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.”
Can also be referred to as ‘mob mentality’
In a newer study published in Psychology Science, researchers Timothy Sweeny of the University of Denver and David Whitney of the University of California-Berkeley examined the triggers that cause us to follow crowds in the way that we do. To do so, they showed study participants a set of four faces, with each one looking in a slightly different direction. They then asked participants to tell them where the whole group was looking; to do so, the participants swiveled the eyes on a face on a computer screen to show the direction of the group.
“Because we combine head and eye direction in calculating a gaze, the participants couldn’t tell where each face was looking by tracking either the eyes or the head alone; they had to combine the two,” Gutierrez wrote. “The subjects saw the faces for less than a quarter of a second. That’s much too short a time to look at each face individually, one by one.”
And indeed, it sounds too difficult to achieve. Were you to try that experiment, you will find that you are barely sure of what you even saw. However, the truth is, people were amazingly accurate in the study. In an as-yet-unexplained manner, participants were generally able to put all faces together and then work out an average direction as to where the group was looking.
Such behavior has also been called “mob mentality.” Here is a list of 10 instances of that phenomenon: ListVerse.com.