Human beings are first and foremost social creatures. You can’t help being influenced by the herd mentality of those around you.
But herd behavior isn’t inevitable.
Here’s how you can change it.
Why do you work so hard to get entrenched in a career you hate?
Why do you choose to spend more and more time with people who don’t respect you?
Or suck up to a boss who micromanages and bullies you?
And why do you wonder when this neurotic arrangement makes you perfectly miserable?
It’s because the Herd wants you to.
What is the Herd?
The answer to this question lies in your evolution. Human beings are first and foremost a social creature. That means you take your cues from the people around you. You can’t help being influenced by the beliefs, behaviors, and values of others.
It’s not hard to see why you evolved this way. A lone human is a pretty pathetic creature. Evolution didn’t give us horns, claws, or fangs to protect ourselves. We survived by sticking together. And the first Herd was the nuclear family.
As human groups got larger, the concept of the family was extended to clans, and then tribes, and then villages, and then cities.
Even modern day nations are built on these (often fictional) family relationships. The Irish believe they are somehow more related to one another than the rest of Europe. Ditto for the English, French, Italians, and Germans.
This fiction persists even though, genetically, the people of Europe are pretty much indistinguishable from one another.
So all this herd mentality creates enormous social pressure. Pressure from your family to carry on traditions. Pressure from your peers to conform. Pressure from society to uphold the status quo.
After all, if you have too many rebels and dissidents opting out of the Herd, what happens to the Herd?
It loses cohesion. It loses discipline. It breaks up. It spreads apart. It dissolves. It dies.
The Herd can’t have this.
The Herd fights to preserve itself, even if that means suppressing every one of its individual members.
The human beings who challenged the rest of the Herd were shunned and left out in the cold to die.
That’s why conformity comes so easy for us.
We’re descended from the human beings who conformed and lived.
The collective unconscious does do some useful things, like bring people together. Societies and cultures grow. The Tipping Point that Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book exists because of this deep underlying need to belong to something bigger than ourselves.
But the Herd also makes it heretical to reject absurdities like taking on a six figure debt in order to pay for a McMansion in the suburbs. Even though, logically, it will take the rest of your working life to pay off that debt. And for many of you, that’s the equivalent of financial suicide.
But the Herd forces you to walk off the cliff like a lemming.
Herd behavior even affects Wall Street, which is supposed to be the bastion of cold rationality. The groupthink that led to the housing crisis was brought on, in part, because the Herd made it so difficult for anyone to question the prevailing myth that home prices would go up forever.
The Herd wants you to be terrified of straying from the path of conformity and mediocrity. There’s danger out there in the unknown, the Herd cries.
Fear of the unknown is one of the oldest adaptations that evolution has bred in us. And a long, long time ago it may have made sense. Danger really was lurking around every corner.
A family with ten children a hundred years ago would be lucky to have four kids reach adulthood.
That’s pretty grim.
Life used to be really tough, and it still is in many parts of the world.
But in the West? In the modern world? This fear is simply irrational.
That trip you have been dying to take your whole life will not leave you destitute or homeless. That exotic food you never heard of will not kill you on the first bite. That foreign stranger is more likely to be a future friend than a terrorist.
The agile lifestyle threatens the status quo. It embraces change. The Herd fears change. So it struggles to deal with the ever-changing landscape of modern life.
The game has changed.
The real danger for modern humans is stagnation, settling for mediocrity, and counting the hours until your time on earth is extinguished.
For a hundred thousand years the Herd might have been right.
But today? Not so much.
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