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Market Researcher Explains the Lure of Peer Pressure

Martin Lindstrom, a former market research expert and author of Brandwashed, argues that advertisers know something that human beings have in common with birds and termites. Without even thinking about it, we're often controlled by peer pressure. For instance, Lindstrom notes how many bird species "rise from a field in complete synchrony, as though doing a choreographed dance." Scientists will say that the birds are "acting as if they shared one collective brain." Termites also act like one enormous termite brain. "In other words," Lindstrom writes, "only by observing and mimicking the behavior of its neighbors can a termite figure out what it should be doing."

Lindstrom observes that as consumers human beings act in much the same way. He writes:

Just like those birds and termites, we, too, are wired with a collective consciousness in that we size up what those around us are doing and modify our actions and behaviors accordingly. In a 2008 experiment conducted by researchers at Leeds University, groups of people were instructed to walk aimlessly around a large hall, without conversing with one another. But first the researchers gave just a few of the people detailed instructions on where, precisely, they should walk. When [the researchers] observed the resulting behavior, they found that no matter how large or small the group, everyone in it blindly followed that handful of people who appeared to have some idea where they were going.
As [one of the researchers] put it, "The research suggests that humans flock like sheep and birds, subconsciously following a minority of individuals," and that it takes a mere 5 percent of "informed individuals" to influence the direction of a crowd of up to two hundred people. The other 95 percent trail along without even being aware of it ….
There is ample research to show that we instinctively look to the behaviors of others to inform the decisions we make—everything from which way we should walk, to what music we should listen to, to which kind of car we should drive. It seems, in short, that we instinctively believe that others know more about what we want than we ourselves do.
Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon. It's called peer pressure …. [And] this implicit peer pressure is a far more insidious kind, and companies and marketers are taking advantage of its persuasive powers in ways you couldn't even imagine.

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