Rather shamefully, I am still yet to read Herd – the book (and associated research) on which the talk was based. This is despite regularly reading the Herd blog and even having a copy in the Essential library. As I said, shameful.
Despite this, I think I was the target audience. Along with a Q&A only notable for the rather aggressive questioning of a lady accusing Mark of ignoring “the female perspective”, the session offered a fairly gentle precis of the book’s central theory which, if I had read it, I would of course have been familiar with.
A tenet of the book is that we’re bad at changing other people’s behaviour. To highlight this, Mark recalled a few statistics from his research:
- Only 10% of new products survive longer than 12 months
- Only 30% of change management programmes begin to achieve their aims
- Mergers & Acquisitions lessen shareholder value two thirds of the time
- No government initiative has created demonstrable and sustainable change
This is particularly worrying because behavioural change comes before attitude change – our thinking comes after the fact. We (post)rationalise rather than act rationally.
Therefore, in order to change attitudes, we need to change behaviour. And to be able to do this, we need to understand who we are. Only then can we can create solutions that work.
The Herd thesis draws upon the Asian culture of believing that humans are naturally social. We are fundamentally social with only a bit of independence, not vice versa.
Although it doesn’t sound particularly controversial, this thinking does run contrary to some well established tenets of both marketing and social theory.
According to Mark, thinking is much less important in human life than it seems. He likens us and thinking to a cat in water – we can do it if we have to, but we don’t particularly like it.
This is because it is easier to follow than think. We know our judgement is fallible and so we outsource the decision by following the crowd. But while this may work in some situations – many illustrated by James Surowieki – it is also arguably a contributing factor to the financial crisis, as financial institutions copied one another without comprehending the implications.
We therefore need to design our theories and tools to accommodate this social behaviour. It is much more rewarding to understand how social norms are created and perpetuated than it is to work on the assumption of cogito ergo sum.
Some initial thoughts
While brief, the talk certainly conveyed the need for me to read the book fully. Perhaps then some of my questions regarding the theory will be answered.
In particular, I’m interested in knowing where movements originate and whether this herd behaviour can be predicted.
For all the sheep, there must be a shepherd somewhere. Are these shepherds always designated as such – the almost mythical influentials – or do we alternate between thinking and following?
Rarely are our choices as clear cut as choosing whether to join the corner of the party where people are talking rather than the one where people are sitting in silence. Instead we have multiple choices and herds – how do we choose?
Is it a level of proximity? In the Battle of Britpop, Northerners sided with Oasis and Southerners with Blur? However, I’m from the Midlands, so was my choice one of the rare occurrences of rational choice (which would make a rather unconvincing deus ex machina) or is it purely random?
If random, then the work of Duncan Watts becomes pertinent. His modelling has suggested that in situations where groups vote up and down their favourite songs, there is no objective winner. Different simulations create different patterns. Purely random.
This creates difficulties for researchers as we like our statistical certainty. We like to have a set answer that we can post-hoc explain given the evidence. Duncan Watts’ research would suggest that research tools that build in mass opinion – such as crowdsourced tagging or wikis – are effectively meaningless. Rather than ultimately deviate towards a “correct” answer, they simply reflect the random order of participation and interaction.
Can mass behaviour be effectively incorporated into a research programme? I’ll report back with some thoughts once I’ve read the book
Filed under: crowdsourcing, events | Tagged: crowdsourcing, duncan watts, Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature, james surowiecki, mark earls, public opinion, research, Royal Society | 12 Comments »