The need to channel our herd instinct positively during COVID-19 quarantine.
Some cows taught me why many people are stockpiling toilet paper. Not long ago, I was reading peacefully in the meadow near where I live. Cows and horses were scattered about, grazing freely. Suddenly, a bulldog (with an irresponsible owner) charged at one of the cows, jumping and biting it. Within a few seconds, the cows ran toward the danger (the bulldog), formed a tightly knit group, and ran. The bulldog found itself in the middle of a ground-shaking stampede. By whistling and running dangerously close to the herd, the owner got the dog away, not too badly harmed. They were very lucky.
Great things about the herd instinct
The same herd instinct that saved the cows from the bulldog saves buffalo from lions in Africa, and saves flocks of ravens from being eaten by eagles. Other benefits of herd behaviour include reduced stress, confusing predators, and helping birds fly faster.
The herd instinct also sometimes helps humans. French mathematician Marquis de Condorcet proved that if each individual in a group has at least a 51% chance of being right (slightly better than flipping a coin), then the average choice of a large group of these individuals converges on the truth.
Victorian scientist Sir Francis Galton recognized this and found that a crowd’s median guess of an oxen’s weight was almost perfect and better than ‘expert’ guesses
In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki reports that group wisdom has helped people win Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, identify lost submarines, and predict the cause of a crashed spaceship. Being part of a herd, or being sheeple (sheep/people) doesn’t deserve the bad name it always gets.
When the Herd Instinct Goes Wrong
The herd mentality isn’t always good. Just as the average wisdom of a crowd can converge on the right answer if the average person has at least a 51% chance of being right, the opposite is true if they have a 51% chance of being wrong. Harmful herd behaviour causes buffalo to stampede off a cliff, people to get crushed in panic rushes for exits, and mob violence.
Anyone who has been to a supermarket during this Coronavirus crisis can witness another harmful herd behaviour: buying too much toilet paper. Even if you believe that supplies are going to run out, you can’t eat toilet paper, and you can use other things to stay clean. So bulk buying toilet paper doesn’t help, and it harms the person who needs it but can’t.
Herds follow leaders. American psychologist Solomon Asch studied college students who were asked individually to judge which of 3 lines was longer than a target line. Each individual student was surrounded by 7 actors (the students didn’t know they were actors). The actors were told to choose the wrong line on purpose. For example, the actors were told to say that line B was shorter than the target line, when it obviously was not. A third of the students conformed with the actors’ mistaken views, in spite of line C clearly being longer. Metaphorically, these people were herded off the cliff by the actors.
In another experiment, researchers in the UK asked volunteers to wander around a hall without talking to each other. Then, a few participants were given specific instructions about where to walk, and told to walk confidently in that direction, and 95% of the people told to walk randomly ended up following the ones who were told where to walk.
Contagious Kindness: Making the Herd Instinct Work for Us
We can use the herd mentality in our favour now, during these trying times. Social isolation is as bad for our health as smoking. We don’t need to be isolated just because we are physically apart. By redirecting our herd behaviour from overstocking toilet paper to ‘contagious kindness’, we can make the imposed social distancing a time of deeper connection. Here are a few things we can do to generate contagious kindness:
- Call a family member or friend, just to check in.
- Whoever you see in the park or street (especially if they are alone), smile and say hello.
- Call or contact (without touching) a neighbour.
The great thing about all these acts is that they spread. By doing them we can create a contagious wave of kindness that will help us all get through this.