The Herd Instinct

Safety Corner logo“Madness is rare in individuals, but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

We humans definitely exhibit herd instincts. Have you ever stepped off a curb to cross a street, not because the light changed or because the traffic cleared, but because others started to cross? In the investing world, the herd instinct is often blamed for unsubstantiated rallies or sell-offs.

We are, after all, social animals, and many aspects of the herd mentality are beneficial. We want and need acceptance by others, and doing as others do can help secure that acceptance. We even determine acceptable/appropriate behavior by observing the behavior of others.

One can observe the herd instinct at work on CRW rides. Cyclists sometimes follow others into an intersection without looking to see if it’s clear. Cyclists sometimes stay two or even three abreast when there is a car behind, and no one seems to move to single up. On our Fall Metric Century, I started near the back of the pack. Early in the ride, the route turned left onto a side street. I could see cyclists well ahead pulling to the left side of the lane (consistent with the law) to position themselves for the left turn. As they waited for oncoming traffic to pass, two motorists approached from behind. However, the motorists couldn’t pull to the right to move around the lead cyclists because other cyclists started to pass the motorists on the right. This forced the motorists to stop. As the lead cyclists made the turn, at least 25 cyclists streamed past the waiting motorists on the right and then turned left directly in front of them. In the time it took this pack to make the turn, the line of motorists built to five. I was in the middle of the motorists, waiting to make the left as they, in turn, waited for the stream of cyclists to clear. As I made the left, the motorist behind me gave a long horn blast in protest of our behavior. One wonders how many of these cyclists would have done this had they been riding alone. So, why did they do it here? Perhaps they simply did what everyone else was doing, without thinking for themselves. Or perhaps they feared being left behind (abandoned by the herd).

How does one avoid “group think”? First, be aware that we all have an innate tendency to follow the crowd and that conscious effort is needed to do otherwise. Second, be sure to know the rules of the road. It’s much easier to think for yourself when you know the appropriate action for a given situation. Third, stay alert and aware when riding in a group. Keep your eyes moving. It’s very easy to focus on one thing to such a degree that you lose track of what’s happening elsewhere. You’re much more likely to follow the crowd when you haven’t taken in enough information to make your own decisions. Fourth, don’t worry about being left behind. The lead cyclists in a group should back off the pace after intersections to allow others to catch up. If they don’t, find yourself a more considerate group. On a CRW ride, there’s probably another group not far behind.

In the end, it’s about making your own decisions. Sometimes the group is doing exactly as you should. And sometimes it isn’t.

Remember—safety is about choices. What choices will you make?


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