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Herd mentality can impact situational awareness

I was recently reading some research that mentioned the cognitive bias known as herd mentality (or herd behavior). Stated basically, individuals will group and follow each other for inexplicable reasons. This is sometimes referred to as the “mob mentality” and is observed during riots. When one person yells loudly and charges forward, the herd (or mob) follows. Could this phenomenon impact situational awareness and decision making at emergency scenes?



Follow the leader

Children are taught from a very young age the game “follow the leader.” And they do so in lock-step fashion without questioning the leader’s intent. Newly hired employees are taught the same thing. Follow the leader and don’t question the leader’s intent. If fact, those who do question the leader’s intent may find themselves ostracized by the leader and maybe the entire group. So, like good little cherubs, we comply without questioning.

Forming situational awareness

Situational awareness is an individual process of perception, understanding and prediction. An individual gathers information (i.e., clues and cues) about what is happening in the environment (being perceptive). Then the individual processes the meaning of those clues and cues (forms an understanding). Finally, the individual forecasts or anticipates future outcomes (making predictions).

When an individual is following the leader, the process of forming personal situational awareness can get overlooked. In fact, some followers defer the process to the leader and follow the orders with little awareness of lurking dangers. If the leader yells “CHARGE!” the followers charge. This may be appropriate, even necessary, on a battlefield. But in most other work environments, it may be worth the time for each individual to form their own awareness about what is happening and what might happen in the future.


Challenges with situational awareness

There are over 100 barriers that can challenge situational awareness. (Visit the SAMatters store for books and videos that address the challenges of these barriers). I am not a proponent of using the term “lost” when discussing situational awareness. To some extent everyone, at all times, has some level of awareness. But is it strong? Or stated another way, is it accurate?

With so many different barriers that can challenge situational awareness, it is easy to understand how an officer, operating under changing conditions, time compression and stress could be impacted from a misperception or a misunderstanding. Yet, there are the followers… all conveniently lined up and ready to blindly follow the leader. Why? Because that’s what followers are supposed to do.

Breaking the herd mentality

standing outMaybe there’s a different model that can be applied that could… maybe… perhaps… improve first responder safety. Stick with me for a moment (I have to say that because I know that some readers are already shutting down to this message). Let’s teach all responders how to develop their own situational awareness by teaching them how to gather information, how to form comprehension of the information and how to make predictions of future events based on the currently communicated plan (in this case, that would be… CHARGE!).

I have interviewed hundreds of near-miss and casualty survivors. I am amazed (perhaps the word should be saddened) how many times they will share with me that they knew the plan being executed by the leader was not going to work and they held deep concerns for a bad outcome, but they didn’t speak up. Rather, they followed the leader like they were taught to do. If only they would have spoken up they might have prevented the near-miss or the casualty event.

The leader’s obligation

If a leader wants to avoid the herd mentality (and let’s acknowledge that some leaders don’t want followers to be thinkers… just followers) then the leader needs to establish with the followers a process by which the leader will allow (and encourage) the expression of concerns for safety prior to the implementation of the plan.

Followers are not going to speak up if there is fear of retribution or ridicule. [For more on how to speak up, go to the search box on the home page and search the terms “The five step assertive statement process” and “The pigs are eating lemons.”] It’s one thing to say, “I want you to speak up if you have a concern” and another thing to mean it and support speaking up.

Dr. Gasaway’s Advice

I was once doing a two-part situational awareness program for a wild land agency. On the first day I had the bosses and on the second day I had hand crews. On day one I was talking with the bosses about the need to avoid the herd mentality and how important it is for followers to speak up if they have a concern. The bosses assured me that message is strongly carried throughout the organization and we didn’t have to spend a lot of time on that topic. So I moved on to the next topic.

The next day I had about 70 members of the hand crews in the room (with no bosses present) and I asked them to raise their hand if they would speak up and express a concern. Only three raised their hands, and one of those qualified having his hand raised by stating it would depend on which boss it was. To affirm my suspicions, I then stated (the obvious): So the rest of you would blindly follow your leader into a bad situation without expressing a concern. The room fell silent.

Then I asked them to raise their hand if they were told by a supervisor, (or during their training) that they should speak up if they have a concern. All the hands went up.

Finally, I asked if anyone had ever been given the opportunity to actually practice (i.e., not just talk about) speaking up. Meaning the hand crew member actually had to, in the presence of others, respectfully disagree with their supervisor about a decision or had to express a concern for safety (in a simulated environment). No hands went up.

They all had been told… but not one of them had ever actually practiced the action. And there, in a room full of young men and women, ranging in ages from 18 to 25, I had my answer as to why the herd mentality is so difficult to overcome.

Talk is cheap… and easy. Turning talk into action is so much harder. I experience this all the time when I read books on leadership. Reading the words (the equivalent of someone telling me what I should be doing) and actually practicing the advice I have read are two completely different things. If we want to break herd mentality, we must practice the action of speaking up.

Action Items

1. Discuss the dangers of herd mentality in the first responder context.
2. Discuss a time when you were impacted by a herd mentality. What issues did it cause? Why didn’t anyone speak out against the leader’s intent?
3. Discuss strategies for how to overcome the herd mentality on your crew and on your incident scenes.


If you are interested in taking your understanding of situational awareness and high-risk decision making to a higher level, check out the Situational Awareness Matters Online Academy.
CLICK HERE for details, enrollment options and pricing.


Share your comments on this article in the “Leave a Reply” box below. If you want to send me incident pictures, videos or have an idea you’d like me to research and write about, contact me. I really enjoy getting feedback and supportive messages from fellow first responders. It gives me the energy to work harder for you.




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