Leaping lemmings, fads and frenzies

Zebras do it. Cedar waxwings do it. Herring do it. The late majority and (eventually) even laggards do it. Lemmings even do it over cliffs, at least according to popular myth (see the section “Misconceptions” in Wikipedia’s entry on lemmings to learn about the role that the Walt Disney Company played in creating the popular myth about lemmings committing mass suicide).

Blog 17 media zebras

The “it” that I’m talking about is ‘following the herd’ (or flock or school) and the tendency that exists in many species of animals to do this is called “herd behaviour“. In turn, herd behaviour is driven by “herd mentality“, the innate desire of individuals to stay with and be a part of the herd.

As is the case for zebras, cedar waxwings and herring, humans are a social animal with an evolved preference for living in groups, so herd mentality and herd behaviour are an important part of human nature and they often have a big impact on the choices and decision that we make.

Since humans have complex social lives and social structures, our herd behaviours also take on complex forms. All human groups develop shared “norms”; that is, commonly agreed standards of acceptable behaviour. Our herd mentality then encourages us to conform to these group norms as a way of being part of the group.

Tribal rituals, good manners and popular fads are all examples of human social norms that are used to define and bind together groups of people. And of course these social norms vary from group to group; what passes as “appropriate attire” in some cultures could lead to verbal or physical abuse in others, particularly for women.

There are good evolutionary reasons for herd mentality and herd behaviour. For many animals there is usually greater safety in greater numbers; think about those zebras while hunting lions are around. Meanwhile, for others, working together means a greater chance of finding or catching food; this time, think about the lions. And finally, if others in your group are doing something, then that thing is likely to be safe and rewarding, whilst if they are not doing something, then there’s a good chance that it’s not safe.

However, this is not to say that all instances of following the herd are rational or lead to good outcomes. In our modern world, there are plenty of examples of:

Blog 17 media witches

Herd mentality meets multiple personality disorder

Even psychiatrists, medical professionals specialising in the workings of the human mind, can suffer from erroneous herd mentality and herd behaviour. In 1973, a book titled “Sybil was published in the US. It claimed to present the true story of a woman who had developed multiple personality disorder, which for her manifested as 16 different personalities, as a psychological defence against the memory of horrific abuse that she had suffered as a child.

Sybil was made into a film of the same name that was released in the US in 1976. Following the film’s release, diagnoses of multiple personality disorder (MPD) soared in the US. In most cases, the condition was said to be the result of the repression of memories of childhood abuse. Tens of thousands of cases of MPD were reported in the 1980s and early 1990s, compared to fewer than 200 cases that had ever been recorded before Sybil was released.

However, in 1994, a patient who had been diagnosed with MPD successfully sued her psychiatrist for implanting false memories and for actually causing her condition. Many similar cases followed soon afterwards and the tide of psychiatric opinion turned against MPD. Leading psychiatrists in the US now regard MPD to be a very rare condition and the huge increase in diagnoses seen in the 1980s and early 1990s to have been the result of an erroneous popular fad among both the public and psychiatrists themselves.

Collective considerations

Herd mentality and herd behaviour describe what happens when individuals make decisions to follow the herd.  Since they are common to so many animal species, we can surmise that these preferences arise from our thinking System 1. However, humans possess cognitive capabilities not shared by other species; our thinking System 2 allows us to rationalise and this is something that we can do both individually and collectively; that is, humans are uniquely capable of making decisions as a group.

When it comes to making decisions within a group, our System 1 will inevitably be at work, since of course we can’t turn it off, and the extent to which we engage our System 2, through our efforts to rationalise collectively, will have a big impact on the quality of group decisions. Some groups are smarter than others when it comes to making decisions or solving problems and many factors have been shown to influence a group’s collective intelligence.

Collective stupidity: Pearl Harbour and the US government shutdown

One way in which groups can be collectively stupid is the well-known pitfall of groupthink. Here, all members of a group become fixated on a single shared belief, which they strive to conform with and to reinforce. There is a loss of critical thinking and challenge within the group, and the group insulates itself from any information that would contradict the shared belief that it holds. Usually, groups suffering from groupthink become convinced of their superior intelligence and moral authority… which is ironic, since groupthink groups are less intelligent and typically less moral.

There are a number of famous examples of groupthink, including the poor decision-making by the US Navy that permitted the devastating attack on Pearl Harbour, the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Vietnam War.

