Sometimes it seems we are surrounded by rational empiricists vainly trying to predict the movements of herd animals.
Anatole Kaetsky’s piece on the UK’s forthcoming referendum on EU membership is an example. He makes a very good logical case for why the UK should remain part of Europe and claims that, over time, as the merits of this argument are made to the great British public, that they will vote accordingly: “The politics and economics of the question virtually guarantee that British voters will back EU membership, even though this may not become apparent in public opinion polls until a few weeks, or even days, before the vote.” He is an economist after all, so he lives by data and reason.
And whilst I buy his economic predictions – well, as much as anyone else’s – I suspect he is mistaken on how electorates or the public or crowds behave. I subscribe much more to Mark Earls’ contention that at heart we are herd animals and tend to copy the behaviors and actions of others. Preferably people we know or who are close to us, and if they have technical knowledge on the subject at hand all the better (see our Trust Barometer for more on this).
But if not, and they appear in our social media feeds, and they seem part of a movement then that will often do. Marketing still struggles with this concept, particularly the bits of marketing and communications I see looking for rational or even emotional propositions or reasons to buy something or change behaviour. It’s always good to have one of those for sure, but it’s often more important to show that others believe or buy or do something.
It may be a bleak prognosis to suggest that rather than engage our reason, we just copy, but when you look at the number of small and not-so-small decisions we have to make every day, it is perhaps an understandable strategy. How long can we truly spend deciding on our shampoo brand choice based on a cool and detached assessment of its ingredients and advertising claims? And how much do you really know about climate change science to back up your belief that we are or are not affecting the world’s temperature?
You and I look around to see what others think and do, and we copy or mimic or use their decisions to rationalize our own much more than we think.