Hive mind: The good, the bad, and the viral

What is the hive mind? Turns out there are antisocial and prosocial dimensions to it.

SARAH ROSE CAVANAGH: The hive mind is a couple of different things. It is firstly the idea that we are a collective as much as we are individuals and that we can enter this frame of mind where we're sharing attention and we're sharing goals and we're sharing emotions. You can feel this most often if you think about your own experiences in attending rock concerts or sporting events, singing together in a choir where we seem to meld together a bit and share these experiences. But the hive mind is also the extent to which our understanding of the world is sourced collectively from each other, from our social others rather than just through independent decisions and experiences. So much of what we think is acceptable, what we think is fashionable and even what we think is true is sourced from other people and not ourselves.

We are tremendously influenced by the people that we admire and the people that we feel close to. Without even realizing it we can be shaped by these ideas. A good example of that I think is the ice bucket challenge which was a really odd thing if you stop to think about it. It's wonderful that we raised all that money for ALS but this impulse to do this thing just because everyone else is doing it and to do something so uncomfortable and strange as pour a bucket of ice over your head just spread like wildfire. And you can see this with most things that go viral. They don't always make complete sense. People aren't always thinking through. They just do it because we're influenced by each other so profoundly.

We are such an individualistic society that we tend to focus more on the bad aspects of the collective. We talk a lot about conformity. We talk a lot, especially since the 2016 election people are focusing a lot on echo chambers, on group polarization which refers to the fact that when we talk to only people who agree with us we not only become more entrenched in our views but we move more extreme. And we've been focusing a lot of our discussion on those dangers of collective thinking and I absolutely believe that there are many dangers of collective thinking. But at the same time we can source that collective thinking in powerful ways. So some of the best approaches to disinformation that I have seen involve relying more on the hive mind. Not expecting every individual person to go through every step of digital literacy and to evaluate each piece of information, but rather to source broadly and look for things that other people have already done. Not recreate the wheel but see if this idea has been debunked by other reputable sources at the same time. And so I think that there are ways that we can tap into the collective that are positive and prosocial as well as negative and antisocial.

If we believe that we're complete individuals and that all of our opinions and all of our thoughts are clearly our own, then we're more susceptible I think to those dangers of the hive mind. If we question – and this is something I do with my students all the time is to try to get both them and me into a place where we can question our own beliefs, where we can ask where are these coming from. What's the source of these beliefs. To think carefully and to think rationally about those things I think can get us to a safer place.

  • The hive mind is a shared intelligence or consciousness between groups of people. It determines what we think is culturally acceptable, what we think is fashionable, and even what we think is true. We source most of our information and beliefs from other people and not from ourselves, says psychology professor Sarah Rose Cavanagh.
  • The hive mind often comes under fire in the U.S. because it is a highly individualistic culture that frowns upon things like mindless conformity, echo chambers, and group think. Those are the antisocial aspects of collective thinking.
  • There are also prosocial features, explains Cavanagh. The hive mind allows us to draw on collective knowledge in positive ways, without needing to reinvent the wheel each time.

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