Herd Mentality – The Good from The Bad
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Herd Mentality – The Good from The Bad

Ever wondered why your brain wants you to follow the crowd? Studies have proven that we have a natural desire to be part of the ‘in crowd’ and this can lead us to make decisions that could be damaging. When the herd mentality sets in, it means that people can be influenced by the “herd” to act in ways that are mainly emotional, rather than rational.

In 2014, the University of Exeter led a research team who showed that individuals have evolved in such a way that they can be unduly influenced by those around them—even to the extent that they mistrust their own instincts, to their detriment. For this reason, groups are often less able to adapt to changes in their environment.

The team responsible for the research included academics from Princeton University, both Sorbonne universities, and the Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (INRIA) in France. Their focus was on how the use of social information has evolved within animal groups and, through the use of mathematical models, they managed to show that individuals are too dependent on social information, resulting in the fact that they evolve in such a way that they are too open to influence from others. The team’s viewpoint is that this is caused by a “classic evolutionary conflict between individual and collective interest.”

Dr Torney, lead author of the report, said: “Our results suggest we shouldn’t expect social groups in nature to respond effectively to changing environments. Individuals that spend too much time copying their neighbours is likely to be the norm.”

Supporting this viewpoint, neuroscientist Michael Platt claims that this tendency to follow the herd emerges from our social brain networks. This claim is based on his own neuroscientific research on monkeys. The social brain network is what helps us to use information we gather from those around us in such a way that we are able to learn and to adapt to our environment. It also helps us learn how to interact with others and decide how to behave in relation to them. This kind of information is often beneficial to us, but there are times when it is not. Following the herd might lead animals to water but, in the context of the stock market, for instance, it might lead humans to bad decisions, especially if they are caught in bubble market. Bubble markets occur when irrational buying takes place and there is a surge as a result of buying for the sake of buying. Another name for this is ‘speculation.’

It’s not easy to know when you are caught up in herd mentality and so Platt’s advice for someone who is caught up in the enthusiasm of a surge in speculative buying, for instance, is to slow down and not base their decisions on impulses. Wait until you have more evidence and rather base your decision on that.

In South Africa, during these times of increased strife, risk, and disillusionment, we must dig deep and find it within ourselves to draw boundaries that we will not cross even if others do.

We have had to deal with controversial deliberations over restrictions on movement, gatherings, business, schooling and travel, and the debates regarding the policies around these matters have sometimes descended into low levels of civility and have caused a great deal of stress. On social networks, in the press, out on the streets, around the water cooler and at our family tables, people are at odds with one another. The atmosphere is filled with despair and anger at one policy decision or another, or at the behavior and words of this or that public figure. The divisions between us have grown, and we find ourselves looking into an ever-widening abyss.

We must, at times like this, be very aware of this somewhat genetic herd mentality which draws on the irrational and emotional aspects of our natures. We, as South Africans, have successfully navigated many difficult situations, and we can do it again. We need to heed Platts’ advice and think before drawing on the “wisdom of crowds.”

We need to pause before making impulsive decisions and ask ourselves pertinent questions to keep ourselves from stepping over that moral line which we know, instinctively, to be wrong. 

As Platt says, “If we could slow people down, that would allow more evidence to accumulate, and they’re more likely to make a better decision.” Poet Archibald MacLeish echoed this idea when he said, “The dissenter is every human being at those moments of his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself.”

Our ability to learn from others, and our concomitant tendency to be influenced by them, is a mechanism, driven by evolution, that has helped us survive and has contributed to our adaptive success on the earth. After all, we are one of the most socially interdependent species on the earth.  Even so, these adaptive tools can cause serious errors of judgement in today’s modern environments, where the connectivity between individuals is far more prevalent, as compared to the ancient environments in which the human mind evolved.  

The author, Charles Mackay, was clearly aware of this dangerous tendency when he said, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”