Don’t be a sheep

I’ve currently got my son reading Influence.  One of the most influential books on me I’ve ever read.  The part that made the biggest impact is the section on social proof.  Short version– we are sheep.  We look to see what everybody else is doing and do the same.  And usually in a situation that requires action, the result ends up being no action because we all see a bunch of other people standing around doing nothing.

So, my understanding of this book changed my life as I have since made a conscientious effort to not be a sheep where most people are one.  It pays off.  Two recent examples come to mind (though they may stretch the concept just a bit).

They are currently renovating the locker rooms at NCSU.  For long time locker room users, e.g., me, the situation is a giant pain in the ass.  Among other issues, you had to walk through active showers just to get to your locker and there was water everywhere.  I emailed the folks in charge of the renovation and within a few days, the troublesome showers had been closed and there were additional mats put down to deal with the excess water issue (the whole thing still sucks, but it’s not as bad now).  Hundreds of locker room uses, but apparently nobody bothered to bring this up until I did. And the people in charge of the renovation probably don’t use the locker room.  Or if they do, they aren’t thinking too hard about how to improve the experience.

Example number 2.  I drop my oldest off at  high school every other day (I take turns with my wife– we do it so he can get more sleep– you know how I feel about HS start times).  Anyway, upon the return home there’s a left turn that can back up a bit.  This year, the backup has gotten crazy and is potentially very problematic as it is in a middle turn lane that– if the backup is too great– can effect a different set of cars wanting to make left turns 1/4 away.  So, how many hundreds of cars where waiting in this horrible line every day and just taking it?  I don’t know, but the Town of Cary had no idea about this problem until I contacted the head Traffic Engineer.  Since the Town of Cary is awesome, he called me up and we spoke on the phone about the problem.  The light timing has already been adjusted (though, the situation is still not so great– I think due to knock-on effects from nearby construction).  Anyway, it’s better, because I spoke up.

This post is not meant to be self-congratulatory.  And heck, plenty of times I speak up and nothing happens.  But a lot of times something does happen.  And changes are made.  But that never happens if we all stand around like sheep.  So, break the cycle.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

5 Responses to Don’t be a sheep

  1. Mika says:

    Yes! Words of wisdom yesyes (really, I know by experience that one simple phone call can make a substantial difference but only if someone actually bothers to make that call), but also I get an excuse to comment with a Housemartins video!!11!!1!

  2. Jon K says:

    I agree with a lot of what you said. Growing up I always resisted following the crowd. My parents called me a contrarian, and others thought I had issues respecting authority. I just honestly decided that I would do my own thinking. I am fully equipped to reason and make decisions. I have never understood how people so willingly cede this responsibility to others or to crowds. Once you start letting others do your thinking for you it gives others too much control over your mind. The brain is a muscle and if you don’t use it it withers.

  3. R. Jenrette says:

    The other directed has achieved the dominant position in our culture, as predicted. Thankfully, there are some individuals who have achieved autonomy. “The Lonely Crowd” rules!

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