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Herd mentality in politics

Published Aug 08, 2015 02:46am

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The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

HUMANS are smart enough to make it to Pluto. But that’s only if we use our brains well. At the instinctual level nature condemns our species to conformity and uniformity. Our brains are hardwired in a way that belief often gets precedence over reason, and conformity over individual judgement. Clever experiments in social psychology and cognitive neuroscience are now confirming this. Amazingly, neuroimaging techniques can even identify parts of the brain responsible for group behaviour.

Our herd instinct developed as lower animals transformed into humans over thousands of centuries. Without it our ancestors could not have banded together to fight off wild animals or help each other harvest crops. Our species still needs cooperation and a strong group instinct — in fact we need it more than ever before. But the downside is that in places where critical thinking is unusual, herds are readily manipulated by political leaders and demagogues.

Pakistan’s political scene reinforces this dismal truth. Just look at the nonchalance of Imran Khan and his followers after the judicial commission issued its report last month. A patient sifting of the evidence had decisively repudiated their claims of systematic mass rigging in the 2013 elections. But the heroic kaptan and his herd were unapologetic. During their dharna carnival last year, they made Islamabad grind to a halt. Perched on his container, Cricketer Khan, together with the jet-setting cleric, Tahirul Qadri, had demanded fresh elections and promised to make milk and honey flow. They vowed to eliminate corruption but neither had a plan. Their groupies didn’t ask for one.


Why do people repose blind faith in leaders or ideologies?


Ditto for the worshipful cult of Bhutto jiyalas who flatly deny any wrongdoing by father Zulfikar, daughter Benazir or husband Zardari. As that clan sees it, no evidence is evidence if it makes the Bhuttos come out looking bad. Jiyalas won’t read the Hamoodur Rahman report on Zulfikar’s role in East Pakistan, they’ll avoid studying the evidence of corruption that led to a guilty verdict by a Swiss court for the Bonnie-Clyde duo, and refuse to see the copiously documented big-money transactions from their offshore accounts. Their ownership of the magnificent Surrey Palace and other properties doesn’t matter. Instead, airports and roads bear the lady’s name today.

As for brother Altaf, the less said the better. He is, of course, immensely entertaining and his renditions of old Hindi film songs are hilarious. For sound and fury, his rants are incomparable. Although there are good chances that he will deny tomorrow what he says today, to the faithful this makes no difference. Wall-sized pictures of their great leader adorn MQM meetings. All charges of money laundering, extortion, kidnapping, torture, or murder are vociferously denied. Please don’t bother with the evidence, they say, because we will never believe any.

Of course, the world has seen much worse: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others. But why do people repose blind faith in leaders or ideologies? How is it that otherwise sane and sensible people become moronically incapable of grasping reality? The culprit: our brain. Still evolving and still primitive, it readily sacrifices rational evidence-based conclusions in favour of primal ones. And so conformism trumps individual judgement. But now scientists are inventing ever sharper probes in the hope that one day we might transcend these limitations.

In 1951, the devastating impact of conformism upon human judgement was investigated in a simple but brilliant experiment. Social psychologist Solomon Asch organised volunteers who were asked to judge a line’s length by comparing it against three sample lines. The real answer was clear as day. Left to themselves, the volunteers got the correct answer 100 per cent of the time. But Asch had secretly planted in the group a majority of goons who had been instructed to mislead by choosing the wrong answer. The goons disoriented the volunteers. The result: 74pc conformed with the wrong answer at least once, and 32pc did so all the time. The herd triumphed over the individual.

More recently, Prof Jens Krause of Leeds University showed that humans follow classic animal grouping behaviour. His team performed a series of experiments where volunteers were told to randomly walk around a large hall without talking to each other. A select few were then given more detailed instructions on where to walk. The scientists discovered that, like sheep following the flock, people end up blindly following one or two people who appear to know where they’re going. Many were unaware that they were following someone. The published results showed that it only takes 5pc of ‘informed individuals’ to influence the direction of a crowd of around 200 people. The remaining 95pc follow without even realising it.

