Herd Mentality (Consumer Understanding #6)

Mar 15 2011

In the last post, we saw that humans are susceptible to social bias (or herd mentality).  Our mind does not work by itself alone, but through interactions with other minds in the immediate environment or more remotely through culture and shared values.  Much of what we do is under the influence of others, often without realising, with important implications for marketing and research.

in 1971, Philip Zimbardo started an experiment at Stanford University which quickly spiralled out of control, and is now one of the classic studies in social psychology and the subject of his book The Lucifer Effect. The study was an attempt to understand the psychological effects of becoming a prison guard or prisoner, using students chosen for their ‘normal’ behaviour.  The students quickly adapted to their roles, well beyond the expectations of Zimbardo and his colleagues, leading to physical and mental abuse from those playing the prison guards, and passive acceptance of such behaviour from those playing the prisoners.  Zimbardo himself admits that he lost control of himself as the prison superintendent, leading to some participants walking out, and the experiment coming to an early halt after six days.  Films of the activity in the prison are disturbing, and eerily reminiscent of more recent abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The person in the situation

The experiment is controversial, but shows the powerful effects of situation on behaviour, creating strong influences which can overcome our more basic traits and instincts.  In particular, social hierarchy and authority are highly persuasive, encouraging us to conform to stereotypical roles within specific social contexts (something also seen in Stanley Milgram’s experiments).

Such experiments are not isolated examples of bad behaviour, but rather they are extreme cases of our inherently social behaviour.  We are all subject to such influences every day, wearing different clothes to work than at home, choosing different brands with different company, and learning from and adapting to the people around us.  Why else are more than 50 million people on Facebook, and is their behaviour on Facebook influenced by the comments of others?  You bet it is.

Holding up a mirror to ourselves

Evolution has selected human beings as highly social creatures, and neuroscientists have already found a hyper-developed mirror neuron system in our brains.  This system is linked to a variety of social behaviours such as mimicry and empathy for others, with similar brain activity both when we experience a particular event or emotion, or when we see others experience the same thing.  Thus, we are genetically programmed to engage with each other via reciprocity (you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours), sympathy and attachment to groups.  Truly, ‘no man is an island’.

Our concept of “I’ is an illusion, and we have already seen in the Stanford prison experiment that social context can make people do things that they never thought they would do.  In Asian cultures with an emphasis on collective behaviour, such ideas are more accepted than in Western societies with their emphasis on individualism and independence, but we are universally subject to these influences.  And if social nature is our prime characteristic then brands must seek to be understood within that social context.

The importance of context

Traditional marketing and market research however, still focuses squarely on the individuals.  The vast majority of current market research assumes, wrongly, that individuals make their decisions on their own, and rarely reflects the fuller context of human behavior.  To truly understand human behavior we may need to study the true social context in which it operates.

Behaviour operates at three levels.  At the individual level we have our motivations, emotions and unconscious (learnt behaviour).  At the micro-social level we have subcultures, tribes, social interactions and learnt practices.  And at the macro-social level we have classes, lifestyles and above all culture.  Very little has been done in research to understand interactions between individuals (focus groups are just an artificial illusion of consumer to consumer interactions).  Writers such as Malcolm Gladwell have highlighted the need to understand systems of interactions and tipping points, when non-linear processes work (such as the diffusion of new ideas).

Tipping points

Peer-to-peer communication of course has become increasingly enabled via social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter, and new technologies can provide clients with the ability to listen to conversations that are happening over the internet.  Clients are often learning that “influence” is everything, and measures of influence reflect the number of people listening to you and your perceived authority and reputation within an area of discourse.  This is one reason why companies seek to engage with influential bloggers and opinion formers.

The degree of influence in social terms can be a function of attractiveness, expertise, the extent to which we seek to gain reward or identification with the group, and he extent to which we need to believe our beliefs and actions are remaining consonant over time.

If you are in any doubt over the power of emerging systems and tipping points, look to the middle east’s jasmine revolution!

A word in your ear

When it comes to brand selection, past experience and word of mouth consistently rank far more importantly than advertising, and it is increasingly important to understand peer to peer influence above traditional advertising influence, as we trust our friends more and more and traditional authorities less and less.  Hence the drive for many brands to engage on an equal footing with consumers and customers. Others are taking it even further and creating communities of customers to help them co-create new products and services.

Market research needs to understand more about mass behaviour, and go beyond basics of monitoring online “buzz” to understand the underlying mechanisms and how they work (for example, looking at social interactions and use of social media as part of a consumer’s profile).

Our species is first and foremost a social one and mass behavior is often a result of social mechanisms hidden to the individual. Interaction is everything, and we must build understanding of the simple rules which govern human interactions under different condition.

Above all, remember that the greatest influence on people is other people.  Businesses come a very poor second.


The Social Animal by Elliot Aronson (1954)

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo (2008)

Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing our True Nature by Mark Earls (2009)

The Tipping Point: How Little Things can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (2002)

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