Monkey see, Monkey do

By Rauglothgor (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Have you been challenged to ALS ice bucket challenge? If not, congratulations – you’ve been saved your body heat, dignity, money, and also a bucketful of water.

In vein of Bieber and Gangnam style, you either love it or hate it. However, you can’t deny one immutable truth about it – this fad has taken the world by a storm. From A-listers like George Bush and Robert Downey Jr to ordinary fellas like you and me, everyone seems busy dumping ice-cubes-slash-water on their heads (in case you don’t know the rules of the game, you either film and douse yourself with chilled water or forfeit by making monetary contribution to the cause, at least that’s one version).

Yes, my intelligent friend, you’ve guessed it right – today’s post is about herd mentality, or as known in psych-lingo, the bandwagon effect.

The bandwagon effect is pervasive throughout our daily lives. Whether it is clothes, hairdos, latest gizmos by Apple, or new trend on social media, you notice most people (especially the younger section of society) losing no time in aping others. There’s even a phrase namesake of the effect, ‘to hop on a bandwagon’, which came from a simple strategy of using clown-ridden bandwagons for political campaigning in the United States (America might’ve not had a fair share of great politicians, but it surely does have its share of such fun facts). Once the gimmick went viral, other politicians followed the suit. Hence the phrase and consequently, the name (due to its origin as well as common applications, you’ll find the phenomenon is tightly knit with the political and marketing contexts).

But why are we afflicted with the herd mentality in first place, no matter how much we try to deny it?

'Don't judge a book by its cover'. Unfortunately, we do that. But now we also have customer reviews to get a better impression before buying.
‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’. Unfortunately, that’s what we do. But now we also have customer reviews to get a better impression before buying.

We as individuals don’t know everything, that’s a fact. For instance, neuroscientists, who have extensive knowledge of human brain, may be completely oblivious to the movie that won most Oscars this year, or may be don’t even know there was a movie named ’12 years a slave’ released last year. So naturally, when our knowledge of something is rather limited, we cannot form a sound opinion of it (unless you’re already biased against it and no amount of positive suggestions will budge you into seeing any goodness in it). In these moments of crises, we either resort to gathering the relevant information and analyzing it ourselves, a task too tedious for many (after all, how many consumers have you seen who demand and receive the engineering specs of a car they want to buy, as well as the report of every performance and security test it has been subjected to?) or we turn to an easier, layman route: relying on the collective wisdom of our fellow beings. If you’re lost in the labyrinths of a subway station, your best bet to find the way out is to follow the hurrying horde. If you’re checking out the new X-men movie on iMDB or a novel by John Grisham on Amazon, you most probably turn to the customer ratings first (unless you’re a die hard fan of both and you’ll see and buy them no matter what), and if they’ve been awarded high ratings by gazillions of users, you’re likely to think that way of them, too (if thousands of people say something’s good, then it cannot be unreasonable to assume that it must be so). If you see a new chat app that’s gathering popularity and all your friends and contacts are abandoning the old one for this new, you’ll be forced to switch, too (unless you yourself wish to remain isolated).

Image is available in public domain
Sitcoms like ‘How I met your mother’ used the much abhorred canned laughter. Yet they continued to be popular with the masses

While assessing something’s worth using public opinion isn’t a bad idea in itself, the problem begins when it is deliberately used to manipulate your own opinion. Two common examples of such misleading are the laughter track on TV shows and the fake reviews praising a particular product in superlative terms. Many people utterly despise the contrived ‘ha-ha’ you hear in the background of sitcoms, and yet this chicanery continues to earn pretty high ratings for the show, even if it has gone stale and boring. Similarly, you may notice a product on online shopping sites is rated nearly full stars by majority, and you buy it only to discover all that praise was clear-cut case of emperor’s new clothes (hint to sniff out the fake reviews: most of such testimonies are generic and have only few or just one line, probably claiming to have changed the user’s life, with little to no mention of the product’s actual usefulness).

Despite the commonplace knowledge of these shenanigans, however, they still work. Why?

The answer is conformity – going with the flow. Pandering to popular view (even if one personally dissents), because one feels insecure to express his own. Remember Solomon Asch, the first psychology rockstar to grace my opening post? Yeah, he’s back again (by ‘he’s back’ I don’t mean he literally rose from his grave – just that we’ll discuss his another experiment here).

Asch conducted a simple yet ingenious experiment to test conformity: a test subject would be made to sit at end of a row along with other subjects (not real test subjects, but Asch’s assistants. In psych-lingo, such false subjects are called confederates). They would be all asked to answer a question one-by-one. By the time the question went to the real test subject, it had already been answered the same way (and incorrectly) by the confederates. Asch found that nearly three-fourth of his actual subjects gave the same wrong answer as their predecessors. Later when he interviewed the test subjects and disclosed to them the nature of experiment, several admitted they knew the correct answer but gave the incorrect one nonetheless. When asked why, they shyly responded that they didn’t want to appear ignoramus before others. So, despite knowing the right answer, many buckled under the group pressure.

Image from Nyenyec from Creative Commons using License 3.0
In Asch’s experiment, the real subject would be asked to identify from the three lines the one that resembled the line on left. You can see it’s C, but as all the confederates had already answered B, the subject would also say the same.

Asch later tweaked the experiment and found that conformity decreases with the number of participants, as well as when the answer wasn’t asked to be announced publicly, but just written instead. So the pressure becomes less pronounced when you’re not subjected to open scrutiny (or when you’re not in trapped in the elephant man mob situation).

What happens when you refuse to cave in, though, especially when the situation involves a large number of people? Remember the in-group out-group theory I discussed in one of my posts? In case you don’t go along with the group’s expectations, you’ll probably get buttload of free criticism, risk being banished from the group, and in extreme cases, even burned alive (ask Giordano Bruno who was given the same treatment by the Spanish Inquisition in exchange for voicing his opinion in public).

Now, back to the bucket challenge problem. Since it’s a public and ostentatious ritual with the participants challenging someone they know on camera, it becomes harder to dodge the bullet (especially if you’re a public figure). Even if you’re unwilling to show your skinny body and heap bucketful of ice on your head, group pressure (read, armchair critics on social media) will force you to do it (‘What! You hate charities now? ‘How deplorable can you be?’ ‘It’s for a noble cause, not for paying Charlie Sheen’s binges’).

While I do appreciate the gravitas of ALS (or Lou Gehrig disease), this PR stunt has become more of a farce than a medium for sincerely conveying information about the disease itself (ask people if they can even tell what ALS stands for). But it certainly is no less effective scheme for fund-raising. Whoever came up with the idea of bucket challenge deserves a hat tip; they surely know how to generate a meme.

Besides, ALS is considered to be a rarely occurring and non-contagious. The organization responsible for bucket challenge lists the average count of approximately 5600 people who are diagnosed annually with it in the United States (if the numbers aren’t cooked). In comparison, just within few months of its outbreak, Ebola has already massacred population thrice that number in the affected African countries. The worst part is that it’s contagious and likely to infect every person coming into contact with Ebola Virus without proper protection. So which one do you think needs more attention right now?

Again (in case you’re jumping up and down in your seats and accusing me of being a hateful penny-pincher), I have nothing against charities, and I do believe if you have more than your fellow human being who genuinely needs help, you shouldn’t hold back. But don’t do it for the sake of keeping up with the herd. You should donate because you want to, not because you’re coerced to.