Flimsy Sanity: Join The Herd

Flimsy Sanity

In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. - Friedrich Nietzsche

Friday, December 22, 2006

Join The Herd

I've always been fascinated by animal behavior, especially when an animal exhibits the traits we think are uniquely human. Elephants mourning their dead, prairie chickens dancing to prime their hen for sex, a cow babysitting calves while the rest of the herd goes off grazing, monkeys using a stick as a tool to dig out termites, the list is long. About a month ago I heard someone on TV talking about how animal behavior is determined by majority rule rather than by a leader (sorry, I didn't catch his name or his book). He said that when over 50% of a herd start to move, the leaders follow. Nearly all the politicians voted for the war in Iraq, but now that public opinion has shifted against the war, the leaders are rushing to get in front of the herd. As I have mentioned before, Darwin is widely misquoted. He did not say "survival of the fittest", he said it is "survival of the ones most adaptable".

One of my favorite books is Charles McKay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds. It is assigned to college business students and often I think the message they take away from it is that "you can make a lot of money if you can predict a fad." or "investing in a fad is great provided you get out fast enough" . They are more intrigued by tales of financial speculation and timing investments rather than learning of mass insanity. A section on the Crusades talks about how the year 1000 stimulated predictions that the world would end and that Christians should reclaim the holy land to fullfil Bible prophecy. Another section talks about the witch trials and how shame about them ushered in the age of enlightenment. Still another talks about all the schemes trying to make gold (alchemy).
In fact, cases such as Tulipomania in 1624--when Tulip bulbs traded at a higher price than gold--suggest the existence of what I would dub "Mackay's Law of Mass Action:" when it comes to the effect of social behavior on the intelligence of individuals, 1+1 is often less than 2, and sometimes considerably less than 0. -Amazon
Project Gutenberg has the book on their site if you want to read it for free, it is long past copyright as it was written in 1841.

When we look at fads (including word choice - remember when everything used to have "parameters" and now "transparency" is the buzzword) fashion (don't blame just women, men's necktie widths are just as faddish),we see the human animal is a herd animal and groupthink is more powerful than anything. The leaders impact is exaggerated and the cream doesn't always rise to the top. Yahoo is a better search engine than Google (though the Google maps are exceptional), Apple has a better system than Microsoft. Advertising and group mania is more important than actual value. I for one will join the herd against this stupid war. I also would have joined a herd against the war in Afghanistan but I am pretty much alone in this theory - We didn't bomb the shit out of Indiana cause the Oklahoma bomber trained there.


  • At 5:37 PM, Anonymous RJ Adams said…

    Humans consider themselves unique in many things because they are so busy observing their own behavior they fail to realize much of the animal world is aping them. This is partly because Homo sapien tends to shy away from the idea he is only an animal, which is likely the reason he invented gods. Your man on TV was right, I think, regarding herd animals but leadership is definitely in evidence in pack animals and primates. They require a 'chief' to organize and lead them, just as we do. I believe Homo sapien rates as a pack animal, a species split into different groups each with a leader. Most pack animals seem more successful at choosing their leaders than we are. Probably because they have simpler criteria, due to more instinctive behavior and less self-awareness.
    I agree with you about Afghanistan. I was not against the US invading the mountainous northern regions to seek out the Taliban, if they chose to do so, but that war has now developed into just another attempt to "democratize" at gunpoint.

  • At 10:13 AM, Blogger Flimsy Sanity said…

    RJ: I will agree that there is a pecking order, but I wonder if this is more to do with sex than with any other decisions.


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