Whilst we all like to think that we are free thinking individuals, the truth is that social influence is a powerful force in nature and society. There are many advantages to us being social beings – learning from others, pooling our resources, increasing our defences – but research has shown that there are also disadvantages. We have evolved to become overly influenced by our neighbours rather than relying on our own instinct.
It has been shown that imitating the actions and opinions of others rather than trusting our own thoughts can lead to increased danger. In a study analysing the behaviour of 365 people at a busy crossing in Leeds, Faria et al (2010) revealed that people are twice as likely to cross a busy road if the person next to them sets off first – and that men are more likely to follow other pedestrians than women.
Following the herd may make sense if you are a wildebeest crossing a crocodile infested river, but it doesn’t make much sense when you are a human wanting to survive a busy intersection in Leeds.
Following our neighbour would advantage us if we knew that our neighbour had additional insight, information or experience, but often their behaviour has been determined by the influence and blind copying of others too – and when we behave like this within groups (such as we see within a work environment) then this can lead to us becoming less responsive and able to adapt to changes in our environment.
A study by Torney et al (2014) showed that in dynamic, fast-paced environments over reliance on the opinion of the herd can lead to collective inertia and an inability to respond effectively to changing environments. Well-functioning groups can provide an excellent source of information and decision making but when conformity takes over, and herd instinct prevails then the group will start performing at a sub-optimal level.
What’s the solution? Embrace the herd for the advantage and protection it can give you – but stay true to your critical and insightful mind. And if you are forming a working group – ensure that non-confirming individuals are represented so that they can provide the questioning and critical voice.
Faria J.J., Krause, S., Krause, J., (2010) Collective behaviour in road crossing pedestriants: the role of social information. Behavioral Ecology 21(6)
Torney, C. J., et al (2014) Social information use and the evolution of unresponsiveness in collective systems. Interface.