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Moove on Sheeple: The Human Herding Instinct

August 12, 2012
Me at Sixteen

The hair, the ‘man shirt’, the paisley mini-skirt, the fishnet stockings – all chosen to help me ‘fit in’.

When I was young, I spent a great deal of time and effort trying to ‘fit in’. Between the ages of about eleven and eighteen (a time when most young people begin to take stock of their ‘place’ in the human collective), I desperately wanted to be one of the ‘popular’ girls. I thought (tragically) that if I wore the clothes they wore, went to the parties they went to, frequented the soda shops where they hung out, ate the food they ate, listened to the music they listened to, etc., I would be as admired and accepted as (I perceived) they were. (That many of them were selfish, inconsiderate, and occasionally reckless didn’t seem to matter; despite the fact that some of the attitudes and behaviours these girls exhibited contradicted my own sense of ‘right and wrong’, I equated ‘alike’ to ‘being liked’ – and so I made choices based on what the ‘in crowd’ was doing.)

Whenever I would whine (which I did with some regularity, I’m embarrassed to say) about not being able to do or have something (or go somewhere), that ‘everyone else’ was doing (or going to) – because, despite the fact that we lived on the very edge of the ‘upper class’ end of town, my father’s income wasn’t anywhere close to that of the doctors and dentists and lawyers whose daughters I yearned to socialize with – my mother would admonish me by asking, “If everyone else jumped off the pier, would you do it too?” Lakeside Park Pier (NOTE: we weren’t supposed to hang out at the Lakeside pier, and we were definitely NOT allowed to jump off it – but a lot of kids did.  I wasn’t one of them [I wasn’t a good swimmer], but my sister and I did get dragged home by the police once for being down there after dark!)  Fortunately, by the time I graduated from high school, I had come to realize that my goals and dreams were a far cry from what the majority of those ‘rich girls’ wanted (most aimed to marry well and live in the lap of luxury for the rest of their lives), so I ‘came in off the pier’ and decided to go my own way.  That decision has worked pretty well for me – forty-odd years later, I’m still managing (for the most part) to avoid current trends, fads, crazes, crowds, and most other types of ‘benign herding’ behaviour (making decisions based on what other people are doing or saying vs. using one’s own judgment).

However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t encroach on my life – because it most certainly does.  In fact, I bet you’ve even engaged in it occasionally yourself (probably without even realizing you were doing it).

Ice Cream

Which ice cream is better?

Here’s how benign herding works:  A young couple walking along the street on a hot summer’s day decides to stop for a cool treat. There are two ice cream shops – side by side – across the street.  The one on the left has a line up out the door; there are only three people at the counter in the store on the right. Guess which one the couple is most likely to head for? No – not the one with the shorter line up! It’s far more likely that they’ll get in line outside the store on the left, because they’re thinking (perhaps subconsciously, maybe aloud), “The ice cream being served there must be better because so many people are willing to line up to buy it.”  In truth, both stores could be selling the exact same product at the exact same price (or the ice cream at the less-popular shop could actually be a better quality and/or price), but the couple’s decision (and, likely, the decision of most of the other people waiting in line) was based solely on what they perceived to be the preference of ‘the herd’.

Here are a few examples of benign herding that I’ve personally witnessed (I bet you have too!)

  • You’re the only person (or one of very few) on a bus or a subway car.  The next person who gets on chooses a seat within three rows of where you’re sitting.
  • Where's the best seat in the house?You go to the movie theatre, arriving early to get ‘the best’ seats.  Only a dozen or so other people come into the theatre, but at least one sits directly in front of or behind you (or no more than three seats to your left or right, in the same row as you, or in the row immediately in front of or behind you).
  • In the drugstore you pick up your favourite shampoo or toothpaste or deodorant without stopping to examine all the other products that are available (i.e., you are confident in making your purchase); the man/woman who was scanning the shelves when you arrived picks up the same brand you just selected.
  • A friend or colleague joins you for dinner and, after briefly glancing at the menu, waits for you to order, then says to the waiter/waitress, “I’ll have what s/he’s having.”
  • While in line at the grocery store, the person ahead of you watches the other checkout lines and, determining that another line is moving more quickly than the one you’re in, moves over to it.
  • A complete stranger asks you what brand/product you prefer (this could happen in any store) and then buys the item you recommended.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean Ride Entrance

    Go Left!

