Social proof is a powerful heuristic that drives human behavior and fuels social media giants like yelp. Following what everyone around us is doing is easier than thinking independently and in the short run may seem like the smartest and safest thing to do.
Human beings are social creatures and we follow others and seek consensus for very practical reasons. For example, avoiding a poisonous food by copying the behavior of the majority of our peers made perfect sense for hunter gatherers trying to survive in dangerous surroundings. Furthermore, being ostracized or banished from our peer group at that time may have been a near certain death sentence.
Nevertheless, you don’t have to examine human history for very long to see how dangerous groupthink can be. Although human beings generally live in less threatening times today, the instinct to conform is still with us and can have very negative consequences for us when we blindly follow peers when we invest our money or make life’s most important personal choices about how, where and with whom we live.
You often hear adults implore children not to succumb to peer pressure by derisively asking, “if your friends jumped off a bridge would you follow?” Sadly, adults are generally no better than children when it comes to blindly following their peers whether it’s buying the same car they saw the Jones family drive by in or frantically buying their kids the same toy they saw the Jones family kids playing with.
Following the herd may have been a necessity in our recent evolutionary past but as we ideally improve our lives by climbing Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we have to ask ourselves if we really want to live or just exist? For those of us fortunate enough to live comfortably outside of famine-ravaged or war torn areas, life is for living...not just surviving. Really living requires making decisions deliberately not accidentally by using the analytical and decision-making abilities we all possess rather than mindlessly following all the other lemmings over the cliff.