Herd Mentality, A Speech By Mr. Sweeney

The Vail Mountain School Logo. Credit: Education Outfitters

The Vail Mountain School Logo. Credit: Education Outfitters

Kristian Popov, Staff Writer

If you can recall, a few weeks back, Mr. Sweeney gave his 10-minute Tuesday speech on mob mentality and some research behind the concept.
The following is his speech of that day:

I remember desperately wanting to “fit in” at your age – where I sat, who I talked to, who I didn’t talk to, it was all wrapped up in my desire to be part of the “in crowd” to, in some ways, be noticed by not standing out at all, to blend in with the “herd”. I’ve often reflected on this. What caused me to follow Geroge Denny and his “crew”? Why did I chase the herd, so much in my later years of high school and first year of college? This mentality afforded me some great opportunities sure, but it also resulted in me doing some of the things I regret most. Rather than draw on my own experiences this morning, for the sake of not embarrassing myself or boring you, I decided I’d dive into some of the research about “herd mentality.”

Of course, I’ll start with historians…historians credit the phenomenon of the herd behavior or mob mentality with deposing a Byzantian emperor in the 11th century, viciously overthrowing monarchs and killing their allies during the french revolution, turning peaceful protests violent in the 1970s, and more recently, the escalation of the violent events at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. How is it that people can stray from their intentions and escalate towards disruptive or violent behavior simply by being in the presence of others?

Moving on to research by psychologists I learned from a recent study out of the University of Leeds that it can take just a minority group of 5% doing something to influence the actions of the majority. To put this in real terms, the average size of a VMS graduating class is 40 students, this means that actions by just 2 students could constitute the requisite 5% cited in this University of Leeds Study to sway the direction of the rest of the herd! The implications of this study into mob mentality calls into question the very nature of what qualifies as a “herd.” The actions of a vocal minority can so easily build momentum and sway the direction of a whole group, but I was still left wondering, why does this occur?

Economists have their crack at answering this question as well. It is widely accepted that herd behavior has a destabilizing effect on economic markets and can cause massive swings in the economy. This mob mentality is often credited with the major booms, and busts, in the history of our financial systems. A recent Harvard Business Review article asks if this herd behavior should always be labeled as irrational, citing plenty of examples of rational individual economic decision-making that only had negative effects on global markets because everyone was doing it – perhaps we have turned the narrative of herd behavior on its head yet again.

Perhaps I’d been asking the wrong questions. Is herd behavior inherently bad? Clearly, this is an oversimplified question. According to that same Harvard Business Review study those rational actors ended up being part of the herd and had a short-term negative impact on economic markets. These well-intended actions by an individual had a negative impact on the global economy. In a long-term study of herd behavior’s impact on economic downturns, many economists found that these downturns were in fact necessary corrections in economic markets. Additionally, psychologists have begun employing their research into herd behavior to establish the best strategies for emergency and disaster response. If only 5% of the group can impact the direction of the whole, that 5% can certainly be leveraged for good as well.

Perplexed, I turned back to the psychologists, and sought advice on how to “avoid herd behavior.” One word kept emerging, perspective, viewing a situation from outside of one’s self. It won’t surprise some of you to know where I went next (hold up book of Joy). Perhaps the best advice for avoiding this herd mentality then came from a spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in The Book of Joy. His Holiness states “ We must look at any given situation or problem from the front and from the back, from the sides, and from the top and bottom, so from at least six different angles. This allows us to take a more complete and holistic view of reality, and if we do, our responses will be more constructive.”

Had I found the why behind herd mentality and an option for avoiding the pitfalls of this behavior? It was right there in my favorite book all along, the first of the 8 pillars to living a joyous life, perspective.

As you walk through your day in our school building, in our broader community, and in each of the circles you inhabit, I encourage you to consider how herd mentality impacts you. When does following the herd negatively impact others? Can you use your ability to impact the herd for good?

Can you step outside of yourself, take a broader perspective, and move beyond your herd? I believe you can and I believe the well-being of our world depends on it. Remember, research suggests it only takes two of you to lead the herd in the right direction.

Thank you.

-Mr. Sweeney