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How To Identify, Understand & Avoid Herd Mentality

Herd mentality can be found throughout society, as well as amongst animals. This evolutionary tool has helped mammals survive dangerous situations by running and hiding from the same threat, to remain in social packs, and to get along in groups.

However, this phenomenon is not always positive, and by understanding it and knowing how to recognize it, you can mitigate its effects. Not only are you able to avoid herd mentality, you can also disrupt its patterns amongst groups in everyday scenarios.

What Is Herd Mentality?

Herd mentality is the inclination for individuals within a group to follow along with what the group at large thinks or does. It is also known as mob behavior, group mind, group think, crowd psychology, and other similar terms.

Every child is familiar with the idea of herd mentality thanks to the age-old question from their parents: "If Johnny jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?"

Typically, her mentality refers to an emotional level of influence, rather than a rational one, which often leads to poor decisions compared with what the individual would have done without outside influence.

This concept is therefore used to explain why a group of people (or animals, in fact) generally behave differently to an individual.

Common Examples Of Herd Mentality

For example, herd mentality is often seen in the stock market.

One of the latest hot topics on the market has been the booming cannabis industry, and in late 2018, few companies saw growth quite like US-based pharmaceutical group TILRAY. After opening in July 2018 at $17 per share, stock soared in September to over $300 per share, before quickly dropping down again to $150 per share within the space of weeks.

In instances such as the TILRAY example, the group of investors push the prices up by all jumping on board at the same time, yet these prices can just as easily ‘burst' or collapse when the tide starts to turn amongst the group, and everyone sells their investments again.

It's also easy to find examples of herd mentality in school groups, given the complex social networks that exist within middle and high schools, and how easily influenced young people often are by their peers. Take, for example, the trend of fidget spinners. A simple (and frankly rather boring) toy, originally designed to help students struggling to focus, became a nationwide obsession. It wasn't because fidget spinners were the best toy ever invented—-it was because once a few kids had them, everyone wanted one.

Generally speaking, group decisions like these lack the creativity and accuracy that might otherwise be found in an individual's decision making. Instead of a child being creative and choosing their own toy, or an investor being accurate and researching the market before making an investment, humans are more likely go simply go with the crowd—-even if it's not objectively the best or wisest decision.

Many psychologists and researchers have taken interest in the subject, which has resulted in a wealth of fascinating studies and papers.

In one widely referenced study by Professor Jens Krause at the University of Leeds, researchers told 200 people to hang around a hall. They were told not to talk to one another, or even make gestures, ensuring there was minimal communication between individuals. Researchers then gave just 10 people from the group directions on where to walk, and found that the rest quickly followed suit. As a result, the study states that it takes just 5 percent of a crowd to influence the rest.

The clear question is: Why do humans and animals alike largely follow the crowd rather than go their own way?

Why Does Pack Mentality Occur?

To truly understand herd mentality, we need to go back—-way back—-in human history. Humans evolved over millions of years, and throughout this time, herd mentality was largely a force for good.

If everyone in a gully started sprinting in one direction, it may have been best to assume danger lurked at the opposite end, and joining the pack would lead to safety. If everyone avoided eating a certain plant, it could be in an individual's interest to avoid that particular herb and therefore avoid being poisoned. If everyone in a group agreed and got along, those in the group might be more inclined to trust one another, cooperate, learn from one another, and share resources.

Some studies therefore suggest that humans are simply programmed for herd mentality. However, over time, herd mentality has become less necessary for basic human survival. Discounting rare situations in the first world, humans no longer need to run from danger, or share their knowledge and resources to ensure the survival of their social groups.

That said, the instinct is still there, and herd mentality can still have its uses and reasons.

