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Herd mentality is a phenomenon wherein individual members of a crowd subvert their will to the perceived unified will of the mass. In biology, herd mentality is most clearly seen through animal packs that travel, feed, and hunt together. Outliers are often either left behind or targeted by predators. The phenomenon is more diverse in humans, but the same instinct — namely, to stick with the crowd to the exclusion of personal desires or interests — remains the foundation.
In most cases, this mentality is discussed in terms of involuntary actions. Researchers generally believe that people and animals alike tend follow crowds without stopping to think or even realizing what they are doing. In the life sciences, zoologists and animal specialists track herd mentality in the wild. Psychologists who study this phenomenon in human nature are usually specialists in behavioral science, group intelligence, and crowd psychology.
The basic precept of any herding mentality, be it amongst people or animals, is the instinct to move and think as a group. There is safety in groups, as well as anonymity. A sense of shared responsibility usually abounds, as well. In the wild, the instinct to stick with a herd is mostly one of physical survival. The same is not usually true for people, though some psychologists and sociologists believe that the human instinct to follow the crowd is a similar sort of survivalist reaction on a subconscious level.
Human herds are usually more about emotions and social circles than actual living arrangements. Peer groups, co-workers, and community leaders usually form the tenets of most human herds. Larger, more amorphous groups like so-called “average people” can also qualify, as can media-driven categorizations of people who act or perform in certain ways. Temporary herds like crowds at shopping centers or swarms of stock investors count, too.
According to many sociology researchers, the science of why people identify with these groups, and particularly why they follow the trends and beliefs espoused by them, may not be so different than why animals stick together. For one thing, there is a desire, even if suppressed, to fit in. Being one of the crowd is often much easier than striking out as an individual.
Elements of decentralized decision making also fit in. If most members of a group believe that something is right or are behaving in a certain way, following along alleviates the participant from having to make a calculation or judgment independently. The fear of being left behind or excluded is a major force, as well. Choosing not to follow perceived crowd wisdom usually comes with the attendant risk that something really good may be being passed over. This sort of thinking often leads to what is known as a “bandwagon effect,” where people join a cause or make a purchase, not because they inherently want to, but rather because they do not want to be left out.
There is some debate within the academic community when it comes to assigning behaviors to the “herd mentality” category. That humans do experience facets of the herd mentality so often seen in the wild is not usually disputed, but how the mentality actually manifests is not always agreed upon. Humans are, in general, more rational beings than most pack animals. Individual choice is usually capable of overcoming the mentality, and its impact on how and why humans “herd” is not known within any defined parameters.
It would be interesting to see how herd mentality can be applied to the internet, in terms of anonymity's effect on behavior.