Herd mentality: Why do you do what you do?

2015-08-14 12:48

Most of us have got personal habits, family traditions, cultural beliefs, company culture and societal norms which we ascribe to, live by, propagate and perpetuate. All this regardless of whether or not we actually know the reason(s) behind why we hold these beliefs or norms. The word normal is derived from norm. A norm is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as standards of proper or acceptable behaviour. When something becomes taken as proper or acceptable behaviour it is considered normal.

Mystery of the turkey size

A few weeks ago I remembered a story I once heard about a young girl’s question to her mother one Thanksgiving day. While preparing the turkey for the Thanksgiving dinner, the girl asked her mother why the turkey was cut up the way it was. The mother a bit taken aback realised she actually did not know why that was the case. She had grown up with her mother also doing the same and she had never bothered to ask. The mother told her daughter she should check with the grandmother who was around for the dinner.

Upon locating where the grandmother was in the house the young girl asked her the same question. “Grandma, why is the turkey cut in the way in which it was cut?” The grandmother kept quiet for a few seconds and she then replied, “I actually do not know. I used to see my mother doing it the same way and so I grew up doing the same.” It so happened that great-grandma was still alive and she had joined the family for this important celebration.

When the same question was asked to her, she smiled exposing her almost toothless mouth. “When we were growing up we used to have very small ovens such that the turkey could not fit into the oven. We therefore had to cut the turkey to a particular size which could fit into the oven.” The grandmother, mother and young girl packed out laughing as they realised the reason behind the mysterious size of the turkey.

The grandmother had passed on to her daughter (the mother) something she had picked up from her own mother without ever understanding the reason behind what they were doing. This lack of questioning had resulted in the family taking on what became a ‘family recipe’ without actually knowing the origin.

Fall in line

Yesterday evening I was watching this episode of Brain Games on the National Geographic Channel with my wife. One of the social experiments they did was to put line barriers (like the ones you find in the bank/airport) in a mall and a huge sign which said "Line starts here". The intention was to see whether anyone would stand in the queue without knowing what the line was for.

After a few minutes no-one had joined the line so one of the people from the experiment went and stood at the head of the queue. Although a number of people passed by, only a few enquired about why he was standing there. A couple asked this question and his response was 'I don't know but I think it could be something good, come and join in.'

The couple decided to join him in the queue and from there more people came and started joining the queue. More than 20 people joined the queue- though they did not know why they were doing so. To take the experiment further, a guard was instructed to come and lead the people 'somewhere' and as the queue started moving, everyone fell in step.

According to one of the researchers in the experiment, "This phenomenon is known as informational social influence. It occurs when you rely on others to determine your course of action."

Look up the tree

When I was in high school I once came up with an idea which at the time I did not know would be classified as a 'social experiment testing informational social influence.'

On our way from the dining hall I told a friend that if I stood still for a few seconds looking up a tree which was on the side of the path, most (if not all) of the people who would pass by the same spot would do likewise. He thought it would not happen so I went ahead with the experiment to illustrate. After I had stared up the tree, we walked off and stood about 40 meters away so we could observe.

People passing by that spot did the same thing as I had done. We then continued to the hostels and on our way back we actually were surprised to hear people talking about 'a snake which had been spotted in the tree.' :) Some even went as far as describing the 'snake which had been spotted.'


All the above scenarios are meant to bring us to a point of always asking ourselves this key question “why am I doing what I am doing?”This applies no matter which sphere of life; work, relationships, business, government etc. Failure to do this introspection and inspection can easily result in us living our lives tossed to and fro by every passing wind or fad which society regards as proper or acceptable- when it actually is not.

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2010-11-21 18:15

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