Well it's snowing here and, once again, everyone seems to want milk sandwiches for dinner. What on Earth am I talking about I hear you ask. Well, it is a phenomena that occurs every time it snows; let me explain.
In the UK we get snow most years, but it is still seen as a bit of an event and does cause some disruption. When I say snow I realise in other countries 6 inches of snow wouldn't even count as snow, but here it does. So this morning I walked up to the local supermarket. It was like a scene from a disaster movie. People were rushing around like they had just heard the zombie apocalypse was near. The shop had run out of sliced bread and milk as it does every time it snows.
Is it really that bad?
Now, I live in a city. I have never known in 20 years us to be cut off from the outside world. Delivery lorries were going along the road, no problem. Why does everyone rush out for 4 loaves of bread and ten pints of milk? The odd thing is, if you comment on this everyone agrees it is ridiculous and that they don't do it. It doesn't even make sense! If we were going to get cut off or the power was to fail the milk and bread would go off.
So why do people do it?
So what's going on. Psychology has something to say about this. Emergent Norm Theory (a theory of collective behaviour) suggests groups notice distinctive behaviour and may start to copy it until this becomes the norm. It is then hard for others to resist conforming to the norm. There is good evidence that people will conform even when they know it is wrong. There is an unwitting social experiment carried out by candid camera that shows this quite clearly. See for yourself.
So people notice a few individuals buying lots of milk and bread and start to copy it, gradually this becomes the 'normal' behaviour for the group.
Following the group
Solomon Asch conducted a classic experiment into conformity in 1951. A group were shown a line and asked to match its length to one of three others. The right response was obvious. However in the group all the participants except one were 'in on' the experiment and deliberately gave the wrong answer. The participant who wasn't 'in on' the experiment was left to either have to disagree with the group or conform. In around 70% of the tests people gave an obviously wrong answer rather than disagree with the group.
So even though people know buying lots of milk and bread is the wrong thing when they are in the supermarket seeing others do it they just can't resist that extra loaf.
The consequences of such behaviour have obvious real world consequences. For one I came back from the shops without bread or milk. However it's OK; I was just stocking up. I have plenty in the freezer from the last time it snowed!