Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
– Mark Twain
I most often see this at work in a group of people when someone who has been disagreed with, looks at the rest of the group and simply replies “come onnn“, as if to say, ‘everyone else agrees with me, why don’t you?“.
I’ve seen companies justify poor corporate practice with a similar argument: “you’ve got to understand the market, this is what everyone else is doing right now“. My response is usually of the form: “do you want to follow the crowd, or do you want to stand out from your competitors“?
It’s often used in conjunction with the Appeal To Tradition fallacy which says that because people have believed something for a long time, it’s therefore true.
Socrates spoke about the ills of following the crowd. He said that it’s important to know your own mind and not hold an opinion simply because it’s held by the majority.
For contrarians such as myself, he also warned against the opposite approach, which is disagreeing with something simply because it’s a view held by the majority.
People follow the crowd for different reasons:
- an assumption that many people can’t be wrong
- a lack of confidence
- a conformity that comes out of wanting to fit in
- a striving for unanimity, i.e. not wanting to rock the boat.
And sometimes it’s simply not possible to find the time to figure everything out for yourself.
While there are some valid arguments for the wisdom of crowds it does not apply in all circumstances; James Surowiecki asserts that a crowd decision is only wise if each individual came to their decision independently after considering the information they have, rather than just following the majority view without considering what they know first.
Also, what we know as a society, even as a species, is built on what our peers and predecessors have learnt – what some call our collective intelligence. However we need to be discerning in what we accept.
While we can follow the crowd consciously, it’s worth being aware of the ways in which we unconsciously follow the crowd. Solomon Asch demonstrated that we do this to a shocking degree.
So it’s worth considering what view you hold on a topic, rather than being concerned about what other people think. After all, the people I most respect are those that hold true to their own well-considered beliefs. It comes down to being true to yourself.
Don’t be a sheep. Make up your own mind.