We copy others’ choices when unable to make our own informed decisions.

Social Default Bias (2014)

We copy others’ choices when we can't make informed decisions.

New research has found that when we’re deciding between products but aren’t well-informed, observing others’ choices significantly influences our own decision. This leads to the creation of a powerful social default choice.

Eun Huh, Vosgerau & Morewedge (2014) Social Defaults: Observed Choices Become Choice Defaults. Journal of Consumer Research.

This finding is absolutely fascinating, digging into those deep, curious motivations that influence us into the copying of others. Interestingly, this latest work highlights the opposite from most common findings in social psychology, which themselves suggest that we’re more likely to imitate others’ behavior in public (Deutsch and Gerard 1955).

Instead, the research shows that social defaults are more likely to occur when others aren’t around. The reason? Something called ‘Impression management’ or, more simply put, the avoiding of embarassment. After all, it’s not unheard of for people to feel uneasy at copying others’ choices and fear being labeled as “followers”, and subsequently all those negative labels that come with it (weak, dependent etc).

Your esteemed writer nods his head profusely when writing this particular paragraph, recalling the countless times he’s waited for other supermarket customers to leave the wine section with their carefully judged choice before selecting exactly the same bottle that they did. Oh the lengths to which we go to save face, even amongst strangers…

In the research, participants were asked to observe a tea-chooser choose amongst two brands of Korean tea, with packaging all in Korean, meaning they’d be pretty uninformed about which brand to go for. They were then asked to select one of these teas themselves. They were found to be more than three times more likely to choose the same (social default) teabag as that selected by the chooser. Crucially, this was only when the chooser was not present in the room when the choice was being made.

However, adding English text to the packaging made participants less likely to mimic the co-worker’s behaviour. This suggests that social defaults are less likely to occur when the person has information about a given situation, and if they already have a strong existing preference for a given product or brand. When we feel strongly about something, we’re less likely to be swayed by external influences.

We are more likely to adopt social defaults when it’s deemed appropriate (i.e. if someone exhibits outragous behaviour, we’ll probably not adopt it), when the stakes are low (if we’re asked to explain our decision, we’re more likely to make an independent choice), when we’re uncertain, and when we’re tired or distracted.

Key takeaways:

  1. Works best in private
    These findings suggest that the social default effect is most likely to occur in private. Marketing messages based on social norms therefore may work best when they reach a customer in a private context, for example via email marketing or using flyers sent to their homes.

  2. Beware of brand preference
    If you’re using this technique, pick a target audience whom you think don’t have a strong preference for your brand or your competitors, and are indifferent about which brand of the given product they use, as social defaults provide a powerful way to divert them towards your brand.

  3. Limited product knowledge enhances the effect
    According to the research, it would appear that the effect works best in industries where the choice is high, but our knowledge is relatively low. Wine is a great example.

  4. Highlighting previous choices online
    There are also online opportunities to highlight which product from a given range is being bought most on a given day, emulating a similar effect in store. Since the transaction is being handled in private (on a computer or mobile), the effect on the consumer’s decision should be strong and consistent.

  5. Works well for new markets & product ranges
    The effect may have the strongest effect for new product lines / industries (e-cigarettes, for example), where there is limited knowledge or launching an existing product in a new country, where local knowledge of an existing product or range is low.