‘Herd instinct’ is an early phrasing of what is now referred to as herd behaviour, group behaviour or crowd psychology.
The idea is based on the observation that humans (and some animals) behave differently in large groups than they do individually, and that in groups they can act collectively without a leader or from centralised instructions.
The idea has been used to study aspects of human behaviour such as imitation, emulation, mob violence, and aspects of socialising. It has also been used to explain phenomenons such as brand and product success, the behaviour of large stock markets, with sudden bubbles and crashes.
There have been several early observations of how people behave differently in crowds by writers such S. Kirkegaard, F. Nietzsche, and S. Freud who discussed the behaviour of the ‘crowd’, and ‘herd morality’. The 1841 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay is an early study of crowd psychology. F. M. Alexander may have been introduced to the concept by Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War (1916) by the British surgeon Wilfred Trotter. It was reprinted some 14 times (last in 1985) and it popularised the phrase ‘herd instinct’. It was based on some earlier papers of Trotter from 1908 and 1909. Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War also discusses war in view of WWI and explains Germany’s aggression as irrational herd instinctive behaviour, as human ‘wolf packs’. The book argues repeatedly that to prevent instinctive behaviour, rational and scientific statecraft has to be developed along with a ‘direct conscious effort’:
The trained and conscious mind must come to be regarded as a definite factor in man’s environment, capable of occupying there a larger and larger area.
The phrasing ‘herd instinct’ was in common use at least until the 1950s, but fell out of favour as the term ‘instinct’ came to have a more limited meaning than ‘innate’.
F. M. Alexander
F. M. Alexander makes five references to herd instinct in CCC. The first mention uses the alternative phrase of ‘horde instinct’:
The presence of fear always means a condition of conflict. The man who is inwardly afraid puts on an outward show of bravery by an assumed manner. Similarly, it is doubtless this inward fear which induces in certain nations a mania for carrying arms and for the massed attack in accordance with their horde instinct.
Similar treatment of the individual human creature on a basis of constructive conscious control will bring nearer that stage of evolutionary development where the masses, when thrown together, will no longer exhibit the inflammable traits associated with the herd instinct.
The mass is made up of individuals, and reliable sensory appreciation cannot be given on the mass-teaching principle or by precept or exhortation. This can be done only by individual teaching and individual work. Moreover, people who are massed together are apt to be governed by the ‘herd instinct,’ and we need to help man to evolve beyond that influence as soon as possible, and to this end we must have conscious and individual development.
When I write of human endeavour, I mean individual human endeavour in connection with individual development and growth, and, therefore, from any real history of human endeavour we must eliminate the record of man’s activities in wars and other spheres in which he is swayed chiefly by the herd instinct, where the example, good or bad, or the command of one person, is immediately followed by the rest as an unthinking, unintelligent, automatic mass.
They are still at a stage of evolution where reasoning is dominated by the herd-instinct, and so they are carried away by his oratory or personality or both.
He uses the phrase once in his 1925 lecture:
Ladies and gentlemen, I will tell you something in which you will probably be interested. I told you tonight that for years I was a Shakespearean reciter and a successful one, and I gave it up because I realized that in appearing in public one is appealing more to the herd instincts than anything else, and I gave up my career because of it.
Alexander does not use the phrase in his other writings, and it has not been used since, probably because the Alexander Technique examines individual behaviour.
The 1953 Foreword and the 1985 Introduction to Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War provide accounts of how contemporaries viewed Trotter’s work.