the more emotionally salient or physically close the learner was to the participant, the less likely the participant was to obey. The more emotionally salient the experimenter was to the participant, the more likely the participant was to obey. The comparative psychological distance between the participant and the experimenter and the participant and the learner affects the participants’ actions in a way “akin to fields of force.”

The Gravity of Social Groups

We are all objects in motion. We are set in motion by others – our parents – and our momentum and direction are guided by others from that point on. Every single action a person takes throughout his or her lifetime will have been in reaction to something or someone in the environment.

The groups, parties, tribes, and even individuals of the world can be thought of as planets in a solar system, each with their own mass and gravity. The more massive the group, and the closer you are to it, the more influence it will have on your motion. If you get too close to a group of sufficient size, you will be unable to escape its pull. Its gravity will have complete control over your motion. Any flailing attempts to move on your own will be futile.

To say that any decision is made independent of environmental influence is a non sequitur. Every action is a reaction.

Even if you are millions of miles away from the source, the gravity of that object will still influence your motion in some subtle way. You may even get caught orbiting it from afar. Just the same, no matter how far you think you might be from any particular group, all of them are influencing you in some way or another.

We are all objects in motion. We are set in motion by others – our parents – and our momentum and direction are guided by others from that point on. Every single movement a person makes throughout his or her lifetime will have been in response to something or someone in the environment. To say that any decision is made independent of environmental influence is a non sequitur. Every action is a reaction.

The Relationship between Man and his Environment

To understand the fundamental nature of the relationship between a person and his or her environment, one only needs to attempt to describe a person. If you say that a man is kind: kind to whom? If you say that a woman is tall: compared to what? When a person says that he “knows himself,” what he means is that he knows how he fits into the world around him. It is impossible to describe an human being without also describing his or her environment.

To truly escape group influence, one would have either to fly so far in a given direction as to pass beyond even the most radical organizations or to go in a new direction entirely. This would allow the person to escape the bulk of any groups’ influence, but his distance from those groups would also prevent him from having any influence on them. He would simply be isolated in either his radicalism or apoliticism.

It is therefore impossible to fully escape group influence and remain influential. Instead, when moving away from one group, you must move towards its opposite, trading the influence of the former with the influence of the latter. For this reason, centrism is not to be without outside influence, but it is to be equally influenced by both sides to the point where they tend to remain in balance. Still, it is inevitable that a person will sometimes be pulled more to one side or the other, and so even the centrist can fall into the trap that is at the crux of the NPC meme.

Social Influence in Politics

When DNA testing of Elizabeth Warren’s heritage showed that she is between 1/64th and 1/1024th Native American, did you interpret this as proof of her indigenous ancestry or as proof that she does not qualify as a Native American? She does mostly likely have some amount of indigenous heritage. However, to call her “Native American” would require a reclassification of many American Caucasians as such, as the average self-identified European American is roughly 1/555th indigenous.

In effect, each of these facts may serve to prove or disprove Warren’s heritage claim depending upon your interpretation of both the claim and the results. And given the interpretive results, it is no coincidence that members of the Democratic Party tend to see the results as “proof” while the Republican Party sees them as “disproof,” consistent with the results that best support the talking point of each. Your initial predisposition towards one or the other may reflect the influence of your respective group on your judgment.

Another example of this would be the Kavanaugh hearing. The tendency for many Democrats and Republicans to automatically side with Ford or Kavanaugh, respectively, was pronounced. (And it is no coincidence that those who were quickest to judge Kavanaugh are now highlighting the importance of corroborated evidence with Lt. Gov. Fairfax.)

However, possibly more telling than this was the interpretation of certain questions and answers to favor the presupposition of each side.

Brett Kavanaugh at his Supreme Court nomination hearing, "The Humanity of the NPC Meme"
Judge Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in before testifying at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing on September 27, 2018. (Win McNamee/REUTERS)

During the Senate hearing for Kavanaugh, Cory Booker asked him, “You drank on weekdays as well in high school, not just weekends. Is that correct?” Kavanaugh responded that this was rare, and Booker proceeded to bring up a specific date on his calendar which demonstrated that he’d gone to a friend’s house to drink on a Wednesday. Booker then asked again, “You drank on weekdays, yes or no, sir?”  Kavanaugh admitted that he had, indeed, had alcohol on the specified date.

This was followed by an interesting exchange. Booker, “You just said, sir, that you drank on weekdays. That’s all I was looking for.” To this Kavanaugh responded, “Well, no…”

First, Kavanaugh had admitted to drinking on a Wednesday, but then he said that he didn’t drink on weekdays. Does this mean that one of these was a lie?

Many democrats claimed this to be so, and it led some to accuse Kavanaugh of lying under oath. On an episode of Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman, progressive activist Lisa Graves said that Kavanaugh had claimed “he could never have been drunk on a weekday, or he had never–he never did any drinking on a weekday” even though his calendar “showed that there were parties on weekdays.”

The general response by conservatives to this accusation was echoed by Ben Shapiro in the Daily Wire, “(Kavanaugh) said that he rarely drank on weekdays, and then referenced an exception on his calendar. So no lie.”

When political leanings are predictive of the chosen interpretation, it is reasonable to assume some amount of social influence.

Again, the root of this disagreement – and of several others listed in the above-mentioned Daily Wire article – is a difference of interpretation. When someone asks, “Did you drink on weekdays?” it is perfectly reasonable to interpret the question as one of routine. This makes the question akin to, “Did you normally drink on weekdays?”

