Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The "Cascade" Effect

We just read a most interesting article about a psychological experiment conducted in the 1950s at Princeton University ... where roomfuls of subjects were shown sets of vertical lines. Only one set had lines of even length, while the others were plainly uneven. "The subjects were then given the seemingly trivial task of identifying which pair of lines were the same. But there was a trick: Everyone in the room except for one person had been instructed beforehand to give the same incorrect answer. The real subject of the experiment was the lone unwitting participant, and the real test was of an individual's ability to disagree with his or her peers." And the experiment showed that people who under normal circumstances would have no difficulty whatsoever distinguishing the truth sided with the incorrect majority about one-third of the time. This tendency in many of us to go along with the majority when we don't necessarily trust our own instincts or perceptions is known as "the cascade effect." Columbia Unviersity sociologist Duncan Watts uses this (now famous) research to make a biting point about why John Kerry is right now on the verge of becoming the "cascade effect candidate" for president.

The cascading of opinion is also known as "social decision-making," where the options we choose, from the church we attend to the skateboard we buy, are influenced by what others have already chosen. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, and it goes on ALL THE TIME. Says Watts, "After all, the world is a complicated place, and other people often do have information that we lack. So, we can often do reasonably well, or at least no worse than the people we are copying, by letting them do the hard work for us."

Trouble is, writes Watts, sometimes the people we're relying on to have done the hard work aren't working at all. "When everyone is looking to someone else for an opinion -- trying, for example, to pick the Democratic candidate they think everyone else will pick -- it's possible that whatever information other people might have gets lost, and instead we get a cascade of imitation that, like a stampeding herd, can start for no apparent reason and subsequently go in any direction with equal likelihood. Stock market bubbles and cultural fads are the examples that most people associate with cascades, because they are generally accepted to represent 'irrational' behavior."

Watts implies that John-Kerry-the-most-electable is very much an irrational cascade of opinion, mainly because he won both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, involving statistically an infinitesimally small proportion of the voting Democrats in this country, but he won those contests in close succession, and voters in other states "cascaded" their opinions based on their assumption that the people in Iowa and New Hampshire must know something about John Kerry that has not yet manifested itself to the rest of us.

The fact is that John Kerry is still a hopeless stiff -- "Lurch" -- that not many people even like, but the cascade effect has worked its dubious magic. And here we are, about to go down over the rocks.

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