The Case of the Rebellious Sheep

Can you become a "sheep" through rebellion? It's your life at risk—literally.

Posted Mar 28, 2020

You want to visit a friend, but you are under government instruction to stay home except for urgent matters. You know that stopping the spread of the coronavirus largely depends on people all over the world adhering to messaging from government and health organizations. But you are so bored, and besides, no one can tell you what to do, right? You are a free person. 

So you go out and increase the chances of infecting yourself and others with a potentially deadly disease. This is the situation we all are in.  

Some of the rejection of government and health advice, though surely not all, stems from people's desire for freedom. If you tell people not to do something, it often increases their desire to do it. This is especially true for some people. I've seen this in loads of internet posts over the past few weeks. People believe quite strongly that it is their lives, and that they should be free to live them. This (2nd video) is an example of an elderly woman from the UK calling in to say she would rather die than follow government instruction. 

This is part of the difficulty in this situation. Our lives depend on each other. But some people seem to think it is better to be "free" than to follow health instructions that we all need to follow to help each other, you know, not die. This is not just coronavirus-related deaths, either. If beds are not available in hospitals, then every other person who might need to go to the ER is also at increased risk of death.

There is loads of research showing that people tend to think they are "alone in a crowd of sheep." Related to this, the "third-person effect" in communication research shows that people, by and large, think mass media influences them less than others. This, I believe, stems partially from the need to believe that we are free-acting individuals who make their own choices. People also rate themselves as having more free will than others, after all. And dozens of studies show that health warnings often don't work, because people view them as a threat to their freedom or personal choices (i.e., psychological reactance). 

I've always found this work fascinating because if you look around, we are all sheep to such a massive extent. Everything we do is in the context of living in a country with laws we have to follow. Within that context, we are bound by rules at work, and within that even the relationships we hold. It's not like I can just punch my friend Jack because I feel like it.

I've also always found this idea of rejecting ideas purely to rebel ironic. Because, really, if you rebel every time, purely for the sake of rebelling, your mind and actions are no more free than if someone uncritically accepts all information and follows all rules without fail.

Total freedom of thought and action, in theory, would involve receiving requests and information and reflecting on it and then deciding—regardless of the desire not to conform—what is in your best interests and then doing that. Even in a purely selfish, ideal world of freedom pursuit where you care about no one else, rejecting an idea just to rebel isn't displaying true freedom of thought. 

Perhaps one way to avoid harming yourself (and others) by ignoring health advice is to recognize that there is little freedom in rejecting advice just for some abstract desire to believe that you are not a sheep. If you do, you become a sheep of rebellion.