In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is herd behaviour.
Are we people or sheeple?
Turns out we’re actually a lot more sheeplish than we might like to think that we are, and herd behaviour is exhibited across a range of different contexts.
Kameda and Hastie (2015) describe herding as an ” alignment of thoughts or behaviours of individuals in a group” that tends to arise from local interactions rather than as a result of direction by a central authority. Equivalents of herding among land mammals include birds’ flocking behaviour and bees’ hive behaviour.
As a cultural species, we naturally draw upon socially acquired knowledge and social narratives. A classic social psychology experiment by Soloman Asch showed that people tend to publicly conform to group norms, even when they realize the norm is based on something that’s inaccurate.
Panic buying is one type of herd behaviour. It may be triggered by fear of shortages, but panic buying itself can actually result in shortages. Panic buying has happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, and while things like masks and hand sanitizer are logically connected, the toilet paper frenzy is a clear example of herd behaviour. There’s no logical reason to hoard toilet paper, and it clearly has no impact on whether or not people get sick, yet store shelves are empty and people are fighting over the last couple of rolls.
The first concerns about the toilet paper supply related to the coronavirus pandemic were tweets from Hong Kong on February 5. A month later, the toilet paper panic buying had already spread globally. Stories and images on news sites and social media played a pivotal role in creating a global frenzy.
Novel vs. familiar threats
New threats that aren’t well understood are most likely to provoke herd behaviour responses. Car crashes regularly kill people (36,560 in the U.S. in 2018), but no one has been changing their car use behaviour because of that. The influenza virus kills large numbers of people each year (12,000-61,000 annually in the U.S. according to the CDC) yet plenty of people choose not to get vaccinated. Suicide kills more than 700,000 people globally every year (as per the W.H.O.), but no one seems to be panicking about that.
I suspect that most people would deny herd behaviour even if they are engaging it. After all, if it was logical, people wouldn’t be hoarding toilet paper in the first place. I would be curious how much of a difference social media has made in all of this. The news media have their own share of sensationalism, but it seems like social media selectively amplifies the most sensational content.
Once we get caught up in sensationalism and fear kicks in, it’s rather late in the process to avoid sheepling. Perhaps the best thing to do is to limit exposure, especially to social media feeds filled with fear-provoking content. It’s also helpful to be aware of that natural tendency to become sheeple, so we can more easily recognize and then resist the pull in that direction.
- Discover Magazine: Why Coronavirus Is Turning People Into Hoarders: A Q&A on the Psychology of Pandemics
- Kameda, T., & Hastie, R. (2015). Herd Behavior. Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 1-14.
- Wikipedia: Panic buying
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.