Corporations are superorganisms. That’s not just a metaphor; it’s the way they were first described in English law. Here’s a definition of a corporation, from the first treatise on corporate law in English, in 1794, by Stewart Kyd:

“a collection of many individuals united into one body, under a special denomination, having perpetual succession under an artificial form, and vested, by policy of the law, with the capacity of acting, in several respects, as an individual…”

Many individuals, who can forge themselves into a single body. That’s a good description of beehives and ant nests. That’s a major transition in evolutionary history. And, like all previous major transitions, the superorganisms are so supremely powerful that once they get the form right, they spread widely and out-compete less cohesive rivals.

Of course, social insects are biologically evolved to be superorganisms. They don’t have a choice. Humans, on the other hand, are both groupish and selfish. It takes some work for us to turn our “self” off and merge into a hive. And for us, it’s always temporary. We can only do it for a short time, and then we revert to our individual state. But we often feel love and trust for the people we merged with. I believe that humans evolved – culturally and biologically – to be able to join hives. That is the ability I call “hive psychology,” which I describe in chapter 10 of The Righteous Mind. I think it is important for understanding how and why people join fraternities, sports teams, and companies.

When I was invited to give an Authors@Google talk in 2012, I thought it made sense to talk about “hive psychology.” Google is a very hivish place – and I mean that in a good way. When I talked with employees before and after my talk, many of them said the same thing, some version of “whenever I need something, I can just call on anyone in the company, and they’ll drop what they’re doing and help me.” That’s a clear sign of an attitude of “all for one, one for all.” That’s a clear sign of a company that builds on hive psychology.

Here’s the talk:

Published On: September 22, 2013

One Comment

  • Barking Unicorn says:

    Hive psychology may be beneficial to the superorganism and even to individual members of the hive – if their objectives coincide with those of the hive. But hive superorganisms are inimical to non-hive organisms.  Corporations are humanity’s deadliest enemy.

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