Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Lemmings, Sheep, and Us

Our species is made up of some seven billion individual souls, yet we resemble other species, like lemmings and sheep, in being capable of responding as a single entity.

In this vast conglomerate of seven billion individual humans, millions die every day, mourned only by those closest to them. Yet we have this odd, inexplicable collective fascination with those who, though we do not know them personally, somehow become the obsessive focus of our attention.

Thousands may die in a flood or famine in distant land, yet their passing has very little emotional impact on us, individually. We are able to view their deaths with an objectivity we too often cannot apply to celebrities. The death of a well-known personality will trigger public outpourings of grief far beyond the bounds of rationality. With the constant exposure to celebrities, we somehow feel we know them. Perhaps it is a dissatisfaction with our own personal lives that leads us to identify with those we perceive to have so much more than we do. We follow their every utterance, their every peccadillo, their every drama as if it really, really had even an iota of direct impact on our own lives.

The herd instinct is a fascinating phenomenon, and while it can be either positive or negative, it seems to be largely negative. Like sheep, we are too willing to follow anyone who assumes to lead, without any thought as to where we're being led. Most of us are raised with a religious affiliation, and we find ourselves accepting its every precept, illogical as it may be, without hesitation or question. Far too many of us blindly follow any politician or self-appointed pundit who speaks with authority, without giving a moment's independent thought to their motivation. The most negative form of the herd instinct in humans are mobs driven by hostility--the equivalent of lemmings rushing to the sea to drown.

Yet collective action can also exemplify the finest aspects of humanity. There are innumerable examples of individuals putting themselves in danger to come to the aid of someone else. But it is our unified reaction to natural disasters, our willingness to set aside our individual interests to come to the collective aid of others that elevates us above sheep and lemmings. It is a shame that such nobility usually requires a major traumatic event to trigger it on a large scale.

We follow either because we just assume we should or because we can't or won't take the time and effort to think enough about something to make up our own minds. Following is often simply "the path of least resistance."

Of course those whose major goal in life is to get as much money as possible in any way possible are well aware of the herd mentality and maximize it at every opportunity. Ads claiming that "everyone is talking about" something or other--when in fact it is unlikely that anyone other than the advertiser has even heard of it--plays upon our willingness to believe that if "everyone is talking about" it, we'd damned well better get on the bandwagon and start talking about it, too. The entire "keeping up with the Jones's" principle is aimed at getting us into line and following the pack. Nearly every ad we see on TV, hear on the radio, and see in magazines has the same purpose: to get us to "follow the leader." And a frightening number of us do.

One thing that lemmings, sheep, and the vast majority of humans have in common is that following is a natural response; one that can be overcome with a little questioning coupled with a little logic. Sheep and lemmings have an excuse for not thinking before following because they don't have the mental capacity to make independent decisions. People do not have that excuse.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being a follower so long as it is a decision based on thought, not just on salivating when someone rings a bell.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to check out his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs ( ).


Katy said...

Very well said. Great atrocities throughout history could have been avoided if people just thought for themselves instead of following along with the rest of the group. Thanks for reminding me why I admire individuality and independent thonking in people. Great blog.

Kage Alan said...

As always, you are articulate and intelligently state everything you're attempting to convey. I envy your ability as a wordsmith, sir.

Dorien/Roger said...

Thanks, Katy. And Kage, you ain't exactly chopped liver as a writer either, ya' know. It means a lot coming from you.