Why It’s So Hard to Go against the Grain?

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Sometimes we do something just because everyone else around us is doing it. We buy a new video game because our friends are obsessed with it or we make a TikTok account to make sure we understand our classmates’ references. Or we suffer through a dull, drawn-out movie that everyone else, of course, has already seen and loved. What is this strange force that makes us copy the actions of those around us?

Legendary Foolishness

Till Eulenspiegel is the protagonist of many medieval Dutch and German legends, a vagrant and trickster. In one such tale, Till presents himself as a painter and, for a substantial reward, says that he will depict a Count surrounded by his fellow noblemen. The Count promises to execute the hero if he in any way distorts reality, while the noblemen threaten to kill him if he doesn’t make them look good.

Of course, the jolly Eulenspiegel isn’t fond of either option. Instead, he decides to cheat — he spends all the time he is supposed to be working by going to feasts and parties, enjoying the Count’s luxurious castle. On the appointed day, Till gathers all the tale’s heroes together to show them his creation. He points at a blank wall and declares that it contains a magical painting that can only be seen by legitimate members of the noble bloodline.

Everyone pretends as though they can see the painting perfectly well, and they begin to discuss their portraits. In reality, however, the Count and his company only see a whitewashed wall and are very upset about it. Only the Count’s jester, habitually regarded as a fool by society, frankly admits that he sees no painting at all. Still, Eulenspiegel manages to disappear together with the money he’d been paid by the Count.

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