Are you the leader or a sheep of the group?

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Throughout human history we have relied on being in a group. Though have you ever considered what your place is? We investigate the tension between this natural instinct in contrast to the strive for individuality.

Do you follow the crowd? I suspect most of you reading would automatically say no. No one wants to see themselves as a sheep, following the rest of the herd. Well that’s the assumption when 39% of people said in a YouGov survey, that they were a leader over a follower. 

Of course it probably comes as no surprise that the results in the same survey revealed that ‘men are more likely to identify as leaders than women’  typical eh. 

Though, we can’t all be head honcho can we? Some of us must follow the crowd and commit the sin of conformity.

Dr Megan Birney, a social psychologist and senior lecturer at Staffordshire University said: “I think that sometimes people think that being part of a group or going along with a group is a negative but it is not,  we are social animals and this is what we have evolved to do

“Look at our society and almost everything we hold dearly depends on us being part of a group; it is still part of our survival

“We know from literature in ostracism that being not part of a group, even a group you do not like or hate, still feels bad. We detect that feeling of rejection and it is very pertinent.”

Gosh imagine being part of a group you don’t even like…  

Oh wait some of you don’t have to as according to another YouGov poll ‘nearly one in ten Britons (9%) has a friend they don’t really like.’

Oooo, I wonder which one of you readers is part of that fake friend statistic. 

As Dr Birney confirms, relationships and being part of a group are of utmost importance. Which surely means being a follower should not come with such a stigma, yet I don’t think many would want to be seen as sheep. 

Dr Birney continues: “I do think we like to think of ourselves as unique individuals but personal identity is social identity. They are not inseparable, we are our social groups 

“I don’t think that that is a bad thing, we rely on other people to validate who we are and we need other people to tell us who we are 

“If you think of yourself as hard working, you do not actually know what that means unless you look at someone else and think they are hard working and then you adjust yourself in comparison.”

I know that I am guilty of this. Sometimes you need that validation from someone else to give you the go ahead before you do something.

I give you permission to call me a sheep now, baa.

Although should we be relying on others to dictate what we do? To me this could be a recipe for disaster. 

I’m going to quickly pass back over to Dr Birney, for some reassurance: “Sometimes there is a sense that conformity is bad but it is very normal and necessary. We all do seek social approval because it comes back to this need to be accepted

“We do horrible things because of the influence of the group but there is a lot of negative attention on conformity

“However, we do not often focus on how often and how many people resist that, if you think about every single social change that has ever happened it is because of resistance because people haven’t gone with the group and have fought against that so humans resist a lot.” 

Phew, I thought it was about to get rather dark. 

What I have learnt from this piece, despite what I first thought, is that actually following the herd is not a terrible thing. 

Of course not being able to step away from a group is not ideal but in actuality it is just part of human nature. 

So I think it is about time we embrace our sheepness! 

Expert insight: Dr Megan Birney

Dr Megan Birney is a social psychologist and is currently a senior lecturer at the University of Staffordshire. During her career she has focussed her research on topics related to identity and has published a book called ‘Self and Identity: The Basics

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