  • People are naturally inclined to want to feel socially included and accepted, and the simplest way of doing this is to follow along with others.
  • Becoming part of the pack can be more common for those with weak or non-existent friendships or familial ties. Without strong existing bonds, an individual may be even more likely to seek the social acceptance of a group, and therefore gravitate more strongly to groupthink situations.
  • It's also easy for an individual to simply take part as an automatic response. Rather than thinking carefully about a decision, they might take the easy route and follow others. This is usually more common when a person is tired, stressed, or otherwise distracted, and doesn't want to expend further mental energy on a decision that others have already made.
  • A person can question their own thoughts, and lose trust in their instincts, when countless other people are doing the opposite. For example, if you are on a road trip and everyone else in the car believes the correct direction is to take the next left, even though you think the correct direction is right, you may question your own judgement as everyone around you disagrees.
  • Mob mentality can also happen when the individual doesn't feel strongly either way. Imagine an individual who is interested in seeing a movie, and must choose between the latest Spiderman flick, or the new Rocketman biopic. If the group the individual is going with is only interested in watching Spiderman, it becomes an easy choice for the individual, as they would be happy with either movie.

Whether an individual is influenced by the pack can come down to safety, social inclusion, lack of trust in oneself, distraction, or indifference, the result of mob mentality can be negative.

The Trouble With Herd Mentality

Crowd psychology is as human as hitting the snooze button and as unavoidable as taxes, and the results are often negative.

Social groups do not tend to respond well in changing environments, as individuals within that group are too preoccupied with following everyone else to make their own informed and considered opinions. This is generally true even when the group contains individuals who would otherwise make well-reasoned choices on their own.

That's why groups will generally make poor decisions, while individuals can make much better ones. It's also a key reason why groups almost always function best with a clear leader who can make informed decisions on behalf of the group.

In the early 1990s, British woman Joanne Rowling began working on a novel about a boy wizard. After initially struggling considerably in finding a publisher (and famously only landed a contract with Bloomsbury when the editor's young daughter read some of the work), Rowling was told that even with the contract, she should still find a day job. They told her that no one makes any money selling children's books.

Rowling went on to become the first female author to become a billionaire through book sales. Fortunately for children everywhere (and countless adults), Rowling didn't do as other authors did, nor did she turn to what publishing houses thought the market wanted. She was the individual amongst many, and the world should thank her for it.

In more serious scenarios, not listening to the individual amongst a crowd can lead to greater repercussions than missing out on a great novel series.

Historically, the Salem Witch Trials are one of the most notable cases of herd mentality known to man. In 1692, 19 people were hanged in a frenzy of accusations, and more than 100 were imprisoned and trailed for their suspected involvement with witchcraft. All it took was two young girls to experience fits and screaming outbursts for the collective finger to be pointed at individuals amongst the Salem community, and as the hysteria grew, it became harder to stop the avalanche of suspicion and allegations.

In fact, Cotton Mather, a well-respected minister, tried to warn against the testimony of dreams and visions (rather than physical evidence of witchcraft), however his clear reasoning was largely ignored.

More recently, herd mentality can be seen in almost any major protest in the world. In late 2018, the ‘yellow vest' protests raged throughout France, and what was initially a demonstration against the high costs of living quickly became a full-blown wave of destruction and anarchy.

Cars burned, historic monuments were damaged (notably a statue at the Arc de Triomphe), and more than an estimated €170 million of destruction was done even before the famed weekend of riots along the Champs Elysee, which damaged 91 luxury stores.

Considering that France and Paris are generally peaceful, and that individuals there are not known for their rampant destruction of their own national monuments, of others' vehicles, and of their neighborhoods, herd mentality is certainly to blame.

It took more than a few hands to carry out the massive destruction seen over the space of several weeks in France, and this damage is a powerful indicator of the current and negative qualities of mob mentality.

How To Recognize Herd Mentality Before Anyone Else

For a protestor to suddenly look around and find themselves amongst an angry mob of looting rioters, it's arguably easy for them to spot their situation as part of a ‘pack'. However, many people will experience a less aggressive form of herd mentality in day-to-day life, such as when deciding which phone brand to buy, which stock to invest in, or whether or not to share the now-infamous Kony 2012 video.

In these less clear situations, it's much harder for a raindrop to know that it's part of a flood, but there are signs to look for, so you can spot herd mentality as it happens - and potentially work to stop its negative elements from taking over.