    When approaching a line that splits in two (e.g., the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ride at Disney World), you see most of the people entering ahead of you going to the right (studies have shown that as many as two thirds of people, when given the choice between left and right or straight and right, will go right [given a choice between straight and left, they go straight]; likely this is because almost 90% of the population is right handed, but what it REALLY means is that you should ALWAYS take the left path when given a choice – it’ll get you where you’re headed more quickly).

  • A friend or family member ‘hijacks’ your ideas and/or your ‘wish list’ (i.e., you mention that you’re considering painting your living room pink and a week later your friend posts photos of her new pink living room on Facebook; you tell your brother that you’re saving up for a dream trip to Italy and six months later you get a post card from Florence that reads ‘Dear Sibling: Having a great time, wish you were here’; you reveal to a colleague that you’ve always wanted a red sports car and three months later, guess what s/he pulls into the parking lot in and parks beside your beat-up old sedan?)

Right Way vs. Wrong WaySo, what’s really going on here?  Well, when faced with a choice (from very simple through extremely difficult) only a small percentage of people actually use their own judgment to make up their minds about what to do.  The rest will look at what others are doing before making a choice (and then they generally go along with what the majority chooses).  Basically they’re thinking, “It’s more likely that I’m going to be the one who is wrong, rather than all these other people, so I’m going to do what they’re doing.”  Better, I guess they’re thinking, to be part of a group of people who are all wrong than the single individual who ‘bucked the trend’ (even if the alternate choice was the right one to being with).

Like ButtonMarketers tap into this mindset to promote and sell products.  Referred to in marketing circles as an ‘information cascade’ or a ‘reputational cascade’, it relies on the assumption that most people will buy or use products that they see other people (particularly those they associate closest with) buying or using or wearing or driving or drinking, etc. – even when they might (privately) think that some other alternative is actually better.  They choose based on what ‘the herd’ chooses.  NOTE: the exponential impact (two people tell two people who tell two people who tell two people …) of social networking has led to a whole new (viral) era in cascade marketing that allows products to reach ‘overnight sensation’ status from nothing more than people recommending it to other people (that’s what the ‘Like’ button is all about, in case you didn’t know!)

East End of the Beach

The popular and busy east end of the beach

The one area of benign herding that really gets my goat (pun intended) is what happens when I visit the beach.  I try to get down to the lake at least once a week during the summer. I deliberately go to the west end – as far away from the snack bar and washrooms as possible – because I like solitude and a modicum of privacy when I’m lakeside (the beach near where I live is approximately one mile long; the eastern half of that is where the majority of beachgoers collect; the west end is far less popular).  However, it never fails that within an hour of setting out my chaise and settling down to read whatever book I’ve brought with me, someone (single, couple, women with children, family group) sets up their towels and umbrellas and drops their coolers and beach toys within six feet of where I’m lying (this despite the fact that there is roughly a quarter mile of near-empty beach all around).  Generally, I pack up and move.  And – guaranteed – within another half hour, someone else will have dropped down within spitting distance of me.  One day, I moved four times before I finally gave up and just tried to ignore the interpersonal exchanges, the one-sided cell phone conversations, the squealing children, and the nagging mothers all around me.  (NOTE: this behaviour can be observed at any public beach; I once heard it referred to as ‘Waikiki Beach Syndrome’, because no matter where you sit on what is considered the most popular beach in the world, someone is sure to lay their towel right next to you!)

West End of the Beach

You’ll find me (or – hopefully – not) on the less popular west end of the beach.

I used to ask myself “Why do they insist on sitting RIGHT BESIDE ME?” As someone who values their personal space and who wants to be left alone at the beach, I just didn’t ‘get’ it.  But I realize now that the answer is really quite simple – because I was there first, they think I’ve got the ‘best spot’, so they sit next to me.  The more people who sit close by, the ‘better’ that area appears to others, and the problem magnifies.  They’re all basing their decision on where to settle based on who’s already there (and it just happens to be me who starts it all because I’m usually the first one at that end of the beach).  It seems that one of the instincts that the human race hasn’t quite evolved out of is the need to be part of the crowd, one of the gang, a member of the herd.

