Are You a Sheep or Sheepdog? Part II: 8 Reasons You’re Hardwired for Sheepness

by Brett & Kate McKay on May 20, 2013 · 93 comments

in A Man's Life


On February 19, 2012, a group of sixteen of the nation’s top snowboarders and skiers slipped through the Stevens Pass ski area boundary gate and its “continue at your own risk” warning sign. Located in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, their ultimate destination was a backcountry run called Tunnel Creek, which is renowned for its open meadows, smooth powder, and exhilarating 3,000-foot vertical drop, but also for its regular avalanches. The conditions that day were worrisome for an already vulnerable area: the forecast rated the avalanche danger as “considerable to high” with “human-triggered avalanches likely.” But a storm had just dropped a ton of new, deep powder on the mountain, and members of the group did not want to miss out on the thrills of both making the run and doing it with a bunch of experts who rarely found themselves all together.

Still, as the skiers and snowboarders assembled at the top of Tunnel Creek, many were apprehensive. As John Branch wrote in a special feature for The New York Times:

“Unspoken anxiety spread among those unfamiliar with the descent. The mere size of the group spooked some. Backcountry users of all types — skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and climbers — worry about how much of a load a slope can absorb before it gives way. They worry about people above them causing an avalanche. When it comes to the backcountry, there is usually not safety in large numbers.”

No one gave voice to their worry, however. “If it was up to me, I would never have gone backcountry skiing with 12 people [a few in the group had split off],” Megan Michelson, ESPN journalist and member of the Tunnel Creek group remembered. “That’s just way too many. But there were sort of the social dynamics of that — where I didn’t want to be the one to say, you know, ‘Hey, this is too big a group and we shouldn’t be doing this.’ I was invited by someone else, so I didn’t want to stand up and cause a fuss.” Other members of the group were uneasy too, but told themselves that the experts of the group (which included the director of marketing at Stevens Pass) wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t safe. Many in the group had been down the backcountry run dozens of times, and the new guys figured they’d just follow their lead. “There’s no way this entire group can make a decision that isn’t smart,” ski photographer Keith Carlsen said to himself. “Of course it’s fine, if we’re all going. It’s got to be fine.”

As the skiers and snowboarders started their descent, they triggered a massive avalanche; 7,000 cubic meters and 11 million pounds of snow began a ferocious 70mph slide down the mountain. Five members of the group were swept up in it, three of which were gruesomely pummeled and killed.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the survivors, Branch writes, were left with difficult questions:

“They wondered why they recognized all of the danger signs, starting with the avalanche report that morning over coffee, but did not do enough to slow or stop the expedition…They wondered how so many smart, experienced people could make the types of decisions that turned complex, rich, enviable lives into a growing stack of statistics.”


Last week we discussed the paradigm articulated by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman that people can be broken into three groups: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. Wolves are the bad guys of the world, the evil sociopaths who seek to harm and exploit others. Sheepdogs are the guardians and protectors of society, those that aren’t afraid to stand up for right, even when it means going against the crowd, and have the courage to face danger and save others. Grossman argues that people who are fully wolf or fully sheepdog make up a tiny percentage of the population – about 1% each.

The rest of us lie somewhere on the sheep-sheepdog continuum, with the vast majority of the population firmly on the sheep side. Almost all of us are sheep, Grossman argues, although he doesn’t necessarily mean that in a derogatory way — it’s simply to say that most people want to get along with others, are inclined to go with the flow and not make waves, and aren’t regularly faced with dangerous or truly unethical situations and thus don’t know how to behave when they are.

Despite this, most men probably think that they’re sheepdogs, as is evident even from just the comments on the first post in this series. Few people can admit to being sheep. But it’s nothing to be ashamed about. We’ve all been biologically, psychologically, and socially conditioned into sheepdom. Today we’ll explore the nature, widespread prevalence, and causes of human “sheepness,” so that we can understand how to train ourselves to overcome these natural inclinations. Below, you’ll find eight reasons, or more accurately, sociological and psychological concepts and theories, that cause us to follow rather than lead.

1. We’re Affected by the Normalcy Bias


When dangerous or unexpected events occur, you might expect that our natural response would be to spring into action and either fight or flee. But it’s not. Instead, we often react to a crisis by not doing anything at all; we just sit there and act like everything is a-okay — even if people are dying around us. In short, our natural tendency is to go like sheep to the slaughter.

First responders call this tendency to act like everything is fine during traumatic events “negative panic.” Psychologists call it the normalcy bias. Our brain is predisposed to assume that things will be normal and predictable all the time. When things aren’t normal, it takes our brain a long time to process this. Instead of springing to action when something unexpected happens, our brain kind of shrugs and figures that what is going on can’t be so bad, because truly bad events are so out of the ordinary. Many people who witness traumatic events report that it felt surreal, like they were watching a movie and it wasn’t really happening.

33-year firefighting veteran Jack Rowley saw normalcy bias play out on a regular basis at bars in Columbus, Ohio. Fires were surprisingly common at bars on Saturday nights and whenever Rrowley showed up, he’d see smoke quickly filling up the establishment. But instead of mayhem, he’d find folks just sitting at the bar “nursing their beers.” He’d ask them to evacuate and the customers would say, “No, we’ll be just fine.”

Researchers writing in the Journal of Fire Protection Engineering confirmed that what Jack Rowley saw at bars in Columbus is typical of how people respond to fires:

“Actual human behavior in fires is somewhat different from the ‘panic’ scenario. What is regularly observed is a lethargic response. People are often cool during fires, ignoring or delaying their response.”

Normalcy bias is also what keeps people from taking proper precautions when major storms like hurricanes or tornadoes hit. They see and hear the dire warnings, but don’t take action because they think, “Well, I’ve seen these warnings before and nothing happened last time. Things will stay normal.” Many victims of Hurricane Katrina were killed on account of normalcy bias. Sure, they heard the dire warnings, but they shrugged them off, thinking everything was going to be okay – they had ridden out other hurricanes before.

This phenomenon also keeps people from making their own emergency preparations when they see disasters played out in other areas of the country or world. “Terrible, terrible,” they say as the sun shines and the birds tweet outside their own window. “But that will never happen here.”

Normalcy bias manifested itself in dramatic fashion during a plane collision in 1977 that killed 583 people. Two 747 jumbo jets collided with each other just above the runway on the small island of Tenerife. After the collision, one jet tumbled to the ground and exploded, killing all 248 passengers on board.

The other jet crash-landed, but didn’t explode. The collision sheared away the top of the jet and flames began to take over the aircraft. Passengers who survived the initial collision could have escaped unharmed, but they had to act fast. Paul Heck, a passenger on the burning plane, sprung to action. He unbuckled his seatbelt, grabbed his wife’s hand, and hightailed it to the nearest exit. They, along with 68 other passengers, survived, while 328 died.

In an interview after the disaster, Mr. Heck noted how most people just sat in their seats acting like everything was fine even after colliding with another plane and seeing the cabin fill with smoke. Researchers believe that passengers had a little over a minute to escape before being consumed by the flames, and are convinced that if more people had taken immediate action instead of remaining in their seats pretending like things were okay, the survival rate would have been much, much higher.

2. We’re Influenced by the Bystander Effect

In February 2010, Valentino Verner was shot multiple times at a fried chicken restaurant in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Verner survived the barrage of bullets, but needed treatment quickly if he was to survive. You’d think the customers or workers in the restaurant would immediately go to the aid of a man who had just sustained several gunshot wounds, but that’s not what happened.

Instead, workers continued to ring up orders and customers stepped over the dying man to get their chicken and fries. When first responders arrived, they had to fight through the crowd of people waiting to get their food. None of them were helping Verner, who would later die at the hospital from his wounds.

In April 2010, Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax was stabbed to death in New York City after assisting a woman who was being attacked by a robber. Yax laid on the sidewalk for more than an hour before firefighters arrived. Almost twenty-five people walked by without stopping to help. Some folks stared at Yax’s bleeding body as they went by, and one bystander even callously took pictures of Yax before walking away from him.

What causes people to show such indifference to human suffering? Part of it is likely the normalcy bias, but another contributing factor is the bystander effect.

Our inclination to help or take action when we see a threat or a need diminishes whenever we’re part of a group. You think that someone else in the group will do something, so you hold back. The problem is, that’s exactly what everyone else in the group is thinking too. With everyone waiting for someone else to do something, no one does anything.

Sociologists have been able to replicate the bystander effect in a lab setting. In one experiment, researchers solicited volunteers to fill out a questionnaire. The volunteers were divided into three groups and placed in different conditions. The first group filled out the questionnaire in a room alone, the second group filled out the questionnaire in a room with two other volunteers, and the third group filled out the questionnaire in a room with two confederates – actors who pretended to be normal volunteers but were really in cahoots with the researchers.

