About midday on March 12, 1928, a dam outside of Los Angeles failed causing an inland tsunami that killed 431 people. It remains one of the great failures of US civil engineering, and is the second-deadliest incident in Californian history. It’s often cited as the inspiration behind American author James Thurber’s satire “The Day the Dam Broke” but, like so many misappropriations on the interwebz, this is incorrect.
Instead, on the afternoon of March 26 in 1913, a dam outside Columbus did not fail, an inland tsunami did not result, and no people were hurt or killed. All that happened was “somebody began to run.” Perhaps they were in a hurry; but then, “somebody else began to run” and a voice was heard to say “Dam!” (or probably “damn!”). But this too was misconstrued. “The dam has broke!” became the cry, and soon “two thousand people were in full flight“.
This humorous non-incident was reported in the Columbus Tribune the next day with an appropriate degree of humiliation, given all the staff at the paper had joined the fleeing mob. It was this non-incident that inspired Thurber’s short satire, not the deadly dam incident fifteen years later. Nevertheless, Thurber’s satire is frequently used as an example of herd mentality (no, not the Trump version).
The concept of ‘herd mentality’ is a topic of enduring fascination. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841) was an early study on crowd psychology by journalist Charles Mackay, whose thesis could perhaps be distilled into one quote: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.“
More recently, Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point: How Little Thing Can make a Big Difference (2000) observed that ‘social epidemics’ occur when key individuals combine to achieve disproportionately synergistic outcomes. Gladwell identifies and labels an elite cohort of influencers who trigger (or tip) changes that go on to effect many of us. One might well call these individuals ‘experts‘, be their actions witting or not, who stand out from the herd.
On the face of it, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than The Few (2004) by James Surowiecki argues exactly the opposite. Large groups of people can collectively make better decisions than any so-called ‘expert’ might make alone. Drilling down, though, for this crowd to be as wise, it must be composed of individuals who have a diveristy of mutually independent opinions which in combination produce the superior result. A crowd of experts, in other words, is an antidote to herd mentality.
Surowiecki’s model received a boost following a novel 2018 experiment in Buenos Aires which set out to test whether a crowd which shared its diverse opinions to reach a consensus would fare worse than a crowd of independent experts. Expecting group-think, hive-mind and the dreaded Trumpian herd-immunity, “remarkably, combining as few as four consensus choices outperformed the wisdom of thousands of individuals.” Gosh. Maybe a rabidly right-wing crazy-lady with click-baity cleavage will protect us!
Pushing the Mackay homage further, in The Madness of Crowds (2019) Douglas Murray distills all the above in his diatribe on identity politics. His argument — that our efforts to achieve social justice are leading to a society where there is no social justice at all — seems moot if one but glances through the virtual window. Witness all the sad rebels without cause — gay men, lesbians, ‘Fourth Wave’ feminists — still tilting at windmills. We are the herd, and the herd is us.
Cognitive dissonance. Hard enough to eliminate it in yourself, let alone if you’re part of a dissonant herd. QAnon remains despite 6th January. More than a third of Republicans still believe Donald Trump continues to wage war against a Deep State cabal of Democrats and celebrities who sacrifice children to Moloch and/or sexually abuse them and/or cannibalise them. “Save The Children!” indeed, especially if their parents worship Q.
So many intelligent people, so swayed by obvious lies. Whatever you think about ‘herd mentality’ you’d have to agree that FITD technique (foot-in-the-door) works. A compliance tactic that aims to get a person to commit a harmful task by having them commit a harmless task first, the evidence is everywhere. How easy to reconcile criminal violence when the violent criminal is a member of your own herd. Just one example: how many Christians still believe Joe Biden did not win the US election?
I despair sometimes. But I also ask if I’m not also a member of a cult — those Douglas Murray scorns in The Madness of Crowds — urging for a narrow definition of what is appropriate in this world. That would be awful. But I’m not: I continue to gleefully transgress, I won’t hold my tongue. Agree, disagree, speak your mind — because I’ll speak mine. I’m not swayed by cults whether it’s QAnon or Christianity, because as Sting (and Charles Mackay) remind us “men go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one” (All This Time, 2009)