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Nelson's Column

Turning a blind eye to reality

March 01, 2011

Herd of humans? (1)

herd%20of%20cows.jpgMy first full-time job after university was at a music agency. I’d been employed to take care of rock concerts and similar events at universities around the country, but on my first day I was asked by one of the directors if I could help out that evening by paying the artists at an event arranged by another section of the company. I dutifully turned up at the event to find that the artists were strippers. My job was to receive money from the manager of the club, and pay the girls.

I quickly discovered that my company was only paying the strippers 20% of the fee instead of the 90% that registered agencies were supposed to pay. When I realized what was happening, I talked with the strippers and said I would pay them 90%. They pleaded with me to just pay them 20% and not say anything about what had happened otherwise they wouldn’t get more work from my agency. So there I was on my first day’s work, having a business discussion with three completely naked girls, and faced with a moral dilemma.

I did what the strippers asked me to do, but after a few weeks of similar things happening, I could confront my bosses without the blame falling on any particular performers. My bosses told me I was naïve. They said what they were doing was normal in the industry. It was just business. I said I didn’t want any part of it, so they gave me the university section to run and said I could do things my way. After a few months, I left the company and set up on my own. A wonderful group of musicians asked me to represent them, probably mainly because I rejected some ‘normal’ practices.

If you met any of my bosses as individuals, you would think what nice people they were. They were certainly very kind to me, and I enjoyed spending time with them. Yet, when these people got together into a group, they abused their position of power over others. They often didn’t do this intentionally. They just didn’t question the ‘normal’ way enough. This was one of the first times I fully understood how caring human beings in herds can do things to outsiders that many would never do as individuals or to insiders in their herd. I don’t mean to single out my bosses and condemn them. I’m just giving an example of very common human behavior.

There are many kinds of herds – businessmen, soldiers, teachers, the managers, the workers, the company, the nation, the gang, the team, the family, the group of friends … the list is endless. It seems to me that herds develop their own normal ways of doing things, and insiders in the herd partly gain their identity by contrasting themselves with, and often putting down, outsiders. We often believe that we have a fixed personality and clear values, but I think we can think and behave quite differently depending on who we are with and which particular herd we identify with at a particular moment in time.

If you talked with people in Britain in 1981, you would have found that most people thought the idea of Britain fighting a war unimaginable. Yet, in 1982, we were at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, and many of those who had previously seen themselves as pacifists, and many who wouldn’t hurt a fly in their daily lives, were cheering on the fleet as it sailed to war. The national herd mentality had taken over.

When I was a university student, I used to hitchhike around Europe, sleeping in fields. On one occasion, I found myself stuck in the center of Paris with little hope of getting a lift (and no field in sight) and only enough money for the ferry across the English Channel. I hadn’t eaten for a couple of days because I’d lost my rucksack and the rest of my money in a fight in Rome (life was more exciting in those days), so I just sat down in a small park by the Seine in the pouring rain, wondering what to do.

There was a man sitting near me getting soaking wet, and I lent him my groundsheet to help him keep dry. It turned out that he was one of the leaders of a group of thieves. When some of the rest of the gang arrived, they offered to take care of me out of gratitude for helping one of them. At first, I accepted because I had little choice, but I soon found that I really liked being with them, and believed them when they said they only stole from those who could afford it. I didn’t take part in or witness any crimes, but I ate the food they provided me with, and gradually empathized with their take on society.

If I hadn’t had a home and university course to go back to, I wonder if I would have stayed longer and come to take their way of looking at things for granted. It seems to me that there is little, if any, difference between their situation and that of somebody working for a company that exploits others, puts competitors out of work, or doesn’t tell the truth to customers, but buys into the illusions generated by their company’s culture. We can just as easily fall under the sway of one group as another.

When I was about twenty, I remember being fascinated by the writings of R.D. Laing. I was particularly interested in his idea that we are hypnotized by society when we are children, and most of us don’t wake up from this hypnotic trance until just before we die. We then look back and realize how much of our life was an illusion. If we wake up too soon and question things too fundamentally, it’s difficult to get up in the morning and go to work. Laing focused mainly on how the family hypnotizes us, but perhaps it is every human herd that does this.

After reading Laing, I made up my mind to make it a lifetime goal to look critically at the ways I have been hypnotized, and try and see through the illusions generated by the culture of the country, the company or any other group I might belong to. Of course, I can never succeed, but recognizing that the illusions are there in the first place helps to some extent. As the great Leonard Cohen wrote, ‘Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.’