As the participants filled out the questionnaire, smoke began seeping into the room. When volunteers were alone, 75% reported the smoke to the experimenters. In contrast, just 38% of participants in a room with two other people reported the smoke. In the final group, the two confederates in the experiment noted the smoke and then ignored it, which resulted in only 10% of the volunteers saying anything to the researchers.

Whenever we read or watch stories of people not taking action when encountering human suffering, our reaction is to be morally outraged. But it’s easy to judge people succumbing to the bystander effect when you’re sitting alone in the comfort of your home. Before you condemn these folks, understand that they were simply following a deeply ingrained sociological and psychological tick that all humans have. Chances are you would have behaved exactly the same way if you were in their shoes. And if you’re convinced that you wouldn’t, you’re just deluding yourself because…

3. We Overestimate Our Ability to Thrive in Dangerous Situations

According to the Dunning-Kruger effect, we typically overestimate our competence on tasks with which we have very little experience. The Dunning-Kruger effect explains why my chubby 12-year-old self derided the rubes on Nickelodeon’s Guts! who couldn’t do the events correctly. (“That’s not how you do the Invisible Boat you nincompoop!”) I also thought I would kick-ass on the Aggro Crag. But I had no clue how I would actually perform if I was in their shoes because I had no experience bounding around the Extreme Arena attached to a bungee cord.

I see grown men doing the same thing that I did as a kid all the time. Instead of going on about how they’d take home a piece of the rock, they thump their chests and talk big on how they’d kick ass in a bar fight or survive the apocalypse or definitely do the right thing in a morally sticky scenario.

But it’s all talk.

These guys have likely never faced perilous or intense situations, so they’re going to overestimate their capacity to excel.

In my experience, the folks who have devoted their lives to preparing for life-threatening situations or have actually faced danger are much humbler and more realistic about their abilities. While they have a quiet confidence that they can rise to the challenge, their confidence doesn’t lead to hubris. They see their deficiencies and understand that there are some things in a dangerous scenario that are out of their control.

Bottom line: If you’ve never faced a dangerous or morally precarious situation, but think you’d definitely thrive in one, that’s just your sheep brain saying “Baaa.”

4. We Have a Tendency to Conform

We’re social animals. It’s in our nature to want to belong and be a part of a group. Being hardwired to retain our membership in a group was essential for our ancestors’ survival. There’s safety in numbers. It’s much easier and safer to navigate the savanna and kill a mastodon in a hunting party than it is by yourself. Moreover, being part of a group gives you access to information and resources that you wouldn’t have as a loner.

One of the mechanisms we’ve evolved to ensure we can attach ourselves to a group and not be ostracized from it is conformity. As Westerners, we like to think that we’re unique individuals who can rise above peer pressure (and that peer pressure only exists as part of the DARE curriculum), but we’re not. Conformity is “our default mode,” as psychologist Noam Shpancer points out. We instinctively hone in on social cues and the body language of others and adapt our behavior to mirror them so we gain acceptance.

asch conformity


In the conformity experiments conducted by social psychologist Solomon Asch, one real participant was put into a room with six “confederates” of the researchers who would all answer a question incorrectly, leaving the real participant with the decision to stick to what he thought was the right answer, or follow the group consensus.

In the famous Asch conformity experiments, seven college-age men were placed in a room and asked to answer questions as to which black line in a group of them printed on a note card matched the line on the reference card. Only one of the seven men was a “real participant,” while the other six were confederates of the researchers. The real participant was placed at the end of the table so he would be the last to answer after all the confederates had taken their turn. During some trials, the confederates would all give the obvious, correct answer, while in others, they would all give the incorrect answer, placing the real participant in a stressful position: would he stick to his guns and give the answer he himself knew to be right, or bow to peer pressure and give the same incorrect answer as the confederates? The results were striking. In the trials where the confederates gave the right answer, the real participants’ error rate was less than 1%, but in the trials where the confederates all gave the wrong answer, the real participants went along with them a third of the time, and 75% of the real participants answered at least one question incorrectly.

When the real participants were informed of the intent of the experiment afterwards and debriefed on their experience, the most common reason they gave for giving incorrect answers was that they experienced a “distortion of judgment,” in that they really came to believe they were actually wrong and the rest of the group was right. Others said they knew the right answer, but didn’t want the other men in the group to look down on them for differing from their responses.

Our deeply set dislike for sticking out and going against the grain should never be underestimated. Our primitive brain doesn’t want to be voted out of the tribe and so we greatly fear looking stupid in front of others. In addition to the bystander effect, I can very well imagine in the example of the plane crash above that many people did not want to be the guy standing up and rushing out of the plane, when everyone else seemed calm.

5. We Operate from a Herd Mentality


Early biologists often wondered how it was that birds could take flight at the same time or bees would decide to move the hive to a new location without a clear system of authority and/or signaling. What they found is that some animals and insects have a sort of collective mind or consciousness, where they observe and mimic each other’s behavior in what biologist Pierre-Paul Grasse termed “cooperation without communication.”

Recent studies by modern biologists have found that humans operate by a kind of herd or flock mentality as well. For example, researchers at the University of Leeds who were initially interested in the consensus decision-making involved in the migration of birds, found “strong parallels between animal grouping behavior and human crowds.” In an experiment, the researchers had a group of people walk around a building. Most were given no direction on where to go, and were simply asked to stay with the group. A few participants – “informed individuals” — were told to go to a specific target destination, but like the rest, they were forbidden to communicate or signal to the others in any way. Even though they had no idea they were being led by others, the uninformed members of the group invariably ended up following the informed individuals to their respective targets – forming a kind of snake-like line behind them. The researchers concluded that “humans flock like sheep and birds, subconsciously following a minority of individuals.”

In a large group of over 200, it took only 5% of informed individuals to lead the others to a certain destination without them knowing it. Even when a decision-making conflict was introduced  – three of the informed individuals were told to go to one target while four were told to go to another – it took the whole group no more time to reach one of the targets than when all the informed individuals were going in same direction; people simply made a quick, subconscious, and collective decision to follow wherever the majority of informed individuals went.

The results of this experiment can be hopeful in one regard – it doesn’t take more than one informed sheepdog to easily lead people in the right direction and out of harm’s way. The problem of course arises when people act like they know where they’re going or what they’re doing, but do not, and yet others eagerly observe and mimic their behavior – following them right over a cliff.

6. We Depend on Authority Figures to Make Decisions


Another human propensity related to our tendency to conform is our easy obedience to authority, even against our better judgment. Some psychologists speculate that our propensity to obey authority is an evolved trait that ensured the survival and success of early human groups. As human civilization became increasingly complex, people gave up more of their individual freedom in exchange for a more stable, efficient, and prosperous society. Consequently, institutions — be they governments or religions — heavily invested in the social conditioning of young people to obey authority.

One of psychology’s most famous experiments showcased how deeply ingrained our obedience to authority can be. In 1963, Stanley Milgram wanted to answer the question of what caused the Nazis to mercilessly inflict suffering and death on thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. Were they all evil or were they simply following orders?

Milgram asked participants in his experiment to act as a “teacher,” and administer shocks to a “learner” who was in a separate room, whenever the learner incorrectly answered a question. The more questions the learner missed, the higher the voltage shock the teacher had to dole out. The teacher could hear the learner yell with pain, yells that turned to worries about their heart, pleas for mercy, and requests to be let out of the room. What the teacher didn’t know was that the learner was a confederate of the experimenters, and was not really being shocked at all. What the teacher was actually hearing were pre-recorded screams.

If the teacher hesitated or refused to administer the prescribed shock, an experimenter in an authoritative white lab coat would urge them to continue. If the subject still wished to stop after four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was stopped after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession.

While the volunteers displayed a considerable amount of stress and trepidation about administering a potentially fatal shock, in the end, 65% of them gave the final 450-volt dosage.

You can watch a recording of the experiment:

Professor Milgram interpreted the results of his sobering experiment as saying that people in stressful situations who don’t feel like they have the ability or expertise to make decisions will leave the decision-making to the group and its hierarchy, and that when they obey someone else’s orders — even orders that violate their own conscience — they no longer feel responsible for their own actions, believing they’re just a blameless tool of an authority figure.

7. We Don’t Know How to Handle Stress

When we confront others or face physical danger, our bodies pump adrenaline into our system to prepare. While this adrenaline dump primes our body to either fight or flight, it makes us temporarily stupid. Studies done by the military have shown increased stress levels cause a significant decrease in cognitive function. Reaction times slow and your ability to manipulate complex problems deteriorates. Several GIs that took part in the invasion at Normandy during WWII were labeled “slow-witted” because they had a hard time understanding orders. Now we know that they were simply responding naturally to the chaos that surrounded them.

