Skip navigation.

The Herd Mentality

from the excruciatingly-long-posts dept.
I'm trying to put my finger on something, so bear with me as think out loud. This may get a little weird ...

Have you ever had a group of friends who you probably wouldn't have been friends with if it hadn't been for the fact that you were all around each other a lot? I once had some friends like that. I liked them but we were really different.

This is going to sound bad, but they were kind of ... well ... generic. When you were around these people the conversation was usually just small-talk. The girls talked about Clay Aiken, Carmen Rasmuseen, and lots of people in their ward. And the guys of course talked about stuff like new movies, Halo, and how they can't stand American Idol.

I couldn't bear to just sit around and have worthless conversation. Life seemed almost ... two-dimensional with them. They seemed like pop-culture garbage disposals ... just taking in whatever was thrown at them and regurgitating it.

They never wanted to talk about real current events. They also had no interest in taking a step back to look at the real why of everything you encounter in everyday life. It was like they just blindly bought-in to the lowest-common-denominator way of thinking. Something was "good" to them only if everybody else thought it was good.

Hanging out with them was difficult because we thought about things so differently. I just didn't like to watch what they liked to watch, I didn't like to listen to what they liked to listen to, and I didn't like to talk about what they liked to talk about. It's hard to enjoy people's company when your tastes are so different.

So why were they like that? Why did they all see everything the same, while I saw it differently?

Before trying to answer this let me tell you a little more.

When we hung out in a group I had the tendency to kind of step on people's toes. Now I hope I didn't do this too much, but I would sometimes ask them why they actually held some particular opinion.

It was funny to watch them try to respond. It's like they didn't know. They'd nearly always respond with something like, "well because xyz is awesome!" Other times they would respond by just sort of attacking me with something like, "What's your problem, Mason? What kind of question is that?" And I would respond with, "Well, I just don't see what you're seeing. I just don't get it." What I really wanted to say was, "How can you like something so much but have no ability to explain why? I don't think you really do. You just like liking the same thing that everyone else likes. THAT's what you like. If your little group of friends (along with pop-culture as a whole) wasn't here to tell you what to like and what not to like you would be completely lost. You don't even know what it's like to really like something, to actually find value in it for yourself... You're an idiot."

Yeah, so I guess you could say that their attitude bothered me a bit.

Ok, so here is my theory: First off--and this is pretty obvious--most people find it important to be accepted. Being accepted by the majority is much better than by a minority, therefore the majority of people will shoot for acceptance by the majority. People who for some reason are prevented from majority acceptance are force to settle for the next best option: acceptance by the next largest / next most highly esteemed group.

Second, regardless of what they may lead you to believe, most people are conservative betters: People go with what works. Over time they learn that in order to be accepted by the majority they better align their opinions with the majority.

These two things influence people to stop thinking for themselves and to instead become just another member of the herd.

To further illustrate what I'm talking about let me tell you about a guy I'll call Brad who was a member of our group. Brad seemed to be the type that was especially in need of group approval. He never ventured out on a limb by stating any opinions that could possibly be considered wrong by everyone else. Brad tried harder than anyone else to put himself as far toward the center of our group as possible. I--on the other hand--was the wildcard, always venturing out on limbs by introducing new opinions or ideas into the group.

For example, at times I'd walk in and they would all be watching something on TV and after a few minutes I'd say something like, "This is stupid. Why on earth are you watching this?" (That's an extreme example, but you get the idea.) As if sensing that the herd was in danger, Brad would always be the first one to slam me in situations like this. I had ventured too far away from what the group considered acceptable. It was nearly always him. What's interesting is that Brad was not a leader for the group at all. He never led out on anything except for on slamming me for showing signs of independent thought.

In reality, all Brad was doing little more than placing another one of his safe bets in an effort to help cement his conservative position at the dead center of the group. By slamming me for going out on any kind of limb he was making the safest bet he could: identifying me as an outsider, and thereby placing me further toward the outside and himself further toward the center.

I had a really hard time understanding why he'd do this. He made no effort to actually think for himself. He just consistently went with the safest response given our group context: to identify my opinions as stupid on the assumption that the majority opinion was correct. It was, after all, the majority opinion.

And by the way, let me just make a little disclaimer here and say that I really wasn't going about my little rebellion in the annoying kind of way you can imagine someone doing it. I wasn't just hanging around trying to get a rise out of people or cramping people's style, etc. Anyways ...

So I guess Brad's rule was that you don't question the majority's opinion, while mine was that you only hold it as a reference during your own investigation. I could care less if I was identified as an idiot for saying what I said. It wasn't like my life hinged on that particular group's opinion of me. (I'm not trying to claim that I'm so tough that I don't care what anyone thinks of me, I just didn't care in this case.)

I've really wrestled with what it was that made us see things so differently, and I think I've figured it out, at least to some extent: they valued group acceptance much more than I did.

So I guess my question is this: Am I just some kind of weirdo? It seems to me like this group of friends is a fairly average cross-section of BYU. Is there more to this than what I'm seeing? Why the herd mentality?