The vast amount of information that we are presented with online might not be fostering rational decision-making but rather encouraging people to act in a similar way to others in their group –i.e. to simply follow the herd – a recent scientific article suggests.

Information cascades unbalancing our decision-making ?

The position information technology now occupies in our everyday lives might be distorting consumers’ freedom of choice. This is the hypothesis put forward in the revue Metaphilosophy by Vincent F. Hendricks, a Philosophy professor of at the University of Copenhagen. In his article he describes what he calls the ‘infostorm’ phenomenon, which he breaks down into three syndromes – ‘informational cascades’, ‘pluralistic ignorance’, and ‘belief polarisation’. He argues that the vast amount of online information coming at us nowadays is increasing people’s need to conform with others and their desire for belonging when they take decisions online. Professor Hendricks describes the informational cascade principle as “a situation where you suppress your own information in order to conform to the beliefs, opinions, and actions of those who have acted before you.”

Making choices in line with others

The Copenhagen University academic cites the example of a book entitled Love Letters of Great Men and Women, first published in the 18th century, which got onto the Amazon list of best-sellers in 2007. Explains Professor Hendricks: “What generated the huge interest in this long forgotten book was a scene in the movie Sex and the City in which the main character Carrie Bradshaw reads a book entitled Love Letters of Great Men – which does not exist.So, when fans of the movie searched for this book, Amazon's search engine suggested Love Letters of Great Men and Women instead, which made a lot of people buy a book they did not want. Then Amazon's computers started pairing the book with Sex and the City merchandise, and the old book sold in great numbers.” He points out that this illustrates a situation where otherwise rational individuals base their decisions on the behaviour of those who act before them. “In an online context, this can take on massive proportions and result in actions that miss their intended purpose,” argues Hendricks. On top of this come the effects of ‘pluralistic ignorance’ and ‘group polarisation’ which are triggered by the information selection process whereby we are only served up content by search engines, social networks, etc that fits our clicking history.

‘Echo chambers’ that “may endanger democracy”

Hendricks cites evidence that when an accident happens, the more people there are in the vicinity, the less chance there is of anyone intervening. In an uncertain situation, a person will tend to look around before acting, believing that someone else will act in his/her place. This tendency could be a real problem if everyone starts to think the same way. This phenomenon also applies acutely to online information: people who log on to a travel website, for example, and see that a hotel has few or no comments from other users may have severe doubts aboutgoing ahead with a reservation if it seems that too few other people have done so. This ‘group polarisation’ may be amplified by the information selection process mentioned above. Moreover,“in online forums, group members may never encounter views or arguments that contradict their worldview (…) making the discussion forum an ‘echo chamber’ where group members only hear their own voices,” a situation which he regards as problematic for democratic processes. The Hendricks hypothesis should certainly be taken seriously, but it should not necessarily be accepted as a general truth because other evidence needs to be taken into account. On the one hand some studies for example point to the unreliability of a single person’s view versus the ‘wisdom of crowds’. Meanwhile a study published recently by the Polytechnic University of Turin shows evidence that a person’s first opinion on a subject is always the most confident and hardest to shake, even when weighty ‘influencers’ or close personal contacts express a different view.

By Kathleen Comte