Thanks to modern science, we have a much better understanding of how stress affects the mind and body. We even know what we can do to manage it in order to reduce its deleterious effects. However, you’re not born with this ability. You have to train to obtain it.

8. We’re Not in Shape


If you’re like most Americans, you’re probably overweight and out of shape. Sure, there are some health consequences that can make life complicated and expensive, but for the most part, being overweight and out of shape isn’t much of a problem in our cushy world.

But when the SHTF, that spare tire around your waist can prevent you from saving your life or the lives of those around you. The strain that that extra weight causes on your body can quickly put you out of commission or make you utterly useless from the get-go.

At the gun class I go to at the United States Shooting Academy, about 70% of the students are obese. I’m talking candidate-for-gastric-bypass surgery obese. When we were doing drills on firing from behind cover, the instructor had us alternating from a kneeling position to a standing position. Two of the guys in our group couldn’t do it at all and many were breathing heavily from the simple exercise.

At a smaller class consisting of mostly in-shape guys, the instructor brought up the fact that a lot of people coming through the academy were really out of shape. “They think because they have a gun, they don’t need to run or kneel or crouch,” he said. “What they don’t realize is not every fight is a gun fight and if you truly want to be effective as a fighter, you’ve got to be in shape physically, if only for the stress management advantage it gives you.”

Toting around a weapon, even if you’re skilled in using it, doesn’t automatically make a man a sheepdog. If you don’t have the physical and mental fitness to thrive in a variety of situations, you’re just a sheep with a Glock.


If you’ve made it this far, there are a couple of things that are really important to clarify.

First, “sheep” behavior is, again, not necessarily a bad thing. Some cooperation, conformity, and obedience to authority is necessary for a healthy society to function. Don’t believe me? Why not run the next red light you come to while you’re out driving?

Second, by this point I am sure a lot of you are like, “All of this just completely reinforced what a total sheepdog I am! I would never have gone along with the sheep in these stories and experiments!” To which I say – baloney. Everyone thinks they’re statistically better than average in a variety of areas, even though this is an impossibility. It’s so easy to believe we would have spoken up and done the right thing and saved lives when we’re looking at a scenario on paper, and a whole other thing to rise to the challenge in the heat of the moment. In truth, no one knows exactly how they will react in crisis situations, and we’re almost all somewhere on the sheep-sheepdog spectrum rather than being fully one or the other. No man will respond perfectly in every single type of situation, and a true sheepdog has the humility to understand this. The best you can do is commit yourself to training and preparing your physical, ethical, and mental abilities to their fullest extent, so that when you do face a crisis, you give yourself the best possible chance to be a sheepdog instead of a sheep, to lead with skill, wisdom, and honor rather than blindly following.

How you do that training will be the topic of our next post.



On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – And Why by Amanda Ripley

You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney

Warrior Mindset by Dr. Michael Asken, Loren W. Christensen, Dave Grossman and Human Factor Research

{ 93 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrew May 20, 2013 at 10:51 pm

Excellent article. This is definitely something that needs to be written about. I’m looking forward to the next one!

2 Brendan Messenheimer May 20, 2013 at 10:57 pm

There comes a time when you must rub dirt in your hands and hoist the black flag……I am he who intimidates those, that intimidate others

3 Danny Pettry May 20, 2013 at 11:14 pm

Thanks for this article.

I’m sure I overestimate my own ability when I think that I wouldn’t act in that way. I like to think I am better than that. However, like you said, none of us know until we are put in a situation like that. I sure hope I’m never placed in a situation where I’m a non-acting bystander or a just following orders without thought.

I think it is best to know about the eight reasons you posted above and to work on personal self-improvement.

4 Leo May 20, 2013 at 11:18 pm

Very well researched and planned, thank you for the informative articles.

5 Chickasha Hoolba May 20, 2013 at 11:21 pm

Hard words. Tough lessons. Excellent post, thank you for the straight talk.

Reminded me a lot of the Good Samaritan parable from the Gospels.

Our (and that includes my own) inability to look past/through our normalcy bias scares the crap out of me personally. Sometimes even military training and conditioning can’t overcome this. I remember during one firefight in Afghanistan my commander staggered out of his sleeping bag, stands there and rubs his eyes as we’re getting hit by rockets and asked me, “Sergeant, are we under attack or something?” I just screamed at him to get down and scrambled to make sure our squad was ok while he just stood there.

I can’t recall how many times I heard locals in conflict torn areas of the middle east and asia tell me over and over again that they never thought this (war) could happen there, or this would happen to them.

It doesn’t take much for your country or community’s infrastructure to fall apart, but a life of fear and paranoia is no way to exist either. I think a healthy dose of humility is key.

Stay alert, stay alive.

6 Emily May 20, 2013 at 11:36 pm

This last week a mother saw someone take her 4 year old from in front of their apartment complex. As the other kids in the group ran for help, she did something that caught just about everyone by surprise. She got into her car and took pursuit, chasing the guy for miles before finally bumping his car several times, then he took off running and was caught. Turns out he was wanted for abduction and sexual assault from a child in that area earlier that year. Also, her daughter was pushed out of the car earlier but she hadn’t noticed.

Talk about sheepdog… Another mother had her baby snagged from her van while she was loading it, and she also sprung into action, though the lady drove away with the baby (later they were reunited.)

I have to wonder if mothers and fathers are more hardwired to take action to protect their children as compared to the stranger effect. “I don’t know that guy, so why should I take action” or “Maybe that guy has more experience and should be taking charge” falls away when you’re the adult and the others are children. Especially if they’re your children.

7 Roy May 21, 2013 at 1:03 am

The thing about the sheep behaviour is that you don’t notice you’re doing it, necessarily.

I was on a tourist bus in Nepal that had broken down on the side of the road. We waited about an hour for a mechanic to attempt to fix it, but they were having no luck. I thought ‘surely if we’re as close to town as I think we are, someone would have told us we can walk or get another vehicle’. But it was only, after an hour, when I went to stretch my legs that I voiced this thought, and discovered that no-one had thought to ask. Five minutes later, I’d collected my bag and was on another bus heading in the same direction, along with half a dozen others who followed me.

Everything is always clearer in hindsight.

8 Logan May 21, 2013 at 1:20 am

This series is very interesting. I think it’s very important for people to be humble, wherever they may be on the sheep-sheepdog spectrum. This post points out the hard truth that most people will fail to act in high adrenaline situations. I myself have completely shut down mentally in certain situations and acted accordingly in others. I am not a sheepdog. I know this because of my experiences in tense situations, but I strive to be further toward sheepdog on the spectrum.

9 H.E. May 21, 2013 at 1:24 am

I can definitely see myself becoming more and more sheeplike the older I get.. It may be my increasing dislike for other humans in general or the fact that most of the conflicts I am witnessing now in person are between cracked out/drunk people that 9 out of 10 times won’t care about my actions. It might even be something entirely different, but I can certainly feel my desire to “help / be a sheepdog” slipping, maybe this series will help me.

10 Leap May 21, 2013 at 2:38 am

Cracking article (and yes we all think we are the ones who could cope, and yes again we probably are not in practice). It is, however, a fine line to walk – too much awareness makes you paranoid whilst too little makes you a rabbit in the headlights…..and if you think you are in that narrow band ask yourself how much of your life honestly says “stable”, “responsible”, “reliable” and “responsive”?

Courage isn’t found on Call of Duty or the Snowboard run. Its found in the firemen and RNLI (here in England) who put themselves in danger without adding to it.

11 Michael Forsyth May 21, 2013 at 2:38 am

Love this site, I love all the articles, and I’m really digging this series here. I always like to think of myself as a sheepdog but reading this helps me remember how much I have yet to grow. Thank you for your research and for sharing.

12 paul May 21, 2013 at 3:19 am

Great article – I bet there are a lot of people who didn’t like reading it.

I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where we have acted as sheep and others where we have been sheepdog. I am a diving instructor and rescue diver – a lot of the rescue training was not physical but psychological, teaching us to be prepared to act during stressful situations.

Germany has the most obvious recent history of how people will stand by and watch others be tortured and killed, but all countries have a similar past – I’ve seen pictures of lynchings in the US where families – including children – look happily on. Nobody is doing anything to stop it as they wish to conform to the norm.

13 Tony C May 21, 2013 at 4:16 am

What really frightens me, and I mean that literally, I have knot in the pit of my stomach right now, is the thought that I might behave like some of the people mentioned in the experiments and circumstances of disasters.
This article really makes you question yourself.

