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Posted on 31 July 2020

The perils of following the herd instinct

Photo: Carmem L Vilanova

When it comes to making decisions, choosing what’s important, or thinking about the world in general, it appears that many people are close to imitating sheep, following wherever the herd leads. If this seems harsh, consider the impact of fashion or following ‘industry best practice’ — both ways of choosing based entirely on doing whatever a chosen comparison group is said to be doing. Or think about the current problems with credit and mortgages. How many people made careful, fully conscious decisions about what debt they could handle or which types of credit were correct for them? How many jumped into the market because “everyone else is doing it” and the media was filled with stories about how to make mega-bucks on ’sure-fire’ investing in housing?

The most powerful weapon in the armory of the salesperson, scrupulous or not, is often that same appeal to fashion and conformity. Everyone else (or at least all the ‘right’ people) are doing it. You don’t want to be left out, do you? You don’t want others to look down on you because you didn’t have the courage, or sense, to get on board?

Maybe it’s time to take a hard look at the problems, as well as the upside, of being ‘part of the in-crowd’ and allowing group norms to override your own instincts and concerns.

The herd instinct

Human beings are social animals. Although we like to think of ourselves as beings of reason and logic, possessed of common sense and a reasonable level of intelligence, many feel uneasy when they are out on a limb, separated from the comfort of knowing others are supporting them — at least in theory. When things go wildly and predictably wrong, we say to ourselves, “Surely people can’t be that dumb!” Yet every day they are. Only when their behavior is viewed as emanating from the herd instinct, can things can be explained and understood.

Whenever people are behaving far below their capacity to reason, you have to conclude that there are other factors that are dominant. Humans collectively have a lot of bad beliefs and assumptions in their heads, placed there by cultural and tribal forces and ancient survival instincts. We’re prone to going along with even quite doubtful beliefs in order to get along with others. As herd (social) animals, many of us become fearful at the thought of being alone, ejected from that comforting mass of our fellows. A true herd animal alone is probably a dead animal. It cannot survive without others of its kind. Something of that ancient survival reasoning still lurks in the human brain.

We are more affected by what we think everyone else is doing that we think, even in small things. Consider this piece of research reported in Live Science:

Cialdini [the researcher] and his colleagues surveyed nearly 2,500 California residents and offered three main motivational reasons for household conservation: protecting the environment, being responsible citizens and saving on energy costs.

[People] gave the lowest rating to “because neighbors are doing it.” But this factor showed the greatest correlation with reported energy conservation, Cialdini said. “They were fooling themselves. What their neighbors were doing turned out to be a powerful message.”

Even in a trivial matter like bath towel reuse in upscale hotel rooms, cards stating that the majority of hotel guests reused their towels increased towel reuse by 28% over cards with environmental or energy-saving messages.

And lest you think similar herd reasoning doesn’t apply in truly important issues, an article published in April 1994 in The Canadian Family Physician by the Medical Director of the Nova Scotia Environmental Medicine Clinic states:

As a consequence of the herd instinct in medicine, there arises another phenomenon that is very much akin . . . Some would call it medical McCarthyism, which occurs when a physician from within the herd is perceived as too closely aligned with opinions held outside the herd.

Such a person might also be labeled a maverick and then suffer the consequences of scorn, ostracism, and sometimes even legal action, depending on the nature of his or her opinion or practice. Should such a maverick express an opinion publicly, he or she risks being black-listed and labeled biased. Thereafter, his or her objectivity and scientific credibility is called into question in spite of previous academic or other credentials.

Avoiding personal responsibility

John Stuart Mill thought that the very worst kind of tyranny is that imposed by societies on their members. They are tyrannies of the mind as well as the body. A human dictator may be able to impose external conformity. Society’s beliefs demand mental conformity as well. Let anyone show ‘incorrect thinking’ and they risk being branded as a weirdo, a deviant, or a loner and ostracized or persecuted.

If that’s the down side, the upside, of course, is the freedom this gives people from accepting personal responsibility. If you do what everyone else does, you are playing for safety in numbers. You won’t be the one singled out for blame or criticism.

Still, even this safety comes with a price: the loss of creativity and an inability to change as circumstances change. Rigid, conformist thinking eventually produces disaster as it becomes more and more detached from reality. The tribe may define ‘truth’, but even it has no way of making its ‘truth’ real.

Why strive to think independently?

