Herding behavior: How we use the brains of others.

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Introducing our newest addition to the Science Rockstars team: Ronald Voorn. Principal Marketing Development.

First thing Ron said: “Why didn’t we do a #PTTRNS interview with mass social behavior legend Mark Earls yet?”

We are proud to present to you Ron’s interview with Mark – @herdmeister – Earls.

Mark thanks for giving us an opportunity to interview you. You have given the world three great books, Welcome to the creative age in 2003, The Herd (the seminal book on herding behavior) in 2008 and I’ll have what she’s having (IHWSH) in 2011, which you wrote together with Alex Bentley and Michael O’Brien. What were your last two books about?

HERD argued fundamentally that we are social creatures and that our behaviour is best understood in the context of others. IHWSH took this argument one step further and focused on the notion “social learning” [aka copying] as the key mechanic behind social influence – it being humanity’s #1 learning style.


How many of our decisions do you think we take on the basis of others?

The first point here I guess is that our Social nature is much more important than we think and often more than we actually feel comfortable to admit to. In non-western cultures this is already widely accepted and indeed the default assumption. As much of our behaviour is shaped by mechanisms below the level of our conscious awareness nobody knows the exact answer but my best guess, based on all available evidence, is that it is much – much – more than we think. That’s why I am also a great fan of the work by Christakis and Fowler who published very intriguing healthcare studies on how we are influenced by those around us.

But not everything is socially shaped. In IHWSH and our other work we show how “social” categories like music and drinks than for “individual” products differ in basic patterning from for instance laundry detergents and other FMCG products. This independent—social scale is the most important one to use in thinking about how people take decisions. It’s worth saying that the evidence suggest there is not much difference between the decisions we take in our daily social lives or as commercial actors (think how industries adopt trends like 6 Sigma, CRM, mobile, ipads or whatever).

On the basis of all the work we and other people examining behaviour in different contexts have done, I think it is safe to say that the majority of all decisions are more social than independent – even our ideas about what is attractive or what to name our kids. Even in B2B we are tempted by our very nature to be guided by those around us. That’s why many companies now have procurement departments to help companies avoid the pitfalls of normal human decision-making.

I am very happy Mark that you agree with us on our fanship of Christakis and Fowler but let’s get back to how people copy others. What do you think has the biggest impact, seeing the behaviour of others, listening to their recommendations directly, or hearing about their opinions from others? 

That’s a very good point. We think all of these are relevant. In that sense, we use a very wide definition of Word of Mouth. But to be honest, the big thing is what we see those around us doing (and maybe what we hear others are saying), rather than what is said and by whom.

When we work with organizations and companies to find solutions for influencing behaviour we first ask ourselves what kind of thing the targeted behaviour really is: is it independently-driven or socially-driven? And when it is social than we use patterns in the data to ask what kind of social influence is operating in this population – is it “tight” or “loose”? Is the population following the example of or looking at a few individuals or many?

Mark, now that you mentioned WOM, do you agree with Keller and Fay (2012) that WOM is much more important than most marketers think?

Yes I do. They captured the phenomena in a great way. Indeed most people say they trust WOM more than any other medium. And I also think Ed and Brad are right in their recent observation that the WOM we see taking place online is of a very frothy nature (fuzzy irrelevance of the foamy kind, note editor) compared to the offline kind of WOM. There is much more WOM taking place offline than online. Their 9-1 ratio seems about right to me.

Yes, we at Science Rockstars are also great fans of Keller and Fay. They however also note that the power of influentials in the WOM process should not be neglected. And that’s where we start having questions Mark. One of our friends, Duncan Watts, made a great observation that the law of the few does not hold in social network analyses and that influence is much more dependent on the many loosely connected people in networks. We call this the law of the many. What is your take on this?

Quite. I agree with your point of view. The underlying structure of most social networks that we’re interested in is not hub-and-spoke as the influential hypothesis suggests but much looser; and most social networks in the modern world are fluid, rather than fixed. similarly, most social influence is mutual, rather than one way. It’d be nice (and certainly much neater) if things were structured the way the Influentials gang describe but most evidence from broader studies suggests otherwise.

In light of your theories on copying what do you feel is the more appropriate theory, people share information with others (consciously and unconsciously) or information can be viral and travel by it’s own power? Is it the thing or is it the people?

