The Wall Street Journal reports this morning about a new study by scholars Lev Muchnik, Sinan Aral, and Sean Taylor. The researchers examined, "positive online ratings can be strongly influenced by favorable ratings that have come before." They found that initial positive ratings did create herd behavior. Ratings that followed were more likely to be positive as a result of the influence of the initial evaluations. However, initial negative ratings did not lead to similar herd behavior.
What's the lesson here? First, the wisdom of crowds depends upon the notion that each individual is making an independent judgment. Unfortunately, human beings are subject to social influence. We aren't as independent-minded as we would like to believe. Second, social influence doesn't just affect us when we are in a group having a discussion. It can affect us in virtual settings as well. Third, social influence does not just affect us when we know the other people involved. An anonymous individual can exhibit influence over us, as is the case in this study. Well, those conclusions paint a rather bleak picture, don't they? We have to be aware of the power of social influence, and we cannot pretend that we are somehow immune to such bias. Herding behavior is everywhere.