The Neuroscience of Crowd Influence
- Why do people trust the crowd?
- Why is this innate tendency good and bad?
In prehistoric hunting and gathering clans and tribes, following the group was a matter of survival. Experienced, elder hunters led their groups to find game. Seasoned gatherers, mostly women, led tribal members to places where food could be found. Similar group activities among primates demonstrate that this is an inborn trait we have in common with our evolutionary ancestors. Belonging to a group is a fundamental need.
In a classic 1968 study, two groups of volunteers were asked to fill out questionnaires. In the control group, each volunteer was sent alone into a room to do the task. After the volunteer entered the room, smoke began coming out of a vent. In this condition, all volunteers quickly left the room and reported the smoke.
In the experimental group, each volunteer was sent into the room with two “actors” who worked for the researchers. The two “actors” acted as if nothing happened when smoke was coming out of a vent. In this case, only one of the volunteers left and reported the smoke. Our decisions are often influenced unconsciously by other people’s decisions.
The Bandwagon Effect Cognitive Bias
The urge to follow the crowd is powerful and can lead people to copy what others do, even if that behavior is irrational or even dangerous. If someone jumps up in a theater, yells “Fire” and rushes toward an exit, everyone follows. That crowd behavior has led to many tragedies, with people being crushed in the stampede. The Bandwagon effect is also widely used in marketing, politics, and social media venues to influence people to buy products.
In a study published in 1998, Republican primary voters were given false poll information showing Dole leading Forbes or Forbes leading Dole in the 1996 Republican primary race. Those voters showed a significantly higher intention to vote for Dole after seeing the false polling showing Dole leading than after seeing results showing Forbes leading.
Building a Crowd of Supporters Enhances Leadership
A top leadership skill is trust-building. By taking advantage of people’s tendency to follow the crowd, such a loyal group can greatly enhance your individual influence. In the world of marketing, companies often pay popular influencers on social media venues to create and grow a following of customers. In corporate and organizational leadership, enlisting the support of a loyal group is a powerful way to influence others to follow your lead.
Following the group in hunting and gathering was crucial for the survival of early humans. The same is often true in today’s more complex society.
The TV quiz show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, offered contestants the opportunity to ask the audience as a group for answers. Audience polling was correct 91% of the time. Similarly, asking 100 people the weight of a huge pumpkin and then averaging the answers will get an answer close to the actual weight.
Science-Based Leadership Methods Get Results
Conventional wisdom about leadership is based on trial and error and anecdotal information. While that sometimes leads to good ideas, advances in Neuroscience can verify or debunk leadership practices. Since the latter half of the 20th century, knowledge about how the human brain makes decisions and why we behave as we do has grown enormously. Applying that knowledge can improve leadership strategies by basing them on scientific knowledge, rather than guesswork.
Dr. Terry Wu is a highly sought-after keynote speaker and trainer on the Neuroscience of Leadership. His keynote presentations and workshops will give you the latest insights to make you a better leader.