14 J May 21, 2013 at 5:04 am

Forget about ‘life and death’ moments… You only need to travel on public transport often to see this all the time.

Watch as you see a mother struggle to get on/off with a pram… 90% of times no one will help her.

15 Charles Aulds May 21, 2013 at 5:14 am

I’ve done a lot of things people would consider bold, I suppose, but most of my life, I must admit, I was a sheep. I achieved some measure of career success in a crowd by going along, never by bold action. In 2005, At the age of 48, I moved my family from Alabama to Canada, where we applied for Permanent Resident status, and eventually full citizenship. It was a huge risk, that paid off; but at that stage of my life, it was, without doubt, the most courageous thing I’d ever done; because there was no crowd to follow.

I suppose that move changed me; but I never really understood that until March 15, 2010. That was the date that I mark as the day I changed. I was taking a walk downtown on my lunch hour and I saw a man in a wheelchair, trying to get off a curb, overturn and fall into a street. He and his things were scattered all over the road. I started to help, then I saw two other guys who were closer to the man, they were younger, and I told myself the two lies: 1) It was not my problem, 2) My help wasn’t needed; others would take care of it, and I turned to leave. And that’s when it happened. For some reason, it just suddenly came to me that I could not do that anymore. In a split-second decision, I literally ran to help. As it turned out, it took three of us to hold the chair steady and put the man back into into it. None of us would leave until we were all certain he was safe and fine.

It wasn’t what we did that had such a profound effect on me, it was my sudden willingness to perform the deed that surprised me. It wasn’t like me, to be honest. I had changed. And I hope I never hesitate again to do what I know is right, because of fear of failing, or being embarrassed, or because of crowd pressure.

And I know now, I am different. A hardwired sheep; absolutely. But at an “advanced” state of my life, I changed; and I know it is possible.

16 John May 21, 2013 at 5:59 am

Excellent article!! Really looking forward to the next one! Thanks for what you do. It’s greatly appreciated

17 jerry May 21, 2013 at 6:28 am

To ignore the truth about ones self is telling ones self the ultimate lie.
The truth is the most important thing that a person must consume.
Agreeing with the truth is the most difficult task in life.
To not share the truth is the ultimate greed.

Semper Fidelis…PTCTT

18 John K. May 21, 2013 at 7:12 am

As I read through, this came to mind.

19 David Y May 21, 2013 at 7:29 am

I think that for many of us, the first step in moving from sheep to sheepdog is making a firm decision to do so. We can’t just assume we will be able to act when we are needed. Once we do that, then we can start attaining the skills needed to be a sheepdog.

Your examples on normalcy bias reminded me of something that happened at a company where I once worked. One day the fire alarm went off. One guy called out “We’re not supposed to have a fire drill today are we?”. The woman in the next cubicle and I decided to get out. Only a handful of us left the building. Fortunately it was a false alarm. If not, a lot of my friends would have been in trouble.

PS. My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of the tornado in Oklahoma yesterday.

20 Daniel May 21, 2013 at 7:46 am

The story of the skiers reminded me of the Abilene Paradox…

21 Anthony May 21, 2013 at 7:46 am

Very well said: I really like the emphasis on how sheeple behavior is hard-wired into us, like it or not. Men like to talk to tough, but it’s exceptionally hard to stand up as a sheepdog. I’m looking forward to the next piece: they only way I know to be a sheepdog is to have made the decision beforehand, at least in your head.

I saw and experienced this sheeple behavior when I and group of guys kayaked down a flooded river. The locals warned us that the river was too fast and and too high, but our leader (the most experienced of the group) wouldn’t back down. I stood on the bank and had a very strong feeling that we shouldn’t do this, but I didn’t say anything. Others felt the same way but nobody wanted to be the coward. Sure enough, we got into major trouble. Thankfully, nobody died or got hurt, but I’ll remember that experience for the rest of my life: if it feels wrong, it probably is, and it IS worth speaking up.

22 Steve Cavanaugh May 21, 2013 at 8:00 am

@Emily. The tendency of parents to protect their children is probably contextual. Not only do individuals fall on different parts of the wolf-sheep-sheepdog spectrum, but we each probably have contexts in which we are more one than the other.
I’m looking forward to the next segment on preparing yourself to act more of the sheepdog. The idea of preparing yourself made me think of the character John Matherson in the novel “One Second After” by William Forstchen, and how his earlier life prepared him to step up and take charge and make a huge difference in protecting his community.

23 Serafin May 21, 2013 at 8:10 am

This reminds me of something my dad did when I was little. There was this guy that drove down our street each day, doing 50 in a 25. He was headed to the last house on the street to see his girlfriend. My dad was always at work at that time of the day but he kept hearing about the guy from our neighbors. Finally, my dad was off work when the guy drove by. Dad jumped in his car, parked in in the street, and waited for the guy to come back. When guy drove up, Dad calmly walked up to the guy, informed him that he was not leaving until the police got here, and told a neighbor to call the cops. Dad’s instinct was not to show off or be a bully.. It was to protect all of the little kids running around on a very pedestrian street.

24 Andrew May 21, 2013 at 8:20 am

A note on points 2 and 4-6: All of these have to do with conformity to behavior we perceive around us. I wouldn’t dispute that on some level, this is “sheep” behavior, but on another, its also common sense. By and large, we tend to go on the assumption that other people act rationally, and probably 90% of the time this is the case. Therefore, if everyone else is doing the same thing, even if it seems illogical to us, its usually safer to assume that they all know something we don’t, than to go forward on the assumption that we’re the only ones being logical. Conformity is normally a good idea, so you could say that normalcy bias generates all the other phenomenona.
I have to wonder if a lot of the studies purporting to show our herd, conformity, or submission-to-authority instincts aren’t being skewed by people who are either (1) assuming that they missed the point, or (2) shrugging and going along with it because they’re getting paid $10 to do a study.

25 Alexander May 21, 2013 at 8:36 am

Once again, thank you very much Brett. This is a topic that needs to be addressed today, and you are doing so in a very organized and concise manner.

I also think I see were you’re going with this. I’ll hold my full comments until you’ve had a chance to fully deploy yours.

26 Joshua Rossnagel May 21, 2013 at 8:44 am

I would say that I have more experience in the face of stress than most. Before you go screaming ‘SHEEP’ let me explain. For six years I was a firefighter, 3 of which I was an EMT, for 3/4 of my life I have trained and competed in the martial arts. For six years I was in the Army Infantry which included a tour overseas in Baghdad. During college I was a bouncer. That being said, I still find myself in situations on a regular basis where I feel the tug of conformity or I downright freeze up. Earlier in life I was that man who overestimated himself in all things. Truthfully, most of my worst experiences were caused by an overestimation of my abilities. What I’m trying to relay here is that with all my life’s experiences I know now that I do fall somewhere between sheep and sheepdog and I always will. I try to approach everything I’m confronted with now with a humble attitude and it serves me well. Bravo on your article, all of them actually. They are a continuing source of inspiration to me. Thank you

27 C-rad May 21, 2013 at 9:31 am

Everyone wants to be the sheepdog, but often the sheepdog is the scapegoat…The fool on the hill…

28 John May 21, 2013 at 9:44 am

Great post, I’m really looking forward to the next installment. I think that you train yourself through small choices, seemingly inconsequential decisions that make you more like a sheepdog. Few of us will actually be in a plane crash or tornado, but if we can train ourselves to overcome these inherent psychological obstacles, maybe we can become better people.

It’s asking the person in the wheelchair if they need help crossing the street instead of just assuming everyone else will do it. It’s yelling at the tourist who’s inching past the guardrail over the Grand Canyon to get back, his actions are unsafe. It’s deciding to stop on the busy road, even though you have a meeting to get to, to rescue the loose dog on the side of the road. These are all situations where I’ve had the chance to push back against normalcy bias/bystander effect and the assumption that “someone else will do something” and ACT. Maybe this makes me better in a dangerous situation, maybe not but I like to think I made the right choice.

Many people assume that their dangerous situation they’ll thrive in will be a huge event; a huge house fire, a giant earthquake, a cataclysm, the zombie apocalypse, but more than likely it’s just going to be a small event, a tiny decision you make that only takes a few minutes that makes the world a better place.

29 Kit B. May 21, 2013 at 9:57 am

I had an experience just the other day that showed me how much of a sheep I can be, and how little it takes to be a sheepdog instead. I was driving with a friend when we saw a car “stalking” a lady walking down the sidewalk with shouting from both parties. My friend suggested we ask is she wanted us to call the cops, so we did ask and got a non-commital answer. The car drove off and we continued on our way, but watched the car pull onto another street and wait for us to pass before circling back. (Yeah, we were watching for it.) So we went back again and called the police from my cell and then hung out watching until the cops showed up. Apparently a domestic violence situation.

