Legendary novelist William Somerset Maugham’s ageless saying is easily one of my favourite quotes. The abrasive manner of the quote adds a deep sense of gravity to it without changing its simplicity.
A simple experiment carried out in the 1950s by legendary psychologist Solomon Asch shows how peer pressure can warp common sense. A subject is shown a line drawn on paper, and next to it three lines – numbered 1, 2 and 3 –one shorter, one longer and one of the same length as the original one. He or she must indicate which of the three lines corresponds to the original one. If the person is alone in the room, he gives correct answers – unsurprising, because the task is really quite simple. Now five other people enter the room; they are all actors, which the subject does not know. One after another, they give wrong answers, saying ‘number 1’, although it’s very clear that number 3 is the correct answer. Then it is the subject’s turn again. In one third of cases, he will answer incorrectly to match the other people’s responses.
In our world of abundance where we have 500 varieties of a product, seldom do we compare our choices. We tend to purchase that what is in vogue, quality notwithstanding. We feel the need to buy that what everyone is buying, acquire that what everyone already has. Most of us have at least once tried imitating a person we adore, a person whom we look up to, right? The advertising industry is the biggest beneficiary of our behaviour because people like ‘you and me’ appear on the small screen and catch our imagination unawares.
Another classic example is that of a student. He is required to study with piety. Whether he wants to study that what he is actually studying is an altogether different question, which is of least concern. He has to study what everyone else is studying. Once he completes education, he is required to take up a job. There is prerequisite for taking up the job. It should be a respectable job, which the society doesn’t look down on. Whether he is motivated by the job, is again a different question. He is expected to continue with that job for the next 40 or so years till he achieves the legal age to retire like so many others before him and most probably a horde of people after.
This urge to follow others (society in particular) has reverse evolved. In ancient times, people followed what other fellow human beings did because those times demanded it. Everyday was dangerous. Every second was a constant tussle between life and death. Moreover, one couldn’t expect a man then, to stand in front of a charging mammoth with an air of audacity, right. He was supposed to run away as his fellow brothers did. But today, times have changed and yet we haven’t. There is no longer a need to run in the direction of the crowd. Infact, today we all have a chance, which humanity at other times, seldomly had. The chance to stand up from a crowd of people and shine. The chance to break the shackles which are pulling the society down and yet not be looked at with a frown but with approbation and cheering.
So let us all take an oath today that we will henceforth always think rationally before taking any step and not just follow the crowd. And if that happens (and I am sure someday it surely will happen), then another great quote by William Somerset Maugham will find sanctity and that is ” Tradition is a guide and not a jailer“.