When Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his resignation Thursday morning, he used some striking language to explain why he was leaving. Johnson told the people gathered that he had tried to remain prime minister but had been defeated by “herd instinct,” and “when the herd moves, it moves.” This is an unusual way for a leader to explain defeat. So what was Johnson trying to say, and is there any truth to it?
Johnson isn’t just saying that his colleagues are cattle
Johnson’s choice of words was not particularly complimentary to his colleagues, but it was probably more intended to justify his own position than to insult them directly. On Wednesday, Johnson had to endure a seemingly unending succession of resignations as one government minister after another quit, to express their lack of confidence in his leadership. More than 50 members of the government (ministers, junior ministers and private secretaries) left in 48 hours, setting a record in modern political history. No leader likes to leave power, but this is a particularly humiliating way to be forced out.
Even Johnson’s enemies would grant that he is highly skilled in depicting objectively bad situations in ways that make him look good. Plausibly, he was trying to do this here. He argued that the government he led was objectively doing well. Even if it was a few points down in the polls, it was on the brink of further success. Accordingly, it was “eccentric” of his colleagues to force him to resign as prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party. By his account, he tried to persuade his colleagues of this, and failed, because the herd instinct had set in. Once the herd starts moving, it is hard to get it to stop.
In Johnson’s self-flattering explanation, he is a good leader who was defeated by essentially irrational forces. Conservative ministers and members of parliament were immune to reasoned arguments, because they were all looking to each other to see what would happen next. Everyone either resigned or pushed him to leave because everyone believed that everyone was resigning or was going to resign. Nobody wanted to look like a fool, hence everyone engaged in the foolish behavior of pushing out a great leader who could have led the Conservative Party to another victory.
Herd mentality exists
Johnson is right on one thing. Herd mentality exists. Social scientists are very fond of pointing to phenomena in which human beings do things that are stupid in the long term because everyone around them is doing the same.
This could be because people may privately know what the right thing to do is but believe that it will be counterproductive to do it unless everyone else does it too. This explains, for example, why dictatorships can endure, even if everyone hates them. I know that I hate the dictatorship enough to overthrow it, but unless I know that everyone else hates the dictatorship, too, I may think that it is too risky to act on my own. As social scientists like Timur Kuran have argued, dictatorial regimes often put a lot of effort into preventing people from building up sufficient “common knowledge” about how hated the regime is. Stock market bubbles can persist, even when everyone knows they are bubbles, because no one knows exactly when they will pop, and they worry that the market can stay irrational longer than they can remain solvent betting against it.
Equally, herd phenomena can exist because people influence each other’s understanding of the world. I may not have a strong understanding myself of whether someone is a good leader, but I may be willing to trust the opinions of those around me. That probably explains why many people believe, in the face of strong contradictory evidence, that Joe Biden cheated Donald Trump out of his rightful victory in the 2020 election campaign.
In both of these situations, people can do collectively foolish things because the herd is moving. Either they see where the herd is going, and rationally decide that their best choice is to be part of it, or they irrationally believe that the herd is doing the right thing, even when it isn’t.
When the herd moves, it is sometimes right
The question is whether Johnson is right more broadly. Did his party move irrationally to get rid of an objectively good leader? The evidence suggests that it did not.
First, many of his MPs believed that he was a bad leader. Just a few weeks ago, he won a confidence vote within his party, by 211 votes for to 148 against. That is low, because many members of the government probably voted for Johnson, not because he was a good leader, but because their positions depended on his leadership. Because this vote was conducted by secret ballot, party members had every reason to do what was actually in their long term interests, regardless of what everyone else was doing. No one would punish them for voting the wrong way because no one would know.
Nor is there good evidence that Johnson would have led the party to victory. Instead, after a series of scandals about Johnson’s honesty, his party recently lost two by-elections by margins that suggested voter disgust, and a decisive swing against the Conservative Party. Wednesday’s push came after another scandal where his honesty had been called into question. When a political appointee was accused of drunken groping at a private club, Johnson’s spokesman denied that Johnson had known about previous allegations. This denial turned out to be untrue.
A more likely explanation is that Conservative ministers and MPs had concluded that Johnson was a terrible leader but that they worried about being punished for disloyalty and needed some external reason to believe that everyone else would move against him, too. The newest scandal provided the necessary common knowledge for them to take collective action. Under this explanation, herd mentality didn’t remove Johnson. Instead, it protected his leadership until, finally, it failed.