Do People Act in Isolation?
In ‘I’ll have what she’s having’; Mark Earls and his co-authors explain how social learning (i.e. imitating other people) acts as the engine for the spread of culture, human behaviour and ultimately innovation. The authors reassert the need for those wanting to influence mass behaviour to move away from the “me” to the “we” perspective.
But, why should we care? Well, the authors demonstrate how copying each other has been the driving force behind the success of our species and the spread of innovation. We are so adept at imitating each other that we are often not even aware that we are doing it. Further, the nature of social learning has far reaching implications for organisations seeking to change mass behaviour or spread new ideas.
“Practically it matters because our social inheritance underlies modern human life in a huge, increasingly interconnected population of people to learn from and an enormous oversupply of choices in our lives.” – Bentley, Earls & O’Brien – I’ll Have What She’s Having.
- Mark Earls and his co-authors examine the processes by which ideas spread through our social networks. This can often result from person to person imitation without people even consciously being aware of their actions.
- This is common where there are large populations confronted with a large number of similar options. People are inundated with choices that lack differentiation. But they are also faced with a multitude of social influences and recommendations that ensures that at an aggregate level there is no clear direction of copying.
- Sometimes people consciously direct their copying as they want to be associated with like-minded people and share similar experiences. They may adopt an idea because it appears better than what came before or we may seek to conform because it changes our perception of a social norm. There are numerous reasons why we imitate other people, but essentially herd behaviour is at the heart of the dispersion of ideas, behavioural change and innovation through our social networks.
- It is a myth though to suggest that herd behaviour leads to people increasingly behaving and looking the same. We all like to have our own identity and will copy different individuals or groups which ensure diversity flourishes. Indeed, for work clothes we may copy colleagues, whilst our music tastes may be driven by friends we socialise with and the model of car we buy may be influenced by people where we live.
“The paradox of social diffusion is that we all conform in one way or another, but this does not mean we all behave in the same way.” Bentley, Earls & O’Brien – I’ll Have What She’s Having.
So if our interaction with other people through our social networks is the key to understanding mass behaviour, why does much of our marketing activity continue to focus on understanding what individuals think and do? The authors point out that predictive cascade models of how forest fires spread do not concern themselves with the characteristics of an individual tree and what it is made of. Instead they treat each tree as flammable material in a grid system. What matters is how close trees are to other trees and how they interact with each other.
Indeed, social scientists have noticed that many behaviours and lifestyle characteristics appear to cluster in social networks. A study by David Shoham, PhD, investigated why obesity and related behaviours cluster. The research among US school children found that it could only partly be explained by friend selection. They discovered a significant and powerful relationship between obesity and a child’s circle of friends.
Indeed, a child who was not over-weight was considerably more likely to become obese if they were closely connected with children who were already obese. They concluded that it was important not to treat children with obesity in isolation. They also found that in this instance social influence tended to operate more in detrimental ways. A TED talk describes the hidden influence of social networks.
- The analysis challenges the validity of generalising results from experiments and quantitative research to the wider population. The authors’ assert that “more” is definitely different. Of course humans are not inanimate objects, but the point is that as social creatures’ human society is more than the sum of the individual parts. At an aggregate level our social networks display complexities that go beyond the traditional marketing and research approach that treats individuals in isolation.
- As herd theory suggests we are more likely to be influenced by the actions of others in our network. Thus to understand the spread of ideas and innovation we need to pay more attention to the characteristics of our social networks. We are likely to learn more by understanding the scale and structure of networks than studying with the views of individuals. This is about exploring how much social networks cluster, how big and how far they reach, and how they change over time.
- Brands and marketing content are not important on their own. What matters most is what people (e.g. staff, customers and non-customers) do with them and how they interact with other people in their networks. The scale and structure of social networks will influence how your brand is adopted and evolves as a social entity. Organisations can’t control how people interact with their brands, but they can encourage interaction and adapt to how social networks interpret and change the context of the brand.
- Organisations can be too focused on the actions of their direct competitors. However, emerging trends and innovations from outside an organisation’s sector can often be a more valuable source of ideas as they are not subject to the same norms that evolve and constrain behaviour in their sector.
- Thank you for reading my post. I hope it has challenged some ideas about human behaviour and has generated some useful ideas about understanding social dispersion.
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- About the author: Neal provides digital marketing optimisation consultancy services and has worked for brands such as Deezer.com, Foxybingo.com, Very.co.uk, partypoker.com and Bgo.com. He uses a variety of techniques, including web analytics, personas, customer journey analysis and customer feedback to improve a website’s conversion rate.
- Neal has had articles published on website optimisation on Usabilla.com and as an ex-research and insight manager on the GreenBook Blog research website. If you wish to contact Neal please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow Neal on Twitter @northresearch, see his LinkedIn profile or connect on Facebook.