Why do people copy other people?

In this post we hear from a social scientist explaining what causes people to copy other people. Before you listen, discuss the following questions with a friend.

  • Why do people choose one brand of washing powder rather than another?
  • In a group, why do people tend to behave like their friends?
  • When was the last time you copied someone else? Why did you copy them?



  1. Read through the questions and try to predict answers.
  2. Listen and fill gaps in the text with suitable words or phrases.
  3. Click (or touch) 'Check your answers'.
  • Feedback colours: Correct - Incorrect - Not answered
  • After submitting answers a link to an answer key will appear at the bottom of the page. Clicking highlighted words in this key will reveal the location of the answer in the tapescript.
  • This activity includes 10 questions.

OK I understand

Answer the questions as you listen.
Write ONE OR TWO WORDS for each answer.

People copy other people, even when the preferences of other people are different from theirs.

The orthodox view is that when people copy the behaviors of other people they are simply following .

Our research shows that actually people copy behaviour of others even when they know that the choices other people make are arbitrary.

Would you do as others do?

In an experiment, 150 people were told about a situation in which a man robbed a bank but then gave the money to an .

People were asked whether or not they would report the robber to the police.

They were told that in a similar experiment conducted previously, half of participants reported the robber to the police and the other half did not.

Whom did they follow?

Participants in the experiment followed the same social norms as the people in the previous experiment, even though the original choices were arbitrary.

Other experiments dealing with a range of moral and involving 631 participants online produced similar results.

Is it the right thing to do?

Common explanations for norm conformity:

  1. It is good to do something if other people choose to do it.
  2. Not following a social norm might result in negative social .

An alternative explanation offered by theory:

  1. If people feel that they want to belong to a group then they choose to behave like members of that group.
  2. Even if members of a group behave in a way that we do not prefer, we copy their behaviour in order to become members of their group.

The cascade effect

Following the arbitrary decisions made by other people – for example to choose one rather than another – can result in an information cascade.

In an information cascade, norms can from irrelevant starting conditions.

Inaction, as well as preference, can lead to social norms.

By default, Australians who wish to donate their organs have