Merriam-Webster defines the term as “people who are docile, compliant, or easily influenced: people likened to sheep“. They follow authority blindly like the children led by the pied piper of Hamelin who followed him to a cave to never be seen again. The term highlights the passive herd behavior of people easily controlled by a governing power which likens them to sheep, a herd animal that is easily led about. The term is used to describe those who voluntarily acquiesce to a suggestion without critical analysis or research in large part because the majority of others possess a similar mindset. Word Spy defines it as “people who are meek, easily persuaded, and tend to follow the crowd (sheep + people).”
While its origins are unclear, the word was used by W. R. Anderson in his column Round About Radio, published in London 1945, where he wrote:
“The simple truth is that you can get away with anything, in government. That covers almost all the evils of the time. Once in, nobody, apparently, can turn you out. The People, as ever (I spell it ‘Sheeple’), will stand anything.
Another early use was from Ernest Rogers, whose 1949 book The Old Hokum Bucket contained a chapter entitled “We the Sheeple.” The Wall Street Journal first reported the label in print in 1984; the reporter heard the word used by the proprietor of the American Opinion bookstore.
The term can also be used for those who seem inordinately tolerant, or welcoming, of what can be perceived as governmental overreach. In a column entitled “A Nation of Sheeple“, columnist Walter E. Williams writes, “Americans sheepishly accepted all sorts of Transportation Security Administration nonsense. In the name of security, we’ve allowed fingernail clippers, eyeglass screwdrivers, and toy soldiers to be taken from us prior to boarding a plane. (Source: Wikipedia)
This effect is evident when people do what others are doing instead of using their own information or making independent decisions. The idea of herding has a long history in philosophy and crowd psychology. It is particularly relevant in the domain of finance, where it has been discussed in relation to the collective irrationality of investors, including stock market bubbles (Banerjee, 1992). In other areas of decision making, such as politics, science, and popular culture, herd behavior is sometimes referred to as ‘information cascades’ (Bikhchandi et al., 1992). Herding behavior can be increased by various factors, such as fear (e.g. Economou et al., 2018), uncertainty (e.g. Lin, 2018), or a shared identity of decision makers (e.g. Berger et al., 2018).