The herd instinct and loneliness

by TheEditor

Categories: Mental Health


Herd instinct, a concept predominantly associated with animal behaviour, implies a tendency to conform to social norms or follow the actions of a larger group, often for self-preservation or to maintain social cohesion. When examining this concept in humans, it is essential to scrutinise it from both psychological and sociological perspectives, while also considering neurobiological underpinnings.

The title of this post does not imply that the herd instinct explains everything about loneliness. The instinct is taken as a template because it operates silently in the backdrop of human social interactions. This exploration adopted a bio-psychosocial approach.

Video: Introduction to herd instinct (4 minutes)

Psychological perspective

From a psychological standpoint, herd instinct in humans can be conceptualised through several theories and phenomena.

  1. Conformity and social influence: Classic studies by Solomon Asch on conformity elucidate how individuals often align their opinions and behaviours with group norms, even when these norms are contrary to their personal beliefs.
  2. Groupthink: Irving Janis’s concept of groupthink highlights how decision-making within a cohesive group can lead to irrational or dysfunctional outcomes due to a desire for harmony and conformity.
  3. Social identity theory: This theory, developed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner, posits that individuals derive their identity from the groups they belong to, which can lead to conformist behaviour to maintain group acceptance.

Sociological perspective

Sociologically, herd instinct is reflected in various social phenomena:

  1. Collective behaviour: This refers to actions taken by a large group of people, like trends, mass hysteria, or even social movements. But smaller groups like terrorists, criminal gangs, looting and other antisocial behaviours among groups are not excluded. The rapid spread of behaviours or beliefs across groups and populations can often be attributed to an underlying herd instinct.
  2. Cultural norms and social learning: The process by which individuals in a society learn and internalise the norms and values prevalent in their culture also mirrors aspects of the herd instinct.

Social Comparison theory

Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory offers a compelling framework for understanding how herd instinct might exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation. According to Festinger’s theory, individuals have a basic drive to evaluate their abilities and opinions, and in the absence of objective, nonsocial means, they resort to comparisons with others. This drive, which includes both self-evaluation and self-enhancement, can significantly influence one’s sense of belonging or isolation within a group. The theory will be applied in the ‘Analysis of loneliness’ below.

Neurobiological underpinnings

Neurobiologically, the herd instinct in humans could be underpinned by several brain mechanisms:

  1. Mirror neuron system: This system is implicated in empathy and understanding others’ actions and intentions, potentially influencing conformity and mimicry behaviours.
  2. Neurochemical factors: Oxytocin, often associated with social bonding, might play a role in facilitating group cohesion and collective behaviour.
  3. Reward pathways: The brain’s reward systems, including the dopamine pathways, might reinforce conformist behaviour by associating it with positive emotional states.

Analysis of loneliness

Click each tab to see the theory applied.

  1. Discrepancy in social needs and social reality: Humans have an inherent need for social connection and belongingness, as outlined by Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When herd instinct leads to conformity and social cohesion among the majority, individuals who feel out of sync with these norms may perceive a greater social need gap, intensifying loneliness.
  2. Social comparison and self-esteem: Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory suggests that people evaluate their own worth in relation to others. If an individual perceives themselves as deviating from the ‘herd’, this can lead to lower self-esteem and heightened feelings of loneliness.
  3. Cognitive dissonance: Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance implies that when an individual’s behaviour does not align with the group, it can lead to psychological discomfort, potentially manifesting as feelings of isolation or exclusion.
  1. Marginalisation and social isolation: Sociologically, herd instinct can create in-groups and out-groups. Those who do not conform to the dominant norms may find themselves marginalised, leading to social isolation and an exaggerated sense of loneliness.
  2. The role of social structures and institutions: Societal structures and institutions often reinforce conformity. Individuals who feel misaligned with these structures (e.g., due to different cultural backgrounds, beliefs, or lifestyles) may experience a profound sense of alienation.
  1. Stress response and social pain: Neurobiological research suggests that social rejection activates similar brain regions as physical pain (e.g., the anterior cingulate cortex). Prolonged feelings of social disconnection due to non-conformity can trigger chronic stress responses, exacerbating the sense of loneliness.
  2. Dopamine and reward pathways: The brain’s reward system, which releases dopamine during positive social interactions, may be less activated in individuals who feel out of step with the herd, reinforcing feelings of loneliness.

Key aspects of Festinger’s theory:

  1. Downward and upward comparisons: The theory introduces the concept of downward (comparing oneself with those perceived as worse off) and upward (comparing oneself with those perceived as better off) comparisons. Such comparisons can lead to feelings of inadequacy or dissatisfaction, especially when individuals consistently compare themselves upwardly against more successful or integrated group members.
  2. Divergence in opinions and abilities: Festinger suggested that the tendency to compare oneself decreases as the difference between their opinions and abilities and those of others becomes more significant. Therefore, individuals who perceive themselves as markedly different from their peers might experience heightened feelings of loneliness due to this perceived divergence.
  3. Unidirectional drive upward in abilities: There is a natural human tendency to strive for improvement in abilities, but when individuals consistently perceive themselves as falling short in comparison to their peers, it can lead to feelings of inadequacy and loneliness.
  4. Hostility or derogation in response to comparison: Festinger also hypothesised that hostility or negative attitudes could arise when continuous comparison with others leads to unpleasant consequences. This can further alienate individuals from their social groups.
  5. Pressures toward uniformity within groups: The theory posits that pressures for uniformity in opinions or abilities within a group can increase when the group is considered important for self-evaluation. Individuals who struggle to conform to these group norms might feel isolated and lonely, particularly if discrepancies in opinions or abilities are pronounced.

