Outside the Herd

3 06 2012

Herd of walrus – photo courtesy John Sarvis, US Fish and Wildlife Service

So you think you are an individual? A free-thinker, unfettered by peer-pressure, doing what you want, going where you want, thinking original and uninfluenced thoughts? Dream on.

Humans, like many other animals, travel in herds – physically, intellectually, emotionally and, dare I say it, spiritually. We might like to think we are individuals, but in practice we don’t like to be too far from the norm. So what is the evolutionary benefit of herding?

The theory used to be that animals hung around in herds because they liked the company. WRONG!

Herding turns out to be a rather unfriendly thing to do…. Animals hang around in herds in the hope that their friends will be eaten instead of them. So long as you can be towards the middle of the herd and not on the outside, your chances of survival increase dramatically. Predators might pick off the old, the weak and the young…..but they also pick them off from the outskirts of the herd. If you are going to dash through crocodile-infested waters, best to be one of hundreds splashing about rather than the only one attempting the crossing.

Herd behaviour, as a theory, looks at how groups of individuals act together in a cohesive and seeming planned way, although each individual thinks they are behaving in their own personal interest and without influence. While each individual thinks they are making their own decisions, in an inter-related world (or market-place) where the decisions of one affects the outcomes for others, we take heed of the decisions of others when making our own decisions. And hence the herd seems to make a collective decision and act in concert.

Most obvious examples:
stockmarket fluctuations, bubbles, panics and crashes. No-one wants to be the last person holding the stock in a panic-selling situation.

fashion. We each think we are buying what we like and what suits us but somehow we seem to end up looking somewhat similar. Of course the additional outside influence here is what is offered for sale.

panicked mobs. Crowds trying to exit from a dangerous situation through a narrow exit behave increasingly irrationally, blocking exits rather than allowing each to exit safely.

rioting mobs. Herding behaviour is one of several theories about how a generally orderly society can occasionally break out into mob violence, with individuals doing violent and criminal acts that they would never normally contemplate. The current environment is factored into decision-making and in a riot, people behave like rioters.

Or as my grandmother would have it, Monkey see, Monkey do.

Want more? Try What is the psychology behind rioting