But I couldn’t help but think how close I was to just driving off and not getting involved. If my friend hadn’t been sheepdog I probably wouldn’t have been.

One other thing I’ve noticed is that some people are sheepdogs in certain situation but not others. I am very quick to jump in a help when I see people get hurt or having car problems and stuff, but I am VERY hesitant to get involved in “social” problems like the one above.

30 John May 21, 2013 at 10:03 am

Great read thanks for the better perspective.

In reply to a few posts, I think that people will do more for someone else when they feel they are responsible for the welfare of that person. Mothers and father do this and many other family member will. some of the Sheepdogs I know do the same but for everyone they are to protect. Its much like the Nanny dogs that were used in times past that helped keep children safe. they are kind to those they care for and a ferocious protector when needed.

31 MShaneD May 21, 2013 at 10:24 am

Amazing follow-up article with great references to some classic social psychology experiments.

I know I am in the category of “too fat to save himself” and this, more than many other things, strikes me as a good reason to lose some weight. I really thing I would be the person that reacts, but impedes more than helps due to my size.

I was still living in Louisiana during Katrina. Many people would have lived if they used their own common sense, if they had left when it was obvious that the storm would be coming that close, or if they had at least left when the evac order came down. They had no idea it would not be the storm itself, but they levee breaking that would be their undoing.

For decades, meterologists in the area had stated every year that if a storm where to put enough pressure on the levee, it would pop. But every time a bad storm hit… the levee stood.

But when the levee broke, New Orlens did not fair well.

32 Ted Larson May 21, 2013 at 10:27 am

A very good post. Cannot wait for the next installment. Maybe I can retrain myself before it is too late.

33 Alex May 21, 2013 at 10:31 am

I think there are definitely occasions where the sheepdog and wolf actions happen subconsciously.

I at one time had a group of friends, there is only one left in my circle now, whom one of them could be called a wolf and no one noticed it not even me until after the fact. I don’t think this wolf even realizes what he was and presumably still is doing to the people remaining in his circle. He was manipulating all of us, in subtle ways but it was starting a destructive pattern in everyone. I didn’t realize quite what was going on but for some reason my gut said get out of the situation and shortly there after all those subtle things he was doing came to a head I realized what was going on and removed myself from his presence as did several others but the ones who remained around him are still oblivious to the situation and he maintains that he was never doing wrong.

After reading these articles I think many times those sheepdog and wolf actions can happen on a subconscious level without even realizing what’s really going on.

34 Tom May 21, 2013 at 10:39 am

Great article. I think that one thing that may also be considered is the threat of wolves masquerading as sheepdogs and leading the indifferent sheep to their slaughter (like, say, oh I don’t know, the federal government, federal reserve, IRS, CIA, etc.)…

35 John May 21, 2013 at 10:50 am

FYI-It was called the ‘Aggro Crag’, not ‘Astrocrag’.

36 Steve J May 21, 2013 at 11:18 am

Baaaaah…… I would tend to agree. (isn’t that ironic)

It is an interesting and terrifying thought, that we are programmed not to react to these situations. Hopefully that mindfulness of our nature can be a benefit, should we ever be faced with a serious situation.

37 Steve S May 21, 2013 at 11:28 am

Great series. I forward them to my 15 year old son so that he can start to think about his decisions day to day.

I honestly don’t know which side I fall on. I like to hope that I would lean further to the dog side, but who can say. Unfortunately, in this day and age, the thoughts of ‘lawsuit’ enter your head when you see something that ‘isn’t quite right’ and consider getting involved.

We can only be who we are. We can train and strive to be a better person, but really won’t know until faced with a stressful and potentially dangerous situation.

38 Ara Bedrossian May 21, 2013 at 11:44 am

Well put.
I’m reminded of the scene from the Avengers when Loki addresses the crowd and tells them humanity will always kneel. (One of the best scenes from a super hero movie that I’ve seen.):
Indeed, train the sheepness out of ourselves, more than for crisis response, but for living a full and happy life.

39 Brandon May 21, 2013 at 11:45 am

Still reading this article, but I was struck that most posters felt themselves to be sheepdogs.

Personally, as soon as I read the 1st article, I knew I was a sheep. I don’t want to make waves. I like my happy life. I want to get along and do the right thing. Plus, statistically speaking, if that 1% number is to be believed, you are 98% likely to be a sheep as well.

I see I can improve on my doggishness, but it won’t help to pretend I’m a dog in sheep’s clothing, will it? So, I’m honest with myself instead.

40 Tim H. May 21, 2013 at 11:56 am

Great article!!!

A decade or so ago I was robbed in broad daylight in front of 10 or 15 people. I was working in a cafe and a crackhead, literally jumped my counter and took my till. I ran to get away from the robber and 10 or 15 people watched me. I was told later that I ran through 2 or 3 sets of tables to get away. I have no recollection of what happened after he jumped the counter.

Afterwards all of the people in that stood by were very embarassed for not helping me. We had to wait for the police and all of them had to look me in the face. Thats when the false bravado started and all of the I would’ve done…but the fact was no one helped me and I was lucky he didn’t hurt me.

Looking back on it I don’t blame them for not helping me anymore. After 12 years of military training I learned that most people just cannot do it. Even those with training are not always able to understand the sitauation or act in a manner that will help.

41 Adam May 21, 2013 at 12:35 pm

This is a really well written article. I really enjoy reading through this website, there’s some really good stuff on here. I have read the sequel to the book “On Killing”, it is called “On combat”, both books are written by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. I know from reading those books, and from certain experiences I have had that I can be both the sheep, and sheepdog. What is surprising to me is that sometimes I can be both simultaneously. I know there’s a lot left to learn, and I hope that I continue to move more towards sheepdog than sheep. I look forward to the next part in the series.

42 TheRuggedMale May 21, 2013 at 1:07 pm

Great article … love the opening story about the skiers. I would contend that there is another category of people, those that are not strong enough to save/influence the group, but are strong enough to save themselves. Those that did not go on that back country ski trip but didnt influence group to reconsider. Perhaps they are the black sheep, or the shepherd ?

43 Tatiana May 21, 2013 at 1:35 pm

i remember when i just came to NYC i was shopping at Fairways store for food..there were around 5 cashiers there, most people were coming from one shopping area and would stop at the first cashier right away the line was huge! But if you get curious and move ahead you will see that the last cashier is almost empty . People become sheep they are too stressed and preoccupied with every day stuff to think out of the box or turn on their brains, survival race takes away creativity, we fear to confront majority and stand alone for something we believe is right. Remember the tail about a naked king? Only an innocent child dared to say that the king in fact, was naked. Just saying.

44 Kammes May 21, 2013 at 1:58 pm

It sounds like many of us have a problem with getting our actions to where our intentions are. Why do so many people, including myself, think that we are what we like to watch, read, or listen about? I think the mind makes little distinction from itself and the author of the stimulus it receives. We internalize so much and are influenced greatly by almost every aspect of our environment.
This article got me thinking that maybe the first step to becoming more sheepdog-like is to realize that to hold a belief means that one will be made uncomfortable in society, to the point that one has to act / do something instead of watch things take place against their beliefs. After all, what is belief worth if it doesn’t lead to any movement?
We would all do better to think of discomfort differently. Discomfort is not punishment; it’s life and it cannot be avoided anyway. You might as well make the discomfort worth having instead of a regrettable experience that will haunt you for not being true to something you believed you held. If you’re frozen with fear out of what other people think, develop a social identity that permits you to act the way you really want. For some, this means moving out of the basement of mom and dad’s, traveling somewhere to re-invent yourself. But it doesn’t always have to be that drastic of a measure.. or does it ..?

45 Paul May 21, 2013 at 2:00 pm

I, without doubt, would have administered the electric volts…

By the end of the article I was going, “Crap! I don’t want to be a sheep in the heat of the moment. How do I acquire the training to be the man I need to be?”

as I soon read: “How you do that training will be the topic of our next post.”

46 Tom King May 21, 2013 at 3:07 pm

Well done piece. The herd mentality is hard to defeat. A powerful magnetic leader first draws like-minded followers to him and then they attempt to “normalize” their agenda by repeating carefully chosen talking points. Lenin once said that if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth. That’s why politicians so often use the “everybody knows” technique in speech-making. If you assume everyone believes whatever idea you are selling, then soon most of the crowd in sheep-like fashion assume that everyone else must believe that idea and that’s how we get Auschwitz when most Germans weren’t consciously aware that it existed. Jesus was right when he called us sheep.

