Monkey See, Monkey Buy

Peer pressure has never had such a powerful impact on your purchasing decisions

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Photo-Illustration by Alexander Ho for TIME; Getty Images

Soon we’ll be able to follow more than our friends’ latest escapades on our favorite social networking site. Facebook has announced new look-at-me-looking-at-you feature (they call it “frictionless sharing”) that will allow you to see what others are watching, hear what they’re listening to and check out what they’re reading, in real time, making consumer behavior more visible than ever before. And if you think that knowing what your friends are consuming will have no impact on you, think again.

(MORE: Will Facebook’s Shift To Data Sacrifice Its Soul?)

We might be hesitant to admit the degree to which others influence us, but we most certainly are all influenced. We need only look at the number of lists and recommendations that are the first thing you encounter on any e-commerce site, which make us think that a team of experts has spent the past month parsing through every book, movie, song and testing every coffee maker, handbag and diaper pail, when in fact the only function of all these recommendations and lists is to get you to buy more. And even though most of us are aware that some of those online product reviews are fakes written by friends or company employees or marketers, we purposely overlook this. We want to trust these messages, even when we may be deeply skeptical.

To gain further insight into the degree to how suggestible we are, I managed to convince a local restaurant to conduct a small experiment on my behalf. Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with waiters regarding how people order, and almost invariably, at least one diner withholds their menu selection until they’ve heard what everyone else at the table will be eating. What’s more, waiters are quite adept at altering orders to accommodate diners who change their minds after hearing what someone else is having.

This is a restaurant scenario I’m sure you’re well familiar with. However, what I really wanted to see was to what extent one table’s dissatisfaction would influence another’s. So we set up a table in the middle of the restaurant, and four actors were hired to pretend to be friends sharing the conviviality of a meal. They all ordered the soup, since it was the only starter on the menu, thus allowing an element of control. After breaking some bread and taking his first mouthful, one of the actors called for the waiter and proceeded to deliver a three-minute rant about the scalding temperature of the soup. As the soup continued to be served to the other tables, the complaints began rolling in. By the end of the dinner, 26% of the guests had made similar complaints. Each bowl had come from the same pot, so either they had extremely sensitive tongues or they had all been influenced by the initial complaint.

In another experiment conducted in 2008 by researchers at Leeds University, 200 people were asked to walk randomly around a large hall. A few moments into the experiment, five volunteers were instructed to move in a clockwise direction. They were told to do so without making any announcements or drawing attention to themselves. Within seven minutes, everyone was walking in the same direction. One of the conclusions drawn by the scientists was, like animals, humans tend to flock. And during times of insecurity, our need to seek refuge in the larger group is that much greater.

(MORE: What Your Supermarket Knows About You)

Which leads me back to Facebook’s latest look-at-me-looking-at-you initiative, which might prove to become the most powerful marketing mechanism of the 21st century by enabling Facebook to systematically pick out which members exert the most influence on others. Imagine movie studios, magazine publishers and fashion outlets having access to this information and creating mass demand by using small, highly influential groups. In the end, who’s influencing who?

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