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The Things We Do: I'll Have What's She's Having

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Swimming is to cats what rational thinking is to humans- they can do it, but usually begrudgingly.

While people like to think of themselves as independent thinkers who employ rational thought to make decisions (and this can sometimes be true), many of our choices are influenced by social instincts. What goes through our minds is derived, in large part, from what goes through the minds of those around us. 

According to a book, I’ll Have What She’s Having, by Alex Bently, Mark Earls, and Michael J. O’Brien, humans are fundamentally pro- social creatures that collaborate and copy the behaviors and choices of others when making decisions.

How Humans Learn

Two forms of learning are discussed in the book: individual and social.  Individual learning, until recently, has served as the basis for most marketing and political conversations and centers on the idea that if information is made available, then people will consider it on their own and make judgments about that information. They will decide to adopt a behavior or idea or to reject it after consideration. Social learning, also known as copying, is the process by which people learn through observation and imitation of others.  

The authors use a hybrid model of individual and social learning in which the likelihood of a person making an individual decision is always the same but the likelihood of imitation increases with the rising popularity of the behavior.

Why Copy?

The book builds on game theory, which primarily studies how humans interact at the one-on-one level but goes a bit further to incorporate more recent research that places humans in networks.  In traditional game theory, the tit-for-tat model of cooperation is the most effective because individuals are in direct competition with each other; however, if individuals are operating in a group of three or more, copying becomes the most successful social strategy.

Kevin Laland held a computer strategy tournament in 2009 in which players could learn from pre-set strategies, and the most successful strategies relied almost exclusively on social learning.  The winners biased their decisions on information from their most recent observations, and older observations were discounted.  Moreover, highly variable information was discounted even more.  The lesson from the study, therefore, is that in socially dynamic situations where change is inevitable it is best to let others bear the risk of working out what to do, then quickly copy those who succeed to avoid being left behind the other copiers.  After all, if it works for them, it will most likely work for us, too!

To change behavior, then, we must answer the question, “is the behavior we are observing shaped by independent choice or social choice?” “Does this behavior, social norm, or pop culture trend diffuse socially?”

How Copying Can Help Development
If we want development programs to be successful in the long term, simply sharing information is likely to be insufficient— social influence is also necessary, whether it be through altering social norms, environmental cues, or technology adoption.  Interventions must consider how choices around a cultural norm are made and influenced, and also how the networks of communication work.  If a program never really takes off, this could be the result of an unfavorable influence network or that the thresholds to behavior change are too high at certain intersections of the network.

The authors provide a successful case study of the island of Samso, Denmark. After winning a government-sponsored contest to become Denmark’s “renewable energy island,” Samso residents went from heating their homes with oil and using imported electricity to organizing energy cooperatives and producing more wind energy that they consumed.  The residents collectively purchased wind turbines, each costing a million dollars, and shareholders received dividend checks from the electricity that was generated. This constituted a huge shift in behavior for the island, but as more people became involved, others were encouraged to join.

A few key take-a-ways from the project are:

  1. People’s direct experience was changed by the contest, in contrast to a vested interest that promotes a particular brand of behavior to the exclusion of others
  2. Many sparks were lit in hope of starting a fire- the project was supported by multiple communication channels and through the work of many local resident ‘champions’
  3. The community was small and socially cohesive, allowing new social norms which require a critical number of people and face-to-face interaction, to more easily overcome inertia that large communities face
  4. The behavior had a rationale- the wind energy was economically beneficial, constructive, and exciting
  5. The results were permanently visible and sustainable- the turbines themselves served as a visual manifestation of the community project
Thus, while most of us believe we make our own decisions, the data indicate we are consistently influenced by other people’s decisions.  With this in mind, development projects that rely on behavior change should be less about satisfying the exemplary “individual thinker” and more about modifying the many networked connections that affect one another’s behavior.

Photograph by Dominic Chavez via World Bank Photo Collection
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Submitted by Paola Castillo on

Interesting article. I look foward to reading the book! How heavily did factors such as a sense of belonging, acceptance and fitting in, play as motivating factors? Does the concept of innovating/innovation surge nmore from individual learning or social learning or the combination?

Hello Paola, Thank you for your interest! Factors like belonging, acceptance and fitting in are important elements to why humans copy each other. Copying those around us, according to the book, helps us define group membership as well as 'the other.' Group inclusion is often more important to us than expressing our individuality. However, copying is also randomly directed at times, contributing to unpredictable collective behavior rather than stable homogeneity. In terms of innovation, individual learning and social learning (copying) are the TWO BASIC elements of behavioral diffusion. If everyone thinks for themselves, the averaged diversity of thought yields greater wisdom. If we do not think indepently, we do not improve. Social learning, though, helps to accelerate innovation by decreasing the costs of adoption and by reinforcing an innovation once it has its legs.

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