When people are like sheep, a democratic system cannot function well. But it doesn’t stop there. The frequently unscientific behaviour of Pakistan’s

scientists owes directly to their tragic inability to think independently. Example: after the famed nuclear bomb-makers Dr A.Q. Khan and Dr Samar Mubarakmand endorsed the so-called water car, hundreds of Pakistani scientists joined in the chorus praising this fake invention. They followed their leaders, ignoring common sense. But, to their lasting embarrassment, the episode turned out to be fraudulently staged and the inventor was a failed bank robber.

It is not easy to resist group conformity anywhere in the world. Our desire to somehow fit in moulds attitudes. We value social acceptance, seek assimilation, and fear rejection of our views. In fact the smaller a minority, the more it hesitates to express a contrary opinion. In repressive societies the penalties for not conforming can be severe, even death.

Men go mad in herds but recover their sanity one by one. Weak individuals never mend but strong ones can. At some point you may choose to trust your own eyes and refuse to follow the crowd. This is precisely what makes human progress happen. If you are open to hearing facts and arguments that violate your current beliefs, and if evidence can make you change those beliefs, then you too can walk the new walk.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2015

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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


Comments (67) Closed



LS Aug 08, 2015 03:08am

Wow the guy who makes sense.. no one bothers to read him :-)

Reza Aug 08, 2015 03:20am

How relevant!

But more disturbingly, it was relevant 4.5 decades ago and is relevant now. In the drama Taleem-i-Balghan, I can still recall the maulvi, proving through democratic vote, that Humayun was Babar's father.

Three generations of Pakistani's and we are yet to lose our herd mentality.

Nauman Aug 08, 2015 04:01am

great article :)

SS Aug 08, 2015 04:12am

Excellent article! Makes one think!

FutureWizard Aug 08, 2015 05:08am

As an India, I can easily mark him most dangerous man in Pakistan. The one who can actually think rationally. It's always a pleasure to listen him on Ted.

Sara Baloch Aug 08, 2015 06:12am

Brilliant article, supported by facts and case studies. Noone simply can match Dr. Hoodbhoy's intellect. It is always pleasure to read him.

Fazal Karim Aug 08, 2015 07:14am

Some day medical science will discover medicine to over come this weakness in Pakistanis until then saber Karen.

W G Sheikh Aug 08, 2015 07:23am

The most alarming dimension of the above examples is that IK's core followers are the most highly educated, middle and upper middle class, young guys and gals, and mummies and dadies, and uncles, and aunties, , who, with out a doubt, do possess a rational mind that is purposefully shut, so that they could at least convince themselves that they have meaningful and purposeful lives. That is the only way I can rationalize it.

IBN E ASHFAQUE Aug 08, 2015 08:23am

Rational thinking requires tolerance, appreciation of debate, counter argument and patience to listen and evaluate a contrary opinion. The macho cum feudal attitude of most Pakistanis do not support rational thinking. They try to focus on black and right, right or wrong. Although reality is usually reflected in shades of grey. Sadly, I fear that as a nation we most likely will continue to suffer as we do not accept and adapt to reality in either spiritual matters nor materialistic affairs. For example, water is going to be a critically short resource in the next decade, but we have yet to plan for it. And water cannot be obtained by martial law or democracy nor can it be readily purchased.

M. M Amin Aug 08, 2015 08:37am

"....The herd triumphed over the individual..." You said it beautifully ,sir. Perhaps their is hope after all. Such philosopher Erasmus has this to say"folly is perennial ,yet mankind has survived"....Its excellent dissertation Prof.Hoodbhai.

Munir Kakar Aug 08, 2015 09:21am

Excellent Sir! You are an invaluable asset but the herd will neither realize it nor lend an ear what you are saying. The herd has been emotionally hardwired to sit at the feet of those nuclear scientists who are obsessed with everything other than science and regard rational thought as an anathema. But the fact is we have no alternatives but to seek salvation in critical thinking and rational thoughts.