47 Gregory May 21, 2013 at 3:46 pm

We only know when we are tested. As a biker I have been in and around some serious accidents, and have seen the full gamut of the farm animals in action. I’m glad to say I’ve survived long enough that experience has made me more aware and able to consciously be more sheepdog than sheep, but the article is quite true for most of us… until you are in the situation, what you think you will do and what you actually do are rarely the same.

48 Doc G May 21, 2013 at 4:37 pm

This is a very, VERY interesting article. However, I think you are missing a serious “category” here; “The Selective SheepDog”. A couple of years ago I found a copy of the original “Sheepdog” article and posted it in my classroom for discussion. (Yea, I teach computer science but I like to push all kinds of bizarre and twisted ideas into my students’ minds! LOL). Anyway, if you had asked me then I would have told you I was an absolute SheepDog to the extreme. I take that to the point of having a CHL (Concealed Handgun License) and I carry everywhere it is legal to do so. That was then, and that was an example of “the unexamined life”. I am now what I would categorize as a “Selective SheepDog” for the following reasons:

1. As a SheepDog if I came upon a man beating another man, or even more so beating a woman, I would immediately intervene to protect the beat-ee (victim). If that meant using deadly force to protect the life of another, so be it. Then I read of exactly that situation, the problem was the “attacker” was really the victim who had managed to turn the tables on the true wolf and was actually protecting his life from a woman who had attacked him with a knife and done some serious damage. The SheepDog in this case shot and killed the “wolf” who was a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Subsequent interviews by the police with bystanders confirmed that the man had been attacked from behind by the woman, (a spurned lover it seems), and was in the process of neutralizing that threat when the SheepDog shot and killed him. Moral: The Sheepdog must not treat all perceived Wolves the same way for a “Wolf” might be the neighbor’s harmless dog or worse, a sheep that isn’t acting exactly like a sheep. Hence the idea of a “Selective SheepDog”.

2. A SheepDog has to know which part of the flock, or which flock, he/she must protect, and which he must allow the wolf to ravage. We are working desperately to get the law changed to allow we faculty and students who have a CHL (Concealed Handgun License) to carry on college campuses and in the buildings. One of the very serious concerns expressed by our campus police is that a CHL would try to function like a SheepDog in an Active Shooter situation and go the the source of the attack instead of staying with his/her class or just avoiding the area. Imagine the conundrum faced by the responding officer(s) when they encounter a classroom with one or more people shot and two (2) individuals with guns displayed. Which is the wolf? Are BOTH wolves? Who knows these “wolves”? The police fear that due to misunderstanding an innocent SheepDog might be slain when mis-identified as a “wolf”. This is already a problem with plain clothed officers when their uniformed brethren come on the scene of a shooting or a conflict escalates to a “hot” scene. My campus police officers and I are working to develop a method of identifying legitimate “other SheepDog” CHLs in that scenario. The wise SheepDog, myself included, needs to selectively protect his/her portion of the flock rather than seeking out wolves to neutralize. The other problem with this is that by leaving his/her portion of the flock unprotected by searching out “wolves”, the SheepDog might return to find his flock attacked by a wolf as well. (Several instances of multiple shooters in an active shooter scenario show how this is a concern.)

3. The legal and psychological ramifications of defending the flock and taking the life of a wolf. First and foremost, I have not, thank you Lord, of having to take a human life. However, I know in my heart that were my flock threatened, (where “flock” can be defined as “family”; in the school setting my class; and in the public spaces, those I can exert my abilities to reasonably protect.) Note: the same problem, described in point #2, evolves if a CHL goes to the scene of the wolf behavior. Having done some fairly significant research into the psychological effects of taking a life, I know that any “normal” SheepDog will suffer to some degree or another, for taking a life. As a SheepDog I need to weigh the costs when volunteering to go outside my “assigned” flock. A wise SheepDog does not patrol as far as he/she can roam looking for wolves, hunting wolves as it were. Instead the wise SheepDog will watch for threats in his/her assigned “flock” and respond appropriately when that “flock” is threatened. To add to the moral/psychological reasons to be “selective”, there are now an absolute deluge of laws that make the use of the SheepDog’s jaws a crime in many situations. Not withstanding the problem defined in #1, there are other situations where the assumedly correct actions of a SheepDog can result in that SheepDog having his/her teeth pulled or even being confined in a kennel just for BEING a SheepDog! One such situation is where the SheepDog shoots the wolf, but the projectile goes through the wolf and strikes a sheep. As a CHL, I know I am responsible for all the damage my bullets do, regardless of the intent. Another, similar, problem is misses. The police, who are supposedly trained, only hit the target a small percentage of the time, around 25-30 percent. A lesser trained SheepDog would be expected to hit his/her target that well at best. (Granted, many SheepDogs take their role/duties seriously and we practice much more than the average officer. I would expect/hope that my hit/miss ratio would be 80% or better…but again I don’t know what the effects of adrenaline would be since I haven’t been in that situation, Thank You Lord!). So, let’s say in the best case I do confine 80% of my shots in the wolf, and those rounds remain in the wolf. If I expend 5 rounds in the conflict, there is one bullet out there that I am responsible for that didn’t go where I intended it to.

49 Rob May 21, 2013 at 4:57 pm

true story:

A drunk driver crashed into 3 cars in front of my apartment 2 weeks ago. I heard the crash and rushed out to help with a red medical bag I keep by the door. Many people had already gathered outside. While waiting for traffic to pass, I was the FIRST one to call 911, even though there were 30 people already outside. I hopped over the road and started first aid with a drunk young girl that was outside and not visibly injured. Her boyfirend, the drunk driver, was lightly bleeding and walking about. Even though I might have been a sheepdog with the initial respone and the girl, I was a sheep with the boyfriend. I just couldn’t get the guy to sit down, even though he was visibly more injured. Eventually, the ambulance came and even then the guy would not sit down. 3 other guys finally got their sheepdogs selves aroused and tackled the guy with an EMT. They loaded him and took him to the hospital. The girl was also fine in the end.

So, even in the exact same situation, you can act like a sheep AND a sheepdog. You can’t stay stable in a situation, let alone with many over many months or years.
Heck, I imagine it would be real easy to oscillate between the dog, sheep, and wolf all at the same time.

50 Big Bad Moose May 21, 2013 at 6:17 pm

This series is simply intriguing. It has made me question so much about society and myself.

This conditioning to be a sheep, unfortunately, resonates in me very often, though I always fight it. The one phrase that makes me spring into action if someone needs help is, “He/She is someone’s son/daughter/mother/father.” If my father or mother or even children were in such situation, I’d kill to have someone help them if I weren’t there.

The elite, I’ve concluded, are not those who are kicked into action, but those who kick themselves into action.



51 Matt M. May 21, 2013 at 7:48 pm

Wow! One of the most intriguing articles I have read yet on this site. Keep it up!

52 Francesco May 21, 2013 at 8:01 pm

Excellent series! An interesting subsection of this to look at would be to what extent are regular people (sheep) led astray by wolves and whether or not the role of wolves in society is a mirror image of sheepdogs. In other words, if it only takes 1 or 2 sheepdogs to get people off a burning plane, does it only take 1 or 2 wolves to incite a riot or a lynching or a gang rape? Is it possible that the reason bullying in schools and violent crime in general have gone up is because people are as easily, if not more easily, made wolf-like than sheepdog-like?

53 Leia May 21, 2013 at 11:21 pm

Great article. Of course, one must also realize that you cannot just train on a firearm alone for self-defense, which is why you must take a self-defense class that teaches escapes from common holds, chokes, and grabs, as well as offensive techniques, such as punching, kicking, and grappling while both standing up and when on the ground and especially important is knowing how to defend yourself with your bare hands when your attacker has either a blunt or edged weapon in his hands. Encourage your loved ones (especially the females in your life) to attend self-defense classes as well because you may not always be there when they are attacked. I have an associates degree in Criminal Justice and I have read up on reality-based self-defense since I was in college. I also took a few martial arts classes as well. I’m NOT saying that I’m an expert, because I constantly learn something new within the subject every day and I’ve never had to use the skills that I’ve been taught (thank God.) If you’re looking for self-defense DVDs to teach real-world self-defense, go with either Contemporary Fighting Arts or you can also go to for some excellent self-defense DVDs. I must caution you that FightFast tends to have some slick over-the-top advertising for some of their DVDs, so I would pick and choose the best DVDs from BOTH of my suggested websites to visit and practice them both physically and through mental visualization.

54 Paul May 22, 2013 at 12:12 am

Hard lesson learned here. To become more of a sheepdog is something that weights heavy on my heart. I was once that sheep in a situation when someone was hurt and I focused on everything is normal. In the end that person ended up being OK. But that moment in my life is my biggest regret.

This is a great post. And a huge eyeopener.

