We’re social. We learn by imitating. Rational? Not so much

I love the thesis of this book: if we were rational beings, it would be much, much easier to organize things for the public good. We could vaporize problems like smoking, inactivity and STDs by simply sharing pure, good information.

But, we’re not rational first, we’re social first. We learn from each other as we discover and learn. We perpetuate and reinforce many kinds of behaviors, even those that might make us sick and unhappy.

These guys had me at “ambition to change human behavior”

The authors – two anthologists and a brand guy – (insert your own joke here) make a clear case that more than any other animals we learn first by imitation. We copy the majority, successful individuals, better ideas, good social learners, kin, friends and older individuals. Even then our copying is irrational. It can be quite randomly directed, which leads to highly volatile collective behavior.

Of course, individual learning is essential; it is the source of innovation. But it is social learning – in all of its crazy quilt patterns of inclination – that diffuses innovation.

and – “to do so with greater success.”

Maybe even more than their philosophy, I might love their clear expectations of us, the readers: “This is far more than a descriptive or theoretical exercise,” it is the basis for a “practical and usable map to help you navigate your way through the complex world of human behavior and – if your ambition is to change it – to do so with greater success.”

These guys had me at “ambition to influence human behavior.” They sold me on “greater success.”

Low hanging fruit: “Why doesn’t anybody read the reason-based communications we work so hard on?” Higher hanging fruit: “Why don’t more people care about climate change?”.

There’s a lot of fruit out here. Indulge.

From the book:

…biologists have shown that the collective motions of schools or flocks can be explained through each bird or fish following its nearest neighbors…not by some macho leadership, complicated signaling, or inherent influence, but through his or her consistency of direction, which is picked up and diffused through the school by the action of its members following each other. By following each other, they follow the leader only indirectly. They need not even know who the leader is. 


Another related question is, what generally makes a system poised for a cascade? One of the lubricants is a variation in the agents in the network. Social diffusion is made easier when there are at least a few agents who choose individually and others who amplify those decisions through social imitation.


The key to fitting the pieces together is in identifying the essential social aspects of human beings at the appropriate level of complexity – not so overly simple as billiard balls or omniscient rational actors but not so overly detailed either, like the neurotic patient in Freudian psychoanalysis.

If you are in the mind-changing business this book should be in your library.

I’ll Have What She’s Having. Mapping Social Behavior
Alex Bentley, Mark Earls, Michael J. O’Brien
The MIT Press
2011, 160 pages

Available from Amazon.

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