What is Herd Mentality and How Does It Affect Us?

Image of a herd of sheep to illustrate a blog post on herd mentality.

Millions of high school seniors apply to college each fall after years of hard work. It is a pivotal moment, driven by the unshakable belief that attending a good college is vital to future success and a good investment, even if it means starting life hopelessly in debt. But is it, really, or is this an example of herd mentality?

Don’t get me wrong, I am a product of and a participant in the higher education system and a huge proponent of its value, but I don’t believe it is the right choice for everyone. Many students apply to college simply because it’s “what you do,” indicating that herd mentality may be at play. So, in the following post, I delve into the question of “What is herd mentality?” I explain how to recognize it, challenge it, and use that knowledge to your advantage. 

What is Herd Mentality?

Herd mentality, also known as group mentality or groupthink, is when a group’s norms, values, and beliefs influence individual decisions and behaviors. It is a natural phenomenon due to our inherent need to belong to a group of people. Sometimes, people conflate these terms with crowd mentality (a.k.a. mob mentality). However, herd mentality is more of an ongoing social condition, whereas crowd mentality is about the frenzy that can happen when crowds of people get swept up in a moment. 

The drive to belong is an evolutionary trait that kept our predecessors safe, and for most of human history, what constituted a group was fairly stable because people stayed relatively close to their birthplace. Groups developed norms, values, and beliefs by sharing stories and traditions until, over time, its members accepted them as fact. 

However, in today’s world, groups form for many different reasons. Members might come into the group from different backgrounds and shift their thinking to align with those around them. 

That happens within educational institutions, organizations, and even affinity groups. These groups define acceptable standards of behavior through orientations and onboarding activities. They create traditions by celebrating milestone events and even identify threats to the group, such as competitors or school rivals. Then, herd mentality reinforces these ideas – those who conform are deemed members of the group, and those who don’t are outsiders. 

Herd Mentality Examples

Image of a sheep.

Under the right circumstances, herd mentality can provide many benefits. 

For example, in communities that emphasize the value of serving the collective good, choices to support programs that keep everyone fed, housed, and educated are not questioned. In this case, herd behavior can create a sense of harmony and security. These conditions can also occur within organizations. Cohesive groups can lead to quicker problem-solving and consensus, minimizing stressful situations and enabling teams to move forward and pursue their goals.

Yet, there are also situations when herd mentality is risky, even detrimental, resulting in poor decisions and negative outcomes. Economic bubbles, such as the 2008 financial crisis or the rise and fall of many meme stocks, were perpetuated by herd mentality. Groupthink occurred, leading to illusions of invulnerability and bad investment decisions. Then, when the stock market inevitably reacted, many suffered.

In my work, herd mentality plays a crucial role in continuing the never-ending myth of the career ladder. 

Although the career ladder has been defunct for decades, many clients and students still make decisions based on the expectation that professional growth will occur in an upward, linear fashion. Then, when they feel that they are no longer climbing that ladder, they express frustration and, in many cases, tremendous shame for not moving up as quickly as expected. For many of us, this belief becomes intertwined with our desire for relevance and purpose. That makes adopting a new perspective (that professional growth can happen in many different directions) challenging.  

When herd mentality is involved in any decision-making, there is always the risk of unintended consequences. Mitigating those consequences requires an examination of the underlying values and beliefs that create the conditions for herd mentality to begin with. 

Why Does Herd Mentality Occur?

Herd mentality, like tradition, is merely a group creation, yet our desire to follow it is primal. For individuals, there are two drivers of herd mentality: the need to belong and our tendency to follow the path of least resistance, which usually means adhering to the status quo. 

I mentioned earlier that belonging is hard-wired into our consciousness because we correlate belonging with physical and psychological safety. Even today, social influence is vital, and being excluded can cause many challenges. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why social media is problematic.

