How many times do you need to make the same decision?
Let’s say that, on your drive to work, there are two drive-through coffee shops: Grover’s Grind and The Freckled Beauty. You try each and decide that you prefer the mocha delight from The Freckled Beauty. Why would you ever make that same decision again? It’s more efficient to make the decision once and repeat the behavior as often as needed.
Let’s change the context. You’re walking down a busy street in a big city when you see a cluster of, say, six people. They’re all looking upward and pointing to a tall building. Chances are that you’ll slow down and look up as well. The cluster of people has “herded” you into behaving the same way they behave.
Herding affects us in many ways. Teenagers wear essentially the same clothing because they want to be part of the same herd. College professors dress like college professors. Similarly, if we’re surrounded by liberals, we tend to lean liberal. If surrounded by conservatives, we tend to lean conservative. We sort ourselves into different herds based on appearances, clothing, lifestyles, political position, religion and so on.
Herding is essentially a cognitive bias. Instead of thinking through a decision and using logic to reach an advantageous conclusion, we use a shortcut (also known as a heuristic). We let the herd think for us. If it’s good enough for them, it’s probably good enough for me.
Like most cognitive biases, herding leads us to good conclusions much of the time … but not always. When it goes wrong, it does so in predictable ways. As Dan Ariely says in the title of his book, we’re Predictably Irrational.
If we think about it, it’s easy to recognize herding. With a little forethought we can defend ourselves against groupthink. But what about self-herding – a notion that Ariely developed. Can you easily recognize it? Can you defend yourself against it?
Self-herding has to do with difficult questions. Daniel Kahneman pointed out that, when we’re asked a hard question, we often substitute an easy question and answer that instead. Here’s a hard question, “How likely is it that you’ll be shot in your neighborhood?” We don’t know the answer, so we substitute an easier question: “How many neighborhood shooting incidents can I recall from memory?” If we can remember many such incidents, then we assume that a recurrence is highly probable. This is known as the availability bias – we assume that things that are easily available to memory are likely to happen again.
Self-herding is a variant of the availability bias. As Ariely points out, it’s not easy to answer a question like, “What’s the best place to eat in your neighborhood?” So we substitute an easier question, “Where have I eaten before that I really liked?” Ariely notes that, “We can consult our preferences or we can consult our memory. It turns out it’s often easier to consult our memory.”
When you continue to choose The Freckled Beauty over Grover’s Grind, you’re herding yourself. It was the right decision at one time and you assume that it continues to be the right decision. It’s an efficient way to think. It’s also easy – you use your memory rather than your thinking muscles.
But, as we all know, things change. In fact, the speed of change seems to be accelerating. If the conditions that led to our initial decision change, then the decision is no longer valid. We can miss important opportunities and make serious mistakes. Every now and then, we need to un-herd ourselves.