Monday, July 7, 2014

Herd Mentality

On one hand, many Americans act like they have all the answers.  There never seems to be a shortage of strong opinions.  On the other hand, they also act like everyone else is smarter than they are.  They follow the latest trends and fashions, like a flock of sheep.  A favorite advertising and political enticement confidently declares that everyone else is buying this product or thinking this way, so you should too.  You hear this so often simply because it works.

If you don’t believe me, listen to the ads, look at the billboards, read the newspapers or listen to your friends.  We are confronted with hundreds of ads and political messages every day and the emphasis, in many cases, is how excited everyone else is about a movie, book, product or policy decision.  Why would they report the box office winners at the movies every week?  Why should we care?

This list of headlines shows typical examples of this popular-equals-good pitch:  “The top iPhone and iPad apps;” news and Internet searches that are “Trending Now;” “the highly anticipated iWatch is expected to become a best-selling device with consumers”; “be the first of your friends to see the hottest trending videos on youtube”; best-selling or most-popular: books, cars, dogs, food items, soft drinks, and diet aids.  Likewise in politics the polls are so important, not just to tell what people are thinking or which way voters are leaning on a particular issue, but also to influence those who have not made up their minds or locked in their choices.

Here is an interesting experiment conducted in 2006 by researchers at Princeton University.  They created a number of artificial “music markets’’ and allowed 14,341 participants to rate and download 48 songs that were previously unknown to them.  About half of the participants were asked to preview and download songs based only on their tastes and preferences.  This independent ranking served as a proxy for the quality of a song.  The rest of the participants were randomly divided into eight groups.  They reviewed the same songs but were also allowed to see how often others within their group had downloaded each of the songs.  Some saw the songs listed in random order with download totals.  Others saw an ordered list, top to bottom, showing of the preference of others within their group.

Results clearly showed the power of social influence, which in this case was restricted to information about the choices of others (not advertising, social media or other sources of information).  All eight social-influence groups “exhibit greater inequality – meaning popular songs are more popular and unpopular songs are less popular - than the world in which individuals make decisions independently.”  In addition, the top-to-bottom listing, as we so often see in the press, told a larger story:  “as individuals are subject to stronger forms of social influence, the collective outcomes will become increasingly unequal.”  Finally, "songs of any given quality can experience a wide range of outcomes…In general, the best songs never do very badly, and the worst songs never do extremely well, but almost any other result is possible.”  The more influence the players experienced, the more often they chose a song.

This led an author not involved in the study to comment:  “In many domains people are tempted to think, after the fact, that an outcome was entirely predictable, and that the success of a musician, an actor, an author, or a politician was inevitable in light of his or her skills and characteristics.  Beware of that temptation…Today’s hot singer is probably indistinguishable from dozens and even hundreds of equally talented performers whose names you’ve never heard.”  (Source:  Thaler and Sullivan, Nudge. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008, p. 63.)  Those who reach stardom do so by riding a wave of popularity (or hype), not necessarily by virtue of their unique or exceptional abilities.

Americans buy things and do things because others Americans buy them or do them.  Young people declare their individuality by copying others, by following the crowd.  They dress alike, talk alike, follow the same entertainers, pierce their bodies and get tattoos.  Ironically, they express their individuality by being afraid to be different from their peer group so they can grow up to be conformist adults, letting others tell them how they should look, what they should drive, and what they should think. We have too few individuals, non-conformists, or iconoclasts.  Too few who are willing to think for themselves, a situation that leads to our accepting, even clamoring for, inferior products, services and political leadership.  Popularity can drive out quality without us noticing.

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