Followers, follow

Emily Clemecki, Writer

The next time you are in a crowded public setting, try this experiment: Stop walking and stand still with your gaze studiously fixed on one point in the sky. Sooner or later, you will be joined by others, strangers who will stop what they are doing and look at the same point you are staring at in hopes of discovering what captured your attention. If the sight seems engaging enough, you may even end up with a small crowd around you. The more people you have willing to stop and stare with you, the more powerful the attraction effect to induce more people to do the same. 

Often called the ’Power of Crowds’ experiment, the effect of this time-tested psychological experiment demonstrates the fundamental force behind the creation of cults, according to Mark Van Vugt, Ph.D of Psychology Today. Van Vugt wrote that “followership” was the “default setting” for human beings upon birth, detailing how babies learn by watching their parents. Humans grow up being told what to do and how to do it by an authority figure, so the concept of forfeiting autonomy to another person is also ingrained in our species. 

Van Vugt emphasized how this following of the leader (or parent) behavior was a survival strategy common in many species, citing the work of Nobel prize-winning ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who documented the tendency of geese to mimic and follow the first creature they see after hatching. Learning to ‘goose’ properly is vital to being accepted into a flock, and flocking is vital as there is often safety in numbers. Animals learning to behave properly to gain acceptance into groups for survival directly parallels human socializing tendencies and the implicit followership social contract we generally agree to as part of a complex society. To be part of a group, it is often necessary to follow the lead of a leader, which also removes (some) responsibility from the follower. To form a larger, more complex society out of those groups, it may be necessary to conform even further to more universally socially acceptable behaviors. 

This desire for social acceptance coupled with innate followership unfortunately leaves human beings vulnerable to manipulation. The conflict a person feels when a leader commands them to say or do negative things is softened by group acceptance. Human morals inevitably flex to accommodate what is seen to be socially acceptable (everybody’s doing it) and being told by an authority (just following orders) to perform an objectively negative act. The more important social acceptance is to a person, the more likely they are to accept negative acts as the “price of admission.” The larger the group, the more social pressure is exerted on the individual to “fall in line.”

The concept of manipulation in human behavior isn’t new. Leaders have capitalized on the power of authority and human desire for social acceptance in order to wage war for thousands of years. The ‘Power of Crowds’ experiment cited above was originally conducted in 1969 by a team of three scientists, one of whom was Stanley Milgram. Milgram’s more famous early 1960s research on followership tendencies of human beings during his ‘Obedience to Authority’ experiments tested whether figures of authority could induce the average person to hurt or even kill others for no other reason than firmly being instructed to do so. Participants were duped into thinking they were administering electrical shocks to strangers (played by actors)  in a separate room and were urged by an authority figure to continually increase the voltage while their victims screamed, pleaded and eventually feigned death. This experiment was a direct response to the rise of the Nazi party and the unquestionable horror of the Holocaust in the 1940s, testing how and why any sane person could be complicit in such atrocity.

The answers were disappointingly primitive. There is safety in numbers. Humans evolved as social creatures, and naturally form groups (such as tribes, teams, clubs, political groups or even countries). The larger the group, the greater the perceived safety.  Followers lend power and legitimacy to any message, so in today’s digital age where anyone can have a public platform, the number of people following is a sign of success, popularity and often troublingly mistaken for a sign of veracity of message. In this age where developing leadership skills is viewed and emphasized as essential to leading a successful life, human society still struggles to overcome their biological tendencies toward followership and the many pitfalls it can have.