The herd instinct is ‘a mentality characterized by a lack of individual decision-making or thoughtfulness, causing people to think and act in the same way as the majority of those around them’. It’s a familiar term in investing, where investors are influenced by the positivity – or negativity – of others, and their behaviour then feeds into the market, perpetuating this cycle and sometimes leading to bubbles or crashes.
But the herd mentality I want to talk about today is the one that is much bigger than the stock market, and permeates almost all of our money (and other) decisions.
The Allegory of Plato’s Cave
The allegory was written to illustrate ‘the effect of education (παιδεία) and the lack of it on our nature‘. It begins by asking you to imagine a cave in which everyone is chained up so that they must look only at the wall in front of them rather than at one another. On this wall are cast the shadows of a variety of puppets lit by fire. (You may wish to imagine a group of people glued to their mobile devices).
The movements of these shadow puppets will seem like reality for these people, as they have never seen anything else.
But imagine that one prisoner is freed. They see the light, and its brightness hurts their eyes. Perhaps they are dragged out of the cave, into the sun – and the light of the sun burns even more. The former prisoner is angry, in pain, uncomfortable.
Yet slowly, their eyes adjust, and they see reality for what it is. Once the former prisoner has seen how much more there is to the world, they are reluctant to go back, but do so, out of compassion for their former colleagues in chains.
When they go back to the cave, however, their eyes are no longer adjusted to the dark, and all those who remain in the cave, who can still see, believe that being outside has damaged the former prisoner. As a result, they would not want to leave.
The Allegory of the Matrix
If a 2400 year old story is perhaps a little unrelatable for you, Fisker also mentions The Matrix in a footnote. This 1999 film employed Plato’s cave allegory, in that ‘once one accepts that The Matrix is an illusion, then the allegory of the cave becomes clear’.
One of the major influences the Matrix has had is the popularisation of the terms ‘red pill’ and ‘blue pill’. We have to make the sometimes tough choice to believe the person who has seen the world beyond the shadows, deciding to take the red pill (which represents the often painful truth) or to disbelieve them, relying on our comfort in inertia and sticking with the herd, choosing the blue pill (the blissful ignorance of illusion).
In my previous post, I wrote a little about the life scripts people adhere to – notions of how you ‘should’ live your life, such as having a good job, finding a partner, buying a house, and having children.
Depending on who you are and where you grow up, the specifics may change – e.g. a ‘good job’ might mean only law or medicine in some circles, in others, it might mean something more entrepreneurial. But it’s unlikely to mean working as a part-time, poorly-paid artist, or being a self-funded early retiree in the mainstream. ‘Finding a partner’ might mean finding your true love, having a big white wedding, or a practical allegiance. Some people manage to achieve all three, for others, these goals are mutually incompatible – they may be unable to marry the person they love, or the person they want to marry may not be seen as a ‘good catch’. ‘Buying a house’ might mean a modest house on a suburban block with a picket fence, or it might mean a flashy McMansion. But again, in the mainstream, it is unlikely to mean living in an RV, as Jacob Lund Fisker chose to, despite having an income that could have sustained much more. And so on, until your ‘golden’ retirement years.
Even though there are some variations, if you vary too far from this ‘ideal’ lifestyle, you’re at risk of social censure. Take, for example, the Japanese saying, popular in the 1980s, that a woman’s shelf life is like that of a Christmas cake (女の賞味期限はクリスマスケーキ) – in other words, past the 25th (day of December/year of her life) no one wants it. Or, as I examined in my previous post, the saying that ‘A man’s home is his castle’. Everyone wants to be the king of their own realm, and certainly, no one wants to be seen as a stale fruit cake.
Social norms are ‘informal understandings that govern the behavior of members of a society’. Not following these norms results in being labeled as a ‘deviant’ of some kind or another. Social norms change over time, and what today is considered deviant behaviour may not have been in the past, or in a different culture to your own, and vice versa.
You might be labeled as a ‘deviant’ or ‘strange’ because of the way you dress, the way you speak, who you love, where you live, what you do for work – a variety of different reasons. And even if you fulfil part of the ‘normal’ societal expectations, not following the script the whole way through can still lead to negative labels from others. You might, for example, get married, but ‘fail’ to build a house. Or you might have children but ‘fail’ to raise them with the perfect partner.
