Thursday, November 09, 2006

Benefits of Being Herdbound

Remember asking for parental permission to do something you knew was iffy, explaining in impassioned tones that all your friends were doing it -- which was the sole reason you wanted to too?

Remember the answer: "If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?"

(Remember wanting to say, "Yup! Especially if a bungee cord were attached to both the bridge and me...")

Peer pressure, group-think, and following the crowd often get blamed for everything from lemming suicides to the Downfall of Civilization.

It's true -- though we pay lip service to individualism, and say that we value being able to think for ourselves, the truth is that we are often uncomfortable standing up by ourselves for much of anything, from clothing styles to ideologies. There is safety in numbers, the natural world tells us. And we take this to heart.

Last month, I wrote a little bit about social proof. Social proof is in evidence every time a sports star's face appears on TV or in a magazine in an effort to sell you something that has absolutely no bearing on his or her sport. Social proof also shows up whenever you hear, "We're the best! But don't take our word for it! Listen to what our satisfied customers have to say..." And it works. It works because -- deep down, we really don't want to be all alone.

While it's true that this need for social acceptance can be detrimental to our health (What would you do if all your friends jumped off a bridge?), it can also act in beneficial ways.

Social proof has helped dramatically cut the number of smokers in this country. It has contributed to our awareness of things like childhood obesity, the dangers of hydrogenated fats, and environmental issues.

Horses, even more than humans, are creatures of the herd. They form a tightly-knit group that moves as one, and that relies on the "wisdom of we."

I love this video. It illustrates both the dangers and the benefits of being herdbound. A herd of over 100 horses were stranded on a small island after a storm. Several drowned in the bad weather. The island barely provided enough room for them all to stand on. People were bringing hay to them in boats, but the situation was clearly out of hand.

The water receded enough for them to reach dry land but they didn't know it. So they stood on their little patch of land. Open, grassy meadows were in sight, but not one was willing to go it alone.

Then, a group of women decided to show them what was possible. They rode their horses over to the little island and the entire herd followed them to safety. All it took was seeing what was possible. Still -- when one horse decided to vacate the island, every other horse backed him up and followed along.

Social proof in action. Sometimes all it takes to break out of a self-imposed, self-limiting space is realizing that someone else has done it and can show you the way.