Going for the Popular Option is the Pathway to Safe Mediocrity

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 older blog post, I argued that people seek mediocrity because our main inner-drive is to avoid very bad options, not to find the very good ones.

If you go to the most popular restaurant in a city that you’re visiting for the first time, then you’ll most likely not get food poisoning. But neither will you have a great meal that stands out of the ordinary.

If you take your date to a popular movie, then you’ll avoid making a very bad impression, but you’ll not wow her either.

Why Popular Options Can’t be Very Good?

Within a large population, there is both variety and some overlap in tastes and preferences. If something appeals to a large part of the population, then it focuses on the overlap at the lowest common denominator.

For example, if a type of food is liked by a lot of people, then that food appeals to some basic preferences that exist within a lot of people. Popular foods usually include a lot of fat, sugar, salt etc. I guess everyone loves French fries.

Because there’s variety in tastes and preferences, something that appeals to the basic likes of a lot of people can’t appeal to higher-order likes of many individuals.

Just because a lot of (all) people have a basic liking of French fries doesn’t mean that eating French fries will generate a culinary orgasm. For the later, you need lots of more sophisticated things that will each appeal to different people. Some will get their gustatory orgasm from milk-boiled-oysters, others will get it from organic radishes with saffron etc.

To make a long story short, if you’re trying to find a safe option and you are OK with mediocrity, then it’s OK to go for the most popular item. If you’re looking for something special, look elsewhere.

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