Monday, October 07, 2013

The Herd

I’m far-too-frequently dismayed by stories of individuals being physically assaulted in public places while those in the immediate area do nothing to stop it.

And yet, in a natural disaster, acts of incredible bravery and self sacrifice are common. How can we reconcile these two disparate reactions? Why will we go out of our way to attempt to rescue someone from a burning building, or a natural disaster, yet refuse to come to the aid of someone threatened by other members of our own species? I would be fascinated to know why we react differently to dangers imposed by nature and those imposed by others of our own kind.

I think much of it has its roots in our earliest days as a species, when survival was everything, and on the fact that Man is indeed biologically as much an animal as is a Wildebeest or a deer. And just as the herd instinct is a protective reflex for them, so is it for us. Actually, when you think about it, it's very simple and very logical. The herd provides safety. Acting and reacting exactly the same as those around you make you less likely to be spotted by predators. The less distinguishable you are from those around you, and the closer you can get to the center of the herd, the safer you are. Conversely, the more you stand out, the more likely you are to be spotted by predators, and the greater potential danger you are in.

That primal part of our brain sees the person instigating an attack on another in a subway as a predator, which triggers the herd instinct: do not call attention to yourself. But in natural disasters, although the dangers to ourselves may be equally great, the fact that there is no identifiable predator to trigger the herd instinct allows our more noble motivations to prevail.

The herd instinct is not limited to obvious or direct threats, however. It extends to every aspect of our society. People who, for whatever reason, refuse to object to the objectionable to sheep, who refuse to expose themselves to any perceived danger, are often and accurately called sheep, which are herd animals. Sheep simply follow other sheep because it is both safer and easier than not doing so.

While it may be unkind of me to say, I have come to the conclusion that most people (thee and me excluded, of course) are, indeed, sheep. Even with no threat of predators, they timidly stick together, follow wherever they are led, never ask questions, and have a very narrow range of interests or goals―and even their goals seem to come in neat, pre-packaged cubes. They live in pens with arbitrary walls they have been told are there and therefore utterly believe in, though they cannot see them. They recognize doors, but if the doors are closed, assume they are closed for a reason and have little or no curiosity about what lies beyond, or any interest in making the effort to find out. 

All human children are born children, not sheep. Yet is it coincidental that children are called “little lambs”? Children soon learn that to survive, to have friends, to be accepted by their peers, they must behave like everyone else behaves, believe what everyone else believes. And gradually they turn from human children into sheep, as their parents and relatives did before them. To be different is very unsheeplike, and punishable in any number of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, none of which is pleasant. 

And of course, there are always predators. Human wolves lurk in the fields and forests of the internet as spam messages, as letters from Nigerian Barristers, as wonderfully unreal offers for wonderful things, and because sheep simply accept what they are told, it never occurs to them that the wolf even exists, or that they are the wolf’s next meal. Human wolves rob and lie and cheat with impunity because almost none of the sheep realizes what’s happening until it is too late, and those few who do realize something isn’t quite right are too…what word do I want?…oh, yes: sheepish…to do anything about it.

And what is the answer? How do we move away from the herd without being immediately attacked by predators? The first step lies in not only realizing but acting on the simple fact that while Man is an animal, he is not a sheep.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (, which is also available as an audiobook (

1 comment:

Kage Alan said...

You hit on this quite wonderfully. I may have been trying to get to the point you were, but by a different route. The phrase "it is what it is" is one of those things people say when someone doesn't want to question something that should be.

It isn't what it is. It's what someone made it to be and we just accept that because we don't have the courage to question it. I strongly dislike that and it's a cheat to accept it.

I'm not afraid to ask questions. Others are afraid we'll ask them. And they should be.