Why we do what everyone around us is doing
As we’re a primate group species with unimpressive physical characteristics, it’s been an evolutionary necessity for us to band together in cohesive groups. The archeological record makes it very clear that homo sapiens and our ancestors and close relatives lived in groups numbering up to around 150 individuals for over 400,000 years. Lacking powerful muscles, tearing claws, and impressive incisors, the survival time for a lone human would have been at best measured in a handful of days. We depend entirely on being part of a group for our existence.
Only for the last ten thousand years or so have we banded together in larger organizations, made possible by the development of fixed-location agriculture. But ten thousand years is the merest blink of an eye from the perspective of evolution, especially when it comes to a complex organ like the human brain.
Not surprisingly, therefore, our brains contain within them a wide variety of hardwired mechanisms that ensure we can readily fit into groups. These mechanisms don’t appear to have changed significantly over the millennia and so we’re still very much the species we were during our long hunter-gatherer period.
Over the last eighty years a wide variety of psychological studies have shown the power of these hardwired mechanisms. People can be induced to express, and subsequently believe, almost anything provided that sufficient group pressure can be brought to bear.
When we look back through history we see a wealth of examples of this phenomenon, which seem incomprehensible to us when we’re living in times of peace and ease. How, we wonder, could so many people have descended into mindless hysteria because they were told that witches were at work among them? How could so many ordinary decent Germans have come to see ordinary decent Jews as an existential threat? How could so many Chinese students living during Mao’s Cultural Revolution have been induced to beat and kill teachers they knew to be ordinary decent human beings? How, for nearly all of recorded human history, have the great mass of people believed in the inevitability and suitability of slavery?
And, on a more banal note, why do millions slavishly follow social media trends, rushing out to buy fidget-spinners or…