People Are Sheep

Original Post (including comments)
Imagine that you’re driving up to a parking garage. It has two entrance lanes, each with an automated ticket machine. There are four cars in the first lane and none in the second. You notice that the first lane has an attendant pulling the tickets from the machine and handing them to the drivers. What do you do? Do you get into line or pull into the second lane?

I experienced this very situation at the airport today. By the time I was up to the lanes, I just pulled into the line. I was, like everyone else, I presume, assuming that the second line was not operational. After all, why would there be an attendant working the first lane? When I got up to her, as she handed me the ticket I could easily have reached myself, I asked if the other lane was broken. She paused for a moment and then said no. I instantly smiled because, all along (for the 30 seconds or so that I sat in line), I suspected that there was absolutely no reason for her to be standing there doing what she was doing, and that I was an idiot for waiting in a line for no reason. The funny thing is that it seemed like she made the same connection at the same time. She laughed as I was pulling away.

Today’s situation reminded me of two things. For one thing, I am always inclined to examine the ways by which a situation can be optimized for time. Sometimes, I come up with ways to save myself all sorts of time. Other times, I see ways to save time, but I conclude that the payoff isn’t worth it. The thing is that the vast majority of instances where I see ways to optimize my time, the procedure required entails going around a bunch of people who are masquerading as sheep, which brings me to the second thing.

I am amazed again and again at how willing people are to simply fall in line. It is almost as if folks subconsciously perceive a line as indicative of something that is to be desired, and rather than consider the matter themselves, they are content to take the word of those who are already there. The only thing left to do is queue up. I’ve actually tested this at festivals.

A few friends and I will look for a stand that has no one in line. We’ll line up single file at the table and wait. It never fails. Within a very short time, people will start lining up behind us. It’s eery. Really. Try it. The interesting thing is that I often wonder if there isn’t a genetic component to this, something related to the herd mentality.

In our caveman days, there was absolutely safety in numbers. Loners didn’t get far in life. So, it isn’t unreasonable to suppose that genes emerged that influenced individuals to pay attention to the group and to go along with the crowd. Status in the group was also of paramount importance, which means that the high-status individuals would set the agenda, so to speak. As it would also be advantageous, reproductively speaking, for individuals to be aware of their status, those without status wouldn’t have much to do but to figure out what the plan is and get on board. Independent thinking, for the lowly, would be pointless. By the way, this is the kind of wild speculation that you do when you’re considering the effects of evolution on the human mind, and it’s really hard to find useful evidence that tilts the scales one way or another. Nevertheless, just for fun, let’s consider what this scenario (assuming for the moment that is correct) has to tell us about modern humanity.

Right away, we’re confronted with the idea that humans who fall into line without weighing the situation for themselves may be, whether they know it or not, pessimistic about their status in the group. In other words, they don’t feel like they have the decision-making responsibility in those situations. If this is true, then it means that these people are following their genes inappropriately. If there is a point to this site, it is that our most pressing task as modern humans is to push aside the genetic influences that no longer make sense in life. If this tendency to not think that comes from the internal perception of low status is real, it is a stark example of an opportunity for enlightenment.

The fact is that status in this world is largely irrelevant. More importantly, now, as opposed to tens of thousands of years ago, there are vastly more ways to obtain status – you can be good at millions of different things, which means you can always obtain status with people who share your avocations. But the things that matter these days are driven by those who have the most visible status. Relatively speaking, nobody knows about the world badminton champion, at least not compared to an NBA player. So, the basketball player’s status is more widely known, which means he has more influence on the social agenda than the badminton champion. Those for whom status is important pay more attention to what the basketball player says and does. This is silly.

Today, how we stack up against our peers is a lot less important than most of us would believe. Our genes have pushed us to place more importance on measuring high on the yardstick of popular public opinion than on simply enjoying life. Thankfully, this is easily undone. We have only to recalibrate our assessments of what matters in life.

Knowing that we will naturally pay attention to status, we must endeavor to be vigilantly aware of our wayward emotions, and to have a plan for keeping them in check. When the wrong thoughts creep in, we simply usher them out. It’s nothing more than a matter of willpower. You just have to believe that the rationale behind your effort is sound and that it will yield benefits. I can vouch for both, but don’t take my word for it. Empirical evidence makes a great foundation for strong belief. So, try it. See if you don’t feel a burden lift from your shoulders. Or maybe you’ve already done this. If so, I’ll see you in the short line.


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