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Paul Lillebo

Constructive citizen, independent

TEDCRED 10+

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Is the herd instinct a boon or a bane - a help or a hindrance - in a modern society?

Humans are social animals with a lot of the herd instinct left from our ancestors.

We like to be in a group, to do things others do, to follow a charismatic leader. We like to wear the approved garb: Think of politicians in their dark suits and red ties, of street gangs with their bandannas and approved clothes, of college football fans waving their colors, or of Harley riders with their black leathers, beards and tattoos. There are hundreds of such examples. And of course, the herd instinct is what keeps the fashion industry going. We must have this season's fashion. (How many still have their bell-bottom jeans?)

The herd instinct has undoubtedly been valuable in our species' survival, because it has made it possible to engage in mass action for hunting, for construction and for defense.

In modern life we see the herd instinct in politics, where nationalism separates "us" from "them," and where parties gather together their faithful flocks, further separating the "us'es" into fractious factions. Nowhere is the herd more apparent than in religions, where millions follow beliefs and rules laid down by a long-gone guru, and as often as not, proclaim the damnation of all who don't belong to their herd.

So what's the effect, on balance, of the herd instinct? Is it mostly beneficial because it brings us together, gives us safety, and allows us to think and plan for the common good of society? Or does it separate us into warring clans, and restrain our innovation, individualism and free thought because of an inborn fear of being different? Or is it a mix, for better or for worse?

Happy debating,
Paul

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  • Aug 20 2013: Can we also acknowledge that those who enjoy the company, interaction, interdependence and accountability that healthy human relationships require, will be more likely to conclude that the 'herd instinct' is beneficial? Those who wish to lead more independent and solitary lives are going to discount the importance of any impulse to imitate or value the behavior and ideas of others or the community at large. In short, social animals are going to value the actions and opinions of others whereas those who tend to be less socially inclined are going to reject the actions and opinions of society at large. This is to say nothing about whether the 'herd instinct' is beneficial in a broader scientific context.
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      Aug 20 2013: This is what our responses seem to suggest - that many people lean one way or the other, probably depending on their own social preferences. Although I've framed the debate as an "either-or" question (as debates often unfortunately are), we probably all understand that there always has to be a mix in the emphasis on individual and group. It should be instructive for us to consider that different societies have taken different approaches; the human world is like hundreds of experiments in social living. One might think we could learn from all these, past and present, and use what we learn to improve subsequent social experiments. But any such evaluation is necessarily tied to one's own goals and values, and agreeing on those is a pipe dream.

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