Everyone’s Doing It: The Impact of Consensus

“Usually, if everyone else is doing something then it’s probably the right thing to do.” I posted that in a graphic on my social media networks a few weeks ago. Several people disagreed with my statement so I thought I’d address it in this week’s post.

Let’s start with a quick review of what consensus is when it comes to persuasion. The principle of consensus, sometimes called social proof or peer pressure, tells us people’s thinking and behavior is heavily impacted by how other people are thinking and behaving. Those other people who influence us could be the masses or sometimes they’re just a few people who are like you or me. Either way, what others are doing has some degree of influence on me, on you, and on others.

Why is this psychological principle relied on so heavily? Over the course of evolution going against the crowd could have led to bad things. Consider the tribes people lived in long ago. If the majority decided to head south for the winter or move to a new location on the river, then deciding to not go with the larger group could have meant for a quick demise for an individual or small band of people. While we may not live in times where that’s the case, that psychology still applies to us today because the human brain is essentially the same as it was tens of thousands of years ago.

As I noted in the opening, a number of people disagreed with my statement. First let me say that you can never fully explain something in 140 characters or less so I’d like to point out a couple of things. Notice my statement starts with “usually.” That means not always and there are exceptions. For example; usually people who eat well and exercise outlive those who don’t eat well and exercise. But we can all think of exceptions to that rule where someone did all the right things and still died prematurely.

I also used the word “probably” because even when everyone is doing something that doesn’t mean it’s always the right thing. For a person with a bad heart running or other forms of exercise might be the worst thing they can do. And sometimes groups do things that aren’t very smart. We need not look any further than peer pressure where young kids experiment with drinking, drugs and sex.

One friend pointed out that most people used to believe the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth. No disagreement from me that the masses were wrong on those examples. There are many more we could point to as well like this one from The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism by John C. Bogle, “17 of 18 analysts rated Enron a buy just a month before its collapse.”

We know lots of people lost lots of money following that advice. But let me ask this – if you had to bet tomorrow on what stock to buy would you feel more comfortable going with 17 of 18 experts or would you roll the dice on the one lone wolf? The lone wolf will be right some of the time but I’d venture to guess the person who consistently goes with the majority (consensus) will come out on top far more often than the investor who rejects the majority.

We’ve seen the rise in popularity of “the wisdom of the crowds” because we know two heads (or many more) are usually better than one. This is a big reason we still seen consensus routinely at work in our lives. In the information overloaded society we live in we don’t always have the time, skill or energy to do all the research for every decision so we rely on mental shortcuts to help us. Following the crowd is one of those shortcuts because it works out well most of the time. Having said that, if time and time again we realized the majority of people were wrong we’d stop paying attention to what everyone else was doing…but that simply isn’t the case.

Lastly, I will point to more than seven decades of research from social scientists on the impact of consensus. Despite my information overloaded life this is an area I have spent quite a bit of time studying and the data is clear – consensus is powerful because far more often than not, following the lead of others works out well for us.

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