Herd mentality, herd behavior

Social mimicry among human beings

The herd mentality is the rather widespread tendency
to behave instinctively in the same way than most other people.

A benefit is social adaptation and cohesion.
But it might entail too much loss of personal independence
and bring social excesses that are sometimes highly destructive.

Excessive "trend following" in investment is a typical example
and a cause of bubbles and crashes.

Group SmileysWhen in Rome, do like the Romans do.
incentive But maybe that was why Rome collapsed!


Herding is a concept found in social psychology.
Yes there is a branch of psychology that is interested in how we
behave in social situations.
Spies are everywhere ! ;-)

When applied to human beings, the herd instinct, and its offsprings and
cousins herd behavior, herd mentality, herd attitude, or herding,
can be defined as:
The rather widespread tendency
* to do what the
group group or the crowd do
    or in other words:
* to behave instinctively in the way most other
   people do.
As often seen in "instinctive" mental processes, that social influence is
often not fully conscious for individuals, as some collective habits /
common rites / shared automaticities are at play.

That "follower attitude"
might be a positive adaptive behavior and social
cohesion factor
, but
it can also make the person:
  • Lose its mental independence and free will, so as to fit social norms,
  • Perform irresponsible behaviors
by sheer mimicry / unchecked contagion.
There is a normal, even vital need for feeling togetherness and
social ties
in any human being, but it might sometimes be perverted.

There is also a normal
network interdependence between people.
Except for some hermits, we cannot live without exchange with other
Individuals and society evolved together since the dawn of humanity,
and the symbiosis was fruitful.
Civilizations are based not only on common principles but on networks
But when somebody becomes
dependence overdependent as a pawn of
society or of a group, there is a problem.
People are the owners of society but society does not own people!

Its forms

The herd instinct takes many forms, soft ones as well as harder ones:
(imitation of not just an individual, but of a whole group /
  • Groupthink, generated in formal or informal groups,
  • Pseudo consensus based on shallow explanations
(not digging further - so as to avoid conflicts - the pros and
cons of common decisions).
  • Bandwagon effect / trend following (joining the majority),
  • Common convention / ritual,
  • Conformity, peer pressure,
-> This is more or less often associated to a human tendency
     of obedience to 
     * leaders
, and also  experts, gurus, trendsetters
     * organizations and collective bodies that got "sacralised".
  • In its extreme form, group sillymad sillymad sillymad crowd hysteria
and the related behavioral excesses,
This happens when a mass of people behave blind blindly
as a single entity

Causes and origins

...the group seen as a protection and beacon

Unity makes strong.
But does it make wise?

The herd mentality seems to come from the primitive "animal brain".
Staying inside the herd was a protection against predators.
Also attacking preys in packs gave more
strong strength.

OK, but why does that old animal reaction still persist among humans?

One reason is in some
(real or dubious) perceived advantages of
acting in the wake of others
(see below the section about the effects
of that phenomenon).

It is still seen as a way to do things together to adapt to the "cruelty"
of nature.

Also social exchange spread and enhances the individual experiences
...unless  it hinders all personal freedom of thought and initiative.

As a practical motivation, we might "obey" because we think -
rightly or wrongly depending on the specific areas and situations -
that if a lot of people go in some direction - they must have a better
knowledge and experience than us.
How humble from us, sanctity is not far ;-)).

...at a price paid by the individual

Sometimes protection is another word for racket.

Those apparent - or sometimes real - rationalities, efficiencies and virtues
cited above,
can hide other motivations:
  • Generally an aversion to feel alone,
It entails a feeling of feeling proximity to other human beings,

Obviously nobody can live without interacting with others,
without social life and without empathy
Such an affect is quite justified

...except when it becomes dependence and loss of personality.
=> Empathy should not suppress thinking.
  • Some fear of retaliation or at least isolation
when dissenting from the group.
  • The fact that imitation is the source of social learning
from infancy onwards,
-> It often does not leave too much latitude to question its
  • The sleep comfort and practicality
of following common mental habits, a kind of mental laziness.
  • A way to avoid the anguish of the always present life uncertainties,
-> This leads to consider that the group always take the right path.

Herding can exist not only in behaviors, but also as a mode of (lazy?) thinking
under the following rationale:

"Why complicate our life by digging more information and weighing
the pros and cons,
with the risk of being wrong, while it is easier
and more comfortable
to do what all
the neighbors do, and to
think like them, as after all there must
be a reason for their behavior
and thoughts."