For a long time, I wondered why so many people seemed so very interested in my personal decisions that would not in any way effect them. One day, I realised that everyone who was so persistent in bothering me had tried very hard to follow the prevailing ‘script’ themselves. And they probably felt threatened by anyone who had torn their eyes away from the shadows and seen what the rest of the world has to offer. ‘I didn’t even know I could not do this stuff!’ I imagined them saying, enraged.
Of course, it’s very difficult to discover why people do what they do when what they do is considered ‘normal’. We study all kinds of deviations from the norm, but rarely do we survey people and ask them what seems to be ‘obvious’. We’re interested in why people become murderers more than we are interested in why the average person walking down the street doesn’t try to kill you. There are many studies on the social ‘issues’ of childlessness or decreasing marriage rates, because these things are seen as ‘deviations’ and ‘problems’.
The myth of the ‘perfect’ life
I started this blog with the question ‘why?’, and today I want to turn to some specific questions that begin this way.
If following the script is a recipe for happiness…
- Why do most people hate their jobs?
- Why do so many marriages end in divorce?
- Why do so many people suffer mortgage stress?
- Why are childfree people happier than those with children?
Even more damning is the relationship between these norms. Divorce or separation is reportedly the number one reason for mortgage defaults. Children represent a significant financial strain, and money issues often lead to marital conflict. Divorce rates do appear to be higher among childless couples than those with children, however, many couples really do only work on their marriage because of the kids, it seems, and childless couples have an easier time of divorce. Importantly, couples who don’t agree on whether they want to have children are twice as likely to divorce, and losing a child or having a child with ADHD are also associated with even more dramatically increased divorce rates than not having children at all.
And when it comes to work, a thought-provoking Forbes article suggests that we may actually hate our jobs more because more than ever, we have the opportunity to love them. This argument lends weight to my assumption above – that when we see others being happy doing things outside of the box, we feel resentful because we didn’t have the courage to do so, or more often, didn’t even realise it was an option. Indeed, the article describes how most people choose a career at, say 22, with very little idea of what options are available, no idea of what they want to do with their lives, gravitating towards professions with pre-defined milestones, just like in school. And we choose jobs – and often stick with them – because we need money. Why do we need so much money? Beyond the basics – maintaining our own need for food and water – it might be to pay the mortgage. To pay for a wedding. To support our children. To recoup after a divorce.
Of course none of these statistics are reasons not to get married if you have found the right person and both want to, not to buy a house if you have found an affordable place you want to live in, or not to have children if that’s what you have your heart set on. But they do dispel the myth that you can build a ‘perfect’ life just by being a ‘good’ person and following the script like you are ‘supposed to’.
Do you choose the red pill or the blue pill?
Since deciding, back in 2012, that I wanted to drastically change my life and beginning to read books like ERE and Your Money or Your Life, as well as Mr. Money Mustache’s blog, I have had the experience of talking to both red pill takers – who are immediately excited about the idea of financial freedom – and those who are blue pill takers – who immediately reject these views, unable or unwilling to see beyond what they view as the ‘normal’ script of life.
Social norms can be extremely valuable. I am very glad that we, generally, live in such a cooperative society. Crossing the street, I can be relatively sure that the person driving the car that is approaching the crossing will stop – not only because the red light reminds them, and because the law tells them to, and hopefully their moral conscious does also, but because hitting pedestrians at will just isn’t the done thing.
But sometimes, social norms can be dangerous. When we fall back on notions of how things ‘should’ be to judge others – often because we’re not all that happy in our own situations, we’re jealous, and we resent the very notion that there’s another option, because accepting that would force us to accept that we haven’t taken that path. I’ve certainly been guilty of that.
When I was a child, my mother used to read me a story of the mouse who couldn’t eat cheese. Essentially, it was a story about peer pressure. All of the other mice who ate cheese ended up being caught by the cat, and only the one who didn’t follow the pack survived.
As an adult, I often think of that story. While there can be safety in numbers, there can be danger as well. When we make decisions based on following what others are doing, rather than evaluating the appropriateness of those choices for ourselves, we can easily be led off a cliff, or into the jaws of the awaiting cat.
The reason I wanted to address this theme today is to introduce the site I’m working on with my husband, Escapementality, which will focus on our travels. You can check out the start of our ‘One Free Day In‘ series, guides to the free activities we recommend in the cities we have visited so far.
How are you writing your own life script? Let me know in the comments below.
If you enjoy #Enrichmentality (and #Escapementality!) please share it!
Today’s featured image is of a not-so-unique snowflake-decorated building in downtown Budapest.