Jan 2, 2012

Human Herds

Vito Rispo wrote that researchers at Leeds University, led by Prof Jens Krause, performed a series of experiments where volunteers were told to randomly walk around a large hall without talking to each other. A select few were then given more detailed instructions on where to walk.

The scientists discovered that people end up blindly following one or two people who appear to know where they’re going. The published results showed that it only takes 5% of what the scientists called “informed individuals” to influence the direction of a crowd of around 200 people. The remaining 95% follow without even realizing it.

See any resemblance of the group
 activity in the two pictures?
“There are strong parallels with animal grouping behavior,” says Prof Krause, who reported his study with John Dyer in the Animal Behavior Journal. “We’ve all been in situations where we get swept along by the crowd but what’s interesting about this research is that our participants ended up making a consensus decision despite the fact that they weren’t allowed to talk or gesture to one another… In most cases the participants didn’t realize they were being led by others.”

This is excellent example of how the human brain is setup for social life. Even without a top-down organizer or any obvious rules, society just falls into place. Unfortunately, that “follow the herd” mentality isn’t always beneficial. If we’re not fully versed on a subject, we tend to follow the guy who appears to know more than we do. That sort of behavior applies to more than just random walking, we do it in everyday life from picking political candidates to deciding what type of car to buy.

The difference, to my taste, is that the true herd animal is also cognizant of it's environment - and doesn't wreck it all in the first pass. Since a herd is scientifically incorrect, since the term is applied only to hoved animals - we're more like a pack of elephants or a den of wolves. Perhaps we can use our own terminology to describe ourselves. A fraternity of men? The Members of Costco? The AARP? The NRA? Oakland Raiders Fans?

I guess that one dentist of the five that didn't recommend Trident after meals is the slow and sickly one who's on the edge of the group - about to be picked off by the lions stalking them?

I bring this up since I've been pondering the human condition, the social and herd like mentality of the group. What it means for our collective future. The emerging consciousness of the internet. At a time which we're butting up against the end of quick and easy resources - oil, clean water, fertile land. There are 7 billion of us right now, and if there isn't more work on how to support ourselves (all of us) there's either going to be 10 billion - or a drastic thinning of the species. As much as I'd like to get through the line at the Target quicker, hard and drastic action will have to be made soon to solve the real problems that have been brought up by the scientific and the science fiction communities from the last 40 years.

I have a feeling that I'll bring the subject up a couple times throughout the year.

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