|This essay by Euan Wilson originally appeared in The Socionomist in July 2010.|
We socionomists have a favorite expression: “Socionomics changes the way you read the newspaper.” I’d like to add something to that: “… and the way you watch people reading the newspaper.”
Recently, I was in London’s Heathrow Airport and observed an amusing example of one of the tenets of socionomics—human herding—hard at work.
At our most self-indulgent, we all like to see ourselves as free-thinking individuals in a herd of human sheep. “Yes, everyone else is a slave to the herd, but I’m a free thinker!” The internet has popularized a classic term for the mindless herders: sheeple.
Sheeple are sheeple, except when they’re not. If you’ve seen Robert Prechter’s speech at the London School of Economics, you already know where I’m going with this. Prechter asserts that no, people aren’t stupid. It’s when they’re uncertain about a choice that many people make errors that, in hindsight, are completely and obviously ridiculous. Uncertainty is an unpleasant mental state, and the brain’s limbic system demands that we resolve it NOW. So what is the most comforting thing to do when we’re uncertain? Follow what everyone else is doing. Herding was very helpful for avoiding a stone-age lion mauling, but today it can cause real agony in the civilized jungle of stock market trading floors.
At other times, herding can make people look ridiculous in the airport. But before I kick around my fellow passengers too much, I will admit the circumstances that led to my story were unsettling to a traveler for a number of reasons.
Technical issues had both delayed my flight and changed the departure gate from Gate 8 to Gate 10. Further, Gate 10 in Heathrow is not a typical gate. Most of the time, one number means one gate. Not so with Gate 10: It is actually four gates. 10A, 10B, 10C and 10D, with each gate servicing a different flight. Meanwhile, all the subordinate gates share a common waiting area, so that passengers to many very different destinations are mixed in amongst each other.
Adding to the confusion is the issue that none of Gate 10’s extensions connect directly to any planes. Gate 10 is on the ground level of the terminal, below all the other gates, and acts as a bus station. Buses ferry passengers to planes, which they then board via a stairwell.
For an experienced Heathrowian, climbing a set of stairs to your plane is not especially alarming. But when you add the context of a delayed flight, a changed gate, three other flights that also are leaving from the same gate, and a miniature bus station inside the airport, you can understand why some trepidatious uncertainty could arise.
At first, everything was fine. The British have a compulsory need to read the newspaper (the flavor of choice for most of my flight-mates was the Daily Mail) when they wait for things; the Americans were tick-tacking away at their iPhones. Everyone, myself included, frequently looked up to check the LED display that would tell us what to do next. All the information we needed was there. Flight BA227, proceed to Gate 10A, precisely where we were, delayed to 11:15 am. All we need do was wait for that LED to tell us to board the buses.
And then, something happened. British Airways made no announcement, nothing changed on the flight board, and no employee beckoned the public forward. But one gentleman got up, walked over to the checkpoint with his boarding pass in hand, and stood there waiting. No staff came over to scan his pass and allow him through, and he obviously didn’t have a question. He was just ready to get moving.
But the rest of our passengers didn’t see it that way. Within 60 seconds, a line of 10 people had formed. Moments later, more than two thirds of the passengers were standing in line, unable to read their papers or fiddle with their iPhones because they now had to shuffle bags, boarding passes, folded newspapers and passports.
I watched this process happen and noted the time with curiosity. A full 12 minutes later, the gate staff finally began scanning passes and loading people onto the buses. I put my copy of SuperFreakonomics away and stood in line for about 25 seconds.
This is what happens when people don’t know what to do in the face of an important outcome. They will clutch at any semblance of order. Any person who makes a decision in this uncertain situation, so our limbic systems argue, is moving toward a solution, and we’re fools not to do as they do. I will confess that I, too, felt a strong urge to join the line and stand awkwardly.
But it wasn’t necessary. The realization that what I was feeling was an impulse to herd allowed me to keep my comfortable seat and continue enjoying the fascinating insights of Levitt and Dubner. I sat contentedly, kept an eye on the LED board, and murmured a silent thank you for my early education in socionomics.
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Most economists, historians and sociologists
presume that events determine society’s mood. But socionomics hypothesizes
the opposite: that social mood regulates the character of social events. The
events of history—such as investment booms and busts, political events,
macroeconomic trends and even peace and war—are the products of a naturally
occurring pattern of social-mood fluctuation. Such events, therefore, are not
randomly distributed, as is commonly believed, but are in fact probabilistically
predictable. Socionomics also posits that the stock market is the best available
meter of a society’s aggregate mood, that news is irrelevant to social
mood, and that financial and economic decision-making are fundamentally different
in that financial decisions are motivated by the herding impulse while economic
choices are guided by supply and demand. For more information about socionomic
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