Unanimity

The first and most obvious sign of herd mentality is when everyone in a group agrees completely. Humans are complex with a broad range of histories, opinions, experiences, and knowledge, which is why agreement between everyone in a group is quite rare—-unless you're experiencing herd mentality.

In the case of deciding on how to set up an office space, this form of unanimity is great. In the case of a group of workplace employees deciding a staff member should be fired for a transgression, this unanimity can be troublesome.

Discouraged dissent

In a reasonable adult discussion about any topic, dissent should at minimum receive respect. It is natural to disagree, and logical conversations will generally follow any disagreements to talk about the reasons behind the dissent.

However, in the case of group think, outspoken voices are often silenced. Dissent is so discouraged that opposing views are simply not heard, or else they're mocked and immediately shut down.

Not only does this stop individual thought in its tracks, it provides a powerful message for others who were considering offering their own dissenting views: Disagreement is not welcome here.

Lack of human decency

When you meet a new individual, whether that's at a bus stop or a job interview, it's usually more common to find decent people than obviously unscrupulous ones. It's rare to find someone who is openly racist, destructive, obusive, or displays other hateful and unwelcome traits.

Yet in a group setting, basic human decency can go out the window. Even in what begins as a peaceful protest can turn ugly with violence, looting, and willful destruction.

In the wake of the Californian wildfires of late 2018, dozens of people were arrested for looting evacuated homes in the area. While some looting following natural disasters is arguably for the sake of survival (think of families breaking into shops to take food after Hurricane Katrina), these groups were merely taking advantage of empty homes and a distracted crime force.

Disregard for your opinions

Should you find yourself in a group setting and share your own opinion or idea that goes against the grain, you should expect that the comment is heard and discussed.

Even if the consensus is that the idea is untenable or in some way flawed, it should at the very least warrant consideration from the group.

If you are unsure if you are in a herd mentality scenario, introduce a dissenting idea to the group and see how it is received as a litmus test to see how others react.

For example, if you are in a meeting at work discussing ways to cut the budget by 5%, and the group unanimously agrees the best way to do this is to switch to a cheaper supplier, try adding a new idea to the mix. Suggest skipping the Christmas party, cutting the annual round of bonuses, or moving to a cheaper office space. Even if your suggestion is clearly flawed, check to see if it is at least momentarily considered or discussed.

How Not To Get Caught Up With Mob Thinking

Herd mentality is, by its very nature, difficult to avoid. The very nature of humans is to want to fit in, so it is a genuine challenge to avoid being caught up amongst the flood.

There are ways to avoid these scenarios, to steer the group away from thinking as a pack, and to take the lead whenever you can.

Disengage autopilot

Autopilot is an easy mode to slip into, especially during long meetings and work days. This is when you start doing things without truly thinking, when you simply work through each moment by force of habit, rather and assessing and considering your actions as you would in a new or unfamiliar environment.

When you consciously switch out of this mode, you can force yourself to stop, take a moment, and seriously consider the situation.

Are you agreeing to plans simply because it is easy? Because it will help you get back to your work faster? Because it would be too much trouble to discuss the plan further?

Make the mental effort to question yourself and switch out of autopilot to avoid being caught in the rip tide of herd mentality.

Take your time

Should you find yourself in a leadership position, allow members in the group time to think about a decision or plan. If you are part of the group, ask for it.

Additional time will give you and others a chance to step away from the problem and reassess it without being surrounded by others. This allows for more deliberation, and for questions and dissenting views to be raised.

Ask a free thinker for their opinion

Many people will know a few freethinkers—-those who generally go against the grain of popular opinion as a matter of course. Whether or not they are involved in the situation, they can be useful tools for calculating whether the group think directive is unanimous because it is logical, or simply because it is popular.

Skeptics and radical thinkers can offer alternative views and are not afraid to speak out with a unique opinion.

Avoid making decisions when distracted

Being stressed, under pressure, or distracted in some way can lead to group think.

When your mind is elsewhere, it's that much easier to climb on the bandwagon with what others are saying and doing, as you are too busy thinking about other things.

