Join the Crash, Embrace the Herd

By Elspeth Sweatman

A crowd. Photo courtesy Pxhere.
Like it or not, humans are herd animals. From the moment we are born, we crave interaction, communication, affection. To achieve these needs, we accept rules and traditions that help us to fit in, get along, and stay safe. Yet, we also know how dangerous going along with the group can be. Our news reels and Netflix queues are full of examples of innocent bystanders being duped, injured, or killed because they followed others. How can herd mentality be both the bedrock of our civilization and its undoing?

There are two types of herding: self-interested (when we copy the motivations and actions of others for our own gain) and collective (when we imitate others for the advantage of the entire group). When we go to a Giants baseball game at Oracle Park and follow the crowd to the entrance, that’s self-interested herding; we assume people know where they are going. When we stand on the right-hand side of escalators to let others pass on the left, that is collective herding; we know that it makes everyone’s public transport experience better.

Both types of herding are inherently human and can lead to positive and negative outcomes.
  • In 1930s Germany and Italy, influential and charismatic leaders created an us-versus-them mentality. The leaders’ rhetoric and citizens’ own psychology duped them into believing that intellectuals, Jews, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, among others, were the cause of the nation’s economic weakness. Afraid of the consequences of voicing an opposing view and being excluded, many people found themselves supporting a regime that persecuted these minority groups with discriminatory laws and institutions, violence, and mass extermination. 
  • Crowd psychology can create economic collapses (The Great Depression, the 2008 Recession). But companies like Apple rely on herding to drive interest in the latest iPhone. When everyone has an iPhone, we feel that we must have this product in order to fit in. 
  • Herding contributes to social contagions like mass hysterias, in which thoughts, emotions, and behaviors become infectious. In 2011–12, stress caused Katie Krautwurst, a teenager in Le Roy, New York, to develop Tourette’s-like symptoms; these uncontrollable twitches soon passed to her friend, then to her classmates, and then to members of her community. Eighteen people were affected, with doctors unable to find a cause.
To learn more about herd mentality, check out the Rhinoceros edition of Words on Plays, on sale at The Geary Theater and online.

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