This process inevitably leads to the questioning of national culture. My students often tell me they need to study Japanese culture deeply in order to become international people. At first sight, this seems a very encouraging stance to take, but, when I ask why, they generally say it is so they can explain about Japanese culture to foreigners. This is understandable, but disappointing. It comes across as almost nationalistic. I would agree that we need to study our own culture, but with the aim of seeing where our attitudes, opinions and behavior come from, so that we can try to free ourselves from these influences.

I suppose what I’m saying is that each of the almost infinite number of human herds develops a culture that helps bond that herd together and hypnotizes us to behave in certain ways and make certain choices. Much of the time, our choices, which appear to us as being freely made are, in fact, restricted or dictated by the cultures of the herds we belong to. Why is it that most people in one country ‘choose’ to belong to one religion and most people in another country nearby ‘choose’ to belong to a different religion? I don’t mean to deny the truth of any particular religion, but they can’t all be 100% accurate. It is also not a criticism of a belief in God (I have a strong faith, myself). Religions don’t have to involve God. Consumerism, individualism, capitalism, atheism or just about any ‘ism’ can be regarded as religions. To a greater or lesser extent, we buy into the prevailing illusions in our societies.

All of this creates dilemmas for us as teachers. Should we be focusing on developing our students’ ability to see through the illusions that control us? Should we be trying to develop cultures in our classes that will help children learn better? I expect many of us would say ‘Yes’ to both questions. However, answering ‘Yes’ to the second question, not only implies that there are ‘better’ cultures, but that we have the power and right to decide what these ‘better’ cultures are, and we have the right to create illusions that limit our students’ choices. Is this compatible with our ‘Yes’ answer to the first question?

Next month, in this column, I will look at these questions and at other implications of the human herd on the teacher in the classroom. I will also look at the effects of these ideas on the particular way I have set up voluntary organizations such as ETJ (English Teachers in Japan).

Meanwhile, here are some more dialogues from Communicate (level 3):

An alien’s perspective would, of course, be different.

(Language target: Expressing opinions and beliefs)


Glug: Do you believe in humans?
Zork: You mean strange aliens with two arms and two legs?
Glug: Yes, that’s right.
Zork: No, of course not.
Glug: Well, I do. And I think they’re intelligent.
Zork: Where do you think they live?
Glug: On Earth.
Zork: On Earth! Ho! Ho! Ho! That’s impossible!
It’s much too polluted!
Glug: Yes, but where does the pollution come from?
Zork: That’s a mystery.
But it certainly doesn’t come from intelligent humans.

Glug and Zork decide to search for intelligent life on earth.

(Language target: Reporting speech without changing the tense)


Glug: There is life on Earth!
I’ve found three different aliens!
Zork: Are they intelligent?
Glug: I’ll ask them some questions.
What’s 12 ÷ 3 x 2 – 7.5?
Seal: Aarf!
Glug: The seal said 12 ÷ 3 x 2 – 7.5 is a half.
Zork: That was quick! Ask the frog a question.
Glug: Have you read 'The Complete Works of Shakespeare'?
Frog: Redit!
Glug: The frog said he has read 'The Complete Works of Shakespeare.'
Zork: That’s very good! Ask the dog a question.
Glug: Which German composer was born in 1685?
Dog: Bark!
Glug: The dog said that Bach was born in 1685.
Zork: They’re all very intelligent!

Next month, Glug and Zork meet Mr. and Mrs. Shakespeare.

« The conscious and the subconscious | Main | Herd of humans? (2) »


Nice article, David. Thanks for sharing about your experience of trying to break free from groupthink. I'm looking forward to your next article about applying these ideas in the classroom.

"Like a worm on a hook."

was an interesting read. Thanks for sharing the link.

A nice piece of work here, David. Nice to see you back in the saddle so to speak. I look forward to the next entry.

Many thanks for sharing your reflections of your past experiences. That's great! It is pleasant to become acquainted with someone I admire and respect. I also, realized there are others who can step out of the "Herd" to see and understand humanity from a different point of view not just from the "Herd" perceptive. Not many people, realize a lot of the points you made because they only follow, some would not even take a second to question their own actions. What is significant though, is that you are aware of your beliefs, your actions and the correct tenet.
Maybe only the social architects and the "Herd" isn't aware and should re- think their idea of creating or contribution to society.
Many thanks for sharing this blog entry, I am looking forward to reading next month entry.
I like the dialogue for "Communicate"...
Thank you! :)

Very insightful. It reminds me of how ordinary human beings can become killing machines at war or turn into torturers.

