starlings murmuration

Crowds, Individuals and Conformity

I’ve always been fascinated by crowds — how they form, why they form, what influences them, and what, in turn, they have the ability to influence. I’ve also always tried to differentiate between crowds and communities, the latter being a more “refined” version of a crowd. Communities have purpose, and common bonds that bind the individuals together. So when I came across a couple of choice documentaries recently, that explored the nature, and science, of crowd/community behavior (and what it means as an individual within a crowd or community) the questions started flying. Fast.


I came across a brilliant documentary by Marcus du Sautoy, part of the BBC’s “The Code” series, in which he mathematically explains the amazing”Black Sun” murmurations that starlings form every year on their annual migration. Watching tens of thousands, perhaps a hundred thousand or more, fly in seemingly random, yet fluid, ever-changing pattern was both amazing to watch, but it also begged the question “how”? It turns out, as Marcus, explains, that you can mathematically recreate a murmuration of starlings with three basic rules: all birds should fly at approximately the same speed, they should stay close to their neighbors, and they should avoid predators (danger).


If you follow these three simple rules, it turns out that each starling need only keep track of (be influenced by) their seven closest neighbors. And those seven neighbors are constantly changing as the murmuration morphs in flight.

Might not the same basic rules apply to human behavior and individuals within a community or crowd?


After watching the BBC documentary, I stumbled across a great show on the Discovery Channel – Head Games. In this particular episode, they were delving into the nature of human conformity – could they make people conform to a belief or behavior that they inherently knew was wrong or incorrect?

During their experiments, they were able to convince a group of individuals that a snake was sitting high up in a tree — so much so that these individuals went on to convince others that there was indeed a snake in the tree. They described its shape, its color, its movements. But there was no snake.

During a second test, they were able to get a group of people to follow a red line through a museum — even though the red line took them away from the main exhibits (at one point having them actually walk in a circle around a pole).

After digging a bit deeper, I came across a study referenced in Science Daily that demonstrated an innate predisposition in humans to need to conform, as well as a predisposition in certain people (based on the size of certain regions of the brain) to have a higher-than-normal tendency to need to conform. To belong. To be safe. In other words, to not stand out or put themselves at risk.


After viewing the videos, digging deeper into the “conformity predisposition” and tossing the ideas about, a series of questions began to take shape…

  • At what point, if ever, does a group of individuals become a crowd (with collective influence and behavior)?
  • Can a group influence you in the same way that an individual does? (Can they be one of your “7”)?
  • At what point does conformity override our individual opinions and actions?
  • At what point does a crowd attain the characteristics, and influence, of an individual (if ever)?
  • Does conformity result in a faster shift in our opinions? Or do we still focus on our closest friends to define our behavior?

If you have any answers, I’d love to hear them. Let’s compare some notes. I’m far from done with this subject.


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  • dankeldsen

    Fred – great video clip, and yes, the give and take of individuals vs. crowds (and communities), is all part of the keys to understanding corporate behavior – the tribes and their leaders, detractors, influencers, etc..

    I’d be willing to bet you’ll find research I did a few years ago, right on topic here, see slides at:

    Great talking to you today – all sorts of opportunities at play.


    • Fred McClimans

      Dan – Thanks for sharing the link. Some very good data and insights. I often find that the most difficult part of this discussion is simply getting people to open their minds and be receptive to the concept. Once they’ve done that, the real discussion can begin – and that’s the fun part. Thanks for the feedback AND the share. Here’s to more in the future.

      • dankeldsen

        Fred – agree – that’s why my goal is to “lower the barrier” to [fill in the blank], to be so low that the only danger is tripping over the barrier. ;) #innovation #habits #start #small

        • Fred McClimans

          I need to find the Business Innovation presentation I did for a George Mason grad class – 10 innovation concepts to build upon (and we built upon each – 2hrs worth!). That said, an hour was devoted to discussing the real meaning of an innovation (iPhone, no. App Store, yes.).

  • CHopeMurray

    This is, indeed, most fascinating. At the heart of murmuration lies awareness, which can be conscious or unconscious observations (using any of the 5 senses), There is also a sense of critical thinking (again either conscious or unconscious) that determines which of the seven points of reference to follow. Maybe it is as simple as flying with the majority (eg fly in the same direction as 4 of the 7), but it could also be the freedom to choose between a small set of alternatives.

    I suspect both methods are employed, the more cautious following the former and the more adventurous the latter. The fact that murmurations are constantly fluid suggests that there is an element of innovation. How else are new formations created? But here there must be other critical determinations at play to prevent all members of the crowd innovating at the same time, destroying the rhythm and flow of the collective group. Yet again a simple rule could determine the opportunity to innovate, based on recognition of cautious or adventurous members of the group. If your group contains 4 cautious flyers then feel free to change direction, though not in a direction to obstruct any of the seven reference points.

    I am sure there are many other factors at play and many other explanations, but as you point out this could very well be relevant to how we as individuals act in a crowd. Are we cautious and conformant, or adventurous and innovative. If the latter how far do we stretch the rules. Clearly if you are a member of the second group your critical thinking capacity is challenged far more than the conformant group. Vive la difference.

    Thanks for the post – stimulating as always.