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6 March 2011 / Liz Johns

In Pursuit Of The Selfish Commute – Herd Behaviour In Humans

As I was driving the commute to work the other morning, flanked by traffic on either side of me front and back, a thought came to mind that this must be the closest equivalent to herd behaviour in animals. There is one marked difference of course, people driving to work are generally trying to get out in front to get away from the ‘herd’. Their goal is to reach their destination first and to avoid being hampered by slightly slower drivers ahead, the appearance of whom causes annoyance and frustration. Everyone in the commute secretly wishes that everyone else would travel at a later or earlier time. Any time, but the same time as them. Compare this to an animal herd, a collection of animals that form a like-minded group, often with the sacrifice of the individual, whose sole and shared purpose is to reach a common goal or destination. As such they form a harmony of animals moving together for the greater benefit of all.

Mutual concern or individual gain?

At least, that was my thinking, until I came across a paper by W. D. Hamilton called Geometry for the Selfish Herd. His idea ran contrary to the idea that the individual animals in a herd were working as ‘one’. As he suggested, when animals were fleeing from danger in a herd, each individual would be trying to get closest to the centre of the group (and hence furthest away from the dangers of the outer edge), thus demonstrating selfish, individual activity, and not group harmony. It just so happens, that that individual activity keeps the animals in a herd shape.

The selfish commute

So, taking that idea, animal herds are much closer in effect to human commuting herds than I first thought. Closer that is w.r.t. each individual acting on his own behalf (and the sod the rest of you). I appreciate the circumstances are a bit different – fleeing from danger as opposed to racing towards our workplace (why do we do that by the way?), but there is a similarity of sorts.

“A parallel to this is commonly seen in the behaviour of the hindmost sheep that a sheepdog has driven into an enclosure: such sheep try to butt or to jump their way into the close packed ranks in front.Behaviour of this kind certainly cannot be regarded as showing an unselfish concern for the welfare of the whole group.” [Hamilton, 1971]

Hamilton seems to have been the first to consider the actions of a herd from the standpoint of an individual animal (as best as we can understand), and not just observing externally. I wonder, therefore, how commuting traffic appears to an imagined outsider – an alien or a god. Perhaps, our angst-driven (pun intended) commute would seem harmonious and mutually-beneficial to them. Oh, how wrong they would be.

However you look at herd behaviour in driving commuters, one thing is clear: it’s generally better to take the train.

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