The following instinct

There is nothing inherently wrong with following, but don’t lose your powers of observation, critical thinking, and kindness.  Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

Humans are mostly followers.  The evidence of this is in the way we collect together in societies with common values and customs.  A simple look around you at different countries, or different religions, will show you how each society will congregate around a pattern of living, and then behave as if that pattern of living is the only truth.

If we want to become more free of this tendency, we can learn to watch for three things:

  1. Hero-worship.  Societies cannot help elevating certain characters to the top of the tree.  When examined in detail, these characters often turn out to be mightily flawed, even on their own terms.  But human groups are addicted to the elevation of selected personalities.  This fuels religious fundamentalism, celebrity culture, sporting fandom, and more.
  2. Demonisation.  This is the other side of the coin of hero-worship.  Societies cannot help denigrating certain characters, and projecting them to the bottom of the pile.  Even if the society has a common value of tolerance, this value is regularly broken with respect to selected scapegoats.  Hero-worship and demonisation together fuel polarisation, which is the pressure to accept and reject vehemently.
  3. Blind acceptance of convention.  Neither can societies help mindlessly generating common behaviours, even if those behaviours are ultimately self-defeating.  For instance, people will copy each other in excessive consumption of resources, even if the obvious outcome is later drought.  People will also copy each other in hypocrisies, because, socially, the copying instinct is more powerful than any instinct for comparative reasoning.
To gain more freedom, and avoid the worst of the follower effect, we can cultivate three moderations:

  1. Character analysis.  In order to free your mind, learn to analyse society’s heroes, until you are aware of how their human nature is a very mixed bag.  Learn to see how most heroes owe more to society’s myth-making ability, than anything necessarily inherent in their own character.  Watch how those myths are created and perpetuated.
  2. Kindness.  In order to stop you being unintentionally mean to selected scapegoats, teach yourself forbearance.  If you find yourself wanting to criticise a person or group of people, ask yourself if there is a way of addressing the issue, not the person.  Much unkindness is simply laziness – we cannot be bothered to tolerate, because it is easier to denigrate.
  3. Behaviour analysis.  A way to prevent self-defeating social copying behaviours, is to observe two things.  Firstly, observe how repeating patterns of behaviour are generated.  And secondly, observe what a pattern of behaviour achieves in terms of consequences, and compare that with an original intention.  For instance, in counselling, I will often work with clients to explore how they might have generated, partly in response to social conditioning, behaviours detrimental to their apparent wish for happiness.


Humans are instinctive followers.

They worship heroes, demonise enemies, and blindly copy convention.

To moderate these tendencies, we can:

  1. learn to analyse human nature, and to understand how we create myths
  2. train ourselves to be kind and tolerant, even to apparent enemies
  3. critically analyse conventional behaviour, however embedded in our society it might be
The intention is not to stop hero-worship, demonisation and convention from happening.  But the idea is to make these processes a little more thoughtful, and avoid their more damaging excesses.