Dan Morris: Follow the crowd or think for yourself?

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you... Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, and – which is more – you’ll be a man, my son.”

Follow the crowd or think for yourself?
Follow the crowd or think for yourself?

A fine sentiment from the great Rudyard Kipling. American author Jean Kerr may have been more apt with “if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, it’s just possible you haven’t grasped the situation.”

Yet to go one even further... If you do keep your head when all about you are keeping theirs but should in fact be running for their lives, you really have gone and lost the plot...

The kids are making their return to school, and with this I found myself thinking about some of my more memorable lessons this week.

I recall, as vividly as if it were yesterday, a particular double-period of A-level psychology. In it our class was treated to a video of an experiment on the influence of majority behaviour. In said vid, a room of seven apparent strangers were being addressed by a young man who explained that a speaker who would be making a presentation to the group was on their way, and if they could wait patiently here for them for a few minutes that would be hunky-dory.

Once said young chap had left the room, said seven individuals waited for said speaker, reading and fidgetting but engaging in little interaction between each other.

However, the experiment was about to begin...

After around three minutes, a fire alarm began to sound in a distant part of the building, though it was clear and audible to the ‘magnificent seven’. No one reacted, other than one individual who simply looked up, and glanced from left to right.

One minute later, a new alarm began to blare directly outside the ‘chamber of the strangers’ (new Indiana Jones film? Alrighty). Again no one reacted, apart from the same woman, whose eyes darted around the circle of her peers once more, but whose posterior remained firmly planted.

And another minute later, smoke began to creep under the door. Nobody moved, and our lone lady – while bearing a somewhat concerned expression – did not speak, did not raise any concern, and did not even rise from her chair.

The smoke abated, the alarms ceased to ring, and the strange ordeal was over without anybody being harmed.

The twist, of course, was in the identity of the six other strangers.

Everybody in the room apart from ‘Lady looks-around-but-leaves-it’ was in on the experiment, which was designed to test how an individual would react to obvious danger if everyone else around them ignored it.

The result was quite frightening. For all this woman knew, she was in danger of burning to death. Yet because no one else around her reacted to the smoke, she did the same – presumably content to be engulfed in a building’s blaze because six strangers seemed to be alright with the idea.

I remember wondering at the time how far it is really possible for people to be influenced by majority or crowd behaviour. Against our better judgment are we subconsciously programmed to just go with the masses? Is it that we find comfort in following suit with our fellow man, even if doing so seems like an obviously bad decision? Do we really always feel comfortable thinking and acting for ourselves, or do we feel more at peace with herd behaviour?

We’ve all seen crowds do stupid things and people within them making bad choices as a collective. I remember working in Birmingham during the 2011 riots and witnessing plenty of ill herd behaviour first-hand.

When I was at school, I remember one of the lessons we had drilled into us year after year was how important it was to think for yourself. There wasn’t a single teacher I ever had who didn’t encourage this and it’s a lesson that has followed me into later life.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as guilty of slipping into a little bit of the old sheep mentality as the next man (Ah that dark and wistful temptress that was the ‘quick last pint’ on Friday... well, everybody was having one!), but I suppose it’s about not just going along with everyone else for the sake of it when the stakes are high and it really matters. As in, when doing so would mean breaking the law in the most moronic of ways, or burning to death.

To poor ‘Lady looks-around’ – thank you for opening the eyes of the classrooms of yesteryear to the positives of being, thinking and behaving like an individual.

I hope that children who have gone back to school this week are soon treated to a similarly spectacular clip that will teach them the same lesson that you taught me...

As I like to think Kipling might have put it: “If you can dream – and not make dreams your master; If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim; you might escape the fire faster; and live to play another game.”

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