Nietzsche and the Herd-Instinct: Why We Conform and Obey

Any human being who does not wish to be part of the masses need only stop making things easy for himself. Let him follow his conscience, which cries out to him: “Be yourself! All that you are now doing, thinking, desiring, all that is not you.

Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations

We exist within the tension of numerous dualities. One of these dualities consists of two competing impulses: our impulse to conform and our impulse to individuate. Our impulse to individuate drives us to become what the philosopher Spinoza called “our own god”; to affirm our uniqueness and special talents, take control of our destiny and to stand out from the crowd. Our impulse to conform motivates us to merge with the group, mimic the behavior and appearance of others and conform our mind to the status-quo. One of the tasks of life is to find healthy balance between these two impulses. Too much individuation can make us feel lonely and disconnected from the social world. Too much conformity can alienate us from our authenticity and stimulate the guilt that arises when we fail to self-actualize. For most of us, too much conformity is more of a problem than too much individuation. Following the crowd and mimicking the masses is far easier than tapping into the powers inherent in our unique potential. In this video, drawing on Nietzsche’s insights, we are going to investigate the motives behind our impulse to conform as such knowledge may help us tip the scales toward a healthier dose of individuation.

According to Nietzsche, the primary reason why most of us conform far more than we individuate is due to the existence of a “herd instinct” – a vestige of our evolutionary past. Neither especially strong nor fleet footed, it was our ancestors’ capacity to cooperate in groups which enabled survival and allowed for the human species to propagate across the earth. The tribes and communities formed by our distant ancestors were not egalitarian – not every individual in them was of equal status. Rather, they were structured hierarchically. Typically there was one chief or a small council of leaders who were granted the powers of rule. The more numerous individuals, those at the bottom of the hierarchy, were expected to obey the commands of the leaders else face the threat of exile and an almost certain death.

“For as long as there have been people,” wrote Nietzsche “there have been herds of people as well (racial groups, communities, tribes, folk, states, churches), and a very large number of people who obey compared to relatively few who command. So, considering the fact that humanity has been the best and most long-standing breeding ground for the cultivation of obedience so far, it is reasonable to suppose that the average person has an innate need to obey as a type of formal conscience that commands: “Thou shalt unconditionally do something, unconditionally not do something,” in short: “Thou shalt.”…The oddly limited character of human development – its hesitancy and lengthiness, its frequent regressions and reversals – is due to the fact that the herd instinct of obedience is inherited the best and at the cost of the art of commanding.”

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Given the existence of the herd instinct, the healthy development of a child requires the presence of educators who act as his liberators. The child needs role models who encourage him to balance his innate need to obey with healthy doses of individualism and anti-authoritarianism. Unfortunately, in our most formative years we are thrown into an institution designed to breed collectivized and obedient workers, not individuated individuals. Like Pavlov’s dogs, our behavior is conditioned by whistles and bells. We are rewarded for regurgitating information, for standing in line when commanded and for affirming the status quo. Day in and day out, our schooling feeds our herd instinct and starves our impulse for independence, and so when we emerge into adulthood we lack the cognitive resources required to individuate and go our own way. When forced to determine a life-path, a career, or an identity, our early experience conditions us to obey. We choose the career our parents desire, we forge an identity based on who others want us to be, and we perceive life through the lens of whatever worldview our society deems natural and sane. We do not assume the role of the hero in our drama, but that of the non-playable character passively observing the passing of days. As Ernest Becker wrote:

“Take the average man who has to stage in his own way the life drama of his own worth and significance. As a youth he, like everyone else, feels that deep down he has a special talent, an indefinable but real something to contribute to the richness and success of life in the universe. But, like almost everyone else, he doesn’t seem to hit on the unfolding of this special something; his life takes on the character of a series of accidents and encounters that carry him along, willy-nilly, into new experiences and responsibilities. Career, marriage, family, approaching old age – all these happen to him, he doesn’t command them. Instead of his staging the drama of his own significance, he himself is staged, programmed by the standard scenario laid down by his society.”

Ernest Becker, Angel in Armor

In allowing ourselves to be programmed by society, Nietzsche hesitates to decide which motive is more fundamental: fear or laziness. On the one hand, we fear that if we individuate we will evoke the evil eye and envy of others. We intuitively know that one of the best ways to alienate ourselves from our social group is to take command of our life and to make something significant out of it, and so we are afraid of standing out and pursuing our own greatness. But on the other hand, we are lazy creatures who shun responsibility; our greatest passion is idleness. We possess strong inner resistances that inhibit us from doing the inner work needed to become the master of our soul.

“A traveler who had seen many countries, peoples and several of the earth’s continents was asked what attribute he had found in men everywhere. He said: “They have a propensity for laziness.” To others, it seems that he should have said: “They are all fearful. They hide themselves behind customs and opinions.” In his heart every man knows quite well that, being unique, he will be in the world only once and that there will be no second chance for his oneness to coalesce from the strangely variegated assortment that he is: he knows it but hides it like a bad conscience–why?”

Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations

Rather than hiding behind customs and opinions and evading responsibility for our unique fate, we should strive to balance our impulse to conform with increased doses of individuation. We should try to sculpt the raw material of our being into something particular and worthwhile. We should obey others less, and command ourselves more. We should engage in bold creative projects that sharpen our talents and test our persistence and strength of will. We should live dangerously by taking risks, embracing uncertainty and pursuing adventure. We should dare to speak the truth, even if it means making ourselves the target of the mob. Yet as we do, Nietzsche warned that the herd instinct will be our greatest danger. “Who do you think you are to remove your mental chains and go your individual way?”, the herd instinct will whisper from within. “You were born a sheep, not a wolf!”. With temptations and tricks, our herd instinct will try to lure us back into our old ways of obedience. “Why are you making life difficult for yourself?”, it will ask. “It is safer and easier to be like the others, find comfort in mediocrity and the anonymity of the crowd!”

Do we have the strength to resist the voice of the herd which emanates from within? Can we bear the responsibility and burdens of individuation? Do we have the courage to cast off our role of the non-playable character, and become the hero of our life’s play?

“He who seeks, easily gets lost. All loneliness is guilt”—thus speaks the herd. And you have long belonged to the herd. The voice of the herd will still be audible in you. And when you will say, “I no longer have a common conscience with you,” it will be a lament and an agony. Behold, this agony itself was born of the common conscience, and the last glimmer of that conscience still glows on your affliction. But do you want to go the way of your affliction, which is the way to yourself? Then show me your right and your strength to do so. Are you a new strength and a new right? A first movement? A self-propelled wheel? Can you compel the very stars to revolve around you? 

Friedrich Nietzsche

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