Humans are great followers

As social animals, humans are built to follow.  Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

Human beings are not very good at correcting ourselves, especially when we get older.  We need the pressure of society to keep us behaving consistently; and sometimes we need a ‘boss’ of some sort to keep us on track.

It would be nice if we were better at self-monitoring.  We would be more efficient improvers if we constantly analysed the results of our actions, and amended our behaviour accordingly.  But this is a skill that is hard to learn.  Not many people develop the self-discipline to improve themselves without a huge amount of prompting by others.  Often, it is when things go very wrong, that we finally change.


Human beings, as social animals, are great followers.  We learn huge chunks of behavioural information by observing and copying our peers.  Look around you, and you will see a society based on modelling and copying.  Newspapers, for instance, offer partial views from one particular perspective, and talk as if they hold the truth.  Readers slowly become attuned to the message, and, without knowing it, assimilate it, until they too naturally believe it is the truth.

Much advertising, too, relies on our urge to copy.  We see pictures of happy people wearing clothes, and we attribute happiness to the clothing, and buy it in the hope of being happy ourselves.

It is a need, as much as breathing is a need.  We are born with brains that habitually follow what is around us, all the rules, all the rituals.  We are very sensitive to standing out, and, as much as possible, copy the usual traditional behaviours, because we feel safer that way.


Many of us, too, end up looking to a leader of some sort to tell us what to do.  It could be a priest, or a teacher, or a sports coach.  We enjoy the fact that this takes the pressure off us.  We don’t have to think so hard about what to do next.  Many religions feed off this need for leadership, and develop structures which tap into the way humans look for someone to tell them the way.

Again, this is a need, as much as eating.  We naturally get an urge to follow a leader who is willing to take on the pressure of deciding what to do next.  Many mammals work this way, joining together in tribes, and delegating status and authority to the few, in order to maintain order for the many, in accordance with the majority need to follow.


We don’t have to look very far to see the down side of all this.  In the 20th Century, the World Wars saw great violence and suffering, in part caused by the somewhat blind tendency of humans to follow ideologies, to avoid standing out socially, and to give authority to leaders who may or may not be kind to everyone.

Even outside those great wars, conflicts arise everywhere, fuelled in part by the need of participants to fit in somewhere, and to delegate their thinking to a leader.


I suppose a positive possibility in all this is that, once you have decided on a good way to live, you can find a society and leaders who match your desired direction.

It is a mistake to think that we all act alone: we don’t.  We are social animals, subject to all the weaknesses that this brings.  If you are going to be weak, you might as well put yourself in an environment that supports the best in you.


Maybe review your usual habits, beliefs and behaviours.  What society to you try to fit in to?  Which leaders do you respect?  Are they worthy of you?  If not, perhaps choose a different society, with different leaders, whom you trust to match your values.  You don’t have to stick to the rules you were born into.  You can perform your own search.



Human beings are built to follow.  In particular, we all tend to slavishly follow the rules of the societies we live in, and the directions of the leaders we are given.  This can take us into some dark places if those societies or leaders are misguided.  It is worth reviewing your life, to check whether those you socialise with, and those you allow to lead you, are worthy of your cooperation and trust.