Jim Klein is such a big fan of Donald Trump he used to wear the billionaire real estate mogul's signature ties in high school. When Trump announced his presidential ambitions last year, Klein was elated that his idol would make a run for the White House and even chatted him up during a book signing for Crippled America, published in November.
"I wanted to be an entrepreneur when I was younger and I looked up to [Trump] as the ultimate example of what you could be," he said.
But Klein doesn't plan on letting friends or colleagues know any of this. The 27-year-old New York City media executive, who spoke to Mic on the condition that a pseudonym would be used, said he didn't dare talk about his support for the presumptive GOP nominee with most others. Klein's opinion on Trump isn't a popular one in such a liberal city, which makes his affinity for the controversial candidate something he feels pressured to suppress.
"Quite honestly, I am afraid I would be labeled a racist and I would make people uncomfortable in the office," Klein said nervously over a hamburger and Diet Coke near Times Square. "I could possibly lose my job, and if not that, certainly any prospect of advancement or career progression."
Being at odds with one's peers is a feeling Klein knows well. Holding unpopular beliefs, or refusing to follow the crowd, can often feel socially isolating. Not a fan of the hit Broadway show Hamilton? Better keep your mouth shut. Beyoncé not your bae? It's best to stay quiet. Being the voice of opposition is a role few want to be in.
Following the herd is human nature.
In fact, in many ways, conforming to the majority is hardwired into our DNA. "It is hard because people want and often need acceptance — unless they enjoy being outcasts," Dr. Robert Sternberg, a professor of human development at Cornell University said by email. "People want to be loved, appreciated, adored, or at least tolerated. When you defy the crowd, you get none of these."
He added that humans' "evolutionary history" compels them to join groups "in order to survive," a tactic that translates to needing the approval of the in crowd, or hiding certain traits or beliefs that aren't accepted by mainstream society.
Many times the pressure comes from external sources, but it also can come from within. In the case of Hamilton, walking away from a performance feeling anything less than glee means reckoning with the knowledge that you've just wasted hundreds if not thousands of dollars on a show everyone said you absolutely had to see.
"It is not fashionable to say this, but a lot of people think the show is wildly overrated," Michael Riedel, the acid-tongued theater columnist for the New York Post who's been critical of Hamilton, said by phone. Riedel added that, in addition to sunk costs, much of the "slobbering" also came from people desperate not to seem out of touch. "Older people have a hard time understanding it because they can't follow the rap that well," he said.
What science says about social pressure and conformity
The logic underpinning frightened Trump supporters and some Hamilton maniacs is not merely parlor speculation, but is empirically grounded in the scientific method.
In the 1950s — not an era known for radical departures of conventional wisdom — Swarthmore College psychologist Dr. Solomon Asch set out to see if conformity could be measured.
In one experiment, Asch brought eight people into a room for what he called a visualization study. He asked the participants to look at two slides, one slide had a number of bars of different lengths and the other had a single bar matching one from the previous slide.
Asch then simply asked people to say which two bars were the same height. It was a simple comparison — with one catch. Seven of the eight people were actually decoys designed to pick the same wrong answer unanimously. The goal was to see how the real, not-decoy participant would react to a cascade of demonstrably wrong choices. Would he or she fold and go with the pack, or say what they knew was true and defy the crowd?
The results were revealing. Asch found that 32% of respondents willingly and repeatedly went along with the wrong answer, even though the right answer was staring them in the face. Over 12 trials, 75% of participants conformed at least once and only 1 in 4 repeatedly held their ground throughout the entire experiment.
Sternberg said the findings of that experiment were "significant."
"People will fall for any nonsense when they see others falling for it," he said. "Look at Trump's success. There are those who don't see his positions are totally inconsistent, even within a given speech."
In extreme cases, the herd mentality can have dire consequences. A quick glance at both recent and distant history shows that it doesn't take much for herd mentality to metastasize into something far more dangerous.
In 17th century Netherlands, speculation drove the price of tulip bulbs so high that by 1637 a single bulb ended up costing the same price as a luxury home. What is often considered the first commodity bubble ultimately collapsed, and those who never stopped to question why a flower should cost the same as a house were financially ruined.
The insanity was chronicled by the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay in his celebrated 1841 book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
"Many individuals grew suddenly rich. A golden bait hung temptingly out before the people, and one after the other, they rushed to the tulip-marts, like flies around a honey-pot. Every one imagined that the passion for tulips would last for ever, and that the wealthy from every part of the world would send to Holland, and pay whatever prices were asked for them."
While tulips would never again enjoy such privileged status, the madness that fueled their rise lingers on, from the panic that led to the 2008 financial crisis to tales of hidden weapons of mass destruction that led to the Iraq War.
For Klein and people like him, brooding under the weight of conformity can feel restrictive. "It becomes socially unacceptable to say a certain thing," he said. "You feel like you can't express yourself. ... I think it leads to tyranny."