One of the most interesting things that I learned in high school psychology class was how easy it can be to make smart people say profoundly stupid things. When I was fifteen and my interest in the social sciences was just beginning to take shape, I was fascinated by the results of a social experiment that I got to perform on my classmates. The experiment was on pack mentality and illustrated what social psychologists call “group think.”
Pack mentality is a phenomenon in which people make decisions based upon the actions of others, sometimes without even realizing it. It stems from the animalistic drive to want to fit in. We are social and status-seeking animals. We often go with what the majority thinks and align our behaviors with our pack in an effort to not get left behind. This is demonstrated in the animal kingdom constantly; such as a flock of birds migrating south for the winter in a clear formation. Pack mentality has evolutionary benefits, since often times the animal that is left behind has a hard time surviving in the wild. You can see pack mentality in humans in any situation where there is a social script that is followed. For example, in elevators there is an unwritten rule that you face toward the front. If you were to break this social script and face toward the back of the elevator, I guarantee you’ll get some funny looks!
Pack mentality is more likely to occur in situations in which there are social pressures in place. In the experiment I performed, we had a group of 5 people sit at a table and answer simple questions aloud starting from left to right. Of the 5 people at the table, two of the participants were confederates who were told which questions were going to be asked and how they should respond to the questions. For a few of the questions, the two confederates were told to answer the question wrong. For example, for the question “what was the name of the first president of the United States?” the confederate is told to answer “George Bush” instead of “George Washington.” The idea is to see if the other participants will succumb to the social pressure and answer the question wrong, thus demonstrating the power of the herd effect.
Before going into the first trial, I had no idea that people would actually go along with the confederates and answer such a simple question wrong, but over half of the time that’s just what they did! Since the confederates had gained credibility from the group by answering the first half of the questions correctly and because they were seated at the beginning of the table and answered the questions first, people more often then not went along with whatever answer they said. If the confederates said that Christmas was in January, Christmas was in January. If the confederates said that George Bush was the first president, then indeed he was!
I was dumbfounded by how powerful the herd effect could be. There were times when the participants looked amongst each other nervously before responding with the wrong answer, but they went along with the group regardless of their hesitation the majority of the time. In a few trials, there would be a brave soul who would go against the group and proudly answer the question correctly as if the others were out of their minds. When this occurred, everyone looked at the bold participant with either shock, admiration, or a confused mixture of both. It is obvious that people tend to feel uncomfortable when one questions the group and steps outside of its’ boundaries.
Not only do we feel comfortable and safe within the confines of our pack, but we also look more attractive to onlookers. When we are in a group, our large foreheads, buckteeth, and other disproportions average out which makes us appear to be more beautiful than we actually are. This is called the “cheerleader effect” and is largely due to the innate desire of the human mind to simplify the information, be it visual or otherwise, the information it receives so that it has to do as little work as possible. When we look at people in a group, we are taking in a lot of visual information at one time so the brain streamlines this information by averaging it together. Conversely, when we view a single person the brain is focusing on one visual stimulus at a time and can take in more detailed information, giving us a more clear view of what the person looks like.
Clearly, being part of a pack can have its benefits. It can bring you the safety, security, and social support us animals thirst for, and you look hotter to boot! Seems like a win/win if you ask me. However, the effects of groupthink can lead to some pretty idiotic decisions so it is always a good idea to think for yourself and question everything, even if everyone else seems to be going along with it.