Herd Instinct

HUMANS are a gregarious lot. We appreciate company. And we appreciate our company appreciating us. One way to preserve this mutual appreciation is to emulate others. This gives rise to trends or, in a less charitable turn of phrase, herd mentality. We appear to be wired to find all manner of fads psychologically irresistible. Advertisers have long understood this. So have retailers−in increasingly tech-savvy ways. Some have been developing smart trolleys, which relay information on their contents to digital displays on shelves. These, in turn, would inform passing shoppers how many other customers are about to plump for the same item. And no self-respecting online venture would be complete without a constantly updated “most recommended” box (just look at this screen, to the right of this blog post).

It's likely that such ruses work because it made evolutionary sense to copy neighbours, to avoid danger or find food and shelter. Sometimes, this atavistic tendency ends in tears, when it prompts us to act contrary to what is, on reflection, our self-interest. (Witness stock-market crashes, stampedes and tamagotchi.) What made sense to a relatively homogeneous gaggle of several dozen nomads needn't hold for millions of strangers.

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