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The Stupidity of Crowds

Our brains are wired for herding

Like many, I've been disturbed by the roiling of the financial markets and the sheeplike stampede to let the Treasury bail out the banks. Although worrisome in its own right, this is a topic for a different blog (one that I wrote about six months ago). No, what really has me freaked out is the gas panic going on in metro Atlanta, where I live.

As near as I can tell, this is a local phenomenon. Atlanta has a long history of, well, acting stupid when something even remotely out of the ordinary threatens the status quo. We get a snowstorm about every three years, but when it does snow you can count on the grocery stores being cleared of milk and bread. Nevermind the fact that snow only stays on the ground a day or two.

It started with Hurricane Ike. Rumors of a disruption in the gas supply caused people to top off their tanks. This, in turn, led to a few gas stations to running dry. The empty pumps freaked out more people, causing even more folks to top off the tanks and now setting off something just short of a full fledged panic. All the gas stations in my neighborhood ran dry this weekend. A few miles away, the one remaining station that did have gas had a line of cars that ran twenty deep.

Sadly, his herd behavior is the norm not only for sheep, but for humans. We evolved in social groups, and as a result, our brains are hardwired to place great importance on what other people think. When we see a group of people doing something, our brains are wired to disregard our own perceptions and accept, lock-stock-and-barrel, what everyone else is doing. Fortunately, we have a reasonably active prefrontal cortex that can override this. Sadly, I see little evidence of prefrontal activity in either metro Atlanta or the finance sector (and forget about Washington).

What can you do? I gained some insight into this problem several years ago when my research group performed an fMRI study of social conformity. We recreated a version of the famous Asch experiment of the 1950s and used fMRI to determine how a group changes an individual’s perception of the world. Two things emerged from the study. First, when individuals conform to a group's opinion, even when the group is wrong, we observe changes in perceptual circuits in the brain, suggesting that groups change the way we see the world. Second, when an individual stands up against the group, we observed strong activation in the amygdala, a structure closely associated with fear. All this tells me that not only are our brains not wired for truly independent thought, but it takes a huge amount of effort to overcome the fear of standing up for one's own beliefs and speaking out.

The silver lining to this story is that the amygdala response disappears when even a small minority speaks up. All it takes is the recruitment of one like-minded individual to tamp down this fear response.

So there it is. I'm speaking out against group stupidity. Join me.

Disclaimer: I am also plugging my new book, Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently (Harvard Business Press, 2008).