Pop Kwiz Aug 08, 2015 09:36am

@IBN E ASHFAQUE Demand for water is also related to the size of the population. What is being done about that in Pakistan, the nation with the highest fertility rate in South Asia? 300 million by 2050 in Pakistan (33% increase in 35 years)? Quantity of drinkable water is going down as glaciers melt and the water causes floods downstream and also evaporates. Can sea water and the high cost of deriving fresh water from it workable and affordable? (Of course, fresh water is not the only resource of finite quantity.)

SI Aug 08, 2015 09:49am

Very well written!

Naseer Aug 08, 2015 10:06am

Sir, its such a pleasure to read your articles. Your insight and research is such a food for brain.

Dipak Dasgupta Aug 08, 2015 11:00am

Wish Pakistan's youth listen to Pervez Hoodbhoy to make Pakistan a developed country enabling its people to walk anywhere with their heads high.

Aman baloch Aug 08, 2015 11:08am

OMG! What a splended article full of information and stated scientifically that is the only reason i love love love my DAWN,

Sandeep Aug 08, 2015 11:45am

Simply brilliant!! I am always eagerly waiting for his article in Dawn. Hope majority of Pakistani intellectuals follow him.He should be invited to India on a tour, I am sure people will love him for his rational thinking and knowledge of Physics.

Ihsan Faique Aug 08, 2015 11:55am

A really brilliant writing, all of Mr Hoodbhoy's thoughts are for the time to be appreciated and spread wide...we love it because we feel a new path there in.

Ihsan Faique Aug 08, 2015 11:58am

A really brilliant writing, Mr Hoodbhoy's writings are for the time to be appreciated and thay make us feel a new path there in so we love it and its high time we must participate in spread of such novel ideas.

Nauman M Aug 08, 2015 12:00pm

Wonderful reading.

Ihsan Faique Aug 08, 2015 12:01pm

superb !

Dinesh Singh Aug 08, 2015 12:11pm

Sir, my admiration and respect for is increasing day after day. One day the world is bound to realize your greatness.

Khalid Pathan Aug 08, 2015 12:17pm

This herd mentality Dr HoodhBhoy has so eloquently shown is beyond doubt a reality with little difference between the so called educated and the uneducated, when it comes to Pakistanis. Here in Sydney I find that not even 5% use there brain to think critically. Majority not only follows the herd but resists to think otherwise. Nature has for sure taken away the faculty which has not in use through generations. Messages shared on the Facebook are a testimony to the bitter truth.

p r sharma Aug 08, 2015 12:19pm

It is always pleasant to read Dr. Hoodbhoy. the most rationale thoughts.

We develop some belief listening to parents, family members, peers, teachers and preachers and selected books. later with exposure to wider atmosphere newer things we learn which are contrary to our belief and it hurts . Then we try to explore argument to justify what we have been believing. it is really painful to erase the belief and we follow the crowd to make our voice louder more to convince ourselves.

p r sharma Aug 08, 2015 12:19pm

It is always pleasant to read Dr. Hoodbhoy. the most rationale thoughts.

We develop some belief listening to parents, family members, peers, teachers and preachers and selected books. later with exposure to wider atmosphere newer things we learn which are contrary to our belief and it hurts . Then we try to explore argument to justify what we have been believing. it is really painful to erase the belief and we follow the crowd to make our voice louder more to convince ownselves.

Babar Ayaz Aug 08, 2015 12:27pm

Excellent! Herd mentality is perhaps the outcome of laziness of brain. So is unreason. Reason and critical thinking is a rigorous process. That's why the 'Why? is not asked by most of the people. Pervez and Dawn are keeping the lights alight when winds of are blowing against it.

Rational Theist Aug 08, 2015 12:50pm

You're kind of a genius, and that's great i do admire you immensely, being the groupie that i am. However, you iterate that the (true) evolution of the mind is achieved singularly by accepting the first thrown piece(s) of evidence at a person just to separate oneself from the masses, how acceptable or dare i say, progressive, would such detachment be? The key word is EVIDENCE not FACT. Wouldn't you agree that, atleast evolutionarily speaking, rejection from society might as well be a death sentence to humans?

