What Does it Mean to Be Called a Sheep?


One of today’s most commonly experienced jibes is being called a “sheep” or “sheeple”. 

Someone is called a sheep or a sheeple, when they are seen as participating in herding behaviour – mindlessly following rules, agendas or trends set forth by the majority group. The label is almost always an insult.

Why Do People Act Like Sheep?

We’re living in a very anxious time and are seeing a larger than normal amount of what many consider herd-like behaviour and the inevitable criticism of this behaviour.

So why do people band together and follow rules?

Because they feel uncertain and/or threatened and are seeking reassurance and protection.

Much like actual sheep, the majority of people are defenseless against predators/uncertainty. 

When they feel uncertain or threatened, they seek safety by merging with the herd or what they perceive as the majority opinion or point of view. 

“Sheeple” are said to assume that the more people there are supporting a particular point of view, the more correct that point of view must be.

Where Can We See Sheep-like Behaviour?

Sheep-like behaviour happens all the time. Here are a few examples of where we can see it.

During:

  • Black Friday shopping 
  • Sporting events
  • Riots
  • Expression of political and/or religious views
  • Rubber-necking accidents
  • “Liking and sharing” on social media
  • Bullying- in person or online

Is Acting Like a Sheep a Good or Bad Thing?

Herding behaviour is a natural response from humans living with uncertainty and conflict. Everyone is a sheeple at some point during their lives.

Depending on who you ask, herding behaviour has both negative and positive aspects.

Large groups make bad decisions when facing difficult times.

A study by Dr. Wataru Toyokawa at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland shows us the direct relationship between uncertainty and poor decision making among a group, aka – Maladaptive Herding.

During the experiment, hundreds of online volunteers witnessed one of three slot machines producing large pay-outs to its users. As the large pay-outs continued, all the players started playing that machine, forsaking the other two machines.

Half way through the experiment, (when conformity was high) the organizers switched the slot with the largest pay-out. Despite the once lucky machine losing its magic, players continued to play it exclusively for the duration of the experiment.

Dr. Toyokawa’s experiment is a good example of how when uncertainty increases in a crowd, people make the bad decision of continuing to conform to something that is not beneficial to them.

People Become Selfish in Herding Situations.

Contrary to the popular impression of everyone sticking together for a common good, herding behaviour is actually a selfish endeavor. 

When confronted with a threat, sheep will compete to get themselves into the middle of the herd, away from the periphery where the predator lurks. 

Basically they throw each other under the bus to save themselves.

According to this article by Michael E. Price, PhD, herding behaviour “evolved to benefit individuals, not groups or societies.”

He makes reference to William Hamilton’s “selfish herd” theory, where according to a herd’s movement, the individual’s goal is to stay in the centre of the group by pushing other members of the herd out to the periphery – where they are exposed to the predator. 

People do this too, in a figurative sense. By adopting “middle of the pack” views, they shield themselves from looking stupid or wrong while avoiding threat such as job loss for an unpopular opinion. 

“If you lose a bet that no one else made, because they all thought it was a hopeless long shot, you’ll look less competent than everyone else. But if you lose a bet that everyone else made too, because they all thought it was a sure thing, you won’t seem any less competent than them.” – Michael E. Price Ph.D.

The Good Things About Being a Sheep.

Depending on your outlook, being called a sheep doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Some believe sheep are not mindless, selfish creatures. In fact, a more positive point of view says these animals are actually quite remarkable.

According to this BBC article, and the work of Keith Kendrick

Sheep are actually surprisingly intelligent, with impressive memory and recognition skills. They have complex social structures, friendships and advocate for one another.

According to the work of Kendrick, sheep can recognize and remember a minimum of 50 human faces for up to two years! They are said to also prefer smiles over frowns as they can decipher facial expressions.

They mourn the loss of each other when they are slaughtered and their brain’s organization backs the idea that they have an “emotional response to what they see in the world.”

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