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"New Normal" in Herd Mentality: When the "Herd" Practices Social Distancing

Meet the Researchers:

In a recent discussion held by the Columbia Science Review, Dr. Anastasiya Pocheptsova Ghosh and Dr. Jorge Barraza discuss consumer psychology in our current unforeseen environment. Dr. Ghosh is the Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Arizona, and she specializes in motivating factors behind consumer choices. Dr. Jorge Barraza is an Assistant Professor of Consumer Psychology at USC. He specializes in explaining consumer behavior through analyses of psychology and neuroscience.


Humans are inherently social beings. I’m sure you have heard the phrase “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”: we learn behaviors and construct integral aspects of our identity through mimicry. In these uncertain times, we are constantly, and often subconsciously, looking for social cues to ease the ambiguity surrounding this pandemic. For example, when we go to the grocery store and see that one shelf is more empty than the others, we might infer that this product is scarce. We begin to wonder, “Do others know something I don’t? Will this item be available next week? How much of this product do I need?” Purchasing the item resolves these questions. Another person walks by and does the same; before we know it, all the toilet paper is gone.

Not only is it inconvenient to have a toilet paper shortage for our future consumption trips, but this impulsive, hoarding behavior can have serious consequences for our financial futures. At a time when unemployment is high and working hours are cut, it is important to be cognizant of how such behavior affects our budgets. In recent studies conducted by Dr. Ghosh’s Better Decisions Lab, it appears that impulse purchases are seen differently since stay-at-home orders have been implemented. We may see toilet paper becoming an impulse item, in addition to the regular hedonic impulse purchases. Moreover, consumers are under-calculating the price of their shopping cart to keep the impulse purchase within their budget. In reality, consumers are spending more than they are accounting for.

Luckily, there are measures that businesses and consumers can take to limit these impulsive and potentially financially disastrous behaviors. One way to diminish overstocking is to slow down the process of purchasing. Scarcity creates feelings of arousal. Slowing consumers down can weaken the automatic response to scarcity, thus, encouraging consumers to more calmly consider their need for the product. Similarly, businesses can increase the difficulty of purchasing the item. For example, businesses can hold the product behind a shelf or make it available only by request.

While social influences on consumer behavior have had negative effects so far, we can apply the concept of herd mentality in an advantageous way.

“Sometimes we use the term mob mentality or herd mentality and it has some kind of negative connotation, it doesn’t have to”-Dr. Anastasiya Ghosh

Explicitly telling someone to change an undesirable behavior can be very difficult, especially because these behaviors are easily justifiable through social proof. A more successful approach is to gently nudge behavior in a positive direction. With these tools in mind, we can be prepared if we were to face a similar situation in the future.

While this pandemic is an arduous test of our economy and our spirits, we can take solace in knowing that humans can adapt rapidly, and we have not crumbled under the pressure. Businesses have quickly altered their operations to accommodate the need for social distancing. Dr. Anastasiya Ghosh specifically mentions Peloton’s massive growth since stay-at-home orders have been implemented. The company offers a unique workout experience, where you can participate in a live workout from home. We will most likely see more companies innovate in a similar way—turning a product into an experience.

With the growing reliance on technology and social media to compensate for the lack of in-person interactions, it can be easy to construct inferences based on what they believe others are doing. This is a new normal of mimicry. We are all in self-isolation; however, our individual experiences can be different from each other and not easily inferred from the Twitter feed. Dr. Ghosh suggests reaching out to friends or family that are physically distant. Rather than making assumptions on how others have adjusted, we can ask them directly. Maintaining connections while we are apart may foster a sense of normality and comfort in this unforeseen situation. Remember that we have never faced something like this before, and it is okay to be a little irrational.

“If we’re not proactive, lets at least be self-reflective”-Dr. Jorge Barraza

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