New research has found that when we’re deciding between products but aren’t well-informed, observing others’ choices significantly influences our own decision. This leads to the creation of a powerful social default choice.
This finding is absolutely fascinating, digging into those deep, curious motivations that influence us into the copying of others. Interestingly, this latest work highlights the opposite from most common findings in social psychology, which themselves suggest that we’re more likely to imitate others’ behavior in public (Deutsch and Gerard 1955).
Instead, the research shows that social defaults are more likely to occur when others aren’t around. The reason? Something called ‘Impression management’ or, more simply put, the avoiding of embarrassment. After all, it’s not unheard of for people to feel uneasy at copying others’ choices and fear being labeled as “followers”, and subsequently all those negative labels that come with it (weak, dependent etc).
Your esteemed writer nods his head profusely when writing this particular paragraph, recalling the countless times he’s waited for other supermarket customers to leave the wine section with their carefully judged choice before selecting exactly the same bottle that they did. Oh the lengths to which we go to save face, even amongst strangers…
In the research, participants were asked to observe a tea-chooser choose amongst two brands of Korean tea, with packaging all in Korean, meaning they’d be pretty uninformed about which brand to go for. They were then asked to select one of these teas themselves. They were found to be more than three times more likely to choose the same (social default) teabag as that selected by the chooser. Crucially, this was only when the chooser was not present in the room when the choice was being made.
However, adding English text to the packaging made participants less likely to mimic the co-worker’s behaviour. This suggests that social defaults are less likely to occur when the person has information about a given situation, and if they already have a strong existing preference for a given product or brand. When we feel strongly about something, we’re less likely to be swayed by external influences.
We are more likely to adopt social defaults when it’s deemed appropriate (i.e. if someone exhibits outrageous behaviour, we’ll probably not adopt it), when the stakes are low (if we’re asked to explain our decision, we’re more likely to make an independent choice), when we’re uncertain, and when we’re tired or distracted.