Get students to ‘follow the herd’, says behavioural expert

A writer on human behaviour has urged universities to encourage herd behaviour in their attempt to attract students rather than deploying rational argument.

March 4, 2013

Mark Earls, the author of Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature, has argued that consumers, including students, are bombarded with information and choices, and that the internet had made this problem worse.

However, “we think [about this information] much less than we think we think”, he told a conference held by student recruitment company Hobsons in London on 26 February. 

The government has introduced Key Information Sets, which give prospective students data on higher education courses including graduate destinations, teaching hours and fees.

However, Mr Earls said that although humans like to believe they are rational beings, in reality “practically all” thinking is “shaped by feelings”.

“The most important thing that influences what people are doing is other people,” he said.

To appeal to prospective students, universities should focus on “the space between people, not on the space between their ears”, he said.

For example, Apple’s iPod had experienced tremendous success partly because its distinctive white headphones let people know who else was using the device, he said.

Universities needed to try many different initiatives to encourage this kind of herd behaviour in students, an approach he described as “lighting lots of fires”.

However, students who do want to follow the herd this year may hit a snag.

As reported by Times Higher Education last month, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service has refused to release data on applications to individual institutions for 2013 because of fears it could infringe competition law.

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