Ashok Aug 08, 2015 01:08pm

Awsome article by Pervez Hoodbhoy. He is one of the finest intellects in Pak. Respect from India.

Aman Aug 08, 2015 01:19pm

Does not the same applies to religion and more so.

Malveros Aug 08, 2015 01:28pm

Fantastic ! Couldn't have laid it out better. Thumbs Up.

Muneer Aug 08, 2015 01:54pm

As the good doctor shows, herd mentality is "hardwired" into all humans. So why lament only Pakistani political scene ?

Indeed, Pakistanis in large numbers have moved away from accepting traditional PPP / PML(N) politics to PTI as a third option. Evidence of breaking out of the shackles of herd mentality.

Sundus Mustaqeem Aug 08, 2015 03:09pm

Thought provoking piece of writing, we as a nation just need to realize few forgotten things that in order to be a good citizen, religious (what ever ur religion is) or any party follower, we have to be good human first :) and we have to prove that we being the people of 21st century are smart & strong enough to use our minds correctly instead of being a sheep, while following classic animal grouping behavior. or we simply need to bring psychologists, psychiatrists and anthropologists in action.

turbo Aug 08, 2015 03:11pm

excellent article!

Jehanzeb Ahmad Aug 08, 2015 04:11pm

My question to all Governments past and present- Why hasn't any Government tried to benefit from the one true scientist and intellectual that we have in the shape of Prof. Hoodbhoy? Why cant he be appointed as chairman of Pakistan Science foundation, or HEC or PCSIR or PCST or PAEC or KRL or multitude of other science /education related organizations, which would really become productive if he is made incharge. It is strange that, one hand the rulers complains of not finding competent and honest persons and then on the other hand they refuse to give a chance to a person like Hoodbhoy. This is the real reason for Pakistan's failure at every level. The establishment does not let a competent person come even close to managing anything substantial.

karim Mohd Khan Aug 08, 2015 05:55pm

Waiting consciously to grab ur judicious piece of writing in Dawn. Weaving ideas so nicely that the reading tempo goes higher and higher. well done Dr.Sahib!

Nauman M Aug 08, 2015 06:13pm

@Nauman M

I can't believe I wrote this much only.

Laeeq,NY Aug 08, 2015 06:15pm

Once again a brilliant article from Dr. Hoodbuoy. Answer is education and more education. Until then we are herds not a nation.

rizwan Aug 08, 2015 06:25pm

Dr. Hoodbhoy reminds me of the Quaid-especially the logic and no rhetoric!Pakistan needs a few more to again shine bright!

Arshad Basraa Aug 08, 2015 06:32pm

True and rightful as ever. Thank you Dr sahib. Arshad Basraa

Rationalist Aug 08, 2015 06:39pm

As always, the professor's writing oozes of logic and reasoning. Extremely well-written.

Sridhar Aug 08, 2015 06:46pm

A very interesting and relevant article by Dr. Hoodbhoy, as usual. Thank you. The problem is more insidious and universally pervasive. The social psychological experiments he quotes were conducted in individualist societies such as the US and the UK. Yet, it took so little to create mob mentality. Just witness the political primaries and team sports in these countries. That is one reason why the society has consciously treasured and encourages freedom of speech to encourage dissent. For countries like India and Pakistan the problem is worse as we are collectivist cultures with a deep sense of hierarchy. We actively, nay, violently suppress dissent from women, minorities and anyone below our social status. Societies such as these have imbedded in them a strong force of sustainability and status quo. Change is hard to introduce.

Anwar Aug 08, 2015 07:05pm

Great and courageous piece! Keep it up!