Blog 17 media Pearl Harbor

Groups that must make decisions can also be stupid, and ineffective, when they deadlock. Here, two or more different factions within the group take positions from which they aren’t willing to shift or compromise, where those different positions are incompatible. An example would be the recent US political deadlock that led to the partial shutdown of the US government.

And although this example involves two groups (Republicans and Democrats) that together form a larger group (the US political establishment) in deadlock, the same paralysis of decision-making can arise even with a single stubborn individual if that person has the power to block a decision being made. It only takes one obnoxious guest to ruin a dinner party.

Collective intelligence: Diversity of views, empathy and turn-taking

So what are the factors that allow groups to be smarter? There are many, some relating to the composition of the group (i.e. who are its members), some to the mindset of group members, and others to the behaviours adopted within the group.

One scientific study identified that the collective intelligence of groups was:

  • Correlated positively to the average social sensitivity (empathy) of group members and also to the number of women in the group, something that is possibly explained by females having, on average, greater social sensitivity.
  • Correlated negatively to the variance in the number of times each member of the group spoke. In other words, groups dominated by one or a few individuals are less collectively intelligent.
  • Not correlated either to the average intelligence of all the individuals within the group, nor to the individual intelligence of the smartest member of the group, nor to group motivation or cohesion.

In addition, if we again consider the two ways described above in which groups can be stupid, groupthink and deadlock, we can identify some other attributes of groups that should contribute to collective intelligence:

  • Having a range of different perspectives and ensuring that each perspective is heard and considered.
  • Ensuring that the mindset of the group is focused on collaboration and constructive challenge rather than on either unanimity or conflict.

In “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil”, Philip Zimbardo describes these attributes clearly when he writes:

Majority decisions tend to be made without engaging the systematic thought and critical thinking skills of the individuals in the group. Given the force of the group’s normative power to shape the opinions of the followers who conform without thinking things through, they are often taken at face value. The persistent minority forces the others to process the relevant information more mindfully. Research shows that the decisions of a group as a whole are more thoughtful and creative when there is minority dissent than when it is absent.”

Making groups smarter: Some ground rules

Since the evidence shows that the smartest groups are those that function well, rather than those that have smart people in them, the ELECTIA approach to decision-making defines the following “ground rules” to support better decision-making by groups:

  • The roles of everyone involved in making the decision should be defined at the start of the process.
  • All key stakeholders in the decision (i.e. anyone with the power to overturn the decision or to block its subsequent implementation) should either be present or should have provided their input and agreed to abide by the decision that will be made in their absence.
  • The mindset of participants should be one of collaboration and commitment to make and implement a decision, not of seeking unanimity.
  • Participants should be open-minded, flexible, questioning and testing. They should be encouraged to ask questions of others to explore alternative ideas and increase their understanding.
  • The group should focus on identifying common ground first, then identify and focus on differences.
  • The group should focus on identifying “win-win” options.
  • The group should ensure that it listens to dissenting voices and explicitly and rigourously tests its beliefs.
  • Everyone within the group should be allowed and required to participate and to express their perspective.
  • Attention should be given to the group’s behaviours and processes, and they should be moderated if necessary.

The lemming that shouted “Stop!

So, are we all, at least on some occasions, just like the mythical leaping lemmings, mindlessly following the herd? An awareness of herd mentality combined with the practiced ability to Think about thinking will allow us to more often identify the influence of herd mentality and conformity on our decisions and will allow us to be more choiceful about when we follow the herd, for good reasons, and when we don’t.

And what about the dissenting views? What about the lemming that shouts “Stop!”? How should we treat those voices? Can they stop the herd from going over the cliff?

The answer is that we should hear them, ask questions to understand their perspective, and then give their ideas the same rational consideration that we give all available evidence. Some minority voices are misguided and some may even be madmen rather than saviours. However, by bringing alternative perspectives and ideas into our collective decision-making and by allowing ourselves to be challenged constructively by them, we reduce our risk of following erroneous fads, like the craze among psychiatrists in the 1980s for diagnosing multiple personality disorder, or falling into groupthink, like the naval strategists at Pearl Harbour.

The first popular fad that we might seek to resist in this way is the common belief that lemmings are obsessed with killing themselves en masse. So, be and hear the lemming that shouts “Stop!

Blog 17 media lemming

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