Hive Mind

hivemindI didn’t realize it until today, but my previous two posts had a common thread to them, community and cooperation.

Two days ago I wrote about what I referred to as the “herd mentality” that pervades college classroom communities when you ask students to answer a question by a show of hands. A research study showed that most students simply going along with the majority, hesitant to offer a dissenting opinion. This could be viewed as a classic example of groupthink.

Yesterday’s post looked at two streets in Philadelphia where a community of neighbors worked together to create spectacular Christmas lights displays. Each street offered great examples of the power of cooperation.

What made me see the connection between the two stories was an article in today’s Wall Street Journal, ‘Hive Mind,’ From Beekeeping to Economics.

Garett Jones, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University, has just written a book titled “Hive Mind“. Jones notes that scientists “sometimes use the metaphor of ‘collective intelligence’ or a ‘hive mind’ to explain group actions.” And just as bees in a hive collaborate as a group, so too do humans, whose “millions of small cognitive contributions…create each nation’s collective intelligence, each nation’s hive mind.”

The phrase, as you might expect, got its start with a British beekeeper who noted ” a strange and mysterious collective mentality” that “guides the destinies and decisions of the hive.”

The phrase was then picked up by science fiction writers, often in the negative context of aliens who act in a collective manner to defeat humans. From there, the phrase was used to describe the “groupthink” of collectivist societies like the Soviet Union. The historian Robert Conquest wrote that the Politburo operates “as what the science fictioneers have hypothesized for us as a ‘hive mind.’ ”

More recently, the term hive mind has been viewed more positively, particularly in the world of social media. For example, Twitter has often been termed a “hive mind” that connects users to draw on the help of a larger group, such as getting suggestions for where to eat in an unfamiliar city.

Professor Jones used the phrase Hive Mind as the title for his book when he realized that “group intelligence was more important than individual intelligence, that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, that cooperation was crucial to successful economies, and that society itself really is something like a cognitive process, one that is still little understood.”

After reading the article, I immediately thought of how the concept of hive mind applied in the case of all those neighbors working together to put together such wonderful Christmas light displays. Both streets were perfect examples of the positive side of the “hive mind”.

On the other hand, the example of the students tending to vote with the majority when raising their hands in response to a teacher’s question could be viewed as a downside to the hive mind in action. Such groupthink can lead to negative outcomes, as noted in that blog post.

So there you have it; a new buzzword to throw around at your New Year’s Eve celebration, and a couple of recent examples to show the pros and cons of “hive mind”.

Consider it my Christmas gift to my readers.


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