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Is there really such a thing as a “sheeple” mentality — a tendency by the vast majority of us to follow along mindlessly, and without resistance? Yes, according to a series of research projects over the past couple of years which concluded that following the crowd is a distinct human trait.
Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Luci Gutierrez compared the phenomenon to people who view a sporting event, like a football game:
Suddenly, 50,000 individuals became a single unit, almost a single mind, focused intently on what was happening on the field–that particular touchdown grab or dive into the end zone. Somehow, virtually simultaneously, each of those 50,000 people tuned into what the other 49,999 were looking at.
She notes that being part of a crowd can either be exhilarating, as in participating in sporting events, or terrifying. What’s more, down through human history, we have built institutions and recreations that feed into our crowd mentality, to provide us with “that dangerous, enthralling thrill.”
Think about how entire populations follow enigmatic leaders, for better or for worse. While Hitler certainly was not loved universally by all Germans — and not all Germans were members of the Nazi Party — he certainly managed to captivate the vast majority of the German people, who followed him as he led a conquest of the European continent that caused the deaths of tens of millions of people and destroyed entire nations.
We tend to follow what other humans are doing
As Gutierrez notes, the most recent research on the subject of crowd mentality seems to suggest “that our sensitivity to crowds is built into our perceptual system and operates in a remarkably swift and automatic way.” She writes that a paper released in 2012 by A.C. Gallup, then a student at Princeton University, and colleagues, which was published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined the causes and effects of crowd behavior at shopping centers and train stations.
One of the studies involved preselected subjects who joined a crowd and stared up at a spot in the sky for one minute. While they did so, researchers recorded and analyzed the reactions and movements of people surrounding them. Researchers discovered that within a few seconds hundreds of people reacted very similarly and in a coordinated manner.
“People consistently stopped to look toward exactly the same spot as the ringers,” Gutierrez wrote, citing the research.
The scientists documented that the number of preselected subjects ranged from one to 15. And, as it turns out, people can be very attuned to how many others are looking at the same thing. Gutierrez noted, “Individuals were much more likely to follow the gaze of several people than just a few, so there was a cascade of looking as more people joined in.”
“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
Fashion Is Herd Mentality
Fashion is another example. Remember the checked bell bottoms, side burns, orange shag carpets, and avocado green appliances of the seventies? We roll our eyes and laugh at those styles today, but are our current styles really any better? Are we really any better at determining what is attractive now? Think of the current trend of wearing baggy jeans half way down your butt and a baseball cap worn side ways. Is that really attractive?
Yet millions of people dress just like that and are considered to be very stylish. At one time Chinese women suffered excruciating pain by binding their feet and crippled themselves for the rest of their lives for what was, at the time, considered beautiful. Are our own ideas of beauty any less weird? Women, who appear to be on the brink of death by starvation, massive breasts filled with saline, huge lips filled with collagen: are these things truly more beautiful than deformed feet?
Why Do We Do It?
“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”
So why do we go along with these things? From insincere standing ovation, too cruel and irresponsible behaviour, too contorting our bodies to adhere to current ideas of beauty, our brain is wired for us to conform.
Conforming Actives Reward Center Of Our Brain
A recent study done at Basel University in Switzerland by Vasily Klucharev used an MRI machine to scan the brains of people as they were asked to rate the attractiveness of faces. Afterwards they were informed of the average rating of each face. When they were told their opinions did not conform to the average the “error” signal in their brain was activated. Most changed their opinion and when they did, the reward center of the brain was activated.
In another interesting study done by Chris Frith and Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn at Aarhus University in Denmark found that the reward centers of the brains of the participants were activated if an “experts” rating of a pop song agreed with their own. “That shared opinion is a reward like food or money. And it has the power to influence behaviour”, says Campbell-Meiklejohn.
Conforming To Kill
“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.”
So can we take this need of ours to be socially accepted and apply it to violent and destructive mob mentality such as riots, gangs and the mother of all mob mentality, war? You bet! Take military groups for instance. They are taught to be the ultimate conformers.
Dress alike, look alike, walk alike, do what you are told when you are told and never question your “superiors”. For this they are called heroes, given guns and are encouraged to murder and torture their fellow human beings. The reward centers in their brains are going off the chart. So much so, that they will commit acts they never knew themselves capable of.
“You can not grant me my freedom, it is not your gift to grant me my freedom or take it away. Because I am and we all are freedom.”
Losing Self Awareness In A Crowd
There is a little more science to explain why people will act in ways that go against their basic morals and beliefs. Tamara Avant, Psychology Program Director at South University in Savannah, says that when people are part of a group they can deindividuate, (lose their self awareness and sense of individuality), and get caught up in the emotional excitement and indulge in behaviours they would not engage in alone. They may not feel personally responsible for their violence as they perceive the violent action as “the group’s”. The bigger the mob, or group, the more they can lose their self awareness.
“Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Beating Your Reptilian Brain. Make Your Own Choices
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
So does this mean we are doomed to act like thugs and behave like violent sheep? Can we think for ourselves and not follow the pack? Yes, we can and it is easy. Being aware is enough. Know that when you refuse to conform your brain is going to alert you with “Error! Error! Undo immediately and reward me!”
Be aware that this is the reptilian part of your brain kicking in from days when conformity to the tribe was literally a life or death choice. It will pass. Very quickly. So go ahead and be a renegade! Next time you are at a not so great play and the multitude leap to their feet to applaud, just sit there. Will people stare? Maybe, so what? Do you want to be manipulated by the crowd? This crowd or any crowd?
“Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism, the way you play it is free will.”