It is a well-known fact that many animals exhibit herding behavior. We have all seen this at one point or another: a gaggle of geese, a pack of wolves, a pride of lions. But this behavior also applies to a much more complex animal: human beings. And while humans have been known to travel in groups, this herding behavior manifests itself in other, more subtle ways. In this essay, I will explore this grouping phenomenon, the driving forces behind it, and how it relates to our own sense of personal identity.
Let us begin with a fundamental truth, one which forms the root of all loneliness: human life is a solitary experience. I don’t mean this in a physical sense; most of us interact with other people on a daily basis. Rather, I mean that each person is the only one to experience his or her particular life. Ignoring psychiatric disorders and dual-hemisphere theories of personality, it can be said that each mind contains one Self, and this Self has no inner companion. In other words, each person is the only entity inside his or her body, and what this person experiences is therefore wholly unique to him or her. In this sense, while we may interact with others physically, our lives are perceived by each one of us individually and alone, and on that basic level, we must cope with our existence individually and alone. This includes the experience of death, hence the concept that everyone dies alone. Only the individual can experience his or her own death.
All of this is rather depressing, so it is no surprise that human beings have developed two mechanisms to cope with this solitary existence. These mechanisms are Love and the Group Instinct. I will focus here on the Group Instinct, since Love is far too complex to dissect in a single essay. However, it should be noted that the two are strongly interrelated: Love is the act of giving oneself to a specific person, while the Group Instinct involves giving oneself to everyone else. It should also be noted that both have been occasionally regarded as dangerous.
The Group Instinct, to put it simply, is a drive towards a collective experience. It is the urge to take part in something greater than oneself, to join in a mass alignment of thought. By doing so, one can feel as though an element of his or her existence is shared with others. One must remember that this cannot and does not remove the solitary element of human existence; one’s life is always experienced alone. However, by aligning their perceptions with the perceptions of others, people can feel a link between their lives and the lives of those around them. While the individual experiences are not necessarily the same, there is a common stimulus or similar pattern of thought, and it is this that binds the group.
I’ll start with an obvious example: New Years Eve. This is the ultimate group experience, one in which most members of every time zone celebrate or at least acknowledge a major event simultaneously. There is a strong feeling of unity on New Years. In New York City, everyone at Times Square is watching the ball drop. Their brains are observing the same common stimulus; their lives have all been inextricably intertwined. This intersection of experience is central to the Group Instinct. After the night is over, everyone in those confetti-strewn city blocks will go home to their separate and distinct lives. But for those few hours of celebration, they could not be less alone
(Note: While I made mention of a “common stimulus,” one should not assume that this stimulus is perceived identically by all involved. In fact, there is no such thing as an “identical stimulus,” since there are too many factors and too much inherent randomness for any two stimuli to truly be perceived equally. Nietzsche himself noted the “illogical tendency” to “treat as equal what is merely similar,” reminding us that “nothing is really equal.” In the case of New Years, everyone watching the ball drop has a distinct and unique viewing angle. Television does not negate this, as everyone still has a unique viewing angle of the TV screen.)
The Group Instinct becomes more interesting when less obvious cases are considered. For example: there is a tendency for some to pay close attention to record reviews, and to allow the opinion of the reviewer to influence their personal opinion of an album or song. On the surface, this could be regarded as a failure of character, stemming perhaps from a lack of self-confidence and a need for reaffirmation. However, this fits perfectly within the framework of the Group Instinct. By aligning one’s opinion with the opinion of others, the individual is taking part in a group experience. In this situation, what binds the group is not a physical experience, but rather a shared opinion. When the listener enjoys a song, he or she knows that others are enjoying it too. In this way, the individual takes part in an act of collective enjoyment.
Music and the Group Instinct have always been strongly connected, and the formation of various “scenes” is clear evidence of this. Groups form around specific genres of music, allowing like-minded fans to connect with one another and create tight social networks. People in these groups generally have more in common than mere music alone; styles of clothing and shared ideologies also serve to unify the members of the scene. By dressing alike and thinking alike, these individuals synchronize elements of their lives to create a collective experience.
The Group Instinct also explains the disturbing attraction to public disasters. People are often addicted to live coverage of large-scale catastrophes, or even smaller-scale catastrophes that merit national attention due to their tragic nature. Obviously there is an element of compassion involved; human beings worry for the safety and well-being of others. But there is another force at work. We are all worried about the victims of a tragedy, but we also find comfort in the fact that everyone else is worried, too. There is a collective focus on one single issue, and this alignment of thought is an obvious sign of the Group Instinct. Because of this instinct, the individual is drawn to news items that will attract the most attention from the largest group of people. Think about it: what’s more enjoyable to watch? The local news or the national news? Both have the potential for relevance, but the national news has the potential to attract national attention, therefore providing the larger group experience.
The Group Instinct is a strong instinct, but there are many cases when people will not seek out the largest group experience possible. One example is the stereotypical Indie Rock Elitist, an individual who will reject bands that have become too popular and are listened to by too many people. How can we explain this apparent failure of the Group Instinct? The answer lies in a second drive, one that opposes the Group Instinct and promotes the conservation of a unique personal identity. For the purposes of this article, I shall refer to this drive as the Identity. These two drives are always at work, creating a careful balance between the shared elements of the individual and the unique, distinctive elements. The Identity is what prevents us from giving ourselves entirely to the collective experience. Without the Identity, there would be no individual opinions or personalities, resulting in a state of complete conformity. However, since all individuals would be conforming to each other simultaneously, it is difficult to predict what would result from this scenario. It is possible that a state of Zero Identity would lead to the generation of a global unified consciousness, as each individual would give itself completely to the group, functioning much like a cell within a larger body. Then again, it is also possible that everyone would just revert to a primal state and/or die.
As I mentioned earlier, the Group Instinct operates along with Love as a coping mechanism against loneliness. However, how the two interact with each other remains to be explored. Are they diametrically opposed? Does a strong Group Instinct indicate weak Love, and vice versa? And how does Identity fit into all this? Remember that Group Instinct and Identity are opposing forces; a weak Group Instinct would indicate a strong Identity. If, as suggested, a weak Group Instinct also indicates strong Love, it could be postulated that stronger Identity is directly correlated with stronger relationships. In a way, this makes a lot of sense; it is easier for two people to attract each other if they both have distinctive and unique personalities. Obviously, many people with weak and vaguely defined personalities get into relationships as well, but how well do these relationships fare in comparison? How strong is the bond?
In the end, human beings are herd animals, like all the others. We live together, we think together, we worry together. But our dependence on one another is not a weakness; it is a universal constant, a natural consequence of our own diversity. As a friend of mine once pointed out, “every man is an island” and “no man is an island unto himself” are directly conflicting popular quotes. But we can now understand that both are true in different ways: our own isolated existence drives us to share it with others.