Based in Chicago, Omerisms is a blog by Omer Abdullah. His posts explore Ideas, perspectives and points of view across business, sales, marketing, life and (sometimes) football (the real kind).

Don’t Join The Herd

A few years ago, Professor Jens Krause at the University of Leeds conducted numerous experiments where he and his team asked groups of people to walk randomly around a large hall. Unbeknownst to the majority, a few individuals were given specific instructions as to where they should walk. No one in the group (informed or otherwise) was allowed to communicate (verbal or non-verbally) and everyone had to stay within arms length of each other. 

In all of the experiments, a curious thing happened: the uninformed individuals began following the informed individuals, "forming a self-organizing, snake-like structure."

They played with the scenarios - different group sizes, different ratios of "informed" individuals, different locations of these individuals within the hall - but the results were always the same. 

“We’ve all been in situations where we get swept along by the crowd,” says Professor Krause. “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.” ("Herd" Mentality Explained, PsychCentral)

Interestingly, the professor found that it takes a mere five per cent of a crowd to influence the rest of the group's decisions – and that the remaining individuals will follow suit without further thought. 

And, of course, we see this all the time in many other facets of our lives as well, including the business world.

In fact, one of my most prominent business-related memories is from the early 90's when Roberto Goizueta was chairman of the Coca-Cola Company.  There was a market event that took place and the Street's reaction was to sell off consumer goods stocks, sending their stock prices - Coca-Cola's included - into a nosedive. And this was despite the fact that nothing about the company - who managed it, its strategy, its priorities, its investments, its competitive position, etc. - had changed. The fundamentals were the same as they were the day before, yet the stock price didn't reflect it. In fact, Goizueta came out the next day and said as much, and of course, the stock ultimately came back when the collective sanity of the market was restored. 

Add any example you'd like to that one - the Dutch tulip bubble, the dotcom boom of the late 90s, the mortgage and housing boom of the late 2000s, everyone who supported Liverpool in the 80s or Manchester United in the 90s (sorry couldn't resist!) and more recently, bitcoin (going up or down). History is full of such examples, and we keep adding to them.

The fact is, the herd mentality is part and parcel of our collective psyche. There are a host of situations in life where it’s a good thing and can be used to manage crowd flows, for example, in emergency situations. In other aspects of our lives, it has the tendency to be less than helpful.

The truth is that we find comfort in the paths of others - more certainty, more direction, less perceived risk. When we're right, it's a good thing we joined the crowd. When we're wrong, well, everyone else was doing it, too, so how could I have known?

The thing is, most of the time, we follow the crowd because we're lazy and don't want to do the work, we're scared or nervous, we don't believe that we're brave or strong enough. Other times, we don't want to upset our cohort, our colleagues, our friends or family, lest we risk censure in some form or fashion.

This holds even when we have a strong hunch - a gut instinct - that we're right (and yet often there's a part of us that looks around to check and see if anyone else feels the same way).   

To do otherwise, would require us to stand out, to look and act and be perceived as different. 

To do otherwise, would require us to break a few proverbial eggs and upset a few folks. Maybe even folks we care about.

To do otherwise, we'd have to have some material amount of courage, and show it. Even when it hurts.

In other words, we'd have to be a maverick. We'd have to be a free thinker. We'd have to be a leader. 

And don't we love leaders?

Big or small. Larger than life or just everyday leaders. We're all looking for guidance and courage and a real path forward. Someone who allows us to be comfortable so that we can (in the words of Seth Godin) "make a ruckus". Don't we love these types of leaders?

Yes, we do. We love them deeply. We idolize them. We aspire to be them. We put our arms around our children, point to these folks and tell them, sometimes loudly, sometimes softly, you can be just like them.

Yes, we do love them. So, perhaps, if we look within ourselves, at all of those things that scare us, that hold us back, we'll see - we'll know - that we need to stop looking for them, and start being them. 

And being part of the herd, doesn’t help.  

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