If fifty million people say something foolish, it is still foolish —W. Somerset Maugham

Adriel Fong
4 min readOct 6, 2020

W. Somerset Maugham’s very wise words comes to mind when we talk about famous “black swan events”.

From the 2008 financial crisis to the dotcom bubble and the covid-19 toilet paper bum rush, social proof has been the bane of our existence. In The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli, he writes about social proof or sometimes otherwise called as “The Herd Mentality” as a mindset that we ought to watch out for.

When you’re not careful or mindful about the herd mentality, it can lead to disastrous results. The scene in The Wolf of Wall Street comes to mind where you see Jordan Belfort addressing his employees and getting all of them to do the famous chest pounding scene.

Looking at the whole situation from afar, it’s ludicrous to think that you would do anything for someone on the verge of getting caught by the FBI.

But yet, as human beings, the truth is that we always get carried away …

It exists everywhere, when we shop online, when we choose our clothes and even down to the kind of music that we listen to!

Well, I wouldn’t say that the herd mentality is completely negative, because what do you do when you’re starving in a city that is foreign to you? You whip out your phone and start searching on TripAdvisor or Google reviews to find the closest and the best rated restaurants in your area.

They say that when in Rome, do what the Romans do, right? And usually that results in a meal that would probably be decent or even good!

I remember watching a video shown to me by my lecturer about Asch’s conformity experiment. In the experiment, there was a lift and the lift was filled with paid actors. So what happened was that an unsuspecting “test subject” would enter the almost full lift and the paid actors would be facing away from the lift door.

Asch’s experiment

The “test subject” would start to feel uncomfortable and gradually start turning around to conform with the actions of the “herd”.

Why do we have this innate instinct to follow or conform with the general public? Its almost as if there’s an itch in the back of your brain that you just can’t scratch.

To find the answer, let’s rewind the clocks back 50,000 years, in the beautiful, untouched African plains where you and your hunter-gatherer friends roam freely, hunting for food and just enjoying life. Just imagine for a moment that you had to take a leak mid-hunt and you decided to answer nature’s call behind a tree while your hungry crew carried on hunting in the same direction together.

All of a sudden, you start to see your whole crew running past you in the opposite direction without any conceivable reason. Would you follow them? Or would you continue running in the same direction as before?

You’d probably follow your crew without question right? I know I would.

It is highly unlikely that you would’ve stood there wasting precious time finding out whether the reason behind their peculiar behaviour was a squirrel or a hungry lion. Instead, you would’ve sprinted after your friends and only when they stopped running would you spend the mental energy to clarify their decision.

Those primal instincts carry on through generations of procreation, even though it rarely serves to aid our day to day life.

So, when you’re on the road less travelled, don’t panic, remain calm and think about your situation logically. Does going down this path make sense to you? Are you choosing to take up a job offer over the other because it is a more popular company rather than compare the fulfillment levels that you’d get?

I remember my friend used to work as a salesperson selling men’s perfume. He said that the number one question that he’d get constantly is to help customers identify which is the best-selling perfume. Every week, he would then look at his current line of perfumes, pick a “winner-of-the-week” and call it his best-seller. Don’t simply buy a product because it is “the most popular” choice.

Always Remember W. Somerset Maugham’s wise wise words: “If fifty million people say something foolish, it is still foolish.”