In the context of loneliness, these aspects of social comparison can be particularly impactful. For instance, individuals who consistently engage in upward social comparisons might develop a sense of inadequacy and isolation, feeling that they do not measure up to the standards or achievements of their peers. Moreover, the pressures to conform to group norms can make those who are unable or unwilling to conform feel increasingly alienated.

Additionally, Psychology Today discusses the potential negative impacts of social comparison, such as envy, judgmental attitudes, and a decrease in self-esteem. Constant exposure to social media, where individuals are often confronted with idealised versions of others’ lives, can exacerbate these feelings. This environment can create unrealistic standards for comparison, leading to a distorted perception of one’s own social standing and contributing to feelings of loneliness.

Understanding these dynamics is crucial, especially in a therapeutic context, as it can help identify the root causes of loneliness and develop strategies to address them. This might include fostering a more realistic approach to social comparison, building self-esteem, and encouraging connections with others based on genuine similarities and shared values, rather than perceived social status or achievement.

Introversion and introverts

The relationship between introversion and loneliness is complex and multi-faceted. Research suggests that introversion, characterised by a preference for solitary activities and a lower need for social interaction, does not inherently lead to loneliness. However, certain factors and circumstances can influence the experience of loneliness among introverts.

Introverts can experience loneliness in various situations. For example, they might feel lonely in a crowd if they perceive the connections as superficial and lack deeper, meaningful interactions. This is because introverts often set a high bar for friendship, seeking and requiring deep connections. When these are not available, introverts might choose solitude over superficial socialising, which can sometimes lead to feelings of loneliness.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, studies indicated that introverts who employed adaptive emotion-regulating strategies were able to maintain their well-being and stave off loneliness more effectively than extroverts. This suggests that while introversion alone does not predict loneliness, the way an individual regulates emotions in response to stressors is crucial.

Introverts’ comfort in solitude can sometimes lead to a ‘loneliness loop,’ where they may avoid social interactions due to anxiety or insecurity, leading to increased feelings of loneliness. This cycle can be challenging to break out of, as social interactions might begin to cause anxiety, even though they are necessary for reducing loneliness.

Critique and Limitations

While the concept of herd instinct provides valuable insights into human behaviour, it is crucial to note its limitations:

  1. Reductionism: Reducing complex human social behaviours to a simple ‘instinct’ can be overly simplistic and may overlook the influence of conscious choice, individual differences, and cultural factors.
  2. Cultural variability: The expression and impact of herd instinct can vary significantly across different cultures, influenced by societal norms and values.


The herd instinct, while originally a concept rooted in animal behaviour studies, finds resonance in human behaviour through various psychological, sociological, and neurobiological lenses. It underlines the intrinsic human tendency to seek social acceptance and cohesion, although its manifestation is nuanced and influenced by a multitude of factors including culture, individual differences, and specific situational contexts. This perspective is aligned with the notion that human behaviour is often a product of complex interplays between innate tendencies and environmental influences.

The exploration of herd instinct and its relationship to feelings of loneliness and isolation reveals a complex interplay of psychological, sociological, and neurobiological factors. Herd instinct, rooted in a tendency to conform to group norms for cohesion and self-preservation, can significantly impact individual behaviour and emotional states.

From a psychological perspective, the alignment with group norms, as illuminated by social comparison theory, especially Leon Festinger’s work, highlights how individuals evaluate their abilities and opinions in relation to others. This comparison often leads to self-evaluation and self-enhancement but can also result in feelings of inadequacy when individuals perceive themselves as divergent from group standards. Festinger’s concepts of downward and upward comparisons further elucidate how these comparisons can influence self-esteem and feelings of belonging.

Sociologically, the herd instinct fosters in-group and out-group dynamics, where non-conformity might lead to marginalisation and social isolation. The cultural and societal emphasis on conformity can make this isolation more pronounced for those who feel misaligned with dominant norms.

Neurobiologically, the experience of social exclusion and isolation can activate brain regions associated with pain and trigger stress responses. The reward pathways, particularly those involving dopamine, may also play a role in reinforcing feelings of loneliness when individuals perceive themselves as out of sync with the herd.

Incorporating the aspect of introversion, it is observed that introverts, who are characterised by a preference for solitary activities and lower social interaction needs, exhibit a complex relationship with loneliness. While introversion in itself is not a direct cause of loneliness, the introverts’ tendency to seek deep, meaningful connections can lead to feelings of loneliness when such connections are not available. The comfort in solitude, characteristic of introverts, can sometimes evolve into a ‘loneliness loop’, particularly when social interactions begin to provoke anxiety, leading to further withdrawal and increased loneliness. This highlights that the experience of loneliness among introverts is influenced not just by their inherent traits but also by their social environment and emotional regulation strategies.

In conclusion, the interplay between herd instinct and loneliness underscores the importance of understanding the psychological, sociological, and neurobiological factors that contribute to these feelings. This understanding is crucial in addressing the underlying causes of loneliness and developing strategies for fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance, particularly in therapeutic settings.

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