ATD Blog

The Brain and the Herd Mentality

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

In my last post, we looked at leadership and how leaders can use their understanding of neuroscience to build a relationship with their followers. The “herd instinct” is another aspect of the leader-follower relationship that is illuminated by neuroscience. The neurochemical oxytocin triggers a “bliss response” in the brain whenever we are engaging in social behavior. The brain is an incredibly effective survival machine. One of our most successful survival techniques is our desire to find safety in numbers. When we belong to a group, this bliss response makes us feel warm, safe, and content. When we don’t have a connection with a group, our brain triggers behavior that will compel us to seek new connections until we can get that bliss response again. In the last post I mentioned that oxytocin has been linked to such seemingly unrelated feelings as orgasm and motherhood. The good feeling that we get from belonging to a group is simply another manifestation of our response to engaging with other humans for survival.

Leaders should consider this herd instinct carefully to build followership:

  1. Recognize the power of existing affinities. The “high” that we get from a flood of oxytocin can be habit-forming, possibly even addictive. This means that breaking out of our existing connections can be extremely difficult. Sociologists long have noted how difficult it can be for an individual to escape the influences of a teenage gang, and now we know that gang initiations actually can cause physical change in the brain, which makes it harder to break those bonds.
  2. Encourage the formation of new affinities. If you want people to follow you, their brains must be able to recognize that they are part of a group of followers. Social media, face-to-face meetings, and other tools can help to send those signals to your followers’ brains.
  3. Fight the herd instinct in yourself. The paradox of all of this is that as a leader, you are in danger of falling into the herd mentality yourself. Leading often is uncomfortable, because you may not see other people around you doing similar things—that’s because you are out in front of the pack. When you are leading, your brain will not release the chemical cocktail that makes you feel good. Instead, you may feel anxious and begin to doubt yourself. It will seem safer to run to another group, rather than to start your own.

The good news is that the herd mentality can be broken. Research shows that conscious choices actually will make physical changes in the brain, breaking establishing neural pathways and making it easier to form new ones. Leaders have to change two brains: their own and their followers. Understanding that fact might make it a little easier to deal with the herd instinct effectively.

For more on neuroscience applications for human capital, check out the full blog series here.

About the Author

Margie Meacham, “The Brain Lady,” is a scholar-practitioner in the field of education and learning and president of LearningToGo. She specializes in practical applications for neuroscience to enhance learning and performance. Meacham’s clients include businesses, schools, and universities. She writes a popular blog for the Association of Talent Development and has published two books, Brain Matters: How to Help Anyone Learn Anything Using Neuroscience and The Genius Button: Using Neuroscience to Bring Out Your Inner Genius.

She first became interested in the brain when she went with undiagnosed dyslexia as a child. Although she struggled in the early grades, she eventually taught herself how to overcome the challenge of a slight learning disability and became her high school valedictorian, graduated magna cum laude from Centenary University, and earned her master’s degree in education from Capella University with a 4.0.

Meacham started her professional career in high-tech sales, and when she was promoted to director of training, she discovered her passion for teaching and helping people learn. She became one of the first corporate trainers to use video conferencing and e-learning and started her own consulting company from there. Today she consults for many organizations, helping them design learning experiences that will form new neural connections and marry neuroscience theory with practice.

“I believe we are on the verge of so many wonderful discoveries about how we learn. Understanding what happens in the brain is making us better leaders, teachers, parents, and employees. We have no limits to what we can accomplish with our wonderful brains— the best survival machines ever built.”
—Margie Meacham

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