The Herd Mentality

Written for a philosophy class…

Nietzsche wrote a lot about what he referred to as “the herd” in his writing. He uses the language “herd” and “species” to describe the fundamental animal nature of humans, social groups and society as a whole. Thinking of people in this manner has given me a surprisingly clearer and more accurate perspective of human beings. I think that we as humans forget the fact that we are ultimately animals. The only difference between us and other forms of life on this planet is that we evolved to have significantly higher intelligence. Having this superior intellect does set us apart from the rest of the animals, yes, but a cheetah being the fastest animal on the planet sets it apart from the rest of the animal kingdom as well.

In the “The Joyful Wisdom”, Nietzsche says that “the individual is taught to become a function of the herd and to ascribe himself value only as a function”. My interpretation: from birth we are influenced by other humans in our group through socialization. It is something we are born into. We learn behavior from the significant and authoritative people in our lives (such as our parents, teachers, older siblings, etc.) by observing their behavior. Through these observations we also learn culture, religion, norms, values, rites of passage, means of expression (and lack thereof), and eventually our function in society. This learned behavior is not only learned when we are young, but is continued through out lives and into adulthood. We emulate others whom we perceive to be more “successful”. When asked who we are, we might say something like “I am an employee at…” or “I am a student at ….” or “I am a father”, all of which could be considered as functions.

We usually adopt the belief systems our parents or that of the larger social groups we’re a part of. We flock together like sheep and birds subconsciously, following the rest of the group without even realizing it most of the time. Herd mentality is a fear-based reaction to peer-pressure which makes individuals act in order to avoid feeling “left behind” from the rest of the group.

iPods, cell phones, social networking websites, have all become major trends in recent years. We follow along with what our fellow group members are doing. When analyzing your own behavior you’ll quickly realize that you also adopt the same habits of the larger groups you’re a member of. One recent trend I have seem emerge with myself and others is social networking websites. One person had seen or had been told about it by someone, and then they follow, and the cycle begins.

Is such behavior a bad thing? Yes and no, but mostly no. If you look at animals who operate as herds, you’ll find that they are more functional and efficient as a group. A group of lions will strategically track down and hunt their prey, something they might not be able to do on their own. Their behavior is mutually beneficial. It’s said that fear is what makes animals run in herds. In a recent news article I read, a general curator at the Bronx Zoo was asked “What is herd mentality”? He explained “It’s the idea that the individual members of a herd relate, behave in similar fashion so they don’t stand our and appear different than their group mates”. He added that animals who “act too much out of the norm, more often than not they’re singled out and identified by a predator and don’t survive very long”. It is necessary for survival of the individual to follow the herd. The reason why this behavior could be bad, one need only look at the German people during Nazi Germany.

Circling back to Nietzsche’s “The Joyful Wisdom”, he asks “is it virtuous when a cell transforms itself into the function of a stronger cell? It must do so. And is it wicked when the stronger one assimilates the other? It must do so likewise…” Humans band together for not only protection, but to maximize productivity and to become stronger. To not conform makes one a nuisance to the herd (and possibly risking death). I read a blog by Maurice Enchel where has said that “an individual’s resistance to the divine then is detrimental to the individual. Weirdos, deviants and loners are ostracized for good reason. When society does reach out to them it is always with the intention to bring them into conformity.”