Does Social Influence Drive Most Consumer Behaviour?

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Can most of the things we buy really be the result of the behaviour and opinions of other people, whether openly or through covert imitation? This challenges conventional thinking about how people make decisions and common assumptions that most market research is based upon. However, many of these are false assumptions so isn’t it about time we looked at the data and came up with a model of human decision making that doesn’t neglect social influence?

The Power of the Herd:

In the book I’ll Have What She’s Having by Mark Earls, Alex Bentley and Michael O’Brien the authors assert that social learning (imitating other people) is the engine for the spread of culture, behaviour and new ideas. The basic premise is nothing new. ‘Herd behaviour’ was first popularised a hundred years ago by Wilfred Trotter in his book Instincts of the Herd in peace and war (1914).

Social influence and our herd instinct determines consumer behaviour more than we realise

However, more recently the economists Thaler and Sunstein suggested that social influence is important. Most people learn from others and it is one of the most effective ways to nudge behaviour.

They noted that in Jonestown an entire population committed suicide due the power of social influence. That teenage girls are more likely to become pregnant if they see other teenagers having children. But also obesity, academic effort of students, broadcasting fads and the behaviour of US federal judges have all been found to be heavily influenced by their peers.

Is it a co-incidence that we buy so many of the same brands as our parents and have adopted some of their behaviours’ and phrases? Some of these preferences change as a result of friends, partners, colleagues, and others in our social networks. But by who? Our personal belief system is also the result of interactions with other people. We largely rely on people we respect and trust (see authority) rather than actively seeking experiences to form our beliefs.

Super Social Humans:

Source: FreeImages.comEarls and his co-authors suggest that our tendency to copy results from humans being the most social of all primates. Living in groups we possess superior cognitive abilities that allow us to copy behaviour and ideas. These characteristics have enabled humans to adapt and survive in changing social landscapes. We only have to look at how people now use smart phones to see how quickly humans find new ways to interact and exploit opportunities that didn’t exist just 20 years ago.

That is not to say that people automatically follow each others like lemmings. Humans do of course innovate. Earls and co assert that ideas spread through a small amount of individual learning (innovation), and then social learning by the vast majority of people. Sales and motivation consultant Cavett Robert confirmed the same observation:

“Since 95 percent of the people are imitators and only 5 percent initiators. People are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.” Cavett Robert

Interactions and Conformity:

Further, Earls and his co-authors point out that even if an idea or behaviour is intrinsically appealing, unless the knowledge of, motivation for, or acceptance spread through our interactions with others it will not get very far. Indeed, social norms emerge and change in our cultures as a result of behaviour spreading through conformity.

No one sets out what these norms should be. But people from a particular culture will generally agree on social norms without having to confer with each other. We learn what the norms are through our interactions with other people. Further, as Robert Cialdini and other social scientists have found social proof and norms can be a powerful way to persuade people to behave in a certain way.

  • Too much choice!
Image of brands on a supermarket shelf

The psychologist Barry Schwartz points out that as the number of choices we have continues to rise. People have no alternative but to rely on second-hand information rather than personal experience. His concern was about global telecommunications and how these networks copy and distribute the same stories. Even if a story is false the danger is that the more people hear it, the more they assume it is true.

“When you hear the same story everywhere you look and listen, you assume it must be true.” Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Revised Edition

In our modern societies copying is likely to be the most effective strategy for most decisions. We neither have the time or capacity to process so many choices. Schwartz visited a US consumer electronics store as part of the research for his book The Paradox of Choice. He estimated that the individual components in the store would enable one to create 6,512,000 different stereo systems. Perhaps it’s not surprising the iPod became so popular!

Market Patterns:

Earls and is his co-authors point out that patterns in market data are the best guide as to whether decisions are heavily subject to social influence. If people largely make decisions independently of each other, and use some kind of rational cost-benefit selection process, we would expect to see a normal distribution (short-tail) of brands. This is most likely to occur where there are relatively few similar products to choose from.

Furthermore, brand loyalty would not to be correlated with brand size and advertising would be as effective at attracting new customers as it is with existing buyers. Markets would be more stable as people wouldn’t follow trends. Sudden and massive cascades (e.g. the switch to digital cameras) wouldn’t occur as peoples’ preferences would not change until they had decided for themselves that a new product would better meet their needs. This indicates social influence is active all around us.

More Market Patterns:

In reality many markets are characterized by long-tail distribution that marketers recognize by the 80:20 rule. Andrew Ehrenberg’s work in social and market research identified that short-tail distribution can exist in static and non-segmented markets. This means there is no turnover of products. But in many of today’s highly segmented markets we can see countless products come and go during a year.

Ehrenberg’s work confirmed the double jeopardy law that small brand’s suffer from both fewer buyers and also less loyal customers compared to large brands. He also found that price elasticity declines in magnitude as a brand’s share rises. Why should this be if we are not subject to social influence from others? His work indicated that most promotions only have a short-term impact on sales and almost all buyers during promotions are repeat purchases rather than new customers. He concluded that most advertising simply raises awareness of a brand but rarely seems to persuade. Indeed, one of his key conclusions is that most FMCG markets lack any real brand loyalty. Purchasing patterns are from habit and availability than any emotional attachment to a brand.

