Are we sheep?

The Lord is my Shepherd. When I was growing up, I heard this a lot. At the time, I thought it was a warm and loving idea; that the Creator of the Universe and Source of Endless Love was watching over me, guiding me, leading the way. Nowadays though, I don’t like it all. We’re not sheep! We’re not dumb herd animals, incapable of living independently, thinking independently. Humanity is made up of intelligent, strong, courageous people who can take a stand and go their own way!… I think.

But is that true? Are we all actually better than sheep? Or are we really weak, herd-like animals that just think we have the qualities of free will, independent thought, compassion, the courage to take a stand, to treat everyone equally, to use power responsibly? To try and answer this, I’ve gathered together a group of famous psychology experiments that delve into such questions. These experiments give a picture of how we actually behave in certain situations, rather than how we’d like to think we behave. With their help, I’ve worked through the list of human qualities mentioned above and given a score for each one. The score will be the percentage of people who actually succeeded in showing these positive qualities in controlled situations; It’ll be like a sort of human qualities assessment test. I’ll then tot up the results and see humanity’s score. It’s not exactly an ideal way to work out if we’re all sheep or not, but I think it’ll probably give us a good idea.

First up on the human qualities front; free will. For this one, I chose Benjamin Libet’s famous experiment in which he analysed people’s brain activity while they made the choice of stopping a clock on a screen.

Unfortunately, Libet’s experiment gave a profound and worrying result; when someone thinks they’ve made a decision, their brain has already been preparing for that event for up to two seconds beforehand. In other words, when we think we’ve decided something, we’ve done no such thing, it’s more likely we’ve simply got the feeling we’ve decided something. So, the score for this challenge was 0%. Good start.

But, it may not be as bleak as it sounds. Perhaps free will is about guiding our brain’s behaviour and in key moments, suppressing actions we know to be wrong? That sounds more positive.

Next up, how aware are we? Are we foggy-headed zombies or bright-eyed and aware? It’s not really a spiritual necessity but humanity does like to think its aware of the world around. For this one, I started by digging up the Invisible Gorilla Test. The purpose of this test is count how many passes the players make during the video. Press play...

Reached the end? If you have, did you notice the gorilla? Many people don't see the gorilla at all because they were so focussed on counting the passes.
People don’t do well at the invisible gorilla test, but is that because it was more of a sneaky trick than a proper test? To help answer this, I’ve also looked into the Harvard Person Swap experiment. In that experiment, students were asked to go to a room, ask for a form from the person behind the desk, take it away, fill it out and give it to the test organizer. After they’d done that, that they were asked a key question: Had they noticed the fact that when the person behind the desk crouched down out of sight to pick up the form, an entirely different person had stood up to hand the form to them? Many did not. Another experiment to study this human problem of change blindness was the ‘Door’ study:

In that study, around 50% of people failed to spot that the person they were talking to had changed to a different person while the door passed by. So, for really basic alertness - as in, ‘is that the same guy in front of me?’ - we have a result of 50%.

Okay, on to the next challenge to our non-sheep status; acting independently. To find out if we can act independently, I looked for a psychology test in which someone simply has to disagree with others. They’re not being threatened to comply, they simply have to disagree, in order point out something which is patently true.

Fortunately, the Asch Conformity experiments tested this very ability. In these experiments, a group of five or so people were asked to say which of a group of three lines on the right matched the line on the left. It wasn’t hard to do and the answers were always pretty clear. The only thing was, all but one of the group were part of the setup. After a few goes, the pretend subjects would deliberately give wrong answers. The question was, would the single real subject agree with the others in the room out of blind conformity or state the blindingly obvious and disagree with them?

Without any coercion or intimidation, 35% of the subjects agreed with the others in the room even when it was obvious everyone else was wrong. This gives us a result of 65% for people successfully showing the tiniest amount of courage to act independently and truthfully.

For more fun on people’s desire to conform, check out this television experiment:

Right, on to the next challenge. This one is helping someone you don’t know. We, as a moral species, like to think we’ll do this when required. I remember hearing the tale of the Good Samaritan when I was young, in between comments about sheep. Interestingly, J. M. Darley and C.D Batson carried out a psychology experiment with this theme. The question the experiment wanted to answer was: ‘Would people stop to help an injured person on their way to a talk about the Good Samaritan?’ Full info is at <>. It turned out the people didn’t do that well. The key factor wasn’t whether they were religious or not, or whether they going to a talk about the Good Samaritan or another topic, but simply whether they were in a hurry. If they were really hurrying, only 10% helped! On average, 40% helped the stranger in need.

If you’d like to see this behaviour in action, here’s a video of another group performing a similar experiment in London:

On to the final, crucial challenge in the list. If we’re not dumb animals but moral, thoughtful, good people, we’d stand up for our fellow man, wouldn’t we? If we were asked to give dangerous electric shocks to another person, who, as far as we know, was just an ordinary member of the public, we’d say no, wouldn’t we?

Stanley Milgram had been appalled by what the Nazis had done to the Jews in the Second World War but wondered whether it was a one-off case of Germanic madness or a troubling indication of mankind’s general potential for cruelty. In particular, he wanted to know; ‘was it was down to people simply obeying orders, even if those orders had horrible consequences? Were they not so much evil, but just to weak to say ‘no’?

To answer this question, he set up an experiment. In the experiment, two ostensible members of the public were asked to take part in a test to see if pain helped someone learn. One of them was randomly assigned as the tester and the other as the learner. The learner was attached to an electric shock device in one room and the tester applied electric shocks to the learner from another room, every time the learner made a mistake with the tasks he or she was asked to carry out. In addition, the shocks would increase in severity with every wrong answer the learner made.

What the tester didn’t know was that the learner was only a pretend subject. He or she didn’t receive the shocks. Instead, a tape was played of that person shouting in pain, loud enough for the tester in the other room to hear.

The big question was; at what point would the tester refuse to administer the shocks? The only coercion he or she received was the test organiser, wearing a lab coat, insisting that the test must continue.

Here’s what happened:

It turned out that two-thirds of people administered shocks up to (as far as they knew) a lethal level. They didn’t look happy doing it and some of them protested but they still did it. The score for that challenge is therefore 35%, as in only a third-or-so of people actually stopped applying the shocks at any point.

It’s time for the scores summary! (higher is better):

Free will: 0% (but maybe more)
Basic awareness: 50%
Minimal act of independent opinion: 65%
Helping a stranger in some way: 40%
Not killing someone if asked to: 35%

The results make for sobering reading. The average percentage is 38%. Keep in mind that the challenges weren’t that demanding. Nobody was threatened with violence, or asked to be especially clever or courageous. The challenges were minimal in what they asked of the people concerned.

I’ve got to admit, the result’s left me floundering. I still don’t think human-kind are sheep, but it looks as if two-thirds of us are disastrously bad at being even a little like the sort of people we aspire to be, or at least say we aspire to be after the dessert’s been eaten, the hi-fi’s playing and everyone’s sipping their coffees. I guess that some of us are capable of admiral things. The only problem is, it’s only some of us; it’s not even a majority. That would mean that if a society, any society, drifts into a dark place, there’ll only be a few people who will try and stop bad things happening. I guess the choice in that situation would be; be good and get trampled on or be bad (or weak) and do the trampling.

On that cheery note, I thought I’d finish off the article with an example of a psychology experiment that investigated how people behave when one half of a group has power and the other half doesn’t. It’s known as the Stanford Prison Experiment and is possibly the most famous and most dark experiment of all the ones shown so far.

In my next blog, I’ll definitely, definitely try and find something positive to write about.