55 Marshall May 22, 2013 at 12:40 am

VERY excited to learn the cures for this!

56 Rahul May 22, 2013 at 6:12 am

Thanks for making us aware. I do hope that I will behave like a sheepdog when the situation comes.

57 John May 22, 2013 at 9:38 am

I wonder how many similar brave and heroic actions that men have taken were a result of acting like sheep. For instance, how many soldiers who are rewarded for bravery really knew what they were doing rather than just following what they thought is supposed to be done. I’m not bashing them, I respect the military a great deal. But I just wonder if being a sheep hasn’t elevated a great many men into history.

58 robot0_0 May 22, 2013 at 10:26 am

On Killing and On Combat are both great reading. If you liked this article I would recommend reading some of the source material.

59 Al Smith May 22, 2013 at 11:45 am

I was sitting in a Panera as I finished this article, thinking realistically about how I would handle a trauma when, by some great coincidence, a man dropped his bowl of soup on the ground. Soup and glass went everywhere. The first thing that popped in my head was “Don’t be a sheep.” I got up and started picking up glass and wiping the soup with a napkin. Another kid joined me, but everyone else just sort of stared at us confused, even the guy who dropped the soup.

Obviously, this was not some great disaster and I’m most likely not a full blown sheepdog, but it was interesting to see the whole sheep thing played out before me. It definitely made me think.

Thanks for the article!

60 Jack Grabon May 23, 2013 at 7:14 am

I’m really enjoying this series, so thanks again Brett & Kate!

I just wanted to say that knowing about the different responses above can help us see through them. For example, my girlfriend and I heard some glass breaking outside last week. It was followed by a scream. Then it happened again. We couldn’t see what was going on, but it had to have been close. My initial thought was that there was a fight and glass was being broken over someone’s head. My girlfriend was with me. I asked her what she thought it was and if we should call the police.

Although she agreed that it might have been a fight, she said that someone else had probably already called the police. A light bulb went on in my head immediately. I promptly called the police.

I knew about the bystander effect, and recalled learning about Kitty Genovese: a case where 38 people had witnessed a murder in Queens but none called the police. Everyone assumed that someone else already had called, especially given that there was struggle for about an hour.

What’s interesting is that I hesitated before calling the police when I should’ve just called right away. That bothered me. The conformity bias was at play. Fortunately, I broke through it quickly and did what I thought was the right thing.

61 Sheila May 23, 2013 at 8:20 am

One thing that isn’t mentioned is the effect of upbringing. We train our brains every moment we’re alive, and the way we train our children to react is something they will keep with them their whole lives.

In Nazi Germany, they had compulsory government schooling and specific activities to promote “group spirit.” The general culture approved of very strict, no-backtalk parenting. So it’s unsurprising that most went along with what authority figures said–they had been raised their whole lives to do so!

What’s fascinating is that, in a study on those who resisted the Nazi regime in some way — particularly hiding Jews — there were commonalities in the way they were raised, compared to the rest of the population. They tended to have been raised in what was considered a very “lax” style for the day. Their parents rarely used corporal punishment, and the children were allowed to talk back to their parents.

I experienced this myself, after two years in a cult. I was raised to accept authority without question. Those kids who were “rebels” in some way were the ones who saw through the crap right away and got out. They would tell us, “This is nonsense, you can’t put up with this,” but we would all think, “Typical rebellious teenagers, we are good kids,” and so we stayed in.

Suffice it to say I am encouraging individual thought and questioning in my own kids. For us that includes homeschooling and avoiding strict punishments while encouraging considered, polite disagreement. I’d rather have a mouthy kid than one who goes along with the crowd in everything.

62 Dustin May 23, 2013 at 10:38 am

Big props for using stuff from “You Are Not So Smart” by McRaney.

Every man needs to read that book.

63 david May 23, 2013 at 2:55 pm
64 daniel kucine May 23, 2013 at 11:04 pm

the reason for these “sheep like” behaviors has much less to do with being a sheep and more to do with just generally being lazy.. Even in biology, it is literally every orgamisms goal (other than for reproduction and such) to save energy

65 Matthew Johnson May 24, 2013 at 9:59 am

It is sad that at a time when the sense of community is breaking down in the Modern West that yet another article about the necessity of moving out of the herd should be written. There is, however, one weakness in this analysis: it leaves no room for LEGITIMATE authority. A true man is one who freely obeys such proper authority: a commanding officer, his father confessor, his boss, his father, et cetera… at the appropiate time and place when those persons are decently exercising their authority in their proper sphere. A sheep blindly follows orders to avoid pain or get rewards, but a real man may perform the same actions (obeying a legitimate leader) because he understands and supports them. Were the men who believed in the rightness of the Allied cause on D-Day June 6th 1944 sheep? No! The ones doing their duty there were free men who chose (using discernment) to follow a chain authority stretching from the President through their officers down to themselves. There is a nobility in freely submitting to just authority.

66 Steve2 May 25, 2013 at 1:21 am

You can even see the herd mentality in mundane, every-day scenarios.

- That car that has to drive RIGHT BESIDE you, even though you’re the only two cars on the road. 
- A group of strangers waiting to cross the street. As soon as one steps out to cross illegally, the rest of them follow.
- You park your car on the far side of the parking lot to avoid getting dents, and when you come out of the store, there’s a half dozen cars parked beside you, even though there’s a hundred spots that are closer. 

As for me, I find myself becoming more doglike as I get older (I’m 32 now). Standing up for a waiter who is being verbally abused by a customer. Fighting for a refund for a friend who is being taken advantage of by a store owner. Helping a stranded motorist.  There’s still a lot of sheep left in this dog though, and I can not say how I would react in a life or death situation. All I know is how I hope I would react. 

67 Jackson May 25, 2013 at 4:00 am

While I would like to think otherwise, I think this is genetic. Either you have it or you don’t.

68 Brett May 25, 2013 at 5:27 am

Well I can’t knowledgeably claim I’m not a “sheep”, all I know is I fail on #4, conformity. I’ve been the subject of conformity tests, and found to be very non-conformist, which is definitely not necessarily a good thing: in same cases it can indicate a person will have difficulty interacting with people in their society.

69 Vincent Milburn May 25, 2013 at 10:11 am

Can’t wait for part three. I find I myself am in the middle. Usually direct confrontation draws out my hard-line side, whereas subtle confrontation makes me awkward and timid. I imagine a lot of folks have random combinations of both in different contexts as Steve Cavanaugh noted.

Heck, I was at Catholic mass the other day and everybody was sitting at the wrong time except one family and we all second-guessed until the whole congregation finally stood up one by one.

70 Chris May 26, 2013 at 4:46 pm

Thanks so much, AoM, for taking the time to compile all the sources and write a fabulous, thought-provoking article!

71 Jodah May 26, 2013 at 7:13 pm

I am reading a lot of people saying how they know they are not sheepdogs or how they are “more sheep than dog.” Given that this is apparently (I didn’t read the comments in the previous article) a stark contrast from before – either a lot of people were convinced by this article, or people think that by being humble they go against the trend and thereby be a sheepdog rather than a sheep. The thing is, once primed that sheepdogs are humble, you have a disposition to do that in order to increase your pride in the fact that you are truly a sheepdog. Just an observation on my end. And to clarify, I like to imagine I am a sheepdog, and I try to do things like stop on the side of the road to help people, but have never had time to truly test my mettle.

That said, I look forward to the next article. I am glad to have action steps when they are available.

Also, does anyone imagine that sheep/dog dichotomies may be evidenced in MBTI typing. I am curious. Additionally, I worry that both may be susceptible to Barnum effect.

72 Carl Monster May 27, 2013 at 8:32 am

These articles give me a curious desire to dine on my lawn.

73 Buster May 27, 2013 at 10:35 am

When I was in school a friend asked me to come help him with a project in his class. Little did I know I was walking into Asch like conformity experiment, where I was the the subject. I would not conform to the group. The pressure was terrible. I can easily see how someone would go with the group. It was a relief and I felt pride when the experiment was revealed to me.

74 Bryan May 28, 2013 at 4:48 am

Thanks for writing these articles. I for one am more aware of this sheep mentality Im hardwired to.

Just today, I saw a girl struggling with her drunk girl friend, trying to keep her on her feet. I thought “I should help her”, but I didn’t offer.

Why? Because there was another guy standing closer, and it should’ve been him offering (turns out he did help).

The point is, it’s not enough to know we are sheep. We still frolic along in our sheep ways.

I’m impatiently waiting article 3 about how to train yourself to be a sheep dog. Any estimate on when it’ll be published? Haven’t been stalking a blog like this in a looooong time.