Because of our desire to belong, we tend to take the path of least resistance by forming decision-making shortcuts called heuristics. While heuristics can help us operate efficiently, they are also incredibly biased and influenced by the norms and values of the group or herd around us. We accept these shortcuts as our truths. Then, without a conscious understanding of why these “truths” form and where they came from, we fall in line with the herd. 

That is why when a group gets together to discuss and cast an open vote on a topic, you see people looking around before deciding to raise their hand. It takes courage for someone to separate themselves from the herd. Therefore, to avoid groupthink, you must learn to recognize herd mentality and challenge it to make informed decisions about what suits you. 

How to Know Herd Mentality is at Play

Paper airplanes flying in formation, with one veering away to illustrate recognizing herd mentality.

What are the signs that herd mentality is occurring? Fortunately, you don’t need a social psychologist to figure it out. The same signals that kept us safe from an evolutionary perspective are the ones that can signal herd mentality. However, since we’re typically in the middle of the herd, it is hard to see the big picture, so here are a few things to look for.

The Fear of Missing Out (or FOMO)

The fear of missing out can be a considerable driver of herd mentality, especially if someone shares that they successfully achieved an outcome you crave. After all, if it worked for them, then it must work for you. Right?

Not necessary.

Conventional Wisdom

Another signal that herd mentality is at play is when the notion of “conventional wisdom” comes up, which presents itself as a formula for what everyone else is doing. It is essential to remember that conventional wisdom can become warped by time and circumstances. What may have worked for someone in a previous generation or different context might not apply to you. 


Herd mentality may also factor when people within the herd become agitated when someone raises a different opinion or perspective. That tends to happen when the reasoning for the acceptable behavior or belief is unclear. Perhaps the norm is rooted in something from the past, the result of traditions, or due to the unquestioning belief that “it just is” and can no longer withstand logical scrutiny.

How to Challenge Herd Mentality

Lots of arrows pointing one direction and one arrow pointing the opposite direction to illustrate challenging herd mentality.

Looking at it this way, it becomes abundantly clear that summoning the courage to challenge herd mentality is crucial for the individual and our society. So, here are three simple steps you can take to challenge herd mentality. 

1. Develop Awareness

Build your awareness around the signals of herd mentality. You are taking the first step by reading this blog post right now. When a statement starts with “everyone is doing it,” “you will miss out,” “you can’t lose,” or some other variation of these concepts, you know you are venturing into herd mentality territory. 

2. Seek Alignment Within Yourself

When you notice the signs of herd mentality, ask yourself if the statement or situation aligns with who you want to be or the actions you want to take. Then, take it further and challenge yourself to gain insight into the bigger picture.

For example, play the “devil’s advocate” role to form a contrarian view of the situation. You can even be a bit provocative. Ask yourself how being part of the herd works for you and what might happen if you take a different approach. Your answers might surprise you.

3. Take Action

Based on your answers to the questions above, think of a tiny thing you can do to step away from the herd. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing endeavor. It can be as simple as committing to build your awareness more or listening more intently whenever a group member pushes for something because “that’s the way it has always been done.” 

The Bottom Line

There have been many psychological studies on herd mentality, but one fun fact that stands out is that it only takes five percent of a group to influence how the other 95 percent respond. Imagine, for just a moment, how that plays out in our society!

While being part of the herd can have benefits, learning to be consciously present when in a group and when to challenge herd mentality is an essential skill we must all develop. By nurturing conscious courageousness in yourself and others, you can change the trajectory of your life and possibly build an exceptional future for the herd.

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About the Author

Picture of Victoria Shiroma Wilson, Ed.D., P.C.C.

Victoria Shiroma Wilson, Ed.D., P.C.C.

Victoria Shiroma Wilson, Ed.D., P.C.C., is the founder of Exceptional Futures, a provider of frameworks that help people tap into the power of their cultural identities to answer some of life’s biggest questions. Victoria is on the teaching faculty at Duke University and earned her doctoral degree in Global Leadership from the University of Southern California, a master’s degree in Psychology from Santa Clara University, and a master’s degree in Asian Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.

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