The Persuasion Effect

What is the mechanic of group activities that make them so fun? Something can be absolutely boring, until suddenly a group of friends is doing it too, at which point your interest is piqued. This effect also fuels trends. A trite example is behavior in a school system. Every grade looks down on the previous year with disdain, claiming that “they were never that annoying”. Although it could occasionally be true, generational trends generally don’t occur in that manner. If there are admissions, varying parameters could cause general shifts. But the most likely explanation is this “Group Blindness”. If everybody you interact with has certain traits, the trait become less noticeable in yourself and others and you begin to trend towards it. It’s the mechanic behind fashion trends, memes, language shifts, and mob mentality. I think the best thing to call it would the the Persuasion Effect.

I’ll give a personal example to illustrate. In the Computer Systems Lab (a research lab open to the whole school) at my school, there is always a majority of people using the workstations for gaming before school and during lunch. Trends tend to pass over the core group, pulling in others temporarily. At first the widely played game was Starcraft. It started with a group of Koreans, but then more and more people started trying it. That trend died down to the original group of players as soon as Minecraft was introduced. At first many of us sneered at it. Then, one by one, we got sucked in. Now, however, there is just a small assortment of people who play it on a daily basis. The next trending game was Urban Terror. Right now, at least 80% of the computers are occupied by people playing it. My friends and I used to play it, but it seems that the trend has passed from one ‘clique’ (although we are generally a well integrated community at my school) to another. Many of the Sys Lab (as we call it) frequenters find the current players annoying and disruptive. I have no doubt that OI was just as annoying when I played, but it didn’t seem that way while I was playing, because my friends and acquaintances were acting the same way.

While group mentality certainly has a large influence on your behaviors and preferences, personal preference, stemming from negative or positive reinforcement in your personal experience, also has a big say. In trivial things such as Print vs. Cursive, Pen vs. Pencil, and Notebooks vs Legal Pads, personal preference plays a much larger role than trend reinforcement. The two effects, while similar, are distinct. External influences, such as offhand comments or direct instances of comparison between two modes, contribute to personal preference as much as interior observations of the pros and cons of two options. Trend reinforcement happens through passive observation, conscious or not. If you see lots of people acting a certain way, you are more inclined to act that way and regard it as normal (thus consciously noticing it less). Consistent reinforcement, even subtly, affects trend preferences (but also habits, if the reinforcement is yourself going through a motion), while distinct occurrences over a long period of time with intervals in between are more likely to influence personal preference. That’s why efforts to raise awareness work. You are overwhelmed with commands to do something so that when you get into a situation (such as throwing away a can), the commands will come to mind and you will be influenced (such as recycling the can, rather than tossing it).

Jeeze, after writing that thick swath of words I feel like I have a philosophy degree. I wrote overly complex and obtuse text to express a fairly simple concept, possible even confusing the matter more with my explanation. Reminds me of an anecdote from Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman, in which he puzzles over a sentence and finally realizes that it just says “people read”.


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