I have been doing a series of programs for the National Sales Staff of a Telco on Persuasion and Influencing and one of the areas we focused on was how most people blindly follow what others are doing even to the extent of sometimes being to their disadvantage. This psychological principle is called ‘Consensus’.
Why do we follow others?
The research says that 95% of us are ‘followers’ and just 5% ‘initiators’. This means that most of the time a whopping 95% of us would just do what others are doing – without consciously thinking whether it is right or wrong; but rather just operating on auto-pilot.
Try this experiment
Get a couple of friends, stand on the road and just look up at something, anything really, or could even be nothing! Very soon you will find that many other people have also stopped and are looking up as well. Although they don’t know why! And they don’t know what you are looking at!
There are many more examples of Consensus – for example many experiments have been done in elevator where people involved in the experiment get into the elevator and consciously stand facing the back and not the door as is normal. When someone not involved in the experiment, i.e., a genuine passenger gets in or is already in the elevator – we find that he/she too soon turns away from the door and faces the rear – as this is what the crowd is doing and therefore finds it very difficult to go against the group.
Choosing the best app
How do we choose the best app? By the number of ‘likes’ of course. The more people who have ‘liked’ it the better it must be.
Choosing the best restaurant to dine in
Lets imagine we go to a city where we are not familiar with the restaurants. How do we choose where to eat? Well we go to the one which has lots of people already there isnt it! If lots of people like it – then the food must be good!
Choosing a doctor
Would we rather consult a doctor who we can see immediately as he has no other patients, or the doctor who has lots of patients queued up waiting to see him? I will leave that answer to you – but be assured that you will choose according to consensus isnt it!
The near disaster at IFS
I worked at IFS the Swedish ERP company as the Consulting Services Director in the early 2000s and one experience I had would be remembered always. We had our lunch room at the highest level of the building on the 9th floor. And hundreds of the staff would gather there at one time for lunch each day. One day we were seated having lunch when with sounds like gun shots we noticed that the tiles of the floor appeared to be coming loose and breaking apart. Well no sooner this was noticed the crowd gathered started to panic fearing the building was collapsing. And in seconds there was a huge crowd running down the stairs from the 9th floor to the safety of terra firma. In the panic, plates, tables and chairs were toppled onto the floor, slippers were left behind, and many found their hands and feet cut and bruised by the debris. I am still amazed that nothing more disastrous happened in the blind panic – which was actually the demonstration of consensus in action.
What actually happened? Well the building needless to say was in no danger. The tiles coming apart had been caused by the heat differential between the 9th and 8th floors. The 9th floor had no AC and was quite warm, whereas the 8th floor housed all the servers and so was kept at a very cold temperature and this had caused the freak reaction we experienced. So all ended well in the end but was very scary when it occurred.
So why is consensus so powerful, and why are we compelled to follow it
Well it comes down to survival doesn’t it! We have all been for many thousands of years members of tribes and it was essential that we did what the tribe did, or in other words followed the majority if we needed to survive – hence the necessity of team work as well – to bring down much larger animals for food, etc. So consensus is hardwired into all of us and we find it very difficult to go against the crowd.
The danger of consensus
Well if the crowd is doing the wrong thing and we blindly follow we may do the wrong thing as well, as was seen in the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. According to reports, 37 people saw the murder happening and apparently did nothing. A classic case of consensus which is more effective in situations of uncertainty. As no one watching had witnessed a murder before – the action to be taken was uncertain and therefore everyone was looking to everyone else to see what action should be taken. And so according to the psychological literature on the incident no one did anything. It is argued that if just one person witnessed the murder – she may have been saved as then there would have been no ‘consensus’ to fall back on and therefore the one person witnessing may have taken action and called the police.
Lets try to be a little more aware of the decisions we take rather than just blindly following the group. Sometimes it could be to our advantage!