What’s behind our tendency to go with the crowd, sensible thinking or emotion? And what are its dangers?

No one likes to think of themselves as one of life’s sheep. And yet, Michelle Baddeley suggests, there are many circumstances where following the herd is the smart option, because it saves you the bother of decision-making from scratch. Say you’re after a new fridge freezer. Instead of exhaustively researching the topic, you could just buy the one that everyone in your street has got. Chances are that your neighbours have done all the grunt work of comparing thermostats and drip trays and you can simply benefit from their expertise. The time you save could be more usefully employed in learning Mandarin or cooking delicious midweek dinners.

What’s being enacted here, she explains, is the sort of self-interested herding you see in nature. We’re not just talking obvious stuff, such as meerkats taking it in turns to do sentry duty or lionesses approaching their lunch like a well-drilled first XI. Baddeley digs deeper to report on some well-I-never moments in behavioural ecology. Take the quoll, a small Australian marsupial that until recently was under threat from the cane toad. It wasn’t that the toads were aggressive to them, rather they presented the fatal threat of being both toothsome and toxic.

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