In 1789, Benjamin Franklin famously observed, “…In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Franklin was born a couple of centuries too early to enjoy the commercial airline experience so he can hardly be faulted for failing to note a third certainty in this world: people queuing up in the aisles the instant an aircraft lands.

Anyone who has ever been on a domestic flight in India is likely to be familiar with this aeronautical phenomenon. It plays out like clockwork every time. The jolt from the wheels thudding onto the ground is immediately followed by the chirruping of mobile phones coming back to life – when it’s an evening flight, the dark cabin is instantly bathed in the dim, eerie glow of a hundred phone screens.) As the plane taxies down the runway, its human cargo stirs.

Among the passengers, there are always a dozen or so clairvoyants who possess a telepathic connection with the wheels of the craft. The very second the wheels roll to a stop, they spring out of their seats with an agility that would put gymnasts to shame. The rest of the occupants hasten to follow their lead, and soon, the aisle is flooded with a jostling mass of people going nowhere. Those who cannot infiltrate the aisle feel impelled to stand at their seats, their heads tilted into awkward angles by the overhead bins.

The crew implores everyone to remain seated until the doors open but their request bounces off the unrelenting human wall. Things stand at this uncomfortable impasse for many minutes.

If you are a renegade who refuses to stand, then occupying the middle or aisle seats is a hazardous affair: it turns you into an obstacle that must be hurdled. It can earn you nasty glares, elbows in the face and stomped-on toes. Yet, as someone who sticks to their principles, you ignore the violence and remain in your seat as this drama unfolds around you. Perhaps you wonder, why do seemingly rational individuals often act in such irrational ways?

This is not to suggest that standing in an aircraft while waiting to disembark is always irrational. Some may be nervous flyers and standing up can help soothe their nerves. Others may have a connecting flight and would naturally be anxious to hasten their exit. The actions of such people are motivated by some form of logic.

But probability dictates that the number of flight-fearers and flight-hoppers in a group of random travellers will almost never be the majority. Hence, these justifications cannot apply to everyone who shuffles in the aisles while the aircraft doors remain resolutely locked. Instead, there has to be another explanation that helps makes sense of the herd-like conduct of the group.

In the 1950s, the psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments to understand how social pressure can influence the behaviour of an individual. In the most famous of these experiments, he asked a group of college students to compare the length of lines drawn on a pair of cards, over multiple tests.

In each test group, there was only one genuine participant and the others were instructed to unanimously give a wrong answer in some of the tests. The purpose of these tests was to determine if the genuine participant – who was the last to be questioned – would go along with the incorrect majority response, even when the right answer was obvious.

Asch found that about one-third of the participants conformed with the erroneous majority on the trials. In the control group, where there was no pressure to conform to a majority response, less than 1% of the participants chose the wrong answer.

The Asch conformity experiments have been criticised on a variety of grounds, such as, the choice of subjects, limited applicability to real-life scenarios, and so on. Nevertheless, the underlying thesis – that people have an innate tendency to follow the crowd, rather than thinking independently – has been reiterated in later studies. Indeed, if one looks closely, the myriad ways in which this herding instinct governs our actions becomes clear.

It can way investor behaviour, causing stock bubbles, market rallies and increased volatility. It can tempt you into buying cryptocurrency and NFTs. It can even make you participate in social media fads where you reveal pictures of your gnomish, teenaged self that nobody should have to see.

Academics offer many theories to explain why we are so happy to fall in with – and thereby, perpetuate – a prevailing trend. A feeling of uncertainty can, for instance, nudge someone into embracing a popular belief. Often, they act on the (flawed) assumption that other people are more knowledgeable or have more information than them. Another reason, unsurprisingly, is peer pressure.

The legendary economist, John Maynard Keynes, had once observed that failing conventionally is less damaging to one’s reputation than succeeding unconventionally. It is this need for social acceptance that incentivises people to stick to the norm, even when the norm is sub-optimal.

Evolution, according to experts, must also shoulder a part of the blame. In the era of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors relied on strong social bonds and collective action to survive in the wilderness. Following the crowd was, quite literally, a matter of life and death. The herding mentality was an imperative need that was conditioned into human behaviour over millennia. Now, it lingers in our consciousness as the default setting – often blinding us to the right choice.

We can only overcome it if we train ourselves to resist the instinctive pull to blindly follow the herd – to pause and evaluate each situation, then make choices dictated by our own reasoning. There is a dire need to embrace rationality and commit to independent thinking. Because the herd mentality may have ensured sustenance and safety once upon a time, but now, it is making deboarding from aircrafts a damn nuisance.

Rohan Banerjee is a lawyer in Mumbai.