Sheep effect (or Herd behavior)

Posted: 07/12/2010 in Facebook, Psychology
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Have you noticed the last sheep effect on facebook? – The one when almost everybody changed his profile picture to a favorite Cartoon of his childhood.

Let me clarify first, what is the sheep effect?

Herding sheep

Sheep effect happens when individuals are herded by a mass pressure to perform a specific task. It is the pressure of a group on an individual urging him to imitate others (usually the majority) intuitively without thinking about the action he’s going to make. In other words: “If everybody is doing that, why am I not doing that too? Let’s move with the flow”.

How does a shepherd herd his sheep back to the farm? He just form a small group of sheep, and leave the rest to the “Sheep effect”: all other individual sheep will ask the same question: why am I not following the mass? And they end up all doing the same task: following the group to the farm.  It is easy to herd sheep, they have no resistance, there are no rebells.

Perhaps Mark Twain’s quote best explain the sheep effect in one sentence:

We are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going, and then go with the drove. –Mark Twain

The first time this ‘sheep effect’ was underlined and demonstrated in public is in this funny hidden camera video (below):  Of all the people in the elevator, there is only one victim (the individual that they are trying to herd), the others are accomplices (or the the mass of people who are trying to ‘herd’ that individual).

How does this work?

Influence comes from  the word “influentia”:   an ethereal fluid that flowed down from the planets and the stars to affect human actions. Unseen and unnoticed, influentia was thought to subtly push humans in one direction or another without completely controlling them. This is the myth, the real thing is that influence does not come from planets but from people. But how many people are needed to start the flow?

A study led by University of Leeds researcher Jens Krause with PhD student John Dyer, and published in the Animal Behaviour Journal answers our question.

Professor Krause  conducted a series of experiments where groups of people were asked to walk randomly around a large hall. Within the group, a select few received more detailed information about where to walk. Participants were not allowed to communicate with one another but had to stay within arms length of another person. The findings show that in all cases, the ‘informed individuals’ were followed by others in the crowd, forming a self-organising, snake-like structure.

“We’ve all been in situations where we get swept along by the crowd,” says Professor Krause. “But what’s interesting about this research is that our participants ended up making a consensus decision despite the fact that they weren’t allowed to talk or gesture to one another. In most cases the participants didn’t realise they were being led by others.”

Other experiments in the study used groups of different sizes, with different ratios of ‘informed individuals’. The research findings show that as the number of people in a crowd increases, the number of informed individuals decreases. In a small group, like the elevator experience, 4 people were required to herd just one person (80%), however in large crowds of 200 or more, five per cent of the group is enough to influence the direction in which it travels and I guess a  much smaller percentage has herd a good percentage of the largest social network!

“We initially started looking at consensus decision making in humans because we were interested in animal migration, particularly birds, where it can be difficult to identify the leaders of a flock,” says Professor Krause. “But it just goes to show that there are strong parallels between animal grouping behavior and human crowds.” “There are many situations where this information could be used to good effect. At one extreme, it could be used to inform emergency planning strategies and at the other, it could be useful in organizing pedestrian flow in busy areas,” said Krause.

Why does the sheep effect works?

Maybe ‘gravity’ is a reason why sheep effect works: Each individual is a planet, when a coalition forms, it gathers mass, and mass has gravity which attracts more mass…  I have discussed earlier in this post about security and risks. Sometimes, the same principle applies here: The ‘sheep effect’ works fine because people feel reassured, secured to follow the crowd: they are not alone. Each individual says intuitively unconsciously: it is too hard to open my own way on my own, it is much easier to follow the crowd! If I fail, that way, I will not be alone and I can find someone else (the one I followed) to blame.

In another hand, we can’t also live alone just to escape the ‘sheep effect’. It is true that men first learn through imitation. But men cannot progress if they just continue to imitate forever. Knowing when to follow and when to lead is very important…

“If you want something you’ve never had before, you’ve got to do something you’ve never done before.” – Drina Reed

Now it is the time to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How many of your choices do you make willfully, and how often do you just conform?
  2. Does a cooperative, civil society require its members conform?
  3. Do we each have the right to refuse to conform, to engage in civil disobedience if need be?
  4. Do you personally accept and admire those who don’t conform?
  5. Is it better to conform or to dissent?

The idea that men are created free and equal is both true and misleading: men are created different; they lose their social freedom and their individual autonomy in seeking to become like each other. –David Riesman


NB: I am really sorry if anybody felt assaulted by this post. I am not implying that anyone who had put a cartoon on his facebook profile is a sheep. I have also chosen a favorite cartoon and put it on my profile – having in my mind that a sheep effect is on his way. I did it for fun – not for child abuse, btw my favorite cartoon is ‘the smurfs’ and I hate slacktivism.

© Assaad Mouawad 2010

  1. Dee says:

    Wondering whether my students can be herded ‘easily’ and create the sheep effect while they are doing class works 😉
    and btw, I love those smurfs character too. I am the painter smurf 😉

    • You can always find a way! The difficult task is to create the first group. In a new game, for example, when no one wants to play first, if you can just convince 5 people to engage in that game, you will see the ‘sheep effect’ 🙂
      NB: Sheep effect works everywhere except in classes, because sheep don’t take courses. LoOoL
      Good luck :)!

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