Where Human ‘Swarm Behavior’ Comes From

It is increasingly clear that human beings are more than simply self-interested rational actors.  We are profoundly moral, immensely social, and deeply political beings who often “lose ourselves” in social causes.  A friend of mine who studies social psychology at the University of Virginia, Jonathan Haidt, recently gave a TED Talk about this that captures my thoughts very well:

A massive body of research now confirms that human beings are wired for empathy, tend to cooperate with one another through shared social identities, and mediate our socialness through layers of semantic meaning that arise in our conceptual systems — via metaphors, semantic frames, culturally shared cognitive models, and more.

In my own work, I have taken this body of research and translated it into design frameworks for advocacy campaigns, policy development, social impact business models, and open innovation processes for economic development.  The power of insights such as these for addressing global challenges is clear when we consider that our perceptions and interpretations of what we take to be real are fundamental drivers of social and economic systems.  In other words, the ways we understand the world around us have causal power for influencing how we make choices and which collective behaviors arise in our societies.

The research that makes this evident comes from many fields of study.  Examples include:

  • Evolutionary Biology ::  Hominid history (and that of all mammals) shows how group selection pressures give advantage to those species that cooperate successfully.
  • Contemporary Neuroscience :: Our brains are structured to process social emotions (guilt, shame, compassion, gratitude, etc.) as part of our conceptual systems.  Our mental models for cultural settings are mitigated by these feelings, elevating their influence on our daily lives.
  • Social Psychology :: Just as Jonathan Haidt describes in the video, our moral sentiments arise through group interaction.  Tribal behaviors appear as short-lived “swarms”  which persist so long as emotions run high.
  • Cognitive Anthropology :: Studies of religious concepts and ritual practices reveal how our modes of thought and emotion get altered by group processes (a class of phenomena that are easily observed in all group settings, including how meetings are facilitated within a company or at a community event).
  • Marketing and Communications :: Evocative imagery that elevates social identities (and the deep emotions underlying them) are more effective at selling products, increasing engagement, and creating brand coherence.

Of course, this is but a sampling of the diverse fields that combine to reveal a new understanding of human socialness.  So where does swarm behavior come from?  Simply put, it is the evolutionary advantage of cooperation that leverages the playing field towards group cohesion.  We are highly adept at marginalizing the radical among us (however defined).  And we feel incomplete when too much emphasis is placed on our individuality.  Who we are is resolved relationally.  How we feel is shaped by those around us.  And what we become is constrained by the larger WE that occupies the space in which our actions unfold.

So now it is our task to make use of this body of knowledge to promote alterations in the global systems of economy and politics so that our swarm tendencies enable us to adequately address the immense complexities of the world we live in today.  We will not be able to tackle climate change without this knowledge.  Nor will we build and maintain robust economies if we fail to grasp the fundamental truths of human nature.

All of which begs the question, how now shall we live upon this Earth?  I’ve got a few ideas of my own.  I’d love to hear yours!

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.