It is also reasonable, given the circumstances of the hearing, to interpret the question as, “Did you ever, even once, drink on a weekday?”

Consistent with the motivations of each party, most conservatives interpreted the question to mean the former, while most liberals interpreted it to mean the latter. Was this coincidence? Or was this a reflection of an inherent bias towards the interpretation which best promoted each group’s narrative? When political leanings are predictive of the chosen interpretation, it is reasonable to assume some amount of social influence.

The Importance of Social Influence

Social psychology is frequently a difficult pill to swallow. It’s much more intuitive – and far more pleasant – to imagine ourselves as being in complete control of own decisions. No one wants to be an NPC.

But humans are an exceptionally social animal. Our propensity to work with and for each other in new and creative ways is the primary reason for our being the dominate species on the planet. And while our natural social dynamics are not without consequences, their mechanisms are the reason we are here today.

A young chimp opens an opaque puzzle box and a clear puzzle box, "The Humanity of the NPC Meme"
After watching an adult take unnecessary steps to open a puzzle box, a 3-4 year-old child will imitate them exactly, even if the box is clear and the solution obvious. However, this young chimp will quickly learn to skip the unnecessary steps in the clear condition. (Horner & Whiten, 2004)

One of the things that sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is that we have theory of mind, which means that we understand that others’ minds differ from our own. Our beliefs, preferences, knowledge bases, etc. do not align perfectly with others.’

One negative consequence of this is our resulting tendency to over-imitate. From a very young age, children will copy not only the good or important actions of those they trust, but also the actions which are seemingly wrong or unnecessary. One explanation for this is that they believe the person or group must know something they don’t; that they must have some good reason for their apparently wrong action. These kinds of mistakes are not made by animals without theory of mind. Yet, even the most educated human adult will often fall prey to this kind of informational social influence.

But theory of mind is also what allows us to be such effective teachers and learners. It is what allows us to engage in the division of labor, as we understand that not everyone has the same strengths or weaknesses. It is also what allows the five-year-old child, unlike the pre-theory three-year-old, to understand why their parent is not equally enthusiastic about watching “Frozen” for the seventh time that day.

Social influence is not a pleasant concept, as evidenced by the reaction to the NPC meme. But its benefits far outweigh its consequences. And once you are aware of them, even these can be mediated.

The Environment You Choose

When you know that you are likely to be influenced by your groups, the key to success is then to position yourself within and between the right groups; those less likely to lead you astray. A person in this position can, if nothing else, increase the chances of a positive result when she occasionally and inevitably falls prey to their influence.

Indeed, while we are often driven by our surroundings, we also have the ability to choose those surroundings. Studies have shown that the environments in which we are raised are not the best predictors of the choices we will eventually make. Instead, we tend to seek out the environments that best fit our intrinsic characteristics. So, while many of our choices are influenced by our environments, the aggregates of those environmentally-driven choices tend to be accurate reflections of ourselves.

Free Though and Self-evaluation

“Like everyone, you think you are rational, but you are not. Rationality is not a power you are born with, but one you acquire through training and practice.” – Robert Greene

Careful consideration and self-assessment can also lessen the impact of your social groups. As said by author Robert Greene, “Like everyone, you think you are rational, but you are not. Rationality is not a power you are born with, but one you acquire through training and practice.”

Free thought requires constant self-evaluation. One must question the origins of every “gut reaction,” every generalization, etc. Humans developed these heuristics – mental shortcuts – as means of simplifying our world. They are the autopilot of the mind, designed to ease the burden of awareness from the conscious brain.

It is easy to blame all of our problems on the “others.” It is easy to trust in our intuitions. It is easy to let our actions be guided and dictated by external rather than internal forces and succumb to environmental programming.

Free thought, however, is a constant battle. It is disabling the autopilot and grabbing the wheel. This will not win you praise.

More often, it will earn you the equal hate of all sides. It is consciously and emotionally effortful. This is one of the things that make true independent thought so rare – and the NPC meme so cutting – as putting yourself in an overtly painful position goes against all natural instincts.

But your reward will be the mental fortitude to stand up to it. The emotional exercise will yield strength in the same way as does physical exercise, (and it will require just as much effort to maintain). Then, whatever choices you choose to make, you can say with some degree of certainty that you made them of your own volition.

The Humanity of the NPC Meme

People think of the NPC meme as dehumanizing. In truth, there are few things more human than group membership and social imitation. While we make hundreds of conscious, reason-based decisions on a daily basis, we are only able to focus on a small portion of our surroundings at any given moment. We must rely on heuristics and the primitive, reflexive brain to deal with the rest. That so many of our decisions are made via this “autopilot” should come as no surprise when considering that we are one of the few animals capable of anything but that.

Each of us is an NPC from time to time. What sets us apart is that sometimes, we are not. For if there is anything more human than group influence, it is our ability to forcefully break from that environmental programming. It is our ability to both act as the NPC and engage in free thought. Which of these things will most define you is a choice only you can make.


Tyler Watkins received a BA with Honors in psychology from the University of Iowa and has since worked in the fields of medical and psychological research at Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the University of Iowa. He is currently pursuing a career as an independent writer and has been featured in Quillette, Intellectual Conservative, and Areo Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @WatkinsDoOp

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