Roaming with the Herd

Blaming cogjam entirely on all the adrenalin percolating away would be the easy way out. But adrenalin is not the only ingredient of fight or flight chemistry that is playing a contributing role.

Cogjam is a joint activity, a community-wide line dance that at times leads us directly toward the edge of that infamous cliff. This falls more within the realm of another neurochemical that highlights its presence during high stress: oxytocin.

Oxytocin and Herd Instinct

Here’s what Chapter Five of my upcoming book, The Cogjam Effect – and the Path to Healing Community Divisiveness and Fractured Science” says about this unfortunate case of social bonding gone awry:

“Oxytocin is an ingredient of our neurochemistry that promotes social bonding. Its presence is associated with love relationships, childbirth, and other social attachments. Interestingly, oxytocin is also released during states of high arousal.

When I first learned of this it brought to mind an acronym that turned up on the disaster trail during high-stress assignments: DII, short for “disaster induced infidelity.” I also recall packed neonatal wards in Portland, Oregon area hospitals about nine months after Mt. St. Helens blew. Then, of course, there’s the baby-boomer population that turned up after World War II. Being collectively thrown together for heavy-duty stress appears to strengthen at least one type of social bonding among those who endure it.

 

But in addition to encouraging attachments to specific individuals, oxytocin promotes bonding within groups. In disaster world, we called the instant joint efforts of workers and community members “disaster bonding.” Similar ties develop in other groups that regularly deal with emergency, combat, and other high-stress positions. The friendships that form in such scenarios may last a lifetime.

Benefits of group bonding explain why oxytocin turns up during high arousal. Living by our individual wits alone is not always enough. In primitive settings, surviving an encounter with the stronger and mightier may well require help from others. Group cooperation might be the only way to successfully fight off an attack from a neighboring tribe or larger and stronger predator.

The threats modern society faces may not be quite the same, but we continue to find safety from certain threats by virtue of our numbers. We need look no further than the Las Vegas mass casualty shooting to see how people can be naturally compelled to help one another, even when they themselves are still in the midst of mortal danger.

Oxytocin thus enhances capacity to succeed as a group. Likewise, it is a modulator of fear and anxiety, lessening intensity of flight or flight emotions to more manageable levels. It also results in feeling more inclined to respond to social stimuli. Such effects certainly explain why ancestors blessed with sufficient oxytocin were more likely to survive and pass on their genes than those who were not.

But there’s still that downside—how oxytocin can have us feeling drawn to follow the crowd, even when doing so is irrelevant or contradictory to everyone’s best interests. Thankfully, herd instinct doesn’t completely prevent the logical brain from stepping in, any more so than does the stress response.

The key point here is understanding that neurochemical hijacking is going on, just as we need to understand what adrenalin is doing to us during times of fight or flight. Taking into account chemical influences is critical to finding the calmer and steadier thinking that keeps us from joining the lemmings piled up at the base of the cliff.”

Finding a Different Way

We need not go along with the crowd when others are polarizing and divisive. We need not copy the lashing out and unsocialized behavior we see among other frustrated members of the herd. We need not embrace the irrational, the supposed solutions that only lead to more cogjam.

Diverting our paths from herd direction means taking a risk. But that’s the only way we can find needed solutions for novel situations–like how we will get ourselves out of cogjam.

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