Herd behavior: the psychology behind it

You usually encounter harmless forms of this phenomenon. However, herd behavior can also control companies, organizations, population groups and sometimes entire nations. On a large scale, the phenomenon increasingly resembles a malignant tumor that slowly attacks all surrounding cells, as the mass falls like defenseless dominoes before some idiotic idea. Although this herd spirit can change shape, one psycho-social name suffices: groupthink.


The term groupthink is a nod to the coined word doublethink from George Orwell’s novel 1984, in the book a system of mental deception, necessary to brainwash the masses and keep them in line with a dictatorship. In the 1970s, the American Irving Janis introduced his theory of groupthink: A way of thinking that occurs when the desire to maintain harmony in a group makes a realistic view with alternative trains of thought impossible. However,

it is not as black and white as it might seem, not every group is equally susceptible to groupthink. According to Janis, it is mainly close-knit, homogeneous and isolated groups that are at great risk of ending up in the wrong pattern. Vague guidelines and lack of clarity through standards and leadership can also contribute to this. Furthermore, stress and external threats form a perfect breeding ground for blind obedience.


It is not always clear whether there is (serious forms of) groupthink. A nuance is therefore appropriate: just as with medical conditions, we should not sound the alarm if a group exhibits one of the characteristics of groupthink. Yet, according to Janis, there is reason enough to panic if the following symptoms are observed:
Unity is of paramount importance. The members are not quick to criticize what happens within the group. There is also little tolerance for criticism from outside.

An unconditional belief arises in one’s own right and inviolability. The group tends towards recklessness, ignores possible dangers, takes extreme risks and suffers from excessive optimism and overconfidence. The practice and consequences of the group’s actions matter little. Why would you evaluate, what is there left to test if you are right anyway?

All ideas, opinions and arguments that are inconsistent with those of the group are immediately explained away. Anyone who contradicts is immediately an opponent, without a doubt an enemy, the representative of absolute evil.
There is also stereotyping and short-sightedness within the group. Group members who dare to adopt a critical attitude apply for a place in the opposition. Comments are experienced as a threat and a lack of loyalty. Logically, the group members will censor themselves and keep conflicting thoughts to themselves. The circle is complete when this silence is subsequently seen as a sign that the group is indeed united and indissoluble.
A remarkable phenomenon are the so-called mindguards who monitor the thinking of the group, control other group members and keep out incorrect information. The mindguards are not so much appointed, but automatically take on this role. Some members feel called to this task, for example because of loyalty, conviction or to gain prestige and recognition.

Fatal case: the Challenger

January 28, 1986. The Space Shuttle Challenger catches fire 73 seconds after launch. The entire crew is killed when the Space Shuttle explodes on the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. The launch of the Space Shuttle was initially scheduled for January 22, but because the device was still a number of things wrong, it was decided to postpone the date. Now work had to continue.

While most scientists and technicians within NASA felt the hot breath of the schedule on their necks, a technician pressed the emergency button. He was concerned the rubber O-rings in the thrusters might be out of order. Parts of the Shuttle were probably not yet prepared for launch, the device was not ready. You would almost expect that all these leading scientists would stand up at that moment. But the opposite was true: several meetings and discussions later, the vast majority still agreed that the launch would go ahead as usual.

The group responsible for decision-making regarding the Space Shuttle clearly showed a number of symptoms of groupthink. An important warning was not heeded, not for lack of scholars, but because the warning conflicted with the group’s purpose. Namely: fire as quickly as possible! Moreover, the group was reckless and paid little attention to the risks associated with the decisions. Those few who dared to go against the current and insisted that something was seriously wrong went unheard. The group thought itself invincible, which meant the loss of seven astronauts.

Final countdown

The consequences of groupthink can be very serious. The danger lies in the fact that group members are so eager to meet the group’s demands that both common sense and morality lose out. The group members value their status within the group much more than they worry about whether their actions are right or wrong. The questions of conscience do not have to be answered by themselves, they leave that to the group. The craziest situations result, and no one checks, no one says anything about it. Through herd behavior, millions of people can become convinced of something that is completely immoral or incorrect, it is a (possible) explanation for the biggest mistakes in history. It is not so much dictators or cunning propaganda machines that are to blame. There is no need for a foolproof regime to keep the herd trudging in one direction. From the moment people relinquish personal responsibility and refuse to think for themselves, it’s a countdown. The leadership naturally ends up in the hands of one tyrannical, invisible and sometimes incredibly stupid power: that of the group.