OPINION23 September 2009

What can Jay-Z teach us about social behaviour?


Sitting in the crowd at Coldplay’s Wembley Stadium gig, Anna Thomas of Define pondered the comments Mark Earls made on herd behaviour at last week’s Esomar Congress, and wondered what Earls could learn from Chris Martin and Jay-Z.

Watching the crowd behaviour at Coldplay’s massive Wembley Stadium gig this weekend was a great chance to think about how social behaviour works in practice – and what you might need to do as a policy maker, business leader or marketing manager to get things running your way.

From where I was sitting I saw three attempts to get a mass movement going, only one of which really had any major traction.

Before the headliners appeared, the crowd was warmed up by US rapper Jay-Z. He introduced the first audience participation opportunity – the ‘bounce’ (imagine patting a taller person two rows in front of you on the head and bending your knees at the same time). I witnessed the moment some of the crowd took it up and watched it radiate out – but the bounce only worked with the fifth of the audience closest to the stage. It was contagious only among the highest concentration of Jay-Z’sbiggest fans. Fans sitting closer to us didn’t join in. Girls wearing Cheryl Cole T-shirts and fluffy pink hats didn’t join in. Brilliant though Jay-Z was, perhaps the bounce was just too niche to win everyone over.

Later when Coldplay came on stage, a half-hearted Mexican wave went round. Some of the more excitable people sitting along the walls of the stadium had a go, but it was with a gritted teeth kind of energy. “Come on, everyone, this is fun!” shouted someone behind me. This time, the ‘activated audience’ were sprinkled throughout the stadium. But for every person really driving the behaviour, there were gaps in the enthusiasm. Another attempt came along, and another, but the familiar and oh-so-easy Mexican wave crashed on the shore.

Finally, on 19 September at 10.15pm BST (according to Flickr), the camera phone wave happened. This was a wave of twinkling lights that pulsed around the whole room – not once but four times. It was beautiful.

It got me thinking. Mass behaviour is complicated – and it’s not just about familiarity, simplicity, copying other people or even charismatic leadership. Mass behaviour needs to be experienced as worthwhile for its participants in their own terms. What elements do we need to include if we’re trying to achieve mass behaviour in consumer or social markets?

The day before seeing the camera phone wave, I had come home from the Esomar Congress in Montreux, where I heard Mark Earls talk about herd behaviour and how the latest psychological research shows that human beings are much more social than individual. The truth he wanted us to understand is that human nature is about people copying people – they behave in harmony with what’s going on around them, rather than thinking rationally and individually in their actions.

Earls says we’re more Homo mimicus than Homo sapiens, and there are massive implications in this theory for purchasing behaviour, change management, strategy, policy and service delivery in social programmes. He argues that this is why the iPod, SMS and Twitter have caught on – and it’s how the Arctic Monkeys achieved widespread public attention via fan-based net dialogue rather than through traditional band-directed marketing routes.

I can certainly recognise Earls’ Homo mimicus in aspects of consumer behaviour, and it’s supported by behavioural research. But, I wondered, if humans are just about copying, about the social group, then why did Jay-Z’s bounce not spread more widely? Why did the Mexican wave not just take over our collective consciousness? What made the cameraphone wave such a memorable experience?

I was at the BBC in the mid-nineties and saw the change-management programme that Greg Dyke (supported by Gareth Jones) started there in his time as director-general. The BBC needed to become more audience-inspired and more internally collaborative. The behaviour change challenge was enormous. I saw Dyke’s equivalent of Jay-Z’s ‘bounce’ catch on (initial short-range behaviour change being taken up by some of the top table execs, but with the rest of the audience doing their own thing). Shortly after, I saw some kind of Mexican wave work around the organisation – behaviour change pushed by the most enthusiastic shouting ‘Come on, this is fun!’ but ultimately falling into the inert hands of those who had their own business to be getting on with.

Perhaps we might all have then experienced a camera phone moment after that – except that Dyke left the organisation.

In our work on social behaviour issues at Define (including obesity, knife crime, sexual health and breastfeeding) we regularly see people copying each other into bad health practices – drinking too much, becoming overweight and so on. The epidemic patterns are very visible. In fact, a Harvard research team worked out that if your partner becomes obese, you have a 37% increased chance of becoming fatter. If your friend becomes obese, your risk increases by 57%. Homo mimicus is well evidenced.

But does copying cover everything? In thinking about change management, business leadership, motivational challenges and coaching, it’s obviously not enough. Yes, some things like Twitter catch on, but other things just don’t. Something else in the analysis, it occurred to me, isn’t being pulled out.

We have to look at the meaning underneath the behaviour. Why does it make sense for the people involved, whether they are individuals or just herd members? What is the payback for the people in the crowd at Wembley?

The camera phone wave had something to it that the other two actions didn’t have. From what I saw, we are not just blankly copying each other (at least, most of us aren’t, most of the time). I think four key things made the camera phone wave a successful mass behaviour:

  1. The act was effective. It looked really cool. It was like glitter pouring down through the audience.
  2. It was new – or rather, it was a new take on something familiar, but it had a curiosity value that made you pay attention.
  3. There was immediate feedback – we could see we were doing it right.
  4. People enjoyed it and they wanted to repeat it.

