The Extraordinary Influence of Ordinary People

Science & Spirit, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

The Extraordinary Influence of Ordinary People


When it comes to selling products or winning political elections, researchers have usually argued that opinion leaders--often called "influentials" because of their social networks--play a stronger role than ordinary people on the street.

That conventional wisdom may have to change, according to two sociologists, who have used advanced computer models of social influence to show that common folks who are "easily influenced" simply influence each other in unpredictable ways.

Under most conditions, "large cascades of influence are driven not by influentials, but by a critical mass of easily influenced individuals," write Duncan J. Watts of Columbia University and Sheridan Dodds of the University of Vermont in the December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Their findings challenge a decades-old theory used in marketing and politics. That theory said that if you target "influentials"--well-connected and informed people who powerfully influence their immediate environments--they will set the direction of social trends, from political behavior to buying particular products.

The old theory also allowed society to say that someone must have been "behind" a cultural fad, a marketing success, or a drop in crime. "It is tempting to trace the phenomenon to the individuals who 'started it,' and conclude that their actions or behavior 'caused' the events that subsequently took place," the authors said.

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But the fad or trend could have been purely by chance from the choices of ordinary people.

In the study, Watts and Dodds explain that although "influentials" may number in the millions, they are generally unseen: They are not like movie stars, pundits, CEOs, or Oprah Winfrey--who can pick a book title and make it a best seller. But despite the powerful social networks of influentials, they "are less important than is generally supposed, either as initiators of large cascades, or as early adopters" of a particular behavior or viewpoint.

The study is just the latest application of more advanced computer models of predicting how an individual makes decisions, much as pieces on a chessboard are influenced by other pieces and moves. In one classic model, developed in 1971, Thomas C. Schelling, showed that small preferences for the race of neighbors, for example, eventually leads to a "cascade" of total segregation. …

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