Directed Copying:

Image of photocopying machine
Source: FreeImages.com

Earls and his co-authors make an important distinction between two kinds of social influence that humans use to learn from. These are crucial for marketers as they influence the dynamics of the social landscape and how markets change over time.

When we have a choice between many apparently equivalent options we often find copying the behaviour or decisions of a particular person preferable to trying to evaluate all the different options ourselves. Directed copying occurs where people copy in an advantageous direction. This may involve copying successful people, members of our family, people who are similar, or celebrities. When we copy people or groups that we wish to identify with this may lead to social diffusion within the confines of the group.

Undirected Copying:

Image of a large crowd of people
Source: FreeImages.com

Undirected copying occurs where we copy people, probably subconsciously, with little if any knowledge of the person we are imitating. This often happens where there are not just a huge number of similar options to choose from. But there are also too many people or groups of people to copy from. Further, people appear as equally uninformed as you and are probably copying other people themselves.

Undirected copying is particularly useful for all those thousands of little choices that we hardly given any thought to and so it is largely an unconscious process. However, it is a model that can be used at the population level. This is because even if individually we have specific reasons for copying someone else, there are likely to be so many and varied reasons for copying that we can consider it undirected.

Undirected copying is probably the norm in many situations and may help predict rates of change. It acts like the interactions of cascade models and is characterized by continual flux, unpredictability and long tail distributions. The latter reflects the fact that only a small percentage of new ideas ever becoming popular as most fail. This is why we see a turnover of ideas, as the most popular ones are more likely to be used again.

Some Implications of Social Influence:

  • Directed copying can explain variations in the normal ebb and flow that results from undirected copying. This could be from a cultural or media event (e.g. the Olympics or a motion picture release) as well the adoption by a celebrity. Celebrity endorsements don’t have the same impact, as it is not genuine behaviour.
  • When an idea is better than the rest, copying kicks in. It increases its popularity until something else comes along. Copying is from the quality of ideas. The more people in the population, the better the ideas.
  • The nature of copying among populations can be influenced by their interconnections. Large, interconnected networks of people where there are relatively few similar products tend to favour directed copying. In such networks the behaviour of individuals is greatly influenced by those upstream. If we hope that people will select on the basis of quality (i.e. the follow the copy if better rule) then this kind of network is more likely to benefit a superior idea. This is similar to the early adopters marketing model where innovators generate new ideas that are picked up by early adopters and then copied by others.

More Implications of Social Influence:

  • Undirected copying produces unpredictable landscapes where probabilities are the best guide to picking winners. In financial markets for instance a balanced portfolio has more chance of selecting a winner than trying to pick individual stocks.
  • The success or failure of an idea is often unpredictable and largely random. What determines success at any one moment is how popular it is.
  • Conventional marketing and market research thinking significantly underestimates the power of social influence in determining many of the things people buy and the behaviours we adopt. Further, emotional brand loyalty may be a lot less prevalent than many marketers believe it is. Behaviour mainly drives attitudes to brands, but what influences behaviour? I suggest that it may be time to believe the math, not the myth.
Further reading:
I'll Have What She's Having: Mapping Social Behavior (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life)

I’ll Have What She’s Having: Mapping Social Behavior (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life)

The Contribution of Andrew Ehrenberg to Social and Marketing Research by John A Bound.

Featured image from Adrienn on Pexels

How Do Social Networks Influence Consumer Behaviour?

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Do People Act in Isolation?

People do not act in isolation, they connect with many people though highly complex social networks, this influences our behaviour. 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. Furthermore, 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 being aware of their actions.
  • This is common where there are large populations with a large number of options. People are inundated with choices that lack differentiation. But they are also faced with a multitude of social influences and recommendations. This ensures that at an aggregate level there is no clear direction of copying.
  • Sometimes people consciously direct their copying as they want to be with like-minded people and share similar experiences. They may adopt an idea because it appears better than what came before. We may seek to conform because it changes our perception of a social norm. There are numerous reasons why we imitate other people. Essentially herd behaviour is at the heart of the dispersion of ideas, behavioural change and innovation through our social networks.
Social networks influence people through our herd instinct
  • 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. 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.

SCALE MATTERS: 

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 from 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 close with children who were already. They concluded that it was important not to treat children with obesity in isolation. They also found that in this instance social influence operates more in detrimental ways. A TED talk describes the hidden influence of social networks.

Implications:

  • 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 as social creatures’ human society is more than the sum of the individual parts. At an aggregate level our social networks display complexities. They go beyond the traditional marketing and research approach that treats individuals in isolation.
Image showing complexity of social connections
Source: FreeImages.com – Social connections
  • As herd theory suggests we are more likely to be influenced by the actions of others in our network. 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 also how they interact with other people in their networks. The scale and structure of social networks will influence how your brand adopts and evolves as a social entity. Organisations can’t control how people interact with their brands, but they can encourage interaction. They can adapt to how social networks interpret and change the context of the brand.
Image of brands on a supermarket shelf
  • Organisations can focus too much 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. They are not subject to the same norms that evolve and constrain behaviour in their sector.

Further reading:

I’ll Have What She’s Having: Mapping Social Behavior (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life)

I'll Have What She's Having: Mapping Social Behavior (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life)

Featured image from FreeImages