Anyone who has watched a nature show about herding animals may have seen what a stampede looks like, that sudden chaotic movement when a herd of animals panics and begins to break in every direction. Stampedes aren’t planned events, but they tend to affect the whole herd, and they can lead to fairly disastrous results such as animals injured or trapped. A stampede may also have positive results, like most of the animals escaping a predator, which therefore protects the herd’s survival.
These unplanned incidents are called herd behavior, and the term has been applied to many aspects of human culture. Though people may think of themselves as individuals, groups of people may act in concert, especially in situations that leave little time for decision making. Like the herd stampeding, this behavior in humans may have negative or positive consequences.
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The term "herd behavior" as it applies to humans first appears in Dr. Wilfred Trotter’s 1914 book Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War. It wasn’t exactly a new idea, though Trotter can be credited with the phrase. Sigmund Freud, for instance, extensively discusses his ideas of crowd psychology, and Carl Jung suggests that such psychology is the result of universal or collective unconscious.
Examples of this behavior can be seen in economics. For instance, if a few people begin to sell a certain type of stock, it may lead to a mass selling spree and panic, and leave the market open to crashing. Similarly, someone might look at the behavior in the retail environment on day after Thanksgiving sales. People have been injured in attempting to get to a special item offered at a very good price, when the doors of a store opens and the crowd stampedes in. Such stampedes have also occurred at rock concerts with open seating, where all people try to rush to get the closest seats to the front. These have occasionally had tragic results.
One aspect of herd behavior that is often noted is that the herd is not completely interested in protection of the group. Instead, self-interest is a primary motivator. Herd animals, when they fear a predator, work to get into the center of the herd so they are less vulnerable, just as people have only self-interest in mind when they knock over others to get to a cheaply sold item or the front seats of a rock concert, or even more so when they start selling or purchasing stocks to either make a profit or make an investment that will prove profitable in the very near future.
Such things as housing prices can be influenced by crowd psychology, especially when augmented by the media. In 2007, the Santa Rosa, California Press Democrat featured an angry letter to the editor asking them to please not write anything else on the declines in the housing market. The writer was concerned that continued reports were driving the price of his own house down; in other words, he feared the herd instincts of others who would panic and try to sell before home prices dropped more, which would only lead to a drop in home prices and a flooded market.
Herd behavior may be called by other names like “mob mentality.” A sudden crisis or a demonstration that gets out of order may be subject to humans “herding” into violent clashes with others. More simply, a large group of people herding into a single area can produce panic and stampeding, riots, violence, and huge death tolls.
There’s also an innocent factor to this behavior, since people often look to others for clues on how to behave. Given a choice between two similar stores that are nearly empty, people almost always choose the store that has other people in it, representing desire to move with the “herd.”