Having a meaning inherent in the behaviour seemed to be critical for success. People wanted to do it for its own sake and so it happened, over and over. A level of satisfaction as we saw the earliest effects of our actions was an indicator that we would (individually) commit to the behaviour and work to achieve it (as a herd), even where the action itself didn’t have any practical purpose. 

Meaningful satisfaction – rather than just copying – explains the inexplicable trends and fads which take products way beyond what the manufacturer intended. Texting is a great example of this. The text function was only ever a technological add-on to a mobile phone. It was never imagined to be the main purpose of the device. But it was taken up almost immediately and rapidly overwhelmed the messaging volumes, because it was effective, new, gave you instant feedback and helped you access ‘fun’. If we were just copycats, we’d have mainly used the phone as it was demonstrated to us – as a talking device.

Humans seek meaningful satisfaction from all their actions whether individual or collective. The challenge is to predict where consumers will find this satisfaction, and to build it in to desired organisational behaviours, consumer products or services, or behaviour change programmes up front if you can.

I am not saying that individuals don’t copy sometimes, or that change can be forced to happen by effort of leadership alone. But I am suggesting that perhaps in these herd situations, humans do drive their own behaviour, just a little bit, after all.

Perhaps we should be more pragmatic in our approach for commercial reasons, and think about pinpointing where meaningful satisfaction happens for our consumers. Maybe when we think about behaviour change, we should be looking at Homo subridens: smiling man. What is there in the behaviour for the individual or for the group and, more importantly, how do we incorporate meaningful satisfaction into desirable behaviours in order to turn things around?

Anna Thomas is research director at Define Research & Insight. Together with the Central Office of Information, she presented a paper at Esomar Congress entitled ‘Could I just ask a few questions as you have sex on this park bench…?’


12 years ago

Fascinating piece. With my music critic's hat on - and acknowledging that this is all post-facto rationalisation ;) - I'd look at this as an example of brands looking for activations that match their values. Jay-Z's music is more bouncy than Coldplay's, hence he starts the bounce, but most of the audience aren't interested in the brand and don't care. The Mexican Wave - as its enthusiast pointed out - codes as fun, but "fun" isn't one of Coldplay's core values, so it's unlikely to spark copying behaviour. The camera wave, on the other hand, is new but also old - it's also a digital version of the "lighters aloft" moment that's been a part of stadium rock since the 80s. And Coldplay's music is definitely "twinkly" in places! Though since I remember seeing people get their lighters up and waving to the Velvet Underground doing "Heroin" in the 90s, maybe it is all just random after all.

Like Report

12 years ago

In a blurb for a funny book years ago, Michael Frayn wrote: ‘There is something about a blurb-writer paying his respects to a funny book which puts one in mind of a short-sighted lord mayor raising his hat to a hippopotamus.’ If he were to move away from writing about interesting things, Frayn might now be saying: There is something about a qualitative researcher going in for a spot of out-of-hours practical anthropology at a Coldplay concert that puts one in mind of a bearded Highgate bien-pensant eavesdropping on the workers in a Bolton pub for Mass Observation in 1939. There is a lot of owlish peering here, supplemented by some unearned post hoc ergo propter hoc jumping around. Take the point about the development of texting: ‘If we were just copycats, we’d have mainly used the phone as it was demonstrated to us – as a talking device.’ No. Texting in forms that hadn’t been foreseen spread because early adopters were (yes) copied. And the copiers were themselves copied. (I am currently engaged on working this idea up in a forthcoming slim volume, Metacopying: Lowing Beyond the Herd.) As to the ‘glitter pouring through the audience’ line - it brought this to mind: ? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WpiTa7azQs @Tom Ewing: ?‘Jay-Z's music is more bouncy than Coldplay's, hence he starts the bounce’. This works well murmured in an awestruck David Attenborough voice. Julian Paddington

Like Report

12 years ago

Hi Anna. Nice post but sadly I suspect you may be wrong here. Alternative explanation (using just copying) over at HERD.typepad.com Best M

Like Report

12 years ago

Great piece. We mustn't discount context either and anonymity is a big part of mob mentality. To be able to participate in something fun and positive in an anonymous environment is far more effective. Take the same crowd out to the park at midday and you'll see something different. Same crowd, same stimulus, different context. The bigger question for brands is how they'd create this context prior to activation. Just thinking out loud..:)

Like Report

12 years ago

I was lucky enough to see your presentation and that of Mark Earls & John Kearon at Montreux. They certainly provided a lot of food for thought as the crowd takes control. Two clips to support... Microsoft using social networking & Black Eed Peas using the herd... http://community.microsoftadvertising.com/blogs/analytics/archive/2009/09/24/robin-domeniconi-s-presentation-amp-lookingglass-demo-video-microsoft-at-advertising-week-2009.aspx http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/video/video.php?v=142124142037

Like Report

12 years ago

I guess you have to pass the time somehow at a Coldplay gig.

Like Report