AdHawk Aug 08, 2015 07:05pm

I always need to read Dr. Sahib's articles several times in order to realize the full import. He's truly an asset.

ashutosh mishra Aug 08, 2015 07:14pm

@LS this guy is one of the finest around in that country; and in spite of the despondence around him has the guts to think so and to write so...

Ayer Aug 08, 2015 08:20pm

Rational thinking is not possible where Religion is considered the ultimate law of the land. This is true of both India and Pakistan, however islamic societies seem to be more affected

tariq Aug 08, 2015 08:47pm

While the article right on target and a great one like usual from Dr. Hoodbhoy,

dawar khan Aug 08, 2015 09:08pm

Undoubtedly this article vividly describes the importance of out-of-box thinking. This articles is indeed an eye opener for the journalists who write just to fill the pages and use the rhetoric to play with the emotions of the readers rather than a genuine discourse and analysis of a prevailing issue. However, I think there are many areas where we need to look at the issues described from other angles. For example, the blind support is not limited to Jialas or the MQM stalwarts. It is a phenomenon prevailing everywhere in all parties. But, it is not merely because the supporters are not aware of the wrongdoings of their leadership, rather they support them exactly due to the fact that their leadership is corrupt in every respect. There is a whole chain of interests in which every party worker from top to bottom is tied with a particular political group. At every-level, people get personal favor based on the stature in the group or party, milking the "democratic" process at their whim.

s.khan Aug 08, 2015 09:09pm

@Jehanzeb Ahmad ,PH has explained it. The government, run by the politicians is interested in manipulating the herd, of course, with the help of clergy who are always ready to declare any new thinking as un-Islamic and issue fatwa. The purpose of the politicians is to acquire power and wealth. They have no interest in the welfare of the "herd". PH can only help in an environment of free discussion and open mind. Politicians don't have open mind. The present set up is working well for them. They don't want PH type to disrupt it.

Raj (USA) Aug 08, 2015 09:18pm

Simply Brilliant. Always a pleasure to read Dr. Pervez's articles in Dawn.

Last month a small group of us were discussing various political issues in India and I asked "How you define a Fanatic?" Later I told them my definition as - someone who does not use independent thinking and follows others without reasoning. It came up because a few weeks before that we were discussing Indian politics and met a Kejriwal fanatic follower. When I finally asked "tell me if Modi has done anything right" he said - none. Then I asked him "tell me if Kejriwal has done anything wrong" - again he said - none. I knew what I was dealing with and was able to walk away from him.

jm Aug 08, 2015 10:45pm

when do we get our "Renaissance"?

arslan Aug 08, 2015 10:58pm

So what about blind followers of PML (n). You never mention that.

Nasiroski Aug 08, 2015 11:20pm

It was difficult, but I had no choice, but to accept, he is right.

Sakhi Ismael Aug 09, 2015 01:26am

@W G Sheikh I think you're 90% there. The last 10% is that IK's followers are educated only on the surface. I.e. just because you attended a university does not mean you'll supersede groupthink. That's not what universities teach you (quite the contrary). IK's followers today are those who never learnt to think individually. They're not very different from an unlettered jiyala.

Pravin Kumar Aug 09, 2015 01:30am

@Raj (USA)

He is right. Modi hasn't done anything constructive so far except breast beating and misleading us by telling us tall stories of aviation technology originating from the Hindu Vedic Age.

Keti Zilgish Aug 09, 2015 03:09am

@Sridhar "We actively, nay, violently suppress dissent from women, minorities and anyone below our social status." You forgot to mention here our children. "Change is hard to introduce." It will become much harder after 145 years and until then it is our last chance to introduce any change at all for the next two 2000 years after the 145 year period is over. Our genetic code limits chronological thought and now a few modern scientists have begun to become increasingly aware of it and quite a few of them may not have enough conscience to deal successfully with such awareness.

fida USA Aug 09, 2015 04:43am

Since the creation, the man has killed, cheated and abused the creation, lead by individuals, the likes of Alexander the murderer (history call him great), Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, Napoleon, Churchill, Stalin and the race which annihilated the entire population of Native Americans. The carpet bombing of Vietnam, the destruction of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are the latest episode in the dark history of the creation. It is always the Demagogue followed by their muted majority which has brought havoc on this planet. No individual in the history has come out and challenged such atrocities. The world has remained dark and will continue remain so.

cynic Aug 09, 2015 05:39am

Herd mentality is universal in nature. It would have been useful if the author had pointed out the reasons why the western world with herd mentality is successful in imparting civic sense to its people more than the less developed ones.