Stress and distraction are part of life, so if you can defer the decision until a less stressful time, you may be able to allocate more mental capacity to the task at hand.

Dare to be different

Group mentality often happens simply because no one wants to be the odd one out.

When you put yourself out there and offer an opposing view, you can disrupt the feedback circle and force others to see a different perspective, and to signal to others that it's ok to add their own opinion as well.

How To Break Group Think

When you recognize a herd mentality scenario, there are steps you can take to break the thinking patterns of the pack and encourage more reasoning and individual thought.

Strengthen differing opinions

Start by encouraging new opinions from others. If someone speaks up, ask them to elaborate, bounce ideas off them, and give positive reinforcement through your words. Actively ask if anyone has any other comments or suggestions, and clearly state that you want to hear them even if they don't agree with the current consensus.

Naturally, you can also offer your own alternative ideas to help others see new ways of looking at a problem. If you're struggling to come up with your own ideas, see if you can spot potential issues with the group's way of thinking and point it out.

For example, if your workplace group has decided to invest in a new product launch, you don't necessarily have to come up with other product ideas to disrupt the group thinking. You can point out potential issues with the launch to ensure everyone is considering all angles and options before moving ahead.

Create a devil's advocate

You can also appoint yourself as the devil's advocate, or if you are in a leadership position, appoint someone else to play this role. This can help to ensure problems are discussed and accounted for early on in the planning stages.

Encourage anonymous feedback

If you are in a leadership position or have an ear with the leader of the group, create avenues for anonymous feedback and suggestions. This can ensure everyone is heard as they are not afraid of saying something completely opposite to what others are thinking. Additionally, this strategy may uncover themes that several are thinking of, but no one wants to say out loud.

Also keep in mind that in any group, there will always be those who are reticent about their thoughts. Even though they may have excellent ideas, you may need to single people out to hear them, as otherwise they may appear to go along with the group.

Create smaller herds

Another way to force free thinking is to break large groups into smaller groups. Each small group will still work on the same problem, but it can disrupt herd mentality thinking patterns and bring multiple ideas to the table when you rejoin as a large group, rather than just one.

Interrogate the consensus

You can also ask people in the group about why their reasoning for agreeing with the general consensus. When you put them on the spot, they may struggle to back up their arguments or offer their own thoughts on the matter, which can shine a light on the issue of herd mentality and create space to discuss it further and bring in new ideas.

Make more time

Asking for or creating more time to think over the issue can always help to give individuals a chance to mentally step away from the crowd and come up with their own opinions as well.

Add new group members

New group members may be more likely to bring fresh ideas to the table. This is often seen when a workplace hires a new manager who disrupts the status quo with unfamiliar ways of doing things and new ideas. Any manager in this situation knows to treat lightly if they want to implement different policies, and this is often because the ‘herd' has been doing things the same way for so long, that they are quick to shut down alternative possibilities (especially from someone outside of the pack).

The Argument For Herd Mentality

Everything considered, herd mentality is usually a force for the negative, but there are times when it can produce positive results.

This is situations when people come together for a common goal despite vast differences in everything from age and gender to culture, geographical location, religious views, industries, and life experience.

For example, even though the Hong Kong protests of June 2019 did see some violence, they also achieved the goal of having the bill suspended. As protests continue, as herd mentality helps to influence the hundreds of thousands still demonstrating, this may result in scrapping the bill altogether.

Also in 2019, millions of school-aged children around the world went on strike from their classrooms to demand action against climate change. This demonstration spread across more than 100 countries, and covered huge divides in regions, languages, and ages, all for the common goal of ensuring a future for the world's youth.

In times when groups work together for a common goal, herd mentality influencing members of the group to take part and show their passion for a cause (when they may not have taken action alone), can have truly positive outcomes.

Conclusion

Being part of the pack is human nature, but despite some of its evolutionary benefits, it's not always a positive feature of social interactions. Knowing how to recognize it, avoid it, and even steer away from it, can balance its effects and ensure decisions are made because they are the logical ones - not simply the popular ones.