There’s clearly some benefit in looking at how things spread from both points of view – in terms of the thing (what spreads) and the people (who do the spreading). However, I find the former approach tends work better after the fact and make what turns out to be successful seem as if it was always going to be that way. Importantly, it doesn’t work ahead of time to predict success (which is where I think most users of this kind of work are focused). In thinking about things ahead of time, I find the people stuff to be much more important – if something’s spreading (and most things that spread, spread this way) because of what we see others doing etc, then the people stuff is much more important than the thing (that means the nature of the copying – is it tight or loose? – and the structure of the networks in which it happens). Organizations who are involved in manufacturing find this hard to accept because their focus is on making things not on people. It doesn’t help of course, that we still tell ourselves fundamentally that people do what they do and choose what they choose independently of what those around them are doing and choosing.

It is very good that you mention that Mark. We see that information from others also plays a big role in the thinking about sales funnels. This seems however a much less linear process than is often suggested as is demonstrated in an ESOMAR presentation by Desor and Ellis (2012) on the sales funnel of cars. They show that people do not walk along a funnel but that brands and criteria jump in and out of the process all the time along the customer journey. What is your view on this?

Blades and Phillips (2005) made a great point about this in their paper Decision Watch UK. To really find out how these processes work they apply a kind of social archeology, taking steps back from the purchase to all the possible interactions that have shaped a purchase. The step further and further out and discover some surprising sources of influence over a given purchase – importantly, influences that are not clear at all to the actual purchaser or their memory.

Should companies then look more for “perception points” then the often used “touch points” Mark?

That is indeed the case. The important thing is to get inside the wave not just to sit outside and observe it! Feel and see things from the perspective of those involved in a diffusion. It’s the influenced and their perspective that counts far more than that of the influencer.

Finally Mark, we have a burning question. What is your new book going to be about and when will it see the light of day?

Nice of you to ask. The book will probably come out in the summer of 2014. We don’t have a title yet though. In fact we have two. It will be either called Copy, Copy, Copy or Cornucopia.

We don’t mind Mark as long as we can pre-read it! What will it be about?

We will continue where we left off with I’ll have what she’s having and demonstrate that it is more useful to develop different strategies and bring them to market fast. The next phase is then to learn and improve. The book will show that companies focus too much on the quest for the one overarching singular big strategy. We’ll share a “pattern-book” of c. 100 strategies – roughly 20 or so for each of the choice styles IHWSH describes.

We cannot close this interview with this information Mark. You have to give our friends and us more on this. Please? 

(Laughs) Okay, okay. I will tell you a bit more on the first 5.

  1. Help people see other people’s choices better. A great example of this is the white Apple ear buds – terrible ear-pieces but brilliant signaling.
  2. Support your consumers in their choices. Converse recently demonstrated how far you could take this. The iconic 100 club in London that was popular with their consumers had to close. Converse went up to the owner and gave him a five-year deal so the club could stay open.
  3. Serve your audience’s agenda. The Sierra Club realized that by reframing “conservation” as “stewardship”, they could start to have much more useful conversation with Christian churches.
  4. Make yourself lucky. You need all the failures just as much as the solid wins. Sun records is a very nice example of this with their Million Dollar Quartet. They could never have become so successful if they wouldn’t have had some (quite a lot of) failures as well.
  5. Be interesting. Ask yourself what is our business or product for? What is its purpose in life? This is a much better question than what can our company or products do?

Thanks Mark for your valuable insights and time and we are looking forward to your new book. And welcome as a Science Rockstar!


Bentley, R. A., Earls, M., & O’Brien, M. J. (2011). I’ll Have what She’s Having: Mapping Social Behavior. The MIT Press.

Blades, F., & Phillips, S. (2005). Decision Watch UK. In Market research society conference, london, March.

Desor, N, & Ellis, R. (2012). How Cars Really Get Bought. ESOMAR Congress.

Earls, M. (2003). Welcome to the Creative Age: Bananas, Business and the Death of Marketing. Wiley. com.

Earls, M. (2009).Herd: how to change mass behaviour by harnessing our true nature. John Wiley & Sons.

Gross, L. (2006). Evolution of neonatal imitation. PLoS Biology4(9), e311.

Keller, E., & Fay, B. (2012).The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace. SimonandSchuster. com.

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