eee38ec1b7567339c2ae5c2dcf1e4aa7Under the influence of the Enlightenment, or Protestantism, or both, our legal system typically treats religion as individualist and intellectual: a personal assent to certain abstract propositions of faith. But this is not how most people experience religion in daily life. For most of us, religion is about joining a community with which we identify for various reasons, of which intellectual reasons may be the least important. A new book from Yale University Press, Copycats and Contrarians: Why We Follow Others… and When We Don’t, touches on the group dynamics of religion and other phenomena. (Here’s one group phenomenon the author apparently doesn’t address: academic life, which strikes me as quite dominated by the “herd instinct,” actually). The author is scholar Michelle Baddeley (University of South Australia). Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

A multidisciplinary exploration of our human inclination to herd and why our instinct to copy others can be dangerous in today’s interlinked world

Rioting teenagers, tumbling stock markets, and the spread of religious terrorism appear to have little in common, but all are driven by the same basic instincts: the tendency to herd, follow, and imitate others. In today’s interconnected world, group choices all too often seem maladaptive. With unprecedented speed, information flashes across the globe and drives rapid shifts in group opinion. Adverse results can include speculative economic bubbles, irrational denigration of scientists and other experts, seismic political reversals, and more.

Drawing on insights from across the social, behavioral, and natural sciences, Michelle Baddeley explores contexts in which behavior is driven by the herd. She analyzes the rational vs. nonrational and cognitive vs. emotional forces involved, and she investigates why herding only sometimes works out well. With new perspectives on followers, leaders, and the pros and cons of herd behavior, Baddeley shines vivid light on human behavior in the context of our ever-more-connected world.

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