Herd Mentality

Image of stampede from this Yorkshire UK site

In times of great uncertainty, most people look for a leader to tell them what they should do, or for an agent to do it for them. It would be hard to imagine a time with more social, political and economic uncertainty than what we’re facing right now.

Our problem is that we don’t have any good leaders. Our heads of state are as clueless as the rest of us. CEOs of large companies are finding their businesses unmanageable. As much as the media try to present us with simple dichotomies — choices between two clearly different alternatives — we know that nothing today is that simple, and we’re justifiably skeptical of such oversimplifications. And the agents and ‘experts’ we entrust with things we don’t understand are mostly just in it for themselves, and in it for the short haul.

So what do we do? Generally, we follow the herd. We listen to trusted peers, and do what they do. We ask them how they’re voting, what they’re buying, what they like and dislike, who they use to do things for them, and we (more than likely) do the same.

The problems with herd mentality are (1) it leads to stampedes i.e. dangerous overreactions to situations, and (2) it can be exploited by people who profit from triggering these stampedes and from the overreactions they produce.

We see this in nominating convention ‘bounces’ and sudden sharp shifts in undecided voter preferences, that lead, in the absurd North American first-past-the-post gerrymandered attack-ad media-soundbite electoral systems, to disproportionate shifts in election results, to the point these results are often unintended, regretted, undemocratic and unrepresentative.

We see it, too, in huge price swings for commodities (which benefit Big Oil and other price-fixing oligopolies), for stocks (which benefit commissioned brokers and agents — the type that have destroyed the US financial sector by making reckless investments, taking obscene salaries and leaving the under-collateralized businesses they’ve gouged in ruins), and for real estate (which benefits the corrupt slash-and-burn development and property speculation industry).

We see it in armies of overpaid lawyers who produce exactly nothing in our economy and exploit our ignorance and fear to line their own pockets by stirring up needless, unproductive and expensive enmity and then screwing both sides.

The cost of all this to citizens is obvious and incalculable. We have an economy that has been hollowed out, whose GDP is computed not by the benefits that accrue to citizens, but by the output of the war industry and useless zero-value financial, legal, “management”, agency and brokerage “services”, by the rape of our land and resources, the pollution of our environment, the theft of property and dignity by the rich from the poor, and by mountains of litigation, misery, waste, bureaucracy and debt.

Basically, we are being used by those who have or seek undeserved power or undeserved wealth. They exploit our ignorance and they exploit our fear. They exploit unfair and under-regulated systems that governments have corrupted and squeezed dry while they pocketed the payouts from the industry barons and political hacks that encouraged them. And we’re foolish enough to believe the ‘experts’ who tell us they know how to run these systems that are so complex we can’t even speak their language, when these ‘experts’ are nothing but paid hacks feeding at the same trough, and are nearly as surprised as we are when these fragile and exhausted systems and entities implode.

There are only three ways we can fight back. The first is to fight ignorance by informing ourselves and our fellow citizens. By turning off the trashy television dreck and turning up at town halls where we can teach each other what is really going on. By holding not just the bankrupt and dysfunctional educational system but the media accountable for failure to inform: Suppose there were periodic tests of public knowledge and awareness in each community, and if the majority of people failed, the licenses of the media in that area would be pulled and offered to those who could better inform the citizenry about what is really important and essential to a functioning democracy and productive, healthy citizenry.

The second is to fight corruption. We need to restore regulation, smash oligopolies, and prosecute exploitative behaviour. We need to tax speculation out of existence. We need to cap agency fees, management fees and commissions at a reasonable salary for the ‘professional’ time expended, and have those fees forfeited if the agent performs significantly worse than an ‘amateur’ would have done.

The third is to fight fear. Part of the collective fear also stems from ignorance, but some of it is deliberately fomented. And some of it is the result of the huge degree of complication and uncertainty that result from the massive concentration of power and wealth in relatively few hands, far removed from the impact of the decisions they make. We fear, mostly, when things are out of our control. Recent studies suggest that in hierarchical organizations, those at the top are the least stressed because they have authority (control) commensurate with their responsibility. Those at the bottom, with the least responsibility but almost no authority, have the highest rates of stress-related illness. These studies also imply that egalitarian, community-based, networked enterprises and communities are the least stressed, and least fearful, because they have more control over their own lives. So the way to fight fear is through decentralization, relocalization, and the breaking up of large efficient organizations (social, political, economic) into much smaller local community-based, autonomous and self-sufficient effective organizations. Small is beautiful.

None of this is really surprising. We know it, intuitively, and from we’ve studied in history, economics and social studies. But making it happen, in the face of the immense neoconservative and neoliberal push for more centralization, more globalization, less investment in education and less regulation, is another matter.

Until that happens, we’ll continue to be driven, an ignorant and fearful herd, into stampedes bythe corrupt individuals who stand to benefit from them.

Be careful you don’t get trampled.

Category: Our Culture
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4 Responses to Herd Mentality

  1. You hit the nail on the head, Dave. With consumer’s and taxpayer’s money, an education system has been built up. Those with the best educations are those at the helm of banks, corporations, political parties and other bodies who are basically screwing us over. The majority of people do not want war in Iraq, poverty, and DO want health care and social security. So why isn’t it that way? Because we have abdicated to the very people whose education we paid for. And it is just these people who will not take the hit as the economies of the world go into downward spiral. The Latin Americans refused to have anything to do with the World Bank and the IMF and now they are asking ambassadors to leave. Do they know something we don’t? Maybe they have been screwed over so many times by well educated Chicago boyz that they have learned something… I wonder…As the world goes into economic turmoil, it is us ordinary folks who are at an extreme disadvantage. We are unprepared, we do not have robust contact networks, we do not own land or facilities and we are still hoping that someone, somewhere has a good plan. As you say, somewhere there is a LEADER who will, like Robin Hood, take charge. If you are reading this, thinking “naaah they will think of something” just remember that what they are thinking does not have your best interests in mind.

  2. Simon Hazelton says:

    Great article DaveWe could also look upon the current economic shifts as a source of great inspiration for humanity. As more and more people become increasingly disillusioned with “modern slavery” where will they turn? They will have to look deep within themselves for the answers, and I can think of no better place to find them.On a brighter note, don’t you just love the colours in the trees as Autumn approaches.

  3. David Parkinson says:

    Dave sez: “So the way to fight fear is through decentralization, relocalization, and the breaking up of large efficient organizations (social, political, economic) into much smaller local community-based, autonomous and self-sufficient effective organizations.”Yes, the real key there is “self-sufficient”. I just spent a weekend hanging out with people from all over BC working on food security and related initiatives. So many wonderful dedicated people, and so many excellent ideas. But hanging over it all is the spectre of funding: most if not all of the great community projects we talked about depend on government largesse. We deperately need to find a way around that, because the message sent by community-developed and -owned projects that pay for themselves is a powerful one. Beyond the good work they do as their mandate, they also illustrate the message that we do not need to be reliant on outside assistance; this message is the foundation on which community self-reliance is going to be built.Now, I’m off to square the circle.

  4. vera says:

    Oh bah humbug Dave. It’s time to stop trying to reform the system, and move on. Like the Soviet Union, the system is not reformable… better places to put one’s energy.

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