HERD MENTALITY, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY!

Stock Market

Herd mentality is defined as people’s tendency to make decisions based upon the actions of others. In many areas of life, humans tend to follow a minority of individuals without realizing it; this is observed particularly when verbal communication is not possible such as in the case of a stampede when someone screams “fire” in a movie theater or a football field.

Interest in understanding this phenomenon is driven by its potential value in planning crisis management strategies in cases of tumultuous events such as earthquakes or hurricanes, as well as in organizing mass flow in crowded areas. It would be interesting to find out whether the authorities in Saudi Arabia have strategies in place for dealing with sudden stampedes during the performance of the annual pilgrimage (Hajj) rituals in Holy Mecca. I recall that there were some such incidents in years past.

The tendency for consensual decision making in humans is observed in less severe situations, such as the stock market, when rumors about upcoming bad news cause a panic attack and send people looking to exit their position in a stock, thus pushing prices down in what is termed a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is why a few years ago, the New York Stock Exchange instituted circuit breakers to reduce volatility and promote investor confidence. The pause in trading is meant to give investors some time to digest incoming information and thus make informed choices during periods of high market volatility. http://usequities.nyx.com/markets/nyse-equities/circuit-breakers

Herd mentality can be partly blamed for the internet bubble in the late nineties when the rush to buy internet stocks pushed prices to unjustified levels; the same can be said about the real estate bubble which contributed to the current global financial crisis with people borrowing to buy properties that they could not afford because others were doing the same thing.

The fashion industry benefits extremely from the herd mentality phenomenon. It spends millions of dollars sponsoring very visible events such as the Grammy Awards, and dressing movie celebrities, knowing that they are viewed as “trend setters”. If it wasn’t for this consensus thinking and the need to follow the herd, one would need to buy new clothes only once every five years instead of shopping every season in order to “stay fashionable”. In some under-developed countries people consider it shameful and almost disgraceful to be viewed as “unfashionable” by not wearing the latest fashions, using the latest smart phone technology, and driving the best sport utility vehicle, even if it means being burdened by debt in order to “keep up with the Joneses”!

Careers are also affected by the “group think” tendencies. For instance in Lebanon, traditionally it has been popular to study law, engineering and medicine, whether or not one is competent in these fields. Currently business administration and nutrition are “in vogue”. High school graduates typically “follow the herd” by applying to the same university chosen by their classmates whether locally or in a foreign country, and they tend to select the same major.

One could say that immigrants “follow the herd” when they live in what eventually grows to be a ghetto, although there are other driving forces behind that behavior, such as maintaining their identity, cultural issues, and easier communication. This has several consequences, some are good, some are bad, and some are ugly! Living in the ghetto helps newcomers feel at home when they first “get off the boat”; however it can hinder assimilation into the newly adopted culture and may prevent the shedding of bad habits (such as heavy smoking) or prohibitive inhibitions (such as refraining from getting a divorce no matter how bad a marriage is), in addition to possibly limiting one’s ambitions; moreover, living in the ghetto helps authorities to monitor foreigners’ activities.

The media and the experts definitely affect people’s ethnic, racial, and religious stereotyping, prejudice, and biases, especially in today’s access to instant news coverage with real time images through smart phones. Following some terrorist acts in the West, there is usually an observed increase in hostility, fear, and incidences of racial discrimination against most foreigners even those who are distantly related to the race of the alleged perpetrators.

“Following the herd” in stereotyping also means that many white Americans would not contemplate setting foot in the mainly Arab-American inhabited city of Dearborn, Michigan in the USA. Surprisingly, in the same way, many Arab Americans in Dearborn have never been to the down-town area of the mostly black-American city of Detroit in Michigan.

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