Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Come to your right mind, and sin no more. [1 Corinthians 15:33-34 (RSV)]
You’ve probably heard of herd mentality or herd behavior: when people’s natural desire to be part of the crowd affects their decisions. When herd behavior occurs, rather than relying on their own judgment, values, or natural instinct, people allow themselves to be influenced by the behavior of those around them. While copying what others are doing can be useful at times (it gets our garbage out the right nights), challenges arise when our personal beliefs contradict what the crowd is doing.
A few years ago, when we were in Chicago, my husband wanted to purchase his favorite cheddar/caramel popcorn mix at Garrett’s. While he waited in line inside the crowded store, I remained outside. The queue of customers eventually extended out the door and partway down the street. When a couple visiting from France asked me why people were waiting, my reply of popcorn surprised them. Telling me they could understand lining up for chocolate or ice cream but certainly not popcorn, I expected they’d continue walking. Instead, they decided to follow the herd and joined the long line.
Even though that couple weren’t fans of popcorn, they joined the herd, but do we only follow the herd when there are more of them than us? According to an experiment done in 2008 at Leeds University, the answer is no. 200 subjects were told to walk in a totally random path around a large hall without communicating with one another in any way. Unknown to them, however, a group of walkers had been given detailed instructions on where to walk. In a short time, the “random” walkers started following the ones who seemed to know where they were going and a long snake-like line formed. When the experiment was over, those “random” walkers admitted not realizing that they’d become followers. The researchers found that it took only 5% of the people to walk purposefully to get the other 95% to follow. Apparently humans, like sheep and birds, will subconsciously gather in flocks and follow a minority if that minority appears to know what they’re doing!
Scripture warns that bad company can corrupt good character but, if we consider herd behavior, could good company improve bad character? Believing their findings could be used when planning traffic flow in emergencies and crisis situations, the Leeds’ researchers called the people who were followed “informed individuals.” The world appears to be in crisis and, as Christ’s followers, we are the “informed individuals.” Could this be our call to lead the herd?
Jesus left His church in the hands of just a few followers and yet there were over 3,000 believers by the first Pentecost and the church continued to grow rapidly. In those early years, Christianity was illegal, believers were persecuted, and there were no church buildings, public ceremonies, famed evangelists, or mass media. Nevertheless, the church steadily expanded in the first 300 years. It spread because people saw the lives of Christ’s followers: that Christians walked with a sense of purpose in a different and better way. Knowing the route to take, the informed minority led the herd to Jesus. Do we walk as “informed individuals” or like someone with a bumper sticker reading, “Don’t follow me—I’m lost, too!” Let our lights shine brightly that we might lead the way to the Lord!
We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause. [Justin Martyr describing Christians to Emperor Antoninus Pius in 153 AD]