Should You Do What Everyone Else Is Doing?
Exploring why people follow the crowd — and whether it is a good idea.
Posted March 31, 2019
When making a decision, it is a common impulse to look and see what others are doing. Nevertheless, it is often unclear whether the path that everyone else may be following is good for us as well. After all, sometimes following the crowd has merit — at other times, it is simply peer pressure blinding us.
The phenomenon of looking to others and following the crowd has been studied by social science for a long time. Nevertheless, those findings do not always make their way to individual decision-makers. Therefore, let's review why people conform to the crowd — and under what conditions it is a good idea to go your own way instead.
Research on Social Norms, Conformity, and Following Others
To start, individuals tend to look to the opinions of others, especially when they are unsure and lack information from other sources. This dynamic was supported by classic research from Sherif (1937), who explored how a person's perception of a very ambiguous stimuli can be influenced by the opinion of others. Sherif (1937) asked participants to watch a small light in a dark and featureless room and evaluate how much that light moved around. In actuality, however, the light never moved at all — but the way our perception works in that situation gives the possible illusion of movement (called the Autokinetic Effect). In this uncertain and ambiguous perceptual situation, Sherif (1937) found that individuals were quite susceptible to the influence of the opinions of others when trying to decide how much the light was "moving." This was particularly true when those others claimed to be more certain of their opinions too.
Unfortunately, this effect doesn't just end with ambiguous and uncertain situations. It also extends to individuals following the crowd, even when they can clearly see that others are wrong. This was first evaluated by Asch (1955), who asked participants to pick a line from a few choices of varying lengths that matched up with another example line given to them. From a perceptual standpoint, the task was easy — as the correct choice of which lines were actually similar to one another was clear. Nevertheless, when participants were surrounded by other individuals giving the wrong answer, they often conformed and made the wrong choice as well. Thus, even when the correct choice is clear, and what others are doing is wrong, that peer pressure can still cause us to doubt ourselves and follow the crowd.
Why is it that we are so compelled to follow the crowd, even when it is objectively clear that they are wrong? According to more recent research, we may simply be wired that way. Specifically, these social influences can actually change our perceptions and memories (Edelson, Sharot, Dolan, & Dudai, 2011). Therefore, rather than knowingly making the wrong choice just to conform to peer pressure, the influence of others may actually change what we see as the correct choice in the moment and remember as the right thing after the fact. Beyond that, we might just have "herding brains" with built-in components that monitor our social alignments and make us feel good when we follow the crowd too (Shamay-Tsoory, Saporta, Marton-Alper, & Gvirts, 2019).
Fortunately, this effect has good points as well. In many cases, group decision-making can help individuals look beyond their own private perspectives and make more rational decisions (Fahr & Irlenbusch, 2011). Furthermore, pro-social and altruistic behaviors can be influenced and shared through such conformity as well (Nook, Ong, Morelli, Mitchell, & Zaki, 2016). Therefore, sometimes following the crowd helps people get along and make better decisions too.
Deciding Whether to Follow the Crowd
Given the above, when making a decision, it is important to consider whether following others is a good idea — or is leading you astray instead. Some simple steps can help you figure it out.
1. Stop and think. Getting swept away by what everyone else is doing is often an emotional and thoughtless process. We are conforming simply because we have not given sufficient attention and effort toward considering any other options. Nevertheless, when making many decisions, there is usually time to stop and think about the options more carefully. Therefore, unless you are in an emergency situation and need to immediately follow everyone else toward the nearest exit, it might be a good idea to switch to more deliberate thinking processes, rather than just going with your initial reaction.
2. Look at all the information. As noted above, we tend to look for the opinion of others when we are uncertain, when we do not have sufficient information to make a decision, and when the choices are unclear to us. Nevertheless, more objective facts, statistics, measurements, and evaluations are also sources of potential decision-making information — as are our own perceptions, personal needs, and morals and values. Therefore, in addition to what other people are doing, consider those objective and individual sources of information too. Quite frankly, if factual information indicates that a choice is not good, and it is bad for you personally, then following the crowd is not a good idea. After all, as mothers used to say, "Just because everyone else jumps off a bridge, doesn't mean you should too."
3. Consider the specific situation. Some choices and decision-making situations are more individual, while others are more social. Similarly, sometimes our goals are better served by fitting in with the group, while on other occasions going it alone might be more successful. Overall, we're often balancing between what is best for ourselves and what is best for others too — with individual decisions leaning one way or the other. Therefore, it is important to consider the specific situation. Is this an individual choice, or does it involve others? Do you need group support for a particular goal, or can you achieve it on your own? If you have sufficient information to make a clear choice on your own, and you do not need group approval, then you might want to make up your own mind. If you are personally unsure, or you need the support of others to make something happen, then taking the opinion of others into consideration might be a good idea instead.
4. Seek out multiple perspectives. A one-sided way of looking at things often leads to biased and poor decision-making. Therefore, it is generally a good idea to evaluate your choices and decisions from multiple perspectives. The same is true for following the opinion of others too. Although it might not feel that way at times, especially in the modern day of media coverage and social networking, "everyone" is not doing it — whatever "it" is that you are considering. Given that, before you follow the advice or choices of any particular group of people, it might be a good idea to look at what other groups of people are doing or choosing too (especially if they are going in the opposite direction). In fact, we can often learn more from people making choices contrary to ourselves or our preferred group, particularly about potential down-sides to choices we might not be seeing. Therefore, if you do need to look to others to help provide information regarding a particular choice or decision, then it might help to seek out people with a few different opinions, weigh your options among them, and figure out what will work best for you.
© 2019 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, 193(5), 31-35.
Edelson, M., Sharot, T., Dolan, R. J., & Dudai, Y. (2011). Following the crowd: brain substrates of long-term memory conformity. Science, 333(6038), 108-111.
Fahr, R., & Irlenbusch, B. (2011). Who follows the crowd—Groups or individuals?. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 80(1), 200-209.
Nook, E. C., Ong, D. C., Morelli, S. A., Mitchell, J. P., & Zaki, J. (2016). Prosocial conformity: Prosocial norms generalize across behavior and empathy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(8), 1045-1062.
Shamay-Tsoory, S. G., Saporta, N., Marton-Alper, I. Z., & Gvirts, H. Z. (2019). Herding brains: A core neural mechanism for social alignment. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 23, 174-186.
Sherif, M. (1937). An experimental approach to the study of attitudes. Sociometry, 1, 90-98.