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What is Herd Behavior?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 18, 2024
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Anyone who has watched a nature show about herding animals may have seen what a stampede looks like, that sudden chaotic movement when a herd of animals panics and begins to break in every direction. Stampedes aren’t planned events, but they tend to affect the whole herd, and they can lead to fairly disastrous results such as animals injured or trapped. A stampede may also have positive results, like most of the animals escaping a predator, which therefore protects the herd’s survival.

These unplanned incidents are called herd behavior, and the term has been applied to many aspects of human culture. Though people may think of themselves as individuals, groups of people may act in concert, especially in situations that leave little time for decision making. Like the herd stampeding, this behavior in humans may have negative or positive consequences.

The term "herd behavior" as it applies to humans first appears in Dr. Wilfred Trotter’s 1914 book Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War. It wasn’t exactly a new idea, though Trotter can be credited with the phrase. Sigmund Freud, for instance, extensively discusses his ideas of crowd psychology, and Carl Jung suggests that such psychology is the result of universal or collective unconscious.

Examples of this behavior can be seen in economics. For instance, if a few people begin to sell a certain type of stock, it may lead to a mass selling spree and panic, and leave the market open to crashing. Similarly, someone might look at the behavior in the retail environment on day after Thanksgiving sales. People have been injured in attempting to get to a special item offered at a very good price, when the doors of a store opens and the crowd stampedes in. Such stampedes have also occurred at rock concerts with open seating, where all people try to rush to get the closest seats to the front. These have occasionally had tragic results.

One aspect of herd behavior that is often noted is that the herd is not completely interested in protection of the group. Instead, self-interest is a primary motivator. Herd animals, when they fear a predator, work to get into the center of the herd so they are less vulnerable, just as people have only self-interest in mind when they knock over others to get to a cheaply sold item or the front seats of a rock concert, or even more so when they start selling or purchasing stocks to either make a profit or make an investment that will prove profitable in the very near future.

Such things as housing prices can be influenced by crowd psychology, especially when augmented by the media. In 2007, the Santa Rosa, California Press Democrat featured an angry letter to the editor asking them to please not write anything else on the declines in the housing market. The writer was concerned that continued reports were driving the price of his own house down; in other words, he feared the herd instincts of others who would panic and try to sell before home prices dropped more, which would only lead to a drop in home prices and a flooded market.

Herd behavior may be called by other names like “mob mentality.” A sudden crisis or a demonstration that gets out of order may be subject to humans “herding” into violent clashes with others. More simply, a large group of people herding into a single area can produce panic and stampeding, riots, violence, and huge death tolls.

There’s also an innocent factor to this behavior, since people often look to others for clues on how to behave. Given a choice between two similar stores that are nearly empty, people almost always choose the store that has other people in it, representing desire to move with the “herd.”

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a LanguageHumanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By JackWhack — On Dec 21, 2012

It never ceases to amaze me that people will actually kill each other over a stupid cheap toy. I think it must be something primal in our genes, but if it weren't for those dangerous holiday sales, it might remain dormant.

I will never go out shopping on Black Friday. Though everyone else in the world may be doing it, they need to realize that they are likely doing it just because everyone else is.

By orangey03 — On Dec 21, 2012

I've seen herd behavior at pedestrian crosswalks before. We all know that we are supposed to follow the “walk” and “don't walk” signs, but many people will go ahead and cross the street if others are doing it on a “don't walk” sign. They will also wait for the “walk” sign if others are waiting.

By shell4life — On Dec 20, 2012

@Oceana – It would be rather intimidating to hear a herd of horses running. If I were in the field with them, I would run, too!

This same sort of mentality applies to humans. I was once on a rather crowded street in a city when one small group of teenage boys decided to run and scream through the crowd. No one knew why they were doing this, but most of the people started to run away from the imaginary danger!

Some of them even jumped into their cars and sped away. I think that the boys had no clue of the harm they could have caused by starting a mass panic.

By Oceana — On Dec 19, 2012

I have seen herds of horses and cows running away from something that spooked them, and it is rather scary. My first instinct is to look around and see what the danger is, because if something as large as a horse is running away, it must be horrible.

Often, it's nothing but a dog that has barked at one of the animals and caused them all to run. It's funny how just one animal running can make the whole herd stampede.

By mutsy — On Mar 02, 2011

BrickBack - I remember those days. Everyone was either a real estate agent or a mortgage broker.

I also wanted to add that you also see herd behavior like this when a really hot item comes out on the market.

For example, when the IPhone first came out on the market people waited in lines for days in order to be the first to buy the phone. The same thing happened with the IPad.

This behavior also tends to come out during the holidays when parents have to have that coveted toy of the year.

Years ago I remember parents fighting to get that last Tickle me Elmo or those Beanie Babies. In fact, when Mc Donald’s did a promotion giving away Beanie Babies with their Happy Meals, many people where buying the Happy Meal in order to get the Beanie Babies and then discarded the food.

This set off a large controversy because there were hungry people all over that needed food and these people were throwing the food away like it was trash.

By BrickBack — On Feb 28, 2011

Cafe41 - I could not agree more. I have to say that herd behavior and investments also go hand in hand.

For example, if there is any negative news regarding a company people immediately begin to sell off shares of the stock. The same could be said of the positive news.

When a company has very positive news to report people buy the stock in droves which drives up the stock price.

This also happened in the real estate market during its peak. People realized that homes were appreciating at 20% or more every few months and thought they could make a fast profit.

This speculation drove the prices of the homes up even more.

However, people continued to buy and many bought multiple homes in order to take advantage of the appreciation.

Banks also followed the herd mentality because they were lending money to everyone and offering no documentation loans meaning that the bank would take you on your word for what you stated your income was. It was crazy.

By cafe41 — On Feb 26, 2011

DentalFloss - I think that is an excellent example of herd psychology. Teenagers are very prone to what is popular or what everyone else is doing and often will follow the group in order for them to receive acceptance.

You see this lot with status items. For example, if everyone in the popular group has an IPad then everyone will try to go out and buy it so that they could receive the same level of reverence from their peers.

This is why it is important to stop behavior like drinking and engaging in premarital sex because many teens are following the herd and seeking acceptance. They don’t understand the long term implications of their behavior because they don’t have the perspective yet to know.

By DentalFloss — On Feb 02, 2011

Anyone doubtful of herd behavior need only spend a bit of time with some high school students. I imagine after a day, or even a class, with a bunch of 16 year old students, it will no longer seem like an odd notion; often groups talk if someone else does, and if no one has the courage to go first, class discussions can take a very long time. Similarly, people in the same class "herd" often claim to know the same things or not know others, are late or early at the same time as others in the herd, and other seemingly unnoticeable habits. These all build up the social group of the class, and affect how they learn as well.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a LanguageHumanities contributor,...
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