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Why People Become Sheeple

Why we unknowingly compromise ourselves under social pressure.

Pexels/Free to Use
Source: Pexels/Free to Use

Anyone who has been a victim of the herd mentality, whether for being a black sheep or going along with the herd, will want to know why people become sheeple1—how the peer pressure process works, whether on the playground, in the locker room, in the boardroom, or on the battlefield.

Belonging is a basic human need, but it goes awry when joining the crowd means betraying the call of our heart or who we are. Have you ever wondered why people can be happy making others unhappy? A reputable company is caught allowing corporate abuses. A soldier cheers at the destruction of the enemy. A group of popular kids bullies a classmate for wearing a big backpack. The list goes on and on...

Or, have you ever wondered how your old friends could change so dramatically after moving away or changing jobs? Once Betty was a Republican, and now she's a Democrat. Once Sue was kind and sweet, and now she is cold and heartless. Once Joe wore reggae t-shirts and had dreadlocks, and now he wears heavy metal t-shirts and has a mohawk. Once Harry was confident in himself, and now he is insecure. These changes are likely the result of social influence, and fortunately, through the identity shift effect2, we now have a clue as to how the peer pressure process works:

The Identity Shift Effect (Step-by-Step)

Step 1: Our Personal Harmony Is Disrupted by External Conflict

If we find ourselves immersed in a new social setting with values different from our own, and we are being called to act in alignment with this new set of values, contrary to the callings of our heart, we will experience conflict. We feel social pressure to conform to the group if their standards are different from our own because we experience the threat of social rejection. On some level, we know that if we fail to conform, they will reject us, so we conform to avoid the anticipated pain of rejection; we conform to avoid humiliation.

Examples: Betty moved to a new town filled with Democrats who poo-pooed Republicans. Sue loved helping people but moved into a cutthroat corporate environment where a cold and heartless demeanor was valued and promoted.

Joe changed to a new school where the students derided him for listening to reggae and having dreadlocks, but listening to heavy metal and having a mohawk made one popular. Harry believed in himself because his family did, but once he moved away to boarding school, the kids made fun of him for only having one arm. He started to doubt his own value.

Step 2: We Exchange External Conflict for Internal Conflict

However, once we conform, we fit in with the group, but our actions now betray our values. We conformed to the group to eliminate this external conflict, but as soon as we eliminated it, a new conflict arose: self-rejection (also known as internal conflict. So now we have exchanged external conflict for internal conflict, social rejection for self-rejection, or, emotionally speaking, we have exchanged humiliation for guilt (or "feeling stupid")—one conflict for the other.

Examples: Betty told people she was a Democrat, so she could fit in. Although she wanted to be nice, Sue stopped acting kind and sweet, so she could be promoted at work. Joe got a mohawk and started wearing heavy metal t-shirts, so he could date a popular girl he liked and be invited to parties. Harry tried to fit in without success and came to doubt himself and his own loveability3.

Step 3: We Undergo an Identity Shift to End Internal Conflict

To rid ourselves of the internal conflict or self-rejection we feel, we adopt the standards or values of the group as our own; we undergo an identity shift. Once we do that, we no longer have internal conflict or external conflict, but now we’ve lost ourselves.

Examples: Betty felt like a hypocrite, telling people she was a Democrat when she had been a Republican. She started to see the merits of the Democratic party over and beyond those of the Republican party and even voted for a Democrat in the next election. Betty changed her attitudes to resolve her inner conflict.

Sue, at first, hated acting cold and unfeeling, contrary to calling of her heart, but she began to see the merits of holding this stance and started to regard "sweetness" as wimpy. After pretending away sweetness for so long, cold-heartedness became her signature style and default position. Sue changed her attitude about the value of sweetness to resolve her inner conflict. Joe started to see the merits of heavy metal over reggae and came to regard reggae as inferior.

Joe changed his attitudes to resolve his inner conflict. By contrast, Harry tried to fit in without success. He could not grow another arm. The classmates rejected him; he internalized their rejection into self-rejection and came to doubt himself and his own loveability. Unable to resolve his inner conflict, nor escape this external conflict, coming from his classmates and their taunts, he experienced chronic shame (chronic external and internal conflict; chronic self-rejection and social rejection) and became depressed.

