Let us start this post with a story or a tale I read years ago, but could not recall the source. The story is of course, a pure fabrication, told much like a parable or a fable. But it certainly tells volumes of one of worst propensities of humans since time immemorial.
It looks like it doesn’t matter who originally concocted this tale, but the message is just too important that it needs retelling here. The tale goes something like this.
Once upon a time, an oil prospector or oilman who passed away, stood at the gates of Heaven and came face to face with the great gatekeeper St. Peter.
The oilman then promptly asked St. Peter whether he could then enter heaven. St. Peter replied that the place reserved for oilmen is already overcrowded and there is no more room for him.
St. Peter then, suggested that the oil man linger at the gates for a while and wait, as there maybe some oilmen who may want to get out of Heaven to go somewhere else. Then, the great gatekeeper disappeared.
Well, the oilman, quick in his wits, thought that he may be able to play some tricks with those oilmen already inside and somehow induce some of them to leave and make way for him.
The oilman then shouted at the top of his voice, “Oil is discovered in hell.”
He waited, hoping the trick would work but nothing came out. He shouted again, “So much oil now gushing, biggest discovery… in hell”. He shouted again and again.
Then, suddenly, the oilman heard many thundering steps from inside the gates. Just as suddenly, the gates of Heaven opened wide and people rushed out in haste. They headed right to the opposite direction, the way to the gates of hell? They were oilmen already in Heaven but now wanted to go to hell.
And so, to make a long story short, the place for oilmen, which was crowded just a while ago, became almost empty.
St. Peter then reappeared and told the oilman, ”The place for oilmen is now almost empty. You can come in”.
The oilman, befuddled and shocked by the sudden unexpected turn of events, however, hesitated and looked at the multitude of oilmen rushing, the frontrunners now fast disappearing at a distance. The destination… hell, where oil has supposedly just been discovered.
Overtaken by the frenzy and the contagious rush of adrenaline and rekindling of desire for gain, the oilman muttered to himself, ”They may be right.”
And so the oilman, instead of entering the gates of Heaven, turned and rushed to the direction of the herd, hoping to catch up. Conveniently forgetting that the crap of oil being discovered in hell was his own fabrication.
The moral of the story is this: the herd mentality is very contagious. One can easily get sucked up in a maelstrom of emotions, get carried over and conveniently throw reason to the wind.
That the tale of oil discovered in hell was a pure concoction of the oilman and yet he got carried by the dynamics and emotions engendered, can teach us a lesson or two about human weakness.
It tells of the tendency of men to get deprived of reason and follow the herd, no matter how absurd or foolish. It tells us that herd mentality is a very strong and, at times, a seemingly overwhelming force that makes men so dumb and so idiotic.
Look at how supposed investors behaved as we told in a previous post, “The Curse of the Pyramids”. Read the Albanian episode again and see how folly can indeed grip an entire nation.
Note how the pyramiding mania became so irresistible that people even sold their own houses and livestock to invest in the scheme.
History is replete with such stories, and they just vary in degrees of madness and self-delusion.
Read about the “Tulip Mania”, the 4-year (1634-1637) strange craze where businessmen mortgaged houses and businesses to buy and grow tulips. And where tulip bulbs sold for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman (I think stories like this deserve a post or two, later in this blog).
Or the “South Sea Bubble” (1720) where practically a whole country went wild over stocks of a company called South Sea Company for its monopoly of purportedly extremely profitable trading activities in South America.
The extremely profitable trading activities turned out to be practically non-existent and the whole enterprise turned out to be nothing but a monumental exercise in both ineptitude and deception.
Considered as the most famous (or infamous) of the stock market bubbles of all time, the “South Sea Bubble” is reported to have ruined an entire generation of 18th century Britons.
Events like these are something that baffle even geniuses and, at times, even make victims of them.
The great physics genius Sir Isaac Newton is known to have lost a bundle in the South Sea Bubble.
Referring to his loss in South Sea Bubble, Newton said ”I can calculate the movement of the stars but not the madness of men”.
Well, there could be something so overpowering about “madness” to be able to trash even the brightest of minds.
If a genius like Newton can be taken for a ride in one of the grandest and most infamous of bubbles, how much more for us ordinary mortals.
And, of course, we need not go far in history. Read about the subprime crisis and how it unfolded. You will readily see the same patterns, or as computer jargon puts it, the same “template”.
Of course, the process was more sophisticated and relatively longer-running, but no less-characterized by madness.
Reasonable people get caught up in the contagious dynamics and emotions generated. They lose their “reasonableness” and join the herd. Thinking men get reduced to the level of the unthinking lemmings.
Practically the same phenomenon and the same script, this time played by different players. Different times, similar results… varying degrees of madness.
The script gets played over and over, one may wonder if humans ever really learn.
Well, if there is one point we cannot emphasize enough here, it is this:
”Beware and be very fearful of herds. Herds can readily trash reason and reduce reasonable men to extreme idiocy.”