If Black Friday this year is anything like the past few years, otherwise sane people will temporarily lose it as they form frenzied—and even violent—mobs. Why? Humans are followers: A study published last week suggests that people fleeing an emergency follow the crowd—even if it’s going the wrong way. (Like, away from the exit signs.) The research is based on a computer game that put participants in a virtual emergency and had them choose an evacuation route based on different types of influence, including exit signs, prior knowledge of the building and the movement of others.
This is hardly the first research showing that a “herd mentality” can make people doubt themselves or do dumb things—something it's worth keeping in mind when shopping gets competitive. When confronted with a crowd—or just even a few others—people can be convinced to:
College students were shown a card with one line on it, then a card with three lines of different length, and asked to identify the line that matched the first.
This was a simple task: When they were alone, participants picked the right line more than 99 percent of the time. But when asked to complete the same task in a group of actors who unanimously picked the wrong line, their success rate dropped to 63 percent.
When shopping carts were first introduced in the 1930s, they were a tough sell: Men thought they were womanly, and women complained that they were too much like baby carriages. But when the inventors hired people to push shopping carts around supermarkets, they caught on.
Face backwards in an elevator
Sometimes, psychological insights come from 1960s Candid Camera.