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Herd Behaviour: following social norms can sometimes be risky for society

12 November 2018

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Reported by Mejd Alsari, CSaP Policy Intern (September – December 2018)

Do we have control over our thoughts and behaviours in today’s interconnected world? What makes us follow a certain path? Are the decisions we make rational or irrational, and how are they influenced by those around us? Can we trust experts to inform public policy?

These were some of the questions addressed by Professor Michelle Baddeley, a leading expert in behavioural economics from the University of South Australia, when she spoke at a CSaP Policy Fellows meeting last month in the SKYroom at the Cabinet Office.

Professor Baddeley spoke about her latest book Copycats and Contrarians: Why We Follow Others… and When We Don’t, in which she explores our human tendencies to herd and rebel, drawing on a range of concepts from social, behavioural and natural sciences.

Herding refers to the alignment of thoughts or behaviours of individuals in a group. Professor Baddeley suggests that not all conformity to social norms is bad. In fact, social information is good when we are lost. For example, when someone needs a new mobile phone, instead of spending time researching the topic, he can simply buy the one that his friends have. This is called self-interested herding, where people can benefit by following the actions of others.

A further example of good herding is when it is used to encourage people to be aware of certain issues or promote positive behaviours. For example, receiving a reminder about an overdue tax payment which states that 90% of the public had paid their tax bill on time, would put pressure on a person to copy others and not further delay payment; this is a good example of using social nudges to encourage healthy behavioural change among individuals.

Let’s picture two restaurants side by side, one is crowded and the other one is empty, which one would people go to? They will most likely choose the packed restaurant. But why do people conform to social norms so readily and unconsciously? People mimic others due to their desire to “fit in” and be truly accepted as members of the group, and their belief that the group is far better informed than they are. People can feel pressured to change their mind if they are the only individuals in a group who make a particular choice. Committees of experts can also demonstrate ‘herding’ behaviours.

Professor Baddeley also discussed how our tendency to herd and copy others is not necessarily a good fit in today’s interconnected world. She explained that although technological advancements have made an enormous and positive impact on our lives, some technologies have also disrupted the balance between individual and society interests, as can be the case with social media. While these platforms have empowered us to further enhance our knowledge and understanding, they can also be responsible for a lack of diversity in information and opinions. When accurate information is uncertain, it can be much easier to follow social norms; and once people join a group and form a certain opinion, it can be much harder to change their views.

Professor Baddeley closed her talk by highlighting that better information and better education are essential for people to be able to make their own choices and to not fall into the herd trap, which might lead them into unexpected paths. The presentation was followed by a lively debate among the attendees. One suggestion for countering herding behaviour was to identify someone specifically to occupy the ‘devil’s advocate’ position.

Banner image from Bernard Spragg. NZ via creative commons 4.0

Professor Michelle Baddeley

University of South Australia