Bad crowd behaviour is more likely when people face a difficult task or challenging circumstances, new research from St Andrews University has found.
A large-scale online experiment examined why groups of people sometimes exhibit collective intelligence but at other times demonstrate “maladaptive herding”.
Researchers found that the more difficult the challenge, the more people are likely to conform and the greater the number of people exhibiting a behaviour, the more others are likely to copy.
Dr Wataru Toyokawa of the university’s school of biology, said: “Our study shows that maladaptive herding becomes more likely when both group size and task difficulty are high because people rely heavily on copying the majority’s behaviour without learning themselves.
“Therefore, we should be more aware of the risk of collective madness when these conditions are met.
“Somehow stimulating individual independent thought may reduce this risk but this requires further study.”
Collective or group intelligence can emerge when people work together, for example online shopping behaviour is influenced by product reviews and what products other people buy.
However, humans also suffer from collective madness when ineffective or even harmful knowledge goes viral – phenomenon called maladaptive herding – which can trigger financial bubbles and high volatility in stock markets.