An added pressure is often maintained by one or several leaders who in
some way personify the group.
Here there is a mental junction between conformity (with the peers) and
obedience (to leadership).

The effects ...and traps

Individual consequences

Puppet on crowd strings

This social mimicry is an adaptive behavior. It is needed in various cases,
but with the drawback of making people abandon, consciously or not, some
mental independence.
In some cases they become dependent and renounce, for good or bad to
some of their freedom of thinking and free will.

Reciprocally, the gr
oup becomes an entity in itself, with its own traits
and life.
Such a phenomenon of "self organization and emergence" tends to
happen in dynamical system

to be open to compromises and to common organization,, but to let the
crowd or the group pulls our strings too much might have a high personal
cost by amputating excessively
our personality.
There is some
robot automaticity bias in that behavior, as in that case the
group acts mentally and even physically as an autopilot for the individual.

Collective effects

Wise together or blind together?

In some cases this can lead to "crowd wisdom".
But in many cases, such common mimicry kills the real
robot analysis
that would come from a confrontation of various information and ideas
(true consensus).

Herding can explain, as positive effects:
  • Social cohesion, cooperation, solidarity
  • Personal adaptation to the social environment 
so as to behave more effectively in it.
After all, various common practices might have their rationality
coming from experience.
  • How innovations spread and help economic development,
-> and how new ideas disseminate and, if those ideas are
     fruitful, bring cultural advances.

But also, as less positive or even harmful ones:
  • False consensuses or too easy consensues
showing a shallow analysis of the issues
-> It usually proceeds from conformity, pure emotion, a lack
      of contradictory debates, a lazy preference
for the "lowest
      denominator" that simplifies the
reasoning (with some
emotional togetherness added).

This brings often suboptimal or even harmful decisions.
  • The persistence of common stereotypes,
  • As well as the surge of new fads and crazes,
  • Even clannish dogmas and extreme social beliefs,
  • Last but not least, excessive and sillymad irresponsible behaviors
Here come crowd hysteria with tragic effects, such as general
gullibility, stampedes, demonizations and hate of "differences",
and even more extreme, lynching and wars.

Here come also the tendency to trust too much and obey
blindly an authority
, something easily manipulated by
totalitarian leaders, groups and societies.

A typical illustration: investor behavior

In economics, and notably in sousfinancial markets, herding
aka "trend following" is given as an explanation for
excessive price
moves such as 
bubble crash  bubbles and crashes.

Markets give a good illustration on the advantages and drawbacks of
acting in the wake of others
: stock market trend following can bring
gains ... but also entails the risk that the social mood that supports the trend
suddenly reverts.

Summary of related phenomena

cognition,                        interpersonal +                       social components,
emotion,                          group, society,                        nstitutions, functions,
reflexes                            populations                              rules and powers

                         => IMITATION
        P to P (person)          P to G (group, population)
        Mimicry, Model        Herd instinct / behavior

Why herd instinct (joining the pack and sharing its

Motives ( safety? comfort? affect). Genetic origin (predatory/prey?)
Rational or irrational? Should we follow it or avoid it (and how)?
Scope: groups, societies, communities, classes, masses, populations,

Social appeal. Positive? Within limits?
Empathy, fairness, genetic utility, ethics, cooperation.
Trust / gullibility (oxytocin)
Home bias, familiarity, proximity (and "identity")

Common thinking. Useful to some extent only?
Groupthink, Consensuses types (what kind of unanimity? )
Common convention / belief. Social representation.
Social learning. Common knowledge. Social wisdom?
Paradigm, mainstream, modeling (science).
Memes, myths (culture)

Social domination? Beyond what point?
Groups / institutions become living entities able to override
personality, freedom.
Social behavior / group behavior. Group / social influence /
Peer / social pressure. Conformity vs. dissidence.
Obedience (to guru / expert / leader /sect)
Attribution bias, deification (idol), demonization (scapegoat, racism)

Contagion trap. But can we always be contrarian?
Social trends (and cycles), trend following. Bandwagon effect
Fad / fashion / craze (vs. social habits : customs, rites
Crowd / mass hysteria /mania
Bubble / crash (behavioral economics)

Communication invasion. Be aware, but avoid isolation?
Communication / information overload ("the information society").
Social networks, "popularity".
Information dissemination / cascade, rumor, buzz.
Manipulation, propaganda, spin

Source and further readings

From the Behavioral finance glossary
And more specifically the
imitation, herding and social pages.

(sample / échantillon)

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M.a.j. / updated : 05 Aug. 2015
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