Herd Instinct in the headlines

Posted by on Jan 3, 2009 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments


So after the shock of New Scientist's lead article on what I  have been banging on about here and elsewhere for the last few years – i.e our herd instinct and the primacy of social influence in shaping human behaviour – today's Guardian editorial goes one step further (see pic)

In a robust discussion of the UK government's new Change4life programme, the editorial highlights the newfound importance of "harnessing our herd nature" (as my subtitle put it) to change people's behaviour:

"Mockery is an oblique way of enforcing social norms, but it can be done
more directly. American social psychologists have done experiments in
hotel rooms where they have alternated signs asking guests to reuse
towels for the good of the environment, with others simply pointing out
that most visitors reuse their towels. The second, observational,
notices were 26% more effective."

And again, it underlines the relative importance of the gestural/behavioural rather than informational in shaping change:

"Rather than make injunctions,
public service announcements can be more effective if they play on our
herd instincts. This is a kind of normative judo, using the human
desire to fit in for good. Cigarette packets could swap the signs about
how smoking kills for ones that point out that three out of four people
do not smoke at all. It is time public officials added peer pressure to
their portfolio of persuasions. The private sector has found it helpful
enough. What was that about eight out of 10 cats … ?"

An odd feeling this: not so much I told you so, but well….

It's great to see these wierd and crazy notions of ours become mainstream, isn't it?

Think this year might be even more interesting than I thought…


  1. bonnieL
    January 3, 2009

    Fab news Mr. Earls. Think this would work with teens and pre-teens, adding tobacco-free and drug-free living to the site?
    Virginia USA

  2. Daria Radota Rasmussen
    January 4, 2009

    may 2009 be the year of enlightment!

  3. Charles Frith
    January 4, 2009

    I’m astonished by the 26%. Holy crap. That’s huge.
    The cigarette thing. It’s funny isn’t it really? Almost embarrasingly easy.

  4. Asi
    January 5, 2009

    May 2009 be the year of the herd (in a positive way for a change!)
    social proof (i.e. herd) is the new black…
    rock on