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Herd mentality

By IMA on Aug 01, 2016

The EU referendum polls had me thinking. Not about the consequences of In or Out depending on which side happened to be leading at the time, but the question of whether and how the polls influence voters. Is there a herd mentality whereby people are more likely to switch to the side in the lead – after all, they’re in the lead for a reason? Or is one side being in the lead likely to harden the resolve of some undecided voters with a lean towards the other side in order to equal the tallies? Or does it not affect voters’ decisions in the slightest?


There has been, unsurprisingly, lots of research done in this area. Research conducted by Neil Malhotra and David Rothschild asked a group of voters for their opinion on a range of actual public policy questions before showing them fictional poll results on the same topics. Polls by experts swayed the group to their opinion by 11.3%, polls showing a majority of people had a different opinion shifted results by 8.1% and polls of “people like me” changed responses by 6.2%. The researchers concluded that polls helped voters follow the ‘wisdom of crowds’, as well as pushing a few to simply support the winning side.

Can we apply this knowledge to how we speak to our customers? How powerful is the marketing message that other people are buying your product? Robert Cialdini has done many experiments that look at how you can influence people by simply telling them what their peers are doing. In an effort to encourage Californians to save energy, he distributed a number of flyers with different motivations:

  • Protect the Environment by Conserving Energy,
  • Do Your Part to Conserve Energy for Future Generations,
  • Save Money by Conserving Energy,
  • Join Your Neighbours in Conserving Energy,
  • A control flyer with a simple Conserve Energy message.

The only test flyer to result in any noteworthy energy saving was the one suggesting people join their neighbours in reducing their consumption which has significant influence.

A different phone survey conducted makes these results even more interesting. The researchers had asked similar Californian residents to name the motives that would encourage them to save energy. The most popular reason was environmental, followed by the societal benefit, financial and coming last, the herd-mentality incentive. But in actual testing, this element proved the most popular.

save our planet

Similar studies have corroborated this. The little signs in hotel bathrooms asking you to consider reusing your towels are 34% more effective when they tell you that a majority of hotel guests reuse their towels when asked as opposed to environmental or societal benefits.

So, how can we use this insight to influence your customers in your campaign activity? Maybe people won’t be as inclined to start donating to your charity, or increase their existing donation, on moral grounds so much as they will if they know they’ll be joining 10 households on their street in doing so, or if they’ll be joining your top 10% of donors by giving another £5 a month. Perhaps people will be more partial to a cruise holiday if they know that 20% of their village have enjoyed cruise holidays in the past rather than explaining the benefits of your holiday over competitors. In a world of saturated markets, it might be worth a try.