The question of why many people imitate others while a few remain independent has fascinated scholars. Copycats and Contrarians brings a multifaceted approach to the theme, delving into medicine, economics, entrepreneurship, neuroscience, animal behaviour and mob psychology.
The result is an admirable literature survey, well researched, accessible and comprehensive without being too long. It opens with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in a car crash in 1997, recalling the public displays of grief and the anger directed towards the Royal Family, particularly the Queen. Other examples include “shaken baby” syndrome, tulip mania, sub-prime lending and Steve Jobs as contrarian.
Anyone seeking ideas for multidisciplinary research will find plenty of options. The chapter on animal herding is especially engaging and reminds us how herding can be highly functional. The chapter on neuroscience, by contrast, mainly shows us how little we know about herding and the brain. It tells us that there is something there, but it is not clear what these brain activations mean or why they matter.
Yet for all Michelle Baddeley’s authority, it is never really clear what overarching point she is trying to make. Moreover, the questions posed are too familiar to cause much excitement. Why do people copy one another? Is it a good or bad thing? Such questions have become conceptual ruts. Yet the author never asks whether we need new questions.
Some of the examples, too, are shopworn, such as selfish dictators and cruel prison guards. We also know that copycat behaviour can exacerbate flash crashes in the price of securities. Few readers will be surprised by the observation that it is hard to switch off from work when our mobile phones are always on or that it can often be better to be conventionally wrong than unconventionally right.
The work on contrarians is more interesting, not least because it opens our eyes to how they can unleash great wealth by doing things differently. Remember the days before tablet computing, when Microsoft and PCs seemed impregnable? Is Samsung foolish to try to create its own operating system? Or is it precisely what the company needs to lure customers bored and frustrated by Android?
The book also contains counter-intuitive insights concerning the potential wisdom of crowds, the logic of speculative bubbles and money systems as relying on copycat behaviour. The last chapter is the most disturbing. It concerns the impact of social media and over-connectedness, delving into fake news and false information such as impossibly glowing online profiles. The material on the emergence of opinion leaders is also thought-provoking, to say nothing of that on Donald Trump’s skill in manipulating social media to become president. By the end, the reader is left wondering what is real and longing to escape from this hermetically sealed world.
But that chapter is frustratingly short. More important, there are still no new thematic questions. Indeed, the book ends like the first draft of a PhD thesis by observing that we need to know more about why people herd or rebel. It would certainly be interesting to know more about why people sometimes rebel. Conformity, however, is in danger of being done to death.
Helga Drummond is professor of decision sciences at the University of Liverpool Management School.
Copycats and Contrarians: Why We Follow Others…and When We Don’t
By Michelle Baddeley
Yale University Press, 320pp, £18.99
Published 29 May 2018