Many of the examples just offered are about norms, not morals. As a general rule, a norm violation doesn't hurt anyone, whereas a moral violation is potentially hurtful to others (or perceived as such).

Now, consider the case when we are being asked to follow a standard that betrays our moral standards. Say, at work, our boss asks us to lie to a customer. If we do it, against the call of our heart and conscience, our inner conflict will express itself as "guilt" (not simply "feeling stupid"), because we have betrayed our standards of "what is good, right, or true."

Correspondingly, we will undergo an identity shift (an attitude or value shift), to bring our attitudes or values in alignment with our misbehavior. We may tell ourselves: "What I did is not that bad."

Signs You Might Be Susceptible to an Identity Shift in a Morally-Relevant Situation

1. “Something’s Not Right”

Signs that you are in a toxic environment and may be susceptible to a shift:

  • You are the target—or fear being the target—of threats, intimidation, humiliation, or ostracism in this social setting.
  • You dread going into this social setting.
  • You feel in your core that what’s going on in this social setting is not right.
  • You feel immobilized or afraid to speak up in this social setting.

2. “Ugh! How to Get Rid of this Hideous Feeling?”

Signs that you may be about to undergo the identity shift:

In this social setting:

  • You get uncomfortable when people ask you about what is going on.
  • You feel inner conflict about what is going on.
  • You feel guilty or wonder if you should feel guilty about what is happening or happened.
  • You would love to resolve this inner conflict about what is happening or happened.

3. “Welcome to the Real World”

Signs that you may have already undergone the identity shift:

  • You think you have (or had) no choice about it.
  • You believe that anyone would do what you did if they found themselves in your situation.
  • You tell yourself: “It’s just how the world is,” or “It’s just how it is.”
  • In this social setting, you are not living up to what your core values or standards used to be.
  • You feel like something in you has died.
  • You feel yourself growing cynical.

Fortunately, if we find that we have already undergone the identity shift, hope is not lost: Self-forgiveness is in order. If we find ourselves susceptible, about to undergo, or have already undergone an identity shift, we can forgive ourselves—if we knew better, we would do better—and consider leaving that toxic social environment for good. Instead, join one that is in alignment with our standards or values.

Consider, also, starting a meditation practice: Meditation allows us to experience ourselves beyond our social roles, providing us with a sense of belonging to something greater than the group, reducing our need for social acceptance to feel whole and happy.

As for depressed Harry with one arm, who is trapped in a social setting that rejects him as he is, the prescription is: 1) Exit the social environment that devalues him; 2) navigate himself into a social setting that accepts him as he is, or, if he can't find one, 3) make "the non-social" or "nature" (vs. a social group) his reference group for self-understanding, done through the daily practice of meditation. Through meditation, Harry will come to know himself as he is, apart from the standards of his social world—essentially loveable and acceptable—and feel better.

Now that we understand the process and know what our options are, we are in control to choose what our next step is...

As our "baahs!" become "a-ha's!" by becoming aware of why people become sheeple through the three-step identity shift effect process, we can help undo its effects. We can reclaim our freedom by withstanding social pressure, exiting toxic environments, and coming together to create an environment that supports human thriving, allowing us to work for the benefit of humankind, towards the unleashing of human potential and the liberation of the human spirit for all.

Copyright © 2015 by Wendy Treynor. All rights reserved.



Credit goes to 10-year-old Sasha Smith who coined the term: "why people become sheeple." The identity shift effect of why people become sheeple is simply a synthesis of social psychologist Dr. Leon Festingers’ two seminal theories—dissonance theory (addressing internal conflict resolution) and social comparison theory (addressing external conflict resolution), such that when they are combined, we get the three-step identity shift effect, as described. (This synthesis was uncovered by the author of this article in her book Towards a General Theory of Social Psychology.) Credit goes to psychologist Dr. Robert Holden, who introduces the concept “loveability” (see his book Loveability).
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