Imagine you’re dining out at a casual restaurant with some friends. After looking over the menu, you decide to order the steak. But then, after a dinner companion orders a salad for their main course, you declare: “I’ll have the salad too.”
This kind of situation – making choices that you probably otherwise wouldn’t make were you alone – probably happens more often than you think in a wide variety of settings, from eating out to shopping and even donating to charity. And it’s not just a matter of you suddenly realising the salad sounds more appetising.
Prior research has shown people have a tendency to mimic the choices and behaviours of others. But other work suggests people also want to do the exact opposite to signal their uniqueness in a group by making a different choice from others.
As scholars who examine consumer behaviour, we wanted to resolve this discrepancy: What makes people more likely to copy others’ behaviour and what leads them to do their own thing?
A social signal
We developed a theory that how and why people match or mimic others’ choices depends a lot on the attributes of the thing being selected.
Choices have what we call ordinal attributes that can be ranked objectively – such as size or price – as well as nominal attributes that are not as easily ranked – such as flavour or shape. We hypothesised that ordinal attributes have more social influence, alerting others to what may be seen as appropriate in a given context.
Nominal attributes, on the other hand, would seem to be understood as a reflection of one’s personal preferences.
One scoop or two
In one study conducted with 190 undergraduate students, we told participants that they were on their way to an ice cream parlour with a friend to get a cone. We then told our would-be ice cream consumers that their companion was getting either one scoop of vanilla, one scoop of chocolate, two scoops of vanilla or two scoops of chocolate. We then asked the participants what they wanted to order.
We found that people were much more likely to order the same size as their companion but not the same flavour.
The participants seemed to interpret the number of scoops the companion ordered as an indication of what’s appropriate. For example, ordering two scoops might signal permission to indulge or seem the more financially savvy – if less healthy – choice, since it usually costs only marginally more than one. Or a single scoop might suggest, “Let’s enjoy some ice cream – but not too much.”
The choice of chocolate or vanilla, on the other hand, is readily understood as a personal preference and thus signals nothing about which is better or more appropriate. I like vanilla, you like chocolate – everyone’s happy.
We also asked participants to rate how important avoiding social discomfort was in their decision. Those who ordered the same number of scoops as their companion rated it as more important than those who picked a different amount.
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