Are You Immune to “Herd Thinking”?

Are you one of the early adopters or what some might term ‘a renegade’ in your farming community? Do you wonder why other farmers are still farming like their fathers did? Or are you perhaps still not sure about making steps toward biological farming? Why is this so?

This is a question that has often challenged us. But on reading a recent article realised that it has more to do with how we are wired up than anything to do with facts and figures. Have you ever heard a smoker defend their behavior by saying their grandfather smoked a pack a day … lived to the ripe old age of ninety … and was never sick a day in his life? Despite mountains of evidence that smoking kills hundreds of thousands of people each year, the fact that one single solitary person known by this individual to have survived until age 90 says smoking is harmless.

Emotional impact beats statistical evidence every time. We are hard-wired to pay attention to things we can experience through our senses. That’s how our ancestors sensed danger and opportunity and stayed alive. In the dark and dangerous rain forests and caves of pre-history our forefathers were on constant watch for the tiniest little contrast in their surroundings that signaled potential danger. Everything was suspect until it could be compared with something known to be harmless.

Monkey see, monkey do: Human beings are natural born imitators. Our ability to emulate others is one of our greatest strengths. Not only did mimicry facilitate learning and progress in primeval times, it allowed an individual to increase his or her odds of self-preservation in a crisis. When fleeing a predator, all members of the tribe instinctively moved to the center of the group, thereby increasing their chances of survival.

Conformity of behavior perpetuated the species. A great many of our cultural institutions were originally designed from the ground up to impose conformity and grease the wheels of authoritarian rule. As a small child you learned to line up in single file, to dress in a certain way, to sing the same songs and say the same prayers as everybody else … and basically “go along to get along” – or suffer the consequences. All of this conditioning creates enormous pressure to follow the crowd without critically examining where the crowd might be headed. And so beliefs tend to spread like viruses among people. The probability of an idea spreading actually increases in direct proportion to the number of people infected.

All of us have built-in biases that make us behave in predictable ways that are almost automatic. The most powerful of these biases are part of our survival program. Some of them are basic, instinctual, built right into our DNA. Others are more complex, the result of social conditioning. Most of them are counter-intuitive.

How are your beliefs affecting your farming practices? Have you ever stopped to ask why you are doing what you are doing?