Sheeple and Normality, Pt 1: Mob Behaviour
24th May 2014

Here, about how we often act doing what is normal without thinking. Written in my usual slightly tangential style.

Some things we do consciously; others unconsciously. Buddhism/Yoga/Parkour “philosophies” teach doing everything mindfully, with awareness, if for different reasons. I had a conversation with a friend once where I said that from parkour thinking of high-quality attention to movement, I try and stand up/sit down from chairs as efficiently and quietly and fluidly as possible (I had a colleague once remark that I reminded her of Batman and the way he kept disappearing in the first two of those films – what a compliment!), and the friend remarked that she had heard the same thing that day at a talk on meditation she had been to, where an exercise was to use a chair “mindfully”. This post is about being aware of what we’re doing and questionning things that seem normal (or rather, that we don’t usually do this, and that mindfulness/awareness is something we have to actively do), both for small behaviours or bigger issues.

To begin, an example. I often try and build in healthy habits to my daily routine, and one of the ones I built in was that I use the stairs instead of the escalators (unless there’s a reason to use the escalator, like a big crowd). This had slightly more meaning when I came up with the ‘rule’ while in London, where some tube stations have quite a few steps in them, but it stuck. A counter-rule to this was that I could use the escalator if I wanted to stretch my calves (while I know that stretching is really good, I don’t manage to make myself do it enough, and as I travel by Ubahn daily to my lectures I thought I could add a daily 2 x 10 second calf stretch on the escalator at the station). As such, I made myself aware of the choice I made on whether I took the stairs or the escalator – and noticed that other people didn’t.

In watching other people, I noticed that when stepping onto an escalator, people would usually just do what the person before them was doing. If the person in front was stood still, they too would stand still; if the person in front carried walking, they would too. This is roughly (from crude observation) about 80% of the time. It was slightly funnier when the person in front was stood still, but a bit further ahead of the second person – when the leader reached the top of the escalator and walking off, the follower would also begin walking to fill the gap in front of them. To me, this seems to demonstrate that people weren’t deciding consciously (or at least rationally) about what they were doing: if they wanted to be quick, they would’ve walked the whole time; if they wanted to take a rest, they would’ve stayed still until the top; if they wanted to be more efficient, they would have started walking sooner such as to close the gap between them and the ‘leader’ by the time they reached the top. But instead the people I watched tended to start walking when the person infront started walking, which does not fit rationally for any of the three mentioned options.

One day, getting off the ubahn to come home, the person at the front of the small horde of people heading up the stairs was in a hurry and jogged up the stairs. To my delight, three other people near the front also jogged up the stairs, apparently mimicing the hurrier’s actions. I joined as a fifth person running up the stairs, as I wanted to see what happened when we reached the top, incase all the people happened to be rushing for the same bus or something – but nope, all four went their separate ways, with the ‘leader’ hurrying off and the other three returning to normal speed and going their separate ways.

A remark I’ve heard a couple of times is that “humans are like sheep”. Actually, I think that humans and sheep are indistinguishable in way they behave collectively: humans are sheep.

I am fully aware that I am as entirely sheepish as everyone else and just don’t notice when I do it and hopefully don’t think that I am actually the only free-thinker in a world of sheep. Humour me.

 A few other observations of this mob psychology which I’ve noticed are:

 – People waiting to board a flight or a train. Usually they’re all sat down waiting, but once one person forms a queue, everyone sat down gets up to join in the queue. I’ve noticed this happen when the gate isn’t even open, with people waiting in a queue for twenty minutes when they could all just remain seated – we’re not leaving until we are all on the flight anyway, so being at the front or back of the queue makes no difference. Similarly, on a train platform they can all be sat down waiting, and then if the train is announced or someone stands up, the collective also stand up to wait a couple of metres further forward for the train (this being a few minutes in advance of the train arriving with it not in sight).

– The entrance to the law faculty in Bonn. There are two entrances side-by-side, five metres apart, each with two doors to go through. The lecture hall which people (or at least for my subjects) typically go to is on the left on the inside, but the door on the right has a disabled access button to open it automatically (also meaning it remains open for five seconds after people go through). So on the way into the building there tends to be a stream of people from the aforementioned ubahn escalator (also on the left) going diagonally to the door in the right, which tends to remain open. I, being the only free-thinking person in the law faculty, break off from this snake and take the entrance on the left, opening both the doors manually, and shaving about three seconds of time off the journey. Sure, it could be that everyone following the snake of people through the right-hand door has consciously and rationally decided that they would rather lazily use the automatic door than open a door themselves (oh the horror!), but I somehow doubt it (and even when other people do use the left door so it could be held open for each other people tend not to use it).

– This one is about not being aware instead of copying others. But there are a surprising amount of people who get onto the ubahn (I talk about it a lot, but I do travel on it at least twice a day!) who forget that once they get on, it will move, and they will stagger. I would’ve thought that’s something to be aware of, especially when it becomes dangerous when elderly people lose their balance – one time, due to my hero awareness, I noticed that an old man walking with two crutches had hobbled onto the ubahn (racing before the door closed), and in his relief at getting on, took some weight off his crutches as he shuffled towards a seat. He, of course, didn’t make it to the seat by the time the Ubahn pulled off, and was staggering backwards with no way of saving himself (not being agile enough to get a foot behind him to counter it), when our young hero (that’s me), who had noticed what was happening, had positioned himself behind him and held him upright. See – awareness doesn’t just help me write self-indulgent blog posts, it also stopped an old man falling over!

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples, those were just a few choice ones I had noticed recently.

So yeah, people are sheep. Or “sheeple”, as conspiracy theorists (“truthers”, as they call themselves) refer to people who don’t agree with their theories (of course, the conspiracy theorists are often also themselves blindly following others ignoring reason. Not that I’m taking a side, truthers are often great for seeing things with a deserved cynical viewpoint, they just take it too far much of the time). 

At this point, I’ve bleated on a bit about a fairly woolly subject manner. Great, people copy one anudder, and that’s slightly interesting but without much further meaning. So now I’m going to jump across from the micro – individual situations of people copying the behaviour of one another – to the macro – the big picture.

Once we see that people copy one another’s (or rather, the group’s) behaviour without thinking in small scenarios, we can also notice how this is done on a bigger picture – not just an (almost) insignificant situation like which door they use or whether they walk on an escalator or not, but rather things like what religion they belong to, their political views, and lifestyle choices like exercise, smoking, drinking, or eating healthy or unhealthy food. Et cetera. More on some of this in Part 2 of this topic.