Have you noticed how, when crossing a busy road, you feel a sudden urge to speed up and melt into the crowd? Whether you are in Rio de Janeiro or Bangkok, New Delhi or New York City, your animal instinct tells you that it is safer to venture as part of a herd than on your own. Fear brings us closer together. The evidence is not just anecdotal. When we are herding, neuroimaging experiments show increased activation in the amygdala area of the brain, where fear and other negative emotions are processed. While you may feel vulnerable and exposed on your own, being part of the herd gives you a distinct sense of protection. You know in your guts that, in the midst of others, the risk of being hit by a car is lower because it is somehow distributed among the group’s members. The more of them, the lower the risk. There is safety in numbers. And so much more than mere safety.
Herding also comes with an intoxicating sense of power: as members of a crowd, we feel much stronger and braver than we are in fact. And sometimes we act accordingly. The same person who, on his own, wouldn’t ‘hurt a fly’ will not hesitate to set a government building on fire or rob a liquor store when part of an angry mass. The most mild-mannered of us can make the meanest comments as part of an online mob. A herd can do wonders of psychological transformation in its individual members; in no time, prudence turns into folly, caution into recklessness, decency into savagery. Once caught up in the maelstrom, it is extremely difficult to hold back: you see it as your duty to participate. Any act of lynching, ancient or modern, literal or on social media, displays this feature. ‘A murder shared with many others, which is not only safe and permitted, but indeed recommended, is irresistible to the great majority of men,’ writes Elias Canetti in Crowds and Power (1960).
The herd can also give its members a disproportionate sense of personal worth. No matter how empty or miserable their individual existence may otherwise be, belonging to a certain group makes them feel accepted and recognised – even respected. There is no hole in one’s personal life, no matter how big, that one’s intense devotion to one’s tribe cannot fill, no trauma that it does not seem to heal. That’s why cults and gangs, fringe organisations or sects hold such an extraordinary appeal: to a disoriented soul, they can offer a sense of fulfilment and recognition that neither family nor friends nor profession can supply. A crowd can be therapeutic in the same way in which a highly toxic substance can have curative powers.
Herding, then, engenders a paradoxical form of identity: you are somebody not despite the fact that you’ve melted into the crowd, but because of it. You may be nobody on your own, and your life an empty shell, yet once you’ve managed to establish a meaningful connection with the herd, its volcanic, boundless life overflows into yours and more than fulfils it. You will not be able to find yourself in the crowd, but that’s the least of your worries: you are now part of something that feels so much grander and nobler than your poor self. Your connection with the life of the herd not only fills an inner vacuum but adds a sense of purpose to your disoriented existence. And the more individuals bring their disorientatedness to the party, the livelier it gets. And all the more dangerous. [Continue reading…]