Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

How to stay far from the madding crowd

By Patrick Mattimore (China Daily) Updated: 2011-06-30 08:12

In 2006, Duke University economist Hanming Fang and Peking University's Hongbin Cai and Yuyu Chen, studied the ordering habits of diners at Meizhou Dongpo chain of restaurants in Beijing. Specifically, the researchers wanted to learn if denominating certain dishes as "most popular" affected sales.

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They found that diners are 13-20 percent more likely to order a dish if they know it is among a restaurant's most popular. The restaurant indicated "most popular" by putting placards with that information on the tables.

The results from Meizhou Dongpo are consistent with the field research of American human behaviorist Robert Cialdini's studies in which he developed the idea of "social proof". Cialdini writes that we often make shortcut default decisions by deciding that if others had made a certain choice, it must be a good one.

We take our social cues on how to behave from people around us and adjust our actions in novel situations accordingly. For example, newcomers to Beijing are likely to cross the street very differently after a couple of days than when they first arrive. The visiting pedestrians are likely to rely to a much greater extent on watching other pedestrians and traffic than blindly following control signals.

Sometimes the social cues we adopt are not so good. Social scientists have identified a bystander effect which predicts that persons in need of aid in public places are less likely to get help when more people are present. The preeminent research on the topic was done by Princeton University psychologist John Darley and his colleague Bibb Latane. After the Kitty Genovese murder case in New York City - in which the young woman was stabbed many times while numerous neighbors watched but failed to intervene - Darley and Latane conducted laboratory experiments to understand why.

Darley and Latane concluded that people's sense that they need to do something, even in situations of peril, decreases with more people present because people take social cues from the inactivity of others. Responsibility to provide aid is diffused among the bystanders and hence there is peril, not safety, in numbers.

The Internet, too, can be a minefield in which our beliefs are misinformed by false consensus. That is, a phony type of social proof may develop based on overwhelming numbers of anonymous posters that appear to support or oppose a certain position.

Phony Internet stories can have serious consequences. Take for example the recent 20-year-old blogger Baby Guo Meimei who flaunted her riches and lavish lifestyle while claiming a connection with a made-up Red Cross organization. Other bloggers jumped in to embellish Baby's story, which triggered posters questioning whether the Red Cross was misusing funds. Although Guo Meimei later admitted that she was not connected with the Red Cross, her false claim is likely to have already damaged the Red Cross' reputation - and no one will ever know to what extent the organization's donations have, or will, suffer.

We would like to think that we cannot be manipulated by "majority opinion", especially when we know that the "majority" may only be a handful of dedicated enthusiasts bent on convincing people about something and adopting a variety of pseudonyms to do it. We would like to think that, but we are likely to be unconsciously swayed by that false social proof anyway.

Our rational mind may tell us to disregard the symphony of Internet voices, but it is impossible, for example, to "unring" the Red Cross bell and difficult to ignore what appears to be a wide-ranging chorus of opinions. However, the media and netizens can at least wait till the truth is found out. On Friday, the Red Cross Society of China reported the case to the public security authorities and the latter is investigating the case.

There are a couple of antidotes to the "ills of majority opinion", though. We must try to draw our information from reliable sources to begin with. Polls are better sources of opinion than Internet postings, but we should at least understand some basic statistics to appreciate how a specific poll was conducted and, therefore, how much weight its results carry.

Another antidote to being falsely swayed by the Internet buzz is simply to remind ourselves to evaluate information rather than noise. It is not the most frequent or loudest arguments that should win the day, but the best reasoned.

The author is a psychology teacher at and fellow of the US-based Institute for Analytic Journalism.

(China Daily 06/30/2011 page9)

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