Be Your Own Woman

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Fitting In

Research confirms how badly the average person wants to identify with a larger group -- and does so by ignoring his own character and conforming to community standards (whether rational or not). Recently research about suicide bombers was compiled by Ohio State University, in Columbus. Far from being the ignorant, impoverished zealots one might imagine, the majority were educated, reasonably well off, and "not necessarily from fanatically religious families," according to Todd Stewart, a retired Air Force general and one of the lead researchers. The bomber wannabes' responses to questions differed depending on whether they were interviewed in a group or alone. In a group, they showed knee-jerk, cultlike support for the idea that sacrificing one's life in the service of God and country was worth it. Interviewed alone, their answers were nuanced and laced with doubt. When they weren't worrying about what their peers thought, they could expose their very human, very real selves.

With any luck, no one reading this is a suicide bomber. But on a more quotidian level, are you, too, ignoring who you are so as not to stand out or to get the approval of your community? Are you piling on extra hours at work even though your kids need you to oversee their homework simply because the woman in the next cubicle is still there when you're heading for the door? A Rutgers University study revealed that about 75 percent of workers upped their own work hours to match those of their colleagues, regardless of how long it actually took to complete their tasks.

Groupthink infects us even when it is blatantly, laughably obvious that we are acting against our own best interests. Take online shopping, for example. In a 2001 study at the State University of New York at Buffalo's School of Management, Paul Dholakia, PhD, studied the bidding patterns of eBay shoppers over a three-week period. He found that consumers gravitated toward items that already had one or more existing bids, while ignoring identical or even superior unbid-for items in the same category. Shoppers fell prey to a kind of online peer pressure that Dr. Dholakia calls "herd-behavior bias": Lacking direct contact with the seller or the item, they assumed that if people were bidding on an item, it must be good, or better than an identical item that no one had bid on. Certain books and movies become best sellers and box-office successes, while other equally good or better products sink like stones, for roughly the same reasons: Consumers, following the herd, shell out money for the commodity that everyone else seems to want and shun those with no apparent constituency.

Continued on page 4:  Danger Zone


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