Following the crowd

Just the other day over coffee a colleague of mine told me about a fascinating video he’d seen.

It was about a psychological experiment that showed just how much of a mindless, conforming species we were.

100% emotional; 0% rational. Just part of the herd.

Though I’d seen similar ones before, this was one particularly interesting.

Here’s how it goes:

An unsuspecting woman visits a clinic that’s packed. Unbeknownst to her, everyone there are actors — people in on the experiment.

As she waits her turn, a beep goes off.

All the actors stand up. Then sit down.

Another beep goes off.

Again, all the actors stand, then sit.

She’s puzzled. Doesn’t know what’s going on. She remains seated.

A third beep goes off.

But by now, she’s convinced. Standing, for whatever reason, is probably the way to go. She stands with the actors, then sits.

As one by one the actors take their turn to see their doctor and then leave the clinic, this continues.

Beep goes off.

Actors and unsuspecting woman stand, then sit.

Eventually all of the actors leave the clinic and she’s the only one left.

Now, this is where it gets interesting. Would she, now that she’s alone, stand up when the beep goes off?

A beep goes off.

She stands. Then sits.

She doesn’t know why she’s doing it, but she’s doing it.

And then a twist.

The experimenters introduce another visitor to the clinic.

Though not clear in the video if this was an actor or not, my suspicion was it wasn’t.

He walks in and takes a seat.

A beep goes off.

The woman stands up. Then sits.

The man looks at her quizzically but soon goes back to his business.

A beep goes off.

And she does it again.

This time, the man cannot hold his curiosity any longer.

“Why are you standing up?” he asks.

She looks sheepishly at him and replies, “everybody was doing it…”

You can sense the immense weight of self-consciousness just pressing down on her as she continues, “…so I thought I was supposed to.”

And from that point on, he too stands when the beep goes off.

My first reaction was wow, that’s a stupid thing to do – we’re such a screwed up species!

But I knew I wasn’t being fair. I’d read about similar studies, and if this was a common phenomenon, chances were good that there probably was some evolutionary benefit.

(An example of a similar study, and one that comes most readily to my mind, is the one where the naive participant enters an elevator full of actors, and all of them turn to face the other way, away from the door. Most participants feel compelled to follow suit and do so).

I casually thought about what benefit it may have (or had) for us, but didn’t have a good answer. Maybe it was the education system that brainwashed us into being automatons, blindly following orders, blindly copying the next person for the sake of not standing out (or in this case sitting in!)

But I had my suspicions that this wasn’t the case; and I felt the answer would come to me in the next couple of days.

Let it steep in my unconscious, I thought.

In the meanwhile though, one thought was reeling in my head: why didn’t she just ask somebody why they were doing that?

I had a couple of reasons:

  1. the woman was of a more introverted nature, and wasn’t inclined to question a stranger; and
  2. the activity wasn’t one that would do much harm — sure, standing up at a beep was a little odd, but you’d be out of the clinic in an hour so why potentially make a stir and cause unhappiness?

To be honest, if I were in her place I might have done what she did (I don’t know).

I’m relatively introverted and harmless activity for the sake of fitting in, at least for the moment, isn’t something I’d be totally against doing (playing silly “ice-breaker” games comes to mind).

I would however make sure that I then I ask the nurses or the doctors, the people “in authority” in that context, about it when I had a chance.

If anybody should know, it would be them.

Back to my question on the “benefit” of such behaviour. Surely if many of us do do this sort of thing, there’s probably something about it that was “good”?

A plausible answer did come to me (thank you unconscious; thank you serendipity). And it came from two places.

The first was from a book I was reading called Before You Know It by John Bargh.

In the book, Bargh writes about why we do some things without consciously realising it, like how we’re hardwired to be highly averse to snakes.

If you see a snake, you don’t think snake and then jump. You jump and then think “snake”.

The second was from a Jordan Peterson podcast (these’ are brilliant by the way – highly recommended while doing the dishes or laundry. Or running).

In one of the podcast episodes he talked about how the human mind evolved. In particular, he talked about how being collaborative often helped us in our survival.

For example, when we hunted in groups we were often more successful in our hunting expeditions.

By blending together the ideas from both, a plausible explanation was borne.

Our ancestors who worked together had higher survival rates. Given the higher survival rates, more of their “inclined to collaborate and be part of a tribe” genes were passed on from one generation to the next.

Here we are, descendants from these good folks; with their “tribal genes”; fitting in with our tribe through rituals of standing at a beep.

But still, I can’t help thinking that if ever we’re in any doubt, we need to ask. We need to question!

Starting doing something on a non-rational, emotional level’s OK. Continuing it when in doubt, without question, is not.

“Donn, why do we do forecasting the way we do?” she asked.

“For various reasons,” I said. I then listed the various reasons. But I knew the question was in a sense more rhetorical than not.

She had her ideas of how forecasting was to be done.

“Does it make sense?” she asked.

“It does,” I said, but had to add, “or it did. It may not any more, but it did at the start, and still does to some extent.”

“But what,” I continued, “I’d like to also say is that we’re not wedded to forecasting the way we’ve always done, and we’re more than open to suggestions for change.”

The Sales organisation had evolved much since we first started the process. And new leaders have come in.

It was, perhaps, time to re-look the process. And I think that was what she was getting at.

In the end, we may still stick to the old ways of doing things.

But not because it was the way we were always doing it. But because it remains the right thing to do.

PS: Did some detective work and found the video of the experiment my colleague was telling me about. Enjoy:

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