We are what they do

Posted by on Apr 14, 2007 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments


Today, Piers and co draw their readers’ attention to the work of the We Are What We Do gang.

And quite right, too. Two – not just one – best selling books (beautifully done by Tim & Chris at Antidote) that help to change the world in little ways. Or rather encourage each of us to do so – cheaply (“for a fiver” etc) and easily.

Good as this is, the thought it prompts in me today is about how we seek to bring about change – little things can make a big difference if amplified (i.e. lots of times by thousands of people). But what these little things lack in themselves is a feedback mechanism – an indication that the change that the behaviour seeks to bring about is actually happening. Without such feedback, according to most models of behaviour change, the individual will stop the new behaviour.

This is where the Herd mechanisms are so useful – if you see other people doing the same thing and more and more copying you (or even folk actively refusing to do so because that helps too), there is some other reward beyond a direct causal-action:change response that the way we argue with folk for this kind of action would suggest. Have a look at the Anya Hindmarsh “not a shopping bag” that Tim & Co have done with Sainsbury’s. Clearly the fact that this is a very public initiative is important in bringing the mass behaviour about.

OK, I’m suggesting a few things here:

1. that the important bit about collective action is not just that each individual needs only to do something small (but when multiplied by the number of individuals in the collective that contribution can make a significant difference)

2. rather, it is the mechanism of other people doing these things (and Herd-tendency to copy) which encourages compliance and spreads the behaviour itself across the population. Without this, it seems unlikely that the behaviour will take-off (or have any legs)

3. the kind of rational utility calculation about the impact of what you as an individual do to make the world a better or worse case (the kind of argument used in this and other change movements) probably isn’t the best strategy to bring about change.

Ghandi said: “be the change you want to see in the world”. Being the kind of fella he was, I think he understood that the argument (pseudo-rational utility) and the mechanism (Herd) by which change is brought about is different. But do we?

Maybe this sheds some light on the nature of political debate and the disconnect with realpolitik that makes us so disillusioned. All too many of our attempts to change the world together are based on age-old (well, Enlightenment anyway) ideas about reason, rights and rational decision making.

And yet we see the other pov around us every day.


  1. John Grant
    April 16, 2007

    Hi Mark
    I tend to agree with the broader point that its about enculturation not information/persuasion, although I reckon there are;
    – many decisions which will remain fairly inconspicuous; eg half the total average household spend (US data across the 1990s shows) is on the home buying & home improvements
    – many decisions which are amenable to education (because the current behaviours dont make sense in the light of better info)
    – many more social mechanisms in play than badge brands and imitation; including exemplars, role model celebrities, eco-labelling, new currencies (eg carbon counting), community pledge sites, customs (car sharing, freecycling) & etc.
    One thing that interests me is the way that the words ‘we’ve reached a tipping point’ are being used in almost every meeting and event and article I encouter.
    Now that is herd psychology :J
    ps I flicked through that Lucifer/psychology of evil book at the weekend, it looked a bit creepy!