I just wish they’d gather somewhere else and respect my need to be alone to enjoy the limited number of beach days I’ve still got coming to me on … the other side of 55.

Grade Eight Graduation

My Grade 8 Graduation – only two girls weren’t wearing white dresses! I’m glad I’ve gotten over wanting to be like the rest of the herd!

  1. September 6, 2012 11:48 pm

    i like to think they’re following you because of your magnetic personality and wisdom in making choices 🙂

  2. August 28, 2012 1:35 pm

    Well, people do have a herd mentality and those who can’t think for themselves have something to fall back on. Myself, I’ve been going against the herd for a long, long time. My husband takes this to an even further degree – he’s the one who does the shopping and in the supermarket goes, when it’s open, to checkout 13. Then he’s the only one there!

    • September 2, 2012 7:47 pm

      Unfortunately the ‘new generation’ is all about following, not leading. So sad! I’ll always be a bit of a rebel, myself.


  3. August 13, 2012 8:32 am

    I admit to being a bit envious at the possibility of beach privacy! I read a study about this phenomenon way back when, always interesting to study human behaviors. I’d love to see a study on those of us who consider ourselves private, how often do we truly make different choices than most?

    • August 13, 2012 9:52 am

      I find it a fascinating phenomenon. And I suspect we all make decisions based on input from others that we aren’t even aware of (I remember – years ago – almost buying a Cabbage Patch doll when I saw a stack of them in a store – even though I had no daughters or young girls in my life – simply because they were the “IT” item for Christmas and supposedly very hard to find. Subliminal messages do seem to get through!)


      • August 13, 2012 10:38 am

        I skipped the whole Cabbage Patch thing, too old for dolls, but still didn’t have children. American Girl, though, I’ve been suckered there a time or ten. 😉 I read a book about advertising and human nature, Subliminal Seduction, that I remember being excellent–but that was at least 30 years ago.

      • August 13, 2012 11:00 am

        I’ll have to check the local library and see if they have a copy of that book. I know I’ve gotten suckered into buying things I didn’t need (and/or watching TV shows or going to movies that weren’t particularly good) just because of the ‘hype’. Sad commentary on society (but that’s the marketing biz).


  4. Lauren permalink
    August 13, 2012 7:53 am

    Excellent post. As a “quiet maverick” grazing on the outskirts of the meadow, I agree with many of the points you made. It prompted me to post something on my style that I wrote a number of years ago and continued to add onto until I hit 50, when it no longer became necessary. Thanks for that prompt and for the good reading this morning.

    • August 13, 2012 9:54 am

      I’m so glad I gave ;you a little inspiration. Enjoy your private spaces!


  5. August 12, 2012 9:19 pm

    Been there done that… As the old saying goes… “I wish I knew then what I know now!”. I see the herd mentality in politics today and that is really scary…

    As I’ve said to you before… “You do get it” Thanks for another great post.

  6. August 12, 2012 7:27 pm

    How cool! I have been only mildly aware of this phenomenon, and not even in all of the ways that you mentioned. Especially the thing where you tell a friend what you want to do, and they go and do it. It’s odd and gave me a strange eerie feeling because it would keep happening, but now I see that it may be more subconscious than I thought!
    I hope you get some beach privacy! I’m excited to be heading to a beach soon (I live far from one, in Texas) and the herding phenomenon will probably stand out more than it would have before. I’m really glad that you posted this, I’ll have to try to pay more attention to the subtle stuff in the store or on facebook. Thanks 🙂

    • August 12, 2012 7:45 pm

      It was definitely the beach thing that got me started with respect to looking into this phenomenon, but once I recognized the ‘pattern’, a lot of things I’d seen and experienced suddenly fell into place. Sometimes it’s hard to be ‘the odd wo/man out’ but I certainly pay a lot more attention to my choices and what drives them than I used to. Thanks for commenting and have a good beach trip!


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