Belmont Club

The blind men and ditches

Head ‘em off at the passWould you buy a stranger’s lottery ticket if he claimed he couldn’t cash it because he was an illegal immigrant without the necessary documents? Of course you wouldn’t. Or would you?

The Press Enterprise described how a woman in Southern California lost $20,000 under exactly these circumstances. Why did the obvious swindle work?

The victim told deputies she turned $20,000 over to a man she met on a Corona street corner Tuesday morning after he told her he had a winning lottery ticket but could not cash it because he had no papers and could not find the Mexican consulate. Another woman approached and suggested they each give the man $20,000 for the ticket. The woman then drove the man to the Target store at the corner of Hamner and Limonite avenues in the Eastvale area to pick up medication. That is where he fled with the second woman in a silver SUV.

It worked because of social proof. “Social proof, also known as informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon that occurs in ambiguous social situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior. Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, they will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or better informed.” The key psychological moment in the scam came when the woman accomplice appeared on the scene offering the man money for his ticket. That somehow stampeded the victim into thinking that the smart thing to do was follow suit.

But as scammers go, the man with the lottery ticket is in the minor leagues. Marketers and political operatives have long been aware that many people have no intrinsic reasons for choosing one thing over another. But they sell products and candidates anyway by getting a critical mass of people to do something, thereby convincing the crowd to follow in the belief that others know what they don’t. Actually nobody may know anything, but it still works. This is sometimes called the “bandwagon” effect, and it’s really a way of exploiting uncertainty and ignorance. People are more likely to do something simply because others are doing it. Starting fads is a good way to sell pet rocks and Presidents.

When John McCain calls Barack Obama a “celebrity” he’s implying that many of Obama’s supporters are driven by social proof; willing to hand a stranger from Chicago the keys to the Oval Office simply because several others have expressed the willingness to do so. Not everyone is driven by fads. There are probably many individuals who support BHO for carefully considered, even ideological reasons, but how many on reflection will admit they are voting for him for about the same reason that the Southern California woman parted with her $20,000? Maybe McCain himself is playing the same game. By capitalizing on the recent trend among media pundits to criticize BHO for his messianic style, McCain may be trying to create his own counter-fad. You too can be the first liberal on the block to sneer at Barack Obama and prove that you are cooler than your friends. That may not be a good reason, but hey, it works.

In a 1992 journal article titled A Theory of Fads, Fashion, Custom and Cultural Change as Informational Cascades, Bikchandani, Hirshleifer and Welch asked whether there were any circumstances in which it was rational to follow the herd; that is, to rely on social proof as a basis for action. They concluded that whenever people were “very close to the borderline between alternatives” a sudden, almost trivial event can make things break one way or the other. Intuitively this makes sense. When people have either very little information on which to make judgments or when alternatives are very evenly matched, then decision-makers have very little else to go on except the behavior of the herd. When the candidates are not evenly matched, the media could still theoretically set up a stampede by starving the campaign of real information.

Thus, the more dumbed down, content-free and sound-bite driven a campaign is, and the less information is actually available to voters and the more readily the political situation can be manipulated by fads. When nobody knows or cares diddly about the policy alternatives then voters can choose a President on the basis of appearance, haircut or color of tie. Would anyone actually choose the leader of the most powerful nation on earth on the same basis as American Idol? Hmm. Maybe the lady in Southern California who gave the scammer $20,000 wasn’t so different from some of us, some of the time.

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