75 SnakeDoctor21 May 28, 2013 at 12:58 pm

Great article. I am a sheepdog, that is turning into a sheep out of necessity. I spent over 20 years in the military, was deployed over 6 times, and routinely went into immediately dangerous to life and health environments. As I have started me second career, I quickly realized that I did not think like my co-workers, my humor was not seen as funny as it was before. Essentially, to become a sheepdog for my family now, I have to become more like a sheep. It is troubling. I had a good friend tell me that to some degree, PTSD is nothing more than realizing that you will never be that cool or hard again. It was said in jest…but there is a lot of truth to that statement as well.

76 LREKing May 28, 2013 at 5:12 pm

Regarding “wolves,” I would recommend The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson.

77 Jake May 28, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Dr. Phil Zimbardo (the guy who conducted the stanford prison experiment) dedicated a big part of his life to find “the root of evil”.
His research nowdays is manly about heroism, wich overlaps pretty much what is described as “sheepdog” in this article.
His page on the topic is definitely worth checking out (also maybe for the third article about how to become a sheepdog)

Also I really wonder how I would have reacted in the Milgrim experiments.

78 dc.sunsets May 29, 2013 at 9:09 am

The most terrifying aspect of the Milgram Paradigm is that while 2/3rds of people would torture another (heard, but unseen) human to death, of the 1/3rd who at some point dropped out and said “no more,” NOT ONE went to Administration and tried to stop the “experiments.”

THAT is why democide occurs. Even those few who refuse to slaughter the innocent rarely try to stop their peers from doing so. This is why Hugh Thompson, the chopper pilot who tried to stop the Mi Lay Massacre was such a phenomenally rare person.

We should all aspire to be such. (The trick is to avoid being a member of Germany’s White Rose, all of whom were murdered by their own government officials.)

79 GUS May 29, 2013 at 9:10 am

On the way home from a card game late one Friday night, I stumbled upon a bad accident on a major highway just outside Boston. Traffic had come to a complete stop and there were troopers and emergency personnel everywhere. Having availed myself of several adult beverages during the course of the evening, I found myself in a delicate situation. Having made the decision to take matters into my own hands, I left my chariot and headed for the tree line. Great minds truly do think alike for though I was the first, I certainly wasn’t the last. Imitation truly is the highest form of flattery !

80 dc.sunsets May 29, 2013 at 9:19 am

Knowledge is power.

Knowing about the Milgram and Stanford experiments helps each of us recognize what is happening and choose a different path.

My knowledge of Korean POW psychological torture via sensory deprivation helped me recognize it when employed on me during a college frat initiation, allowing me to circumvent its effects.

81 Chris C May 29, 2013 at 11:26 am

I would say that in the majority of cases, “sheep” behavior has been beneficial to human survival and evolution. This is probably why it is so difficult to break free from. In other words, on the whole/as a population, sheep survive and sheepdogs/wolves do not.

82 M May 29, 2013 at 1:40 pm

“Researchers believe that passengers had a little over a minute to escape before being consumed by the flames, and are convinced that if more people had taken immediate action instead of remaining in their seats … the survival rate would have been much, much higher.”

I’d bet a significant portion of those people were waiting for someone – a flight attendant – to tell them what to do.

83 Daniel Perea May 29, 2013 at 4:58 pm

Very interesting two articles, It just made me remember of a psychology book I’m just reading called “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking ” by Malcolm Gladwell. The same thought process can be applied in so many different circumstances from courting a lady in a bar to marketing campaigns, from war tactics to decision making (or lack of) when in a dangerous situation. I would recommend you to check it out.

84 Annonymouse May 29, 2013 at 6:24 pm

Guess I’m a sheep – have a lot of chores that I need to get done, but just sat here and read through the article and all the comments – many interesting.
Glad this time-consuming article has an end, for now.

85 Adam E May 30, 2013 at 8:32 pm

Brilliantly written series. As a former Military Police Officer and US Special Forces Veteran during OIF and OEF, I know what the “wolves” are capable of and what a well trained and conditioned “sheepdog” does to the “wolf”. Lt.Col’s words should be mandatory in schools. The only piece in your article I disagree with, is in your part 2 conclusion: “no one knows exactly how they will react in crisis situations…” I know, my former team members know, the police-fire-EMS know. We are/were conditioned to know. This site is one of my favorites. Keep up the good work, and thanks for the always interesting reading.

“Train like you fight. Fight like you train.”

86 jb May 31, 2013 at 4:27 pm

About one year ago I went to this rave in the middle of nowhere. We were hit by a fire and it was horrible. Specially because I panicked. =( Everyone was helping and trying to do something and I simply froze. It was the weirdest situation I’ve found myself into.

Sooo… yeah. It’s easy to think that we’d be cool in those situations, but not.

87 John June 3, 2013 at 11:59 am

Last year, my wife daughter and I were driving home after visiting our son at college, when I observed a large cloud of dust a short distance ahead of us. A woman had hit her brakes (she later said she did not know why), and the car behind her ran into her. This caused her car to go off a steep embankment, and roll several times. We were the second vehicle to stop, although a car with 2 off-duty firefighters/paramedics pulled up within seconds. The woman was buckled in and suffered only lacerations and bruises, but was trapped in the vehicle. The paramedics begin working to remove her immediately. While they were extracting her, I saw that several men were just standing around the other vehicle, which remained fully in the roadway. The road was narrow, with sharp drop-offs to each side, and limited visibility from one side, so ran back up the embankment and enlisted the men to help push the other vehicle onto the shoulder so it was not obstructing traffic, causing another wreck.

I then observed that the paramedics had the other driver sitting next to her vehicle and were treating her, using the contents of the first aid kit that I always keep it my vehicle. I then ran back down to suggest that because the car had just rolled several times and was sitting in very dry grass, everyone should move away from it, in case it caught fire. One of the paramedics said that was a good idea, he had not thought about that, so they moved her.

We still had a couple of hours drive, so when law enforcement and a fire truck showed up, I decided to leave. As we were leaving, the paramedics kept thanking me for the first aid kit. I assured them that this was why I always carried it. My wife later told me that they were asking if anyone had a first aid kit since they did not.

It was truly amazing how many people apparently believe that their obligation to stop, yet did nothing to help the situation, or failed to recognize the danger of remaining near the vehicle and had no first aid kit in their vehicles.

88 Jim June 5, 2013 at 4:09 pm

A lot of people equate the sheepdog with civil servants, notably police, firefighters, military, and the like.

The problem with the sheep/sheepdog/wolf analogy is that some sheep can very much take care of themselves and others, but without falling into the ‘sheepdog’ category. People don’t always fit into nice, clean boxes.

Rams have horns for a reason, and they should not be discounted. They might not actively seek out danger or confrontation (like those who identify as sheepdogs tend to do), but when push comes to shove, a sheep with the right tools can hold his weight and do his part for the good of the flock.

89 Rachel July 19, 2013 at 8:47 pm

Statistically speaking most people are sheep (duh, you already said that). I think the best way to become a sheepherder is to recognize that you are in fact a sheep, recognize the sheep behavior inducing situations as they come (start small so when the big decisions come you know what to do) and try to think differently, more like a sheepherder. I think it just takes time and practice but also recognizing your own limitations and working from there. In order to improve we have to recognize that an improvement needs to be made.

90 Jack July 31, 2013 at 8:19 pm

I enjoyed the article as it was well written. Seems so fatalistic for me to put stock into the theory. To group men into two categories with millions of possibilities seems as silly as the 5 temperaments. Well written and some valid points.

91 Christopher Neve August 1, 2013 at 10:39 am

It reminds me of once when I was walking out of school. Down the road, three young people (that didn’t look specially harmful, mind) were trying to get into a garage or something without the keys. It seemed weird to me, but my friends didn’t react, so I didn’t. It illustrates what you are saying perfectly.

Thanks for all your excellent articles, Brent.

92 Dom August 6, 2013 at 9:18 pm

Reading the comments I noticed the people claming to sheepdogs outnumbers the people admitting to be sheep by a fair margin. Now we could say that is typical male bravardo or people unwilling to accept who they are, but a thought occured to me;

What if the type of man who was drawn to actively seek out this style of website (all about manliness, man skills etc) has more sheepdog qualities than the everyman?

After all, all of the guys here will have found this website through their own interests and web searches or been told about it and thought ‘this seems like my sort of thing’. You could understand false boasts when in the presence of others but in a faceless comments section it raises the above question. Just my ramblings.

93 Bryan Sammis September 25, 2013 at 7:26 am

This article kind of supports what the late philosopher/comedian George Carlin once said:”The government doesn’t want people capable of critical thinking. It is against their interest. What they want is people smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. But dumb enough to pacively accept their situation.”

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