TED Conversations

Paul Lillebo

Constructive citizen, independent


This conversation is closed.

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,


Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb
    Aug 20 2013: It is a question of levels, and the fact that we live in a dualistic world. Everything can be done or used both appropriately, and inappropriately. At one level the herd instinct is life-enhancing; at another it kills spirit.
    It also depends on the scope of your context. For example, as someone who has made a deliberate choice not to use either Facebook, or Twitter, in global terms I guess I am one of the herd (well, 6 out of 7 billion people on the planet don't use either of them). But as a Western European I am probably not one of the herd.
    • thumb
      Aug 20 2013: I'm with you on the "social media" craze. I don't feel a need to be in everybody's face all the time. So as you say, we're in one herd, out of another.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.