I wonder David, if you could illuminate what this might mean for teaching and students? We see herding instincts there, too.


I read this post with interest as I am currently reading, The wisdom of crowds. It takes a very different approach to the behaviour of crowds, eloquently illustrating how crowds can collectively make very good decisions. I think you would enjoy reading it.

I am currently thinking of how it can be used in my marketing class...

All the best,


thanks for sharing your perspective. the notion of the herd mentality twisting the individual in particular reminds an interview with Terry Gilliam about _Brazil_. he recalled a conversation with George Lucas about evil and villains, wherein he was struck by the fact that Lucas really thought that Darth Vader was evil, the terrible force we fear. but (and I agree) Gilliam thought the Vader-style villain is too obvious, too clear to really constitute something "evil"--it's a cartoon, not something you can seriously fear. the truly terrifying thing is the Michael Palin character in Brazil--the nice guy, family man next door, asking about your mum and dad, showing you the pictures of his kids he carries in his wallet--who just so happens to torture people for a living. that the ostensibly nice guys can find an (inevitably "pragmatic") reason to rationalize their perpetration of injustice looks like the toughest knot to unravel, and costs me much more sleep than some Vader (bin Laden, etc) "monster" whose intentions, while perhaps deplorable, are at least clear.

sans rucksack but with groundsheet? all's never lost! reminds me of sleeping in a tree on Oxford street near Marble Arch...


This article makes some very important points about the nature of herd behaviour, but I have to wonder how much of the group 'hyptnotism' is in fact entirely voluntary.

I suspect that much of the issue is not that the reality is hidden by a group-generated illusion, but is instead a conscious buy-in of the shared social consensus.
Humans are after all, group oriented mammals, and a key element of a smooth group dynamic are shared values and behavior.

I definitely feel that as language teachers, we should be making students aware of the social factors (illusions?) that influence behavior and communication in the target language.
Trying to take it further, however, may end up being an exercise in attempting to free someone who is a willing and content participant in their culture.

Wonderful material David. Congratulations on this and thank you for sharing your insight and experiences. The whole concept of being hypnotized makes perfect sense to me. I take it a step further and suggest that the NWO is in fact attempting to do this so as to maintain power but in essence we each individually have the power to be, do or have anything we desire. The law of Attraction is a universal law and works whether you believe it or not. Everything is energy and th evibration we put out is paramount. TV, religion, etc is designed primarily to numb and to divide the population. You refer to human herds, and I like to use an expression that Alex Jones uses: the sheeple- people will always be sheeple untill they wake up to what is happening. As Goethe said, "there are none so enslaved as those who falsely believe themeselves to be free".
Looking fwd to the next one.

An interesting post. Thanks for your insights and anecdotes, David.

As foreign language teachers with cultural backgrounds that emphasize different values and ways of thinking, we are in a unique position to open students’ eyes to different perspectives that may not otherwise be apparent (due to being immersed in a consistent set of encouraged ways of thinking their whole life), and in the same way, we can broaden our own perspectives. This is in my opinion one of the most important things we can impart as teachers.

Herd mentality plays such a strong and pervasive role in society. We are taught at an early stage that there are great costs, risks and pressures associated with breaking from the herd, and later, when there are exams to pass and bills to pay this feeling only becomes stronger. However, we are living in amazing, changing times and I believe we are a lot more free to follow our bliss than we are led to believe - and this is where the best rewards lie. Too often people feel they have the courage, or initiative drained from them in by the rigors of society. How one can find the power to rise above this, I'll leave for you to elaborate on - from what I gather, you've made an admirable attempt, so far!

Very interesting and insightful, thank you! I think I'll take a look at Laing's writings.

I've been fascinated for years about literary criticism that focused on the "subject." Much of what I read was critical of humanity's ability to grow beyond the subject, suggesting that people were basically subjects, or pawns, of governments, corporations, religions, cultures, herds of all kinds. But I think there is some space, like you mentioned, between being called into the role of the subject and a person's ability to be aware of it and how they respond. There's a gap between stimulus and response. And, oh how important that is!

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