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Most of us are sheep (most of the time)

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(This is part of our larger fear series. Find out more about what is fear, what fears we have, and other ways to overcome our fears here)

Over a decade ago, I remember interning at a bank as a naive freshman. The bank had just developed some new financial products, and was organising an event at a large shopping mall to market and sell these. We met up with the marketing department, who had run many such events before. The marketing vice-president went through the plan - most of the event pace was dedicated to booths for free food and gifts and games, with only a small space for bank managers to sell the new products. 

I was puzzled by this. I asked the VP, why is space allocation so unbalanced? And why is there so much frivolous activity? Shouldn't we focus on how to better explain the products to make them more appealing?

The VP wearily smiled and replied: "Jeff, if you're shopping at a mall, would you stop to check out financial products? You wouldn't, because there are far more interesting things to look at. No matter how desirable our products are  how much space we dedicate to bank managers, no one will come anyway.

So the goal is first to attract some people in. We do so with the freebies. People need to wait for them; that's also why we make the popcorn and cotton candy on the spot, so they have to queue and wait. 

And I'll always remember her face when she concluded. She stopped smiling, stared straight into my eyes, and with a heavy sigh, she continued "People are like sheep Jeff. Nothing attracts people more than other people. Once we have some people at our event, others will follow. And that's when we approach them with our products.

 

You.... will see for yourself this weekend, the sheep mentality. People do what other people do."

She was right, of course. It worked exactly as she described. Standing at the edge of the event, I heard the same line over and over again, "What's happening? There's a lot of people there. Let's go take a look."

Check out this experiment below. It looks really silly on video as an observer. But imagine if you were involved. Would you actually not follow the routine?

Video is 3 min 40s long

Asch experiment

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Which line is the same length as line X above? 

The answer is obvious and surely indisputable. But what if everyone else has a different answer from you. Would you change your answer?

In the Asch experiment, each participant is joined by 8 other "participants" - these 8 are actors planted by the experimenter to give the wrong answer. The real participants were of course not aware that the others were actors. Each real participant answered 6th in order, having heard 5 wrong answers before. 
 

The experimenter asked a total of 12 questions, similar to the one above, with obvious, indisputable answers. What results did Asch find?

  • 50% of people gave the same wrong answer as the others on more than half of the trials.

  • 76% of participants denied their own logic at least once, following the blatantly false judgement of others on at least one of the 12 trials.

  • 5% always conformed with the majority incorrect opinion (I presume we all have someone like this in our lives)

This experiment has been replicated many times in different settings over different generations.

You can also read a fuller write-up of the Asch experiment here. 

You can view one variation of the Asch experiment done by National Geographic below. 

Video is 3 min long

Why are we so inclined to conform? Several reasons:
 

  1. As the video above concludes, for survival - this point on survival has been repeated ad nauseam throughout this entire theme on fear. In the past, our ancestors had to live in tribes - where work and resources can be shared and people can look out for one another. You simply couldn't survive alone. So it was important to adhere to social norms developed by your tribe, i.e. what is commonly practised and hence accepted by most. If you violated these social norms, you might be kicked out of the group, and face almost certain.

    Besides, following what others are doing is a simple and mostly effective heuristic - if a lot of people are doing something and all of them are still surviving, that activity is likely to be safe. There is a sort of insurance policy when we follow what others do. (Find out more about how heuristics shape our decisions and behaviours)

     

  2. Imitating others is a key way in which we learn. How does a kid learn what's an "apple"? Well, an adult repeated the term "apple", and after several times the kid copies what he/she has heard. In much the same vein, why do kids want to wear clothes? Or want the bag that another kid is carrying? Or wants long hair? Again, a large part of this comes from analogy - they saw someone else do/own, and thereafter, also want to do/own the same thing.
     

  3. Most of the time, copying others do is a pretty good strategy. Imagine all the different things you have to figure out on your own if you don't reference others. Life will be a never-ending sequence of problem to be solved. Instead, if we just followed everyone and brushed our teeth when we wake up; when we follow everyone to dress in a certain way to go to work; when we use the same language and expressions as everyone else; and when people take the same sort of photos for social media because they saw someone else's shot which was very popular, it tends to work. There is an assumption here - if people are doing something, there must be a reason why they are doing it.  

However, we also know that changes and improvements in any field occurred because of non-conformity. It is only because Copernicus and Galileo refused the commonly-accepted notion that Earth is in the centre of the universe that we now understand the workings of the solar system. It is only Barbara McClintock, after years of observing random changes in maize, that we now know genes are transposable. And we would all still be riding horses if Henry Ford had not rejected the views of his customers.

 

 

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In 1968, Dick Fosbury rejected the traditional techniques high jump. He did the counter-intuitive. Instead of facing the bar, he faced away from it, approaching back-first and coming up with what we now call the Fosbury Flop. Of course, in doing so, not only did he achieve much better results at the high jump, but he made us see how ridiculous previous techniques were - look at scissors or the roll or the straddle - they now look ridiculous and comical. But no one would have thought that in the 1930s. It would have just appeared normal. 

Conformity works for simpler and less consequential areas in life. But conforming in all areas is simply not living at all.


I think all of us already know this. If we believe we are unique, as we should then there must be some parts of our life story that is unique and different from others. 
 

But how can we do this? How can we overcome our inclination to conform? How can we beat our fear of not being good enough? Or all our other fears for that matter?

Check out the page on how we can beat our own fears.

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