Ramiz Allawala Aug 09, 2015 06:06am

It’s interesting how the comments here reflect the herd mentality. And most of the comments are so effusive you would think another ‘cult of the personality’ is in the making, right after reading about the insanity of it. Most of the commentators here praised Mr. Hoodbhoy for his reasoning powers whereas his exact thesis is that we use our reasoning to support our irrationality. If that’s human nature than presumably Dr. Hoodbhoy is also using logic and reason to support his belief which is grounded in irrationality. Thus, he cleverly gives it credibility by selectively quoting two research studies. And his fans swallow it hook, line and sinker. Wah ji Wah!

Aziz Talbani Aug 09, 2015 06:21am

Dr. Hoodbhoy, what an excellent analysis of political discourse in Pakistan! Herd mentality – the uniformity of functions & conformity to ideology - exists in most organizational cultures, i.e., corporations, politics, education & community. Herd mentality is intentionally created through ‘education or absence of it’ (both produce the same indoctrinating effect) or through the creation of social norms & cultures. Michel Foucault (1984) analyzing the operation of power in society stated that society acts as a disciplinary institution, where people follow the rules and are confined within the discipline of the power, maintaining the status quo and regenerating power structures through their activities. He (1980) further states that Power operates in two critical ways: primarily it is imposed from the outside through institutions, such as the enforcement of laws and beliefs. Internally, it is self-regulating through indoctrination, social disapproval, instilled values, and fear.

Burjor Aug 09, 2015 02:05pm

Yes the Stock Market is also one manifestation of "Herd Mentality", "news" media try to create this Herd Mentality, even Art and Architecture is very much grouped in by this Herd mentality, in fact only if one works as a hermit, or in total isolation can one be insular to the effects of this mentality, and that as humans is not possible.

zarmeena Aug 09, 2015 10:14pm

rational analysis!!

Just think. Aug 09, 2015 10:21pm

Humanity has over 7 Billion souls, one reason why nature made us "Herd" like is to group them. Just think for a moment that we humans did not fall into this mentality, what then, the consequence would be mind boggling, 7 billion individuals, 7 billion religions, 7 billion countries/ nations, 7 billion different professions, and on and on. So when the Almighty created us, he thought things out before Mr. Hoodbhoy came on the scene to inform. Just as well we are "herd" like, would readers not agree??? Yes we may not agree with our neighboring herd " India" on Kashmir, but then that would be for the third party herd to decide.!!!.

Cyrus Aug 10, 2015 12:05am

The point has been put forward by Ibrahim al Buleihi that Islmic teaching fosters a herd mentality, as compared the the individualism of the West. His idea is that in the Islamic World's followers are expected to conform. In the West the Age of Reason was a political revolt against tyrants, kings and dictators, not experienced under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The herd mentality were Buleihi's own words. He is a scholar, historian and former member of the Saudi shura council. So "herd mentality" is not too harsh a term.

Muneer Aug 10, 2015 12:47am

@Ramiz Allawala At last an original thinker !

Javed Iqbal Aug 10, 2015 06:41pm

A very Good insight and research stated scientifically''' this is fanaticism which is too much common in Pakistani's ''''Herd mentality of politics in Pakistan is a flagrant reality which can't be denied''' as being a crowed and not a nation without rational thinking and brain''''

Dj Aug 11, 2015 09:50am

My favorite scientist...!!!!

Zuhaib Aug 11, 2015 03:59pm

Sir, you forgot or deliberately missed the 'religion' play-card in 3rd world countries like ourselves..!!