Put this on your chin….

Posted July 04 2020
Are you a critical thinker in control of your life or do you find yourself reluctantly jumping on the bandwagon?

Have you caught the latest and most hilarious internet boredom buster: “The chin challenge”? Spoiler alert if you haven’t and want to keep the mystery alive – don’t read on.

The challenge is quite simple, requires a minimum of two people and works like this. The prankster asks their victim to form a circle with their index finger and thumb, while demonstrating same. They then go on to instruct, whilst holding their hand in this configuration, “Do as I say, now put this your chin”, while at the same time placing their hand on their cheek. The “victim”, copying the visual and not the verbal, places their hand on their cheek, much to the amusement of the prankster, who runs through the instruction again. And yet again. Each time the confused victim becomes more and more frustrated as they cannot understand where they are falling down despite their best efforts to do otherwise. Frustrated, that is, until that light bulb “ah, ha” moment when they “get it”.

With life imitating a fun joke, this scenario plays out under a dozen or more different guises each day.

We like to think we are free thinkers, liberated from the pack and in control of our own thoughts. But are we?

Known as “social proof” or the “bandwagon effect”, our thought processes are often bypassed to simply follow the crowd and do what everyone else is doing or thinking rather than investing in individual thought. Such a way of thinking takes its roots from our ancestors, and it wasn’t always (as history shows) a bad thing, whether recognising the safety in numbers while being hotly pursued by a sabre-toothed tiger, banding together to survive in other equally dangerous situations and or enjoying the spoils of collective food gathering. Our ancestors all did the same; falling afoul of the group left an individual vulnerable and more likely than not the next meal of that sabre-toothed tiger. Clearly such a conformist behaviour that required little thought paid great personal dividends.

Advertisers, politicians and industries, quick to capitalise, have used social proof and the bandwagon effect to their own advantage to peddle their products, ideas and beliefs, which in many instances go against the grain of what we truly believe. After all, though, who can deny that if celebrities endorse a product it must be good, or if nine out of ten people have found … or even if it is “un-Australian” to do something. People have been and are constantly being cajoled into any number of things a more rational version of themselves would not ever entertain. It is for this reason reviews are so popular as opposed to the time invested into research.

Such a cognitive bias played out most recently in my own life when I was travelling a road most familiar. It was a section of road that traversed a busy quarry. As the road spiralled, the northbound lane consisted of two lanes, while the southbound was but one lane. The recent rains had caused the trucks exiting a nearby quarry to carry mud on their wheels, dumping big clumps of it on the road, particularly the southbound lane. This, having occurred over several days, had seen the white lines of the road obscured, so much so that the car in front of me, clearly not familiar with the area, and mistaking the road as only having two lanes, proceeded to travel south on what was the overtaking lane of northbound traffic. Jumping on his bandwagon simply because I could, I followed his lead, but thankfully rational thought kicked in, and I kicked back to the correct lane, which I instinctively knew was where I should be, whilst madly flashing my lights and tooting the car in front. Luckily, the driver took my lead and came back over to the correct lane only moments before a northbound car was about to overtake a slower moving northbound truck. Phew, that was close, I mused, reflecting how easy it is to simply follow another’s lead.

For a species so benefiting from group living such as ourselves, social cues do have an important role to play, and although they should never be ignored, we should pause to examine them in a more rational and compassionate setting to see if they truly align with our core beliefs. Just because “everyone” is doing something doesn’t mean we should. One thing that quickly comes to mind is our social abhorrence for violence; it is not in line with who we are, nor is causing harm, pain and suffering to the meek and vulnerable. And so, with this in mind, perhaps it is time, in fact long overdue, to follow not our fellow man, but our heart, take it on the chin and urgently review the way we treat farmed animals.