Me & JayZ and Anna

Posted by on Sep 24, 2009 in behaviour change, Copying, Speeches | 4 Comments


Nice post over at Research Live by the supersmart Anna in response  to what I said here about the importance of copying in shaping human behaviour (yes, I know again…)

She describes how different collective behaviours she observed at a recent Coldplay gig she attended (JayZ's hiphop bounce, (mexican) waves and a novel cameraphone wave) spread throught the audience to differing degrees.

From this, she posits that the reason why the cameraphone wave spread so far is something to do with some characteristics of the behaviour itself (that it was in some way superior the other two, less successful behaviours).

While cameraphonewave does sound fantastic and sparkly, can I suggest an alternative analysis which is nothing to do with the relative appeal of the behaviours to the audience: it doesn't have to be about the thing!

i.To paraphrase Paul Ormerod , Most [of our attempts to spread] Things Fail – it is genuinely hard to get a population to adopt any particular behaviour at the time and in the way that you want them to. This means that it is not surprising that the "failed" crowd behaviours were unsuccessful. Whether you are JayZ trying to get folk to bounce or the bloke at the end of row Z trying to start a mexican wave, it's more likely than not that the crowd won't pick up your thing. It's nothing to do with the thing or the influence of the person trying to spread their thing – it's just plain hard to get other folk to adopt anything.

ii. Alex's work has shown again and again how this failure rate is characteristic of random copying (the sort of copying we see in crowds and much popular culture today): one of the best ways to tell if you have random copying overtime is to see if you've got stochastic changes to popularity (or spread) rankings. It doesn't matter much which thing is adopted by whom – it's all on the basis of copying our peers.

iii. It's striking however how readily we adopt the post-hoc explanation of the success of one behaviour being somehow better (or fitter or whatever) than those things that failed. Nick Taleb's Black Swan makes much of this kind of thinking error and it's pretty poor science, too, to look to the winner to guide what we do next. That's why – however appealing they seem – those 100 habits of successful employees/brands/etc books are fundamentally flawed. I'm afraid, I looks like this is an example of that.

Let's be clear thought: this doesn't mean that Anna's points on fun/ease/visibility/novelty as features you should adopt if you want your behaviour to spread are always going to be irrelevant (many are shared by the other 'failed" behaviours); nor, at some level or other, is it untrue we are programmed to search for meaning and purpose; but it's just that in this case, contrary to what A's post suggests, copying and mimicry can account for all the phenomena described. Sorry.


  1. miro
    September 26, 2009

    “this failure rate is characteristic of random copying”
    how in your philosophy do you differentiate the sum of individual decisions/behaviors with that of the collective.
    Both might appear to be collective behavior from a macro perspective, but the underlying reason is radically different.
    “…it is genuinely hard to get a population to adopt any particular behaviour at the time and in the way that you want them to….”
    “…copying and mimicry can account for all the phenomena described”
    why? If we simply copy our neighbors, cascades should be developing all over the place….

  2. Mark Earls
    September 27, 2009

    Thanks, Miro. Not sure I understand your first point.
    And my response to the second point is this:
    It IS generally very hard to get a population to adopt any particular behaviour: true in marketing, (change) management or social policy. In all these fields, we struggle to demonstrate much in the way of success for most of our attempts to do so.
    Also, when the tendency to copy our peers is distributed across a given population, you do get cascades both successful and otherwise (as before). BOTH.
    It’s not that copying guarantees the adoption of the behaviour/idea (mostly things fail because a. doing the same as you and all your chums were doing before b. copying something else are both options to the individual); it’s that you don’t need anything other than copying to explain both success and failure.
    And – as I suggested in my original post – making sense of things after the fact and assuming that there’s something special about the behaviour which was most widely adopted that led to it being most widely adopted is a methodological mistake.

  3. miro
    October 13, 2009

    My question is related to volition
    For a herd to form and function, its members must give up their individual will to decide. Consequently it is a much rarer event than what you imply.
    More common are normative pressure groups where individuals decide they want to ‘go with the flow’ rather than risk being outside of it – standing on the sidelines or perhaps starting their own flow. But this is not a herd because volition is involved not just of the leader – but of its followers. And because volition exists, there is a chance to change the course of events.
    I also think there needs to be greater clarity in defining the scale at which a ‘successful’ hypothesis can be claimed as being truth, since at any point in time any number of behaviors are occurring allowing for the support any “yeah but” hypothesis.
    I hope this clarifies.

  4. Mark Earls
    October 13, 2009

    Not sure I agree. I think you have the ported some ideas from elsewhere into the “herd”.
    1. there is no leader in most social groups (or only one that emerges after the fact)
    2. most of our lives are not independently shaped through our own individual acts of volition…mostly we do stuff and then make sense of it later. And mostly we do stuff in the company and context of others (real, remembered or imagined).
    So, 3. actually there is largely not very much in the way of “deciding” or volition for individuals to give up to a herd.