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Herd behavior


How is it that so many people within a martial art system seem to believe things that are contrary to science, reason, logic, and common sense, such as knocking out a person without even touching the person? Is it that idiots unconsciously recognize each other and tend to herd together without realizing it? Or, is there another reason?

As a school of fish glides through the water, its movements are precise and synchronous. None of the fish dart ahead, lag behind, or drop off to the side. When the school turns, there is no confusion, no collisions, just perfect coordination. Insects, birds, wildebeests, etc. may also be seen moving in the same manner. Why are animals so good at moving together?

Group leads, not the one in front

A flock of birds seems to be controlled by the bird in fro. The lead bird apparently makes quick decisions and causes the flock to duplicate the move as a unit. However, the truth is that the bird move so well together because each one is making simple decisions based on simple interactions with the group.

In 2005, biologist Lain Couzin of Princeton University studied group dynamics using a series of formulas and computer simulations to find out how many informed individuals it would take to alter the direction of a group's movement. Simulation rules required individuals in the model to maintain a minimum distance between themselves and those around them, and some were provided with information about the preferred direction of the group. Couzin discovered that in the computer simulation, it takes only 5 percent of informed individuals to steer the direction of a group and that percentage decreases as a group gets larger.

Only seven are needed to control a group

Enormous flocks of starlings are famous for the way the group seems to move as one huge organism. Scientists have long believed that individual birds oriented themselves by tracking all their neighbors within a certain distance; however, recent research has found another reason for the coordinated movements.

A team of researchers called the Starflag group at the Center for Statistical Mechanics and Complexity at the Italian National Research Institute used six cameras and three observation points to photograph a flock of starlings from several directions at once. Then a computer transformed the images into a single three-dimensional reconstruction of the flock that revealed that each of the birds only tracks six or seven other starlings at a time, independent of their distances.

Five percent rule

In 2007, biologist Jens Krause and John Dryer of the University of Leeds in England went to the convention center in Cologne, Germany to attempt to replicate Couzin's results using live subjects. Two hundred subjects were told to move freely around the 400 by 230-foot room, stay in constant motion, and remain close to their neighbor, but not to communicate with each other in any way. As the subjects moved about the room, they formed two concentric rings, each rotating in opposite directions, like the way many species of fish are known to swim.

In another experiment, the scientists want to determine if the 5 percent rule would apply to humans. Five subjects, less than 3 percent of the group, all wearing yellow caps, received instructions unknown to the rest. They were told to move toward a number on the clock like face painted on the room's floor. In the end of the test, it was found that the five individuals were not enough to steer the crowd. However, when 10 people, 5 percent of the group, were used, the whole group followed them. Five percent appears to be the critical number needed to influence a group.

Scare tactics

In another experiment, one person portrayed a predator fish. The group was told to watch for the predator and to keep away from him by at least two arm's lengths. The predator was instructed to pursue the nearest prey always.

The results were dramatic. The prey separated in front of the predator in perfect unison and quickly moved back together once he passed, forming a protective envelope of inviolable space within the group. The predator was only briefly able to split his prey. The human herd behaved exactly as a school of fish behaves around a predator.

In the next experiment, the researchers want to know what would happen if most of the decision-makers attempted to lead the herd in one direction while a minority decided to move in the opposite direction.

Couzin's computer simulations had shown that, after a period, the majority would gain control, probably because there is a natural assumption that any decision made by the majority is more likely to be correct than one made by the minority.

Within the 200-person group, two subgroups were created, one composed of 20 people and one of 10, and each subgroup was given opposite instructions. This time, the human herd did not react the way the simulations predicted. As the difference of intention became clear to the group, the round ring stretched itself out into a kind of sausage shape, in which people, inspired by the example of the subgroups, move back and forth between the two targets. It appears that when the two chosen goals lie close enough to each other, members of the herd tried them both to find out which was best.

Herding is smart sometimes

For example, when we disembark at an unfamiliar airport, we initially have no idea which way to go. However, after the first passen¬gers off the plane find the signs to the baggage claim and set off in that direction, the rest simply follow them, assuming those in front know where they are going. The herd mentality prompts people to believe that anyone with knowledge is qualified to lead the pack.

Herding isn't smart sometimes

A group of people, such as a group of martial artists, may be led to believe something by only 5 percent of the group. In a martial art school, the “master” directs the group and teaches them the methods of the martial art. The “master” does not have to convince the entire group, he or she only needs to convince 5 percent of the group, and then, over time, those five percent will gradually convince the rest of the group. If the teachings are unscientific, illogical, and unreasonable, students with knowledge and with independent minds will soon see the “master” and his followers as idiots and frauds, and will leave the school. However, students who stay with the school will be led to believe the teachings of the school and will become proponents of the false teachings.

People must be careful of the things to which they expose themselves. Churchgoers listen to their pastors without question; to question is to doom oneself to hell for an eternity. College students are taught by “expert” professors to whom they have been taught to believe, and, even if they do not believe what they are told, they must listen and answer accordingly on tests if they want to pass the course. Even when the professor teaches things they know to be false, they tend to follow the class group and accept what they are told as the truth; after all, the professor is an “expert.” After a period, they began to change their previous beliefs and believe what the group believes.

  • Science Illustrated. (2009). November/December issue.

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