Following the HERD

One of the first articles in the Barnyard Management series was about cows. It was about how cows tend to follow along with the other cows and follow the same path; despite the best direction or quickest route to get there! We have all heard about herd mentality. (Yes, the spell checker was having a hissy fit with that previous sentence!)


In the Oxford Dictionary, herd mentality basically, says it’s “the tendency of people’s behavior or beliefs to conform to those of the group to which they belong.” You may have also referred to it as “mob mentality.” We all know what that looks like in life. Everyone follows right along and does the same thing as others, and we sometimes end up in a mess. People have a bad habit of ganging up on something or someone, and in the end, few people use their judgment or common sense to question just what the heck are we doing and why?

A friend was using herd mentality to describe to me about how today’s teen softball games work. He said that regardless of how bizarre the umpire or coaches made decisions, all the parents felt it was best to just go along for the sake of the children and not to complain. He told me that it was so bad that if you had a complaint, the first thing you did was pay a fee to complain. To make it worse, you did not recover any money, even if you won your case. Of course, being an emergency responder; he just could not understand the lack of logic to this and walked away from the games before he got arrested. Something is wrong with this world when grown adults roll over and are not willing to stand up and require logic, common sense and rules to be applied equally to all. However, that is where the herd mentality often leads us.

Recently, a group of researchers at the Clarkson Center for Complex Systems Science, part of Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, decided that it was important to study how herds of cows go about eating grass. Now, being a former farmer, I was very shocked by how long it took scientists to arrive at this decision. The need to study cows should have always been a priority, along with solving cancer. NOT!! Who in the name of common sense considered studying the movement of cows as significant, much less worth the time and money to do it. Well, obviously I was wrong again.

Their studies found that what appears to be a random group of cows leisurely wandering around the pasture and eating grass is a complex system of individuals facing differing needs. A team of mathematicians and a biologist built a mathematical model to understand the dynamics of such a system. Erik Bollt, the Director of the Center, stated, “An individual cow performs three activities throughout an ordinary day. It eats, it stands while it carries out some digestive processes and then it lies down to rest. Cows move and eat in herds to protect themselves from predators. As they eat at varying speeds, the herd can move on before the slower cows have finished eating. This leaves smaller and slower cows facing a difficult decision.” Eat faster or stand the chance of being eaten would be my guess! ( Chaos: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Nonlinear Science.

Bollt goes on to say there is an ongoing conflict between the needs of the individual and those of the group. Each cow has their own needs, and at the same time, they desire to support the needs of the herd. The large herds tend to split into fast eaters and slow eaters and often some of the cows move between the different groups to try to meet their needs. He goes on to say that cow herds are a complex system of individuals that produce the overall behavior of the group.

To me, that sounds an awful lot like a whole lot like a bunch of people. Enough said!

Stay Safe!

Ken Farmer is Section Chief, Leadership and Fire Risk Reduction at the National Fire Academy, United States Fire Administration in Maryland. Email him at

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