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Going for the Popular Option is the Pathway to Safe Mediocrity

July 10, 2017

One of my personal rules of thumb is to be reluctant to anything that is popular - movies, restaurants, books etc. - if a lot of people like it, then probably it is not all that good.



Why people buy (go for) the popular option?



Social Proof and Social Pressure


The preference for popular options (products) is often attributed to social proof or social pressure.


For example, Jane buys the most popular cookbook.


One explanation might be that Jane faces some ambiguity - doesn’t have a clear preference – about which cookbook to buy and she chooses the most popular one assuming that other people know better. This is social proof.


Another explanation might be that Jane doesn’t want to be the only one who doesn’t have that popular cookbook, thus she buys it. This is social pressure.



The Evolutionary Psychology of Going for the Popular Option: Safety in Numbers


In the book The Rational Animal, authors Kenrick and Griskevicius mention that the preference for popular options is increased if people experience fear (i.e. they are watching a horror movie). They explain this effect as an adaptation of the survival instinct in social species.


There is no direct link between experiencing fear and buying the best seller book or going to the most popular restaurant.


The explanation is a bit more complicated: when we experience fear, our social-species survival instinct kicks in and each of us wants to seek safety in numbers.


Seeking safety in numbers implies that we want to fit-in with the larger/ largest group. We conform more to the largest group’s norms.



People go for the popular option because it is a safe option.


Jane might have bought the most popular cookbook because she didn’t know what cookbook to buy in the first place and she didn’t want to get a bad cookbook.


The popular option is a safe, but mediocre, option and that is OK. In an