Nineteenth-century psychologist Gustave Le Bon chalked up instances such as these to the idea of “mob mentality,” a natural inclination to follow one’s peers in making decisions. Whether this is buying the same MacBook as everyone else in the lecture hall, suffering through “Gangnam Style” or watching the Super Bowl despite your hatred of football, we are basically a bunch of trend-followers at heart.
But why is this societal compliance so attractive? Self-described nonconformists would attribute it to tired “1984” references and the idea of “doublethink,” in which external factors change our minds for us. We are not, however, living in an enforced Orwellian world. University of London researchers credit mob mentality to a primal instinct originally developed to avoid predation. The experiment involved a flock of sheep being chased by a potential predator, such as a border collie. Every sheep made a beeline for the center of the pack, shielding itself from the predator and, so to speak, fitting in with the crowd. While this may seem a far cry from the urge to partake in YouTube trends, the concept is still the same. It’s just like in elementary school, when nobody wanted to be that one loser without a JanSport backpack. While there are some people who fly the flag of eccentricity in a concerted attempt to stand out, humans are, by and large, rather obsessed with being at the center of the pack.
Unfortunately, the effects of mob mentality don’t stop at minor things like school supplies. Investigations of riots in Los Angeles, Vancouver and London showed that a good proportion of the felons went about smashing windows and grabbing TVs merely because their peers did. Much as the sheep expects to be shielded from the dog by the rest of the herd, rioters assume that their misdeeds will be overlooked because of the sheer number of other criminals.
Advertising agencies also manipulate our desire to fit in. Whether through images of children enthralled by Nerf guns or ads with archetypal soccer moms and “parent-approved” minivans, Madison Avenue’s marketing wizards target this mob mentality with great success, inducing us to purchase goods that our peers have already endorsed.
So before watching the next viral video or buying the iPhone 6, think twice about what makes you want it and whether you want to be at the center of the pack. After all, who wants to be a sheep? Maybe you should just wear a propeller hat. You’ll stand out.