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THE STRANGEST SPECIES / BEHAVIOR

Oprah Winfrey, Mad Cows and the Opinion Stampede

January 27, 1998|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Customers at a bank in Singapore began withdrawing their money in a frenzy. The run on the bank was a mystery. The bank was solvent. There turned out to be an unlikely cause. A bus strike that morning had caused an abnormally large crowd of people outside the bank because the bus was not coming. Bank customers looked at this crush of people and assumed they were withdrawing money and joined them.

Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey is being sued by ranchers and beef processors. She declared her mouth a no-burger zone during an April 1996 show that explored whether mad cow disease could strike American cattle. Winfrey wields such profound influence, alleges the cattle industry, that when she swore off the hamburger, thousands of viewers did too, causing the industry to crash.

Humans are hardly sheep, as the daily queues at hamburger joints readily prove. But our decisions can be influenced by herd mentality, such as the bank run documented by psychologist Robert Cialdini at Arizona State University, author of "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" (Quill, 1993). Authority figures, experts, celebrities and many likable, attractive people have been found to influence attitudes and opinions, but more in some circumstances than others.

The power of personal influence is particularly potent in this age of information overload, when shortcuts to decision making are a survival tactic--a tactic of "lazy organisms" as one psychologist puts it. If an expert or trusted person says it is so . . . well, then, me too.

"There are so many stimuli in the world today," says Richard Petty, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University. One example: "We have to choose from thousands of things on the shelves at supermarkets, so we choose by looking at the package. Humans haven't evolved to be thoughtful about everything that we confront."

The quick route to decision making, and where a celebrity might have most effect, is what Petty calls the "peripheral." This is most often used to deal with issues that do not directly affect us, that are difficult to grasp or that come at us when we are distracted.

"Then, the only way the message can then have an impact on their behavior is if they remember who said it," he says. Hence the irony of the cattlemen-versus-Oprah lawsuit. "The trial keeps the message very salient," he says.

Not surprisingly, the more likable the person influencing us on peripheral issues, whether intentional (advertisers) or not (the offhanded remark), the more persuasive the viewpoint.

However, there are other factors besides a nod from a celebrity that can subvert fact-finding and logic in the decision-making process.

A recent study found that when we are not tuned in to the merits of the information, the quality of the argument matters less than the quantity.

Undergraduates at the University of Missouri were given ridiculous reasons for raising tuition at another college, the University of Oklahoma, such as "so we can increase anxiety levels of students to motivate them to study" and "so we can plant more varieties of tulips in the quadrangle." Rather than questioning the logic, the students became more persuaded when there were nine reasons than three, Petty says. "They thought it must be a good thing because there are all these arguments for it. It is the more-is-better idea."

When the Missouri students were given the same silly reasons for tuition raises at their own school, they looked at the content and were not persuaded.

"They got more rational" when the situation was close to home, Petty says.

The beautiful-people effect? The attractiveness of the person giving the Missouri students reasons for a tuition raise at their own campus was found to be irrelevant, whether the reasons were absurd or reasonable. But the good-looking person was more persuasive than the less attractive person when arguing for tuition raises at the University of Oklahoma.

"What happens is, if the person is attractive, you are influenced by it when it doesn't have anything to do with you," Petty says. "You sort of remember the bottom line, but not the actual information."

We can also be persuaded by what ordinary people do and say, as instances of irrational mass delusion and popular hysteria demonstrate.

"These are some of the factors which, when we are looking for shortcuts, allow us to decide correctly," author Cialdini says. "Did an authority say it? Did a trustworthy person say it? Did a crowd of people say it, or did someone I like say it? We believe because normally we are steered correctly by listening to those people."

To test the "everybody is doing it, it must be right" theory, researchers in New York City had a man stand on the sidewalk and stare up at an empty spot in the sky for one minute, Cialdini says. He was treated like your average New York loon. People brushed by him, called him names and accused him of taking up precious sidewalk space.

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