Oct 19, 2011 0 Share

Following the Leader

Illustration of group of green fish swimming right and one red fish swimming lef

Last week, while driving upstate, I noticed that several cars ahead of me in the left lane, one after another, swerved onto the shoulder around a certain spot. When I got there, I noticed a couple of long strips of tire. Nothing I probably couldn't just drive over. 

Which I would have—if I'd been alone. 

Seeing all the other drivers swerve around the tire strips, I wondered if maybe the other drivers knew something I didn't. So just to be safe, I swerved too. 

Safe in at least one sense: If there was something more to the tire strips, like maybe the possibility that my car could have slipped on them and skidded, I avoided that danger. 

But how do I know that they were right? In fact, what if only the first driver had decided independently to swerve, and everyone else behind her had each had simply followed suit? Remember when you were in a study group, and everyone assumed everyone else had read the material so nobody at all studied? 

What if I was wrong? Well, if I swerved wrongly, the consequence would be a few feet of wasted driving and several extra seconds lost. 

But if I drive through wrongly, I might risk damage to my car...but also looking like a fool. 

Thing is, a mistake can be one thing if everyone is wrong together. However, it's quite another if you're the only one messing up. Then you may really look dumb! 

In fact, people are wired to assume others know what they're doing and imitate them. As Richard Conniff documents in his The Ape in the Corner Office, imitation and conformity began with the animals. Standing out has always been a very good way to attract a predator's attention. In other words, it's not so much a matter of finding out the “objectively best” thing to do, as it is making sure you stick with the herd. 

People do what they do in large part because they figure other people will want to do it. For a real-time version of this behavior, observe any investment banker in action. The worst-case scenario is a speculative bubble in which people bid something's price up to ridiculous heights because they figure some “greater fool” will take it off their hands for even more money. 

Three lessons for Aspies: 

First, people aren't necessarily logical. Logically, I should have saved the time and energy by driving through the tire strips. I didn't, and I had plenty of company. 

Next, the logical solution is not necessarily the best one. Maybe others know things you don't, especially when you have to make decisions on the fly. In fact, according to a study, knowing how somebody else felt about an event is a better indicator for how you're likely to feel about it, than is knowing about the event itself! 

Finally, conformity really can matter. Even if you're right, sometimes the best thing is whatever the group is doing precisely because it's what the group is doing. For example, we all drive on the right side of the street in the US and the left side in the UK. What matters is not which side in itself but rather that everyone drives on the same side. 

So, I'm not sorry about having swerved around the tire strips. On the other hand, I am sorry about having done so little to fit in while in school. I was voted “Most Individual” in junior high school, and also “Most Individual” and “Most Controversial” in high school by a landslide. Now, if you know of anyone who was voted “Most Individual” and/or “Most Controversial” and “Most Likely to Succeed” please drop me a line!