Thursday, 9 February 2012

Review of “I’ll have what she is having: mapping social behaviour” by R. Alexander Bentley, Mark Earls and Michael J. O'Brien.

This book is from the authors of Herd, another good book also concerned with social behaviour. So many books in this field and the general behavioural area repeat the same old mantras. You hear the same arguments and examples again and again. What makes this book stand out is that the authors pull together research from a variety of disciplines and say something new.

It is obvious that as individuals we behave differently form when we are in a  group. Social decision making is a hot topic. The authors cover how and why we make decisions within a social context. Although they do not give golden rules for how to predict how groups of people will behave they do map out a landscape that helps to determine the strategies people are likely to adopt.

They make many interesting observations along the way, some seem obvious but are rarely acknowledged, for example :

“we tend to envisage the social landscape through which these ideas are spread as firm ground, often as a fixed social network. What in reality are transient interactions and relationships – a conversation, a schoolmate, a co-worker – are now so often portrayed as if they were fixed “wires” between people in social networks…..those who picture this fixed network of wires between us are excited to launch their ideas to spread across it through careful strategic placement, to get it to spread on its own, say from one Facebook page to another.”

We have all been at presentations where these network diagrams are used to explain socail groups. The adoption of simplistic models is understandable but as they argue it there are more appropriate and accurate ways of viewing idea dissemination. Gladwells influencers may exist and have an impact at a local level but their individual influence within large dynamic networks is reduced.

They talk about social cascades where small changes can cause an avalanche of change. This is based on the notion of self-organized criticality where a system is in a state of continual flux but bound by its interdependencies. In these systems change tends to be a gradual smooth process but critical points can trigger avalanches of change that have a much wider impact. Within social networks the level of interconnectivity, the rate of change of connections and the receptivity to change of individuals all contribute the likelihood of an avalanch.

The book is full of interesting titbits and references to other concepts which deserve following up. For example the marketing scientist Andrew Ehrenberg who came up with the Dirichlet model which assumed that consumers had no inherent brand preferance and that they made choices based on chance and availability. His views in the 60’s were radical and disputed but later research has shown them to hold true across a wide range of different product categories. I expect he is not news to those with a marketing training, but it was a revelation to me.

The book’s structure leads you a long a path of increased understanding of the subject, not mere repetition of one or two key ideas. The final chapter presents their conceptual map of how people choose.

It presents the two axis of the number of people in the social group against the number of options to choose between. Although the map is a continuum, one can define the overriding method that is likely to be used in each quadrant.

It is interesting to note that only in tehe case of few similar options and few people do consumers make rational choices.  Directed copying is where indiviuals copy either types of people such as friend, relatives, celebrities etc or copy other groups or the majority which are seen as having the perceived wisdom. Undirected copying is where the similarity of choices and size of the groups are so large, the way individuals choose will appear to be the result of no obvious influence.

Knowing the position of your product in the map helps to understand how users may behave and what, if anything, you can do to influence them.

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