In Philip Zimbardo’s writings about avoiding corruption in organizations, he warns, “Be aware of the roots of compliance and persuasion: reciprocity, commitment, majority conduct, authority, liking, and perceived scarcity/need. Know why you are being persuaded.” Rationalization #67 on the list, reaching the landmark of ninety rationalizations in total, addresses the commitment and majority conduct arguments for following the crowd even when the crowd is wrong.
The Herd’s Excuse is an inverted #1, “Everybody Does It.” That most popular of all rationalizations holds that what everyone does is ethical because “everyone” does it. The Herd’s Excuse argues that what would normally be wrong becomes right when the group endorses it uniformly. This is sinister. A protesting group member gets extorted into following a group course of action that he or she had legitimately identified as wrong by being told that withholding participation, endorsement and approval is not only a betrayal, but conduct that sabotages what would become rightful as long as the group is united and of one mind.
The use of this peer pressure as emotional blackmail to keep followers in line is a weaponized tool of unscrupulous leaders, ethics corrupters, cultists and authoritarians. It is the false and sometimes deadly logic that has led to some of history’s worst disasters, closely related to magical thinking. If we all commit to this, we cannot fail. The group cannot be denied.
In such situations, it is essential that those who know that the planned or proposed action is wrong form a different group. Togetherness, in such situations, is no longer a virtue.