In order to be a member of a herd, each member has to surrender control of part or most of their thinking and decision-making processes to the group. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his book ‘Self Reliance’, wrote:

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue most in request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and custom.

René Descartes, writing in the 17th century, said that:

“We ought never to allow ourselves to be persuaded of the truth of anything unless on the evidence of our reason”

Too many of the collective norms and beliefs of any culture are emotionally held, not logically tested. Many are imposed (and enforced) from our infancy. We are used to them and, like all social animals, tend to fear exclusion from the safety of the herd if we dare to behave differently or challenge accepted standards.

Why aren’t social norms to be trusted?

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that many minds reach better conclusions than one person thinking alone. Can the deeply felt and widely shared beliefs and assumptions of a whole society really be wrong? Can one person know better than millions?

Indeed they can — and very often do. Look at the nonsenses of strict Communism; the way that women are regarded and treated in many Islamic societies; even some of the beliefs that Christian fundamentalists would impose on the rest of us — if they could — regarding homosexuality. None of these are rational. All depend either on dogma, some assumed revelation, tribal wisdom from a past more different to today than we are from Stone Age people, or an emotional desire to defend ‘the way it has always been’ against changes that might shift power away from those currently in charge.

As H.L. Menken wrote:

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. Crowds, properly worked up by skillful demagogues, are ready to believe anything, and to do anything.”

In the aftermath of Hitler, Pol Pot and a half century of genocides around the world, can anyone disagree?

The perils of fitting in

Fitting in is the very opposite of authenticity. It’s pretending to be or think or believe something, purely to be accepted by others. It’s denying your true self and taking on a false persona that others will find reassuring. Even Henry Miller wrote:

“As I look back on my life it seems to me that I never did anything of my own volition but always through the pressure of others. People often think of me as an adventurous fellow; nothing could be farther from the truth. My adventures were always adventitious, always thrust on me, always endured rather than undertaken.”

Which is of greater value: a clone or an individual? The answer, of course, depends on your perspective. Those seeking to manipulate people, whether to buy a product or vote in a particular way, will choose the clone. If you believe that the future of our society and institutions depends on continuing creativity and change, brought about by rational thought, you will choose the individual. Fitting in is being like everyone else. Being authentic runs the risk of showing up as different, which is why it scares so many people.

Why does all this matter to leaders?

It matters because all herd thinking is ultimately a loss of human freedom and creativity. If we value truth over imposed beliefs and outdated fashions, we cannot ‘go along to get along’ simply to avoid social ostracism. Leaders bear a specially heavy responsibility in this area. As people chosen or appointed to guide and direct the behavior of others, they can either exercise their power to the best of their personal ability and judgment, or use it blindly in the service of the status quo. You can hardly call yourself a leader if all you do is follow the herd.

Listen to Dr. Albert Schweitzer:

“The renewal of civilization has nothing to do with movements which bear the character of experiences of the crowd; these are never anything but reactions to external happenings. But civilization can only revive when there shall come into being in a number of individuals a new tone of mind independent of the one prevalent among the crowd and in opposition to it, a tone of mind which will gradually win influence over the collective one, and in the end determine its character. It is only an ethical movement which can rescue us from the slough of barbarism, and the ethical comes into existence only in individuals…”

“The ethical comes into existence only in individuals.” That is the nub of the problem with following the herd. Ethics is not a set of beliefs. It is an objective inquiry into the reality of circumstances and the impact of various actions on other people. The morality of the herd is always based on dogma. Only that of the individual can come from ethical inquiry.

By being authentic to our individual natures and thoughts, some of us may lose a degree of safety; but we all stand to win back our humanity and freedom.

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This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 257 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

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2 Comments For This Post

  1. Scott says:

    People are generally followers. In “The leadership Challenge” a case where a racial incident happened on a college campus. In their research that had asked fellow students how they felt about the racial attack. The researchers “plant” would come up are respond “He must have done something to deserve it!” - the students would echo the same sentiment. In the same experiment, they flipped the “plant’s” response to state “That shouldn’t happen on THIS campus and we should do something about it so that doesn’t happen again!” The other students followed suite - following the “plant’s” lead.

  2. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for your comment, Scott.

    The power of wanting to fit in is very strong, as is the fear of being excluded as an ‘oddball’, Still, that shouldn’t always mean we have to go along with everyone else, especially if they’re doing something silly.

    Keep reading, my friend.

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