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Is There a Human Herd Instinct?

Cattle run together. Birds flock together. Bees swarm together. This happens through instinct. But what about humans? Do we have a “human herd instinct”?

Various writings by social scientists have theorized about such an instinct. Freud posited a human “death instinct,” which he tied not only to an instinct to die but also an instinct to engage in destructive and aggressive behavior such as war, thereby inferring herd behavior. The British surgeon Wilfred Trotter popularized the term, “herd behavior” and explored explicitly how such behavior influences humans both during times of peace and war. Carl Jung wrote about the collective unconscious, which he saw as an instinctual force in our brains. I link mass behavior with group narcissism, which fosters a sense of superiority to other groups.

When we look at anthropological studies we find that humans have gathered in tribes from the beginning of human history. They still live in tribes in some parts of the world, such as the Amazon Jungle in South America. When we study history we see a succession of groups that assemble, usually under one leader, competing with one another for control and domination of land and each other. We also find a succession of religions competing with one another for ideological dominance.

If viewed from this perspective, one can perhaps see in the divisiveness that is currently predominate in America, between Democrats and Republicans and between conservatives and liberals what appears to be a certain kind of “herd instinct.” Republicans congregate with republicans and Democrats with democrats. Cattle who behave according to a herd instinct tend to engage in copycat behavior. People do likewise. Republicans run with Republicans, and if one Republican says “Repeal and Replace,” the herd runs in that direction. Democrats run with Democrats and if one Democrat says, “Get Trump,” then all the Democrats run down that alley.

Christians have historically demanded that everybody join the Christian movement and branded those who don’t join as “heathens”. Radical Muslims have recently demanded that everybody believe in their radical version of Islam, and whose who are don’t believe in their version are called “infidels.” Infidels must be punished, sometimes by being beheaded. Various sects of Hinduism have likewise assumed a superiority over other sects and in some way branded outsiders.

Another aspect of running with the herd is that the herd emboldens its members. When everybody is doing it, the consensus gives permission to do it more. Hence people in herds will begin to look down on all who are not part of the herd and find reasons to persecute them. There is a human tendency, a human narcissism, to find reasons to feel superior to others. Families do this by assuming they are happier, more talented, higher-classed, better dressed, more educated, richer and generally better people than other families. As they feel more emboldened, members of groups begin to behave more callously and more viciously, justifying this behavior with trumped up reasoning. For example, in Nazi Germany all kinds of atrocities were done to Jews because they weren’t part of the group (weren’t German) and were therefore demonized and persecuted. Members and followers of the Nazi’s became one herd and treated Jews however they wanted, having come up with many reasons why Jews deserved to be treated badly.

Herds engage in herd-thinking (groupthink) and do not make fine distinctions based on reality. People are either right or wrong. There is no in-between. According to current liberal ideology, liberals are right and everybody else is dangerously wrong and must be punished. According to the conservative ideology, liberals are all fakes and liars. Recently in Charlottesville a group of radical liberals showed up at what was intended to be a peaceful protest by the alt-right. The radical liberals branded the groups on the right as “white supremacists,” and this justified them in rushing the protestors and creating a violent atmosphere. The alt-right people branded the liberals as “antifa,” and this justified an alt-right sympathizer to run down liberals with a car.

President Trump was criticized when he noted that both sides were responsible for what happened in Charlottesville, and the radical liberal herd pressured Congress to pass a document condemning white supremacists and other “hate groups,” and then Congress pressured Trump to sign the document. Meanwhile, radical liberals view their own acts of hate (such as rushing the “alt-right” protestors and creating a disturbance in Charlottsville, as entirely justified and therefore having nothing to do with hate. Hence the radical liberal herd has succeeded in shutting down anybody who disagrees with it.

The radical left herd has dominated our culture since it began its violent protests during the Viet Nam war in the 1970s. Successive civil rights, feminist and gay rights movements have joined the herd. Through their rebellious and sometimes violent actions they have managed to intimidate our culture, forcing their values on our government, educational system (from kindergarten to graduate school), and on our values. Nobody ever voted on these changes; they were forced on us by the “normalized revolt” of the radical herd.

The reactionary right showed its ugly head during the McCarthy era in the late 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy went on a witch-hunt for Communists. It has continued to run as a herd since then, assuming a moral superiority to “bleeding-heart liberals” and “libtards,” assuming a moral superiority over them.

It appears that the radical liberal herd won’t give up its tactics and power without a fight. And it appears that the so-called “alt-right” may give the radical left that fight. Some are predicting another civil war pitting the radical liberal herd against the reactionary right herd. Well, at any rate, a civil war will serve to distract us from the real problems of humanity.

Is There a Human Herd Instinct?

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2017). Is There a Human Herd Instinct?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Nov 2017
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