“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford.
Perhaps it would be rash to open by bringing to the fore the likelihood that the above statement is apocryphal and may have been in fact spuriously ascribed to Mr. Ford. For there is no real evidence that Mr. Ford ever uttered or wrote the words. Too late.
The foremost connection dates back to 1999 when John McNeece, a cruise ship designer, who, making a case against the reliability of finding what people truly want by directly asking them, remarked “If Henry Ford canvassed people on whether or not he should build a motor car, they’d probably tell him what they really wanted was a faster horse.” It is easy to see why the quote could easily be misattributed to a man who made such remarkable strides. Or how much further it sails on the back of this famous man, than from the mouth of any obscure fellow. We bestow importance on the words of important men.
But you ask, what does any of it matter? It’s still a darn good quote, you say. I, however, enjoin you to hold your horses (no pun intended). From the statement two truths stand out, irrespective of its origin.
The first truth is that people at their core are afraid of change. Real change. Or more precisely, that we fear the unknown. Such that any deviation from the normal sets alarm bells off inside our heads. It is an evolutionary instinct that tells us to resist change so as to always feel in control. It is so hardwired within us that in extreme, almost pathological cases, metathesiophobia (for that is what it is called), thought of change, or of adapting to a new way of life or a new environment leads to full blown anxiety or panic attacks.
It matters little if the change is positive. Change in all its forms triggers stress. Take for instance, the anxiety of moving to the new city when you get the job promotion or college admission. We see the same thing played out on every child’s first day of school, when they are unceremoniously, albeit necessarily, thrown from the comfort of their home and familiar faces into a strange, bustling world. This old saying then comes to mind: “the enemy of the best is the good in our hands.” Consequently, we can attempt to understand why the audience to which the question is posed would want more of the same, perhaps just better.
The second and more worrying truth, however, lies in the statement itself. Or perhaps in the fact that we mindlessly choose to believe in its supposed origin without any verification. We tell ourselves, if everyone believes he said it then he must have. Oxford dictionary calls it ‘Herd Mentality’ and defines it as “the tendency for people’s behavior or beliefs to conform to those of the group to which they belong”. Psychologist Robert Cialdini calls it the ‘principle of consensus’. He explains that the measure through which we find out if something is right or not is by finding out what others judge to be right or wrong. Therefore, the bigger the number of people that buy into the idea, the more optimal the idea seems. For instance, when you move to a new city and decide to eat out, you might come upon two restaurants staring at each other from opposite sides of a street that are seemingly identical, except for one difference. One is packed with people, while the other is packed with empty tables. Which do you immediately judge to be the finer restaurant then? And which do you consequently walk into?
Cialdini further asserts that we exist in a highly complicated stimulus environment. As such we can’t be expected to analyze every situation and choice that we encounter each day. This would be too energy- and time-consuming. We need shortcuts. Hence, we often resort to rule of thumbs and mindless cues. Ordinarily following these cues prevents us from making mistakes. Usually when a lot of people are doing or thinking the same thing, it is the right thing. We can even argue that it is an animalistic, primordial survival trait. Animals move in packs. When they stand out, they are often more easily identified and targeted by predators. It is important to state that herd mentality results from fear more often than from rational decisions. We are programmed to connect socially, and those that stand alone suffer from psychological consequences.
One of the brain’s most successful survival techniques therefore is to desire safety in numbers. Except this method has one flaw. One that viciously attacks a core component of any society’s structure. The lack of which is of great detriment to any civilization. That is divergent and critical thinking. Many definitions abound, but one that stands out to me is this: ‘Critical thinking is thinking about one’s thinking in a manner designed to organize and clarify, raise the efficiency of and recognize errors and biases in one’s own thinking’. We should note that critical thinking concerns how to think and not what to think. It is more than being a passive recipient of information. It goes without saying that the dangers of the absence or paucity of critical thinking in any society are enormous. As Benjamin Franklin said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.” Every meagre or quantum leap man has experienced or birthed has come from a place of curiosity, inquisition and disruption. But the thing is, disruption requires confrontation. Not just with the norm or status quo around us, but also with something deep inside us. Something that has been our solace and guide for so long. An instinct that has helped us tell right from wrong.
Every inventor or innovator (for that is what we all in our own way must be) must therefore first war in himself to break free from the shackles of ‘mob-thinking’ and the safety of the known and generally acceptable. This is a fight we must all win. As such, pioneers of such movements as ‘black lives matter’, and those for gender equality, and LGBTQ rights should be encouraged. Anyone willing to lift their heads above the crowd is often worthy of a crown. We could then start with a thorough revision or even an overhaul of our existing educational protocols and curricula which has all but left no room for divergent reasoning where, in order to pass, students must memorize and regurgitate a set of facts and figures fed down their throats. Or we can move to social media, where we must vehemently speak out against cyber bullying, where contrary opinions are viciously castigated and where influencers should be made to understand that influencing should not be defined as people striving to be like them.
Summarily, Mr. Ford’s supposed statement may have been befitting of his time, but it is even more so now because it sings a warning to us. It warns that we must all come to a realization that it is not just our right but our responsibility to think. We must resist the urge to look, appear, and think the same way. There is beauty in our diversity. In this light, we must be true custodians of the sanctity and uniqueness of our thoughts. The sustenance of the human race as we know it may be dependent on this.