The Dangers of Following the Crowd

Most of us have heard our parents say “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, does that mean that you would too?” My answer was, “Well if the bridge is narrow and there was a speeding car coming at us, then yes!”.

The truth is that there are times when following the crowd can be safe, secure and justified. Following the crowd can also give us a false sense of security. It can make us numb to the dangers that may be down the road. We have this delusion that the masses can’t be all wrong, and even if they are, at least I will be in the company of others like me.

Billy Joel wrote “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun. You know that only the good die young.”

As we look back over the history of life on this planet, we see many patterns of individuals following the crowd. We see this in every war, every election and every cultural trend. It happens in the media, in the supermarkets and in every religion in the world. Sometimes crowds don’t even need a leader to take them there. In unison we take the route of least resistance, whatever feels good at the time or meets an immediate need. Billy Joel gave us a classic example of the blind leading the blind.

There is a branch of social psychology that studies crowd behavior. They look at the behavior of both individual members of the crowd, as well as the crowd as a whole. They have discovered a correlation between crowd behavior and responsibility of the individuals.

Individuals that take full responsibility are much more likely to move away from the crowd. They choose their own results independent of popular opinion. Those who avoid responsibility find comfort and stimulation from groups of likeminded people. Social acceptance makes it easier to justify their thoughts or behavior. Confirmation bias fuels the illusion and perpetuates the feelings that encourage their position. It’s is not hard to influence someone to do what their nature already wants to do.

The emotions of a crowd headed down a path that aligns with their desires can be appealing. These feelings can grow as the group grows, leading to a movement. This is where the danger of following the crowd begins

Every destructive influence has a touch of appeal that tantalizes our senses. It is just enough to get us interested. Every world religion, political view or philosophy of life can tempt our allegiance. It can be difficult to identify where we fail to line up with reality. It’s amazing how individuals can feel so strongly about popular ideas they know little about.

There is a basic human need to align ourselves with the crowd. We all have the need for acceptance and to find significance in what we do. We have a desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. The problem is we can tend to be short sighted and seek to have these needs met at the cost of a much bigger picture. We all do this to some extent. Some people are people pleasers seeking affirmation. Some are black and white thinkers in need of certainty. Others are running away from responsibility looking for relief. Either way we find comfort in numbers.

There is a great quote from my favorite book.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Mat 7:13-14

Travelling the “broad road” is quite easy to do. It is by far the most popular route. It assures you of your freedom to be in control of your own destination and requires no commitment. It give the appearance of a much easier route than the option of the narrow gate. There is no sign at the beginning of the road that says “Road to Destruction”. If there were, it would lose some of its appeal. “Broad Road” is much more soothing to the eye and non-offensive.

On the “broad road”, there is no disclaimer, only the promise of not being alone or accountable. There is no promise of any specific destination, nor is there even a map to how you may get there.

Lewis Carroll summed this up well in Alice in Wonderland:

“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I don’t much care where.

The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.

Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.

The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”

So why do only a few find their way through the narrow gate? …I would say it is because so few are even looking for it. The majority of people are not looking, or willing to take the road less traveled that leads to a full life. Some believe they are taking the narrow gate, only to find out they have been on the same broad path as everyone else. Taking the narrow gate has an immediate admission price that most are not willing to pay.

If you want to know where your path is taking you, just take an honest look at where you have been, and where you are now. If the trajectory doesn’t seem to be travelling in a favorable direction, you may be on the “broad road”.

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Lao Tzu

If you want to know what path you are on, just look around you. Are you surrounded by people that lift you up and contribute to your well-being? Do you find significance in your hard work and feel great about your impact on others around you? If so, you are likely on the narrow path or at least headed that direction.

You are the sum total of the people that you are closest to. If your assessment of your inner circle doesn’t pass the sniff test. You may need to change to a new path that includes others who are experiencing life to its fullest. The good news is that there are many, you only need to join their path.

If you think your current life is a result of exterior circumstances out of your control or bad luck, you are on the “broad path”. This is the signature belief of the broad-pathalogians. If you don’t know how you ended up on this path, don’t blame the path or crowd. You went along with them. Even if you stayed on your default path, you could have chosen a different one. Others can choose a different path for you, but they can’t make you take it.

You always have a choice, and that choice is 100% your responsibility to make. No one will ever grab you, kicking and screaming, and force you to enter through the narrow gate. We all get to freely choose our own path. Choose wisely.

If you are struggling with your direction personally or professionally, please contact me. I would love to have a cup of coffee with you.

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