The Pull of Social Media: Are We Becoming Ever More Individualistic or More ‘Herd-Like’ in Our Decision Making?

As our digital universe continues to expand at an exponential rate – doubling in size every two years – what effect is our online behavior having on our decision-making skills? The authors of an article in the latest issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences argue that we need to be careful not to assume decisions made in the collective realm are typical of all decisions.

The co-authors from the University of Missouri and the University of Bristol make the case that social scientists themselves are in danger of classifying all decisions as socially influenced rather than individually determined, as researchers increasingly to ‘big data’ sets from sources like Facebook and Twitter to measure trends in human behavior.

Bentley, O’Brien and Brock note that the behavioral sciences have flourished in the past by studying how traditional and/or rational behavior has been governed throughout most of human history by relatively well-informed individual and social learning. In the online age, however, social phenomena can occur with unprecedented scale and unpredictability, and individuals have access to unprecedented social connections.

The ‘digital shadow’ of every Internet user – the online information created about that person – is already much larger than the amount of information each individual deliberately creates online. These digital shadows are the subjects of ‘big data’ research, which optimists see as an outstandingly large sample of real behavior that is revolutionizing social science. With all its potential in both the academic and commercial world, the effect of big data on the behavioral sciences is already apparent in the ubiquity of online surveys and psychology experiments, the authors argue. And that can be problematic.

“Studies of human dynamics based on these data sets are novel and exciting but, if not placed in context, can foster the misconception that mass-scale online behavior is all we need to understand how humans make decisions,” they write.

The authors have created a new multi-scale comparative map that provides a framework for evaluating how modern collective behavior may be changing in the digital age. The map makes it possible to measure whether behavior is becoming more individualistic, as people seek out exactly what they want, or more social, as people become more inextricably linked, even ‘herd-like’, in their decision making.

The authors posit that there is no substitute for human experience, so incorporating big data into behavioral science means more than just following the most popular trends; the latter has the potential to undermine the collective wisdom that formed the foundations of the Internet in the first place.

“Humans sample the actions of their peers just by living among them for a lifetime,” they conclude. “As long as people trust their own individual experiences, even in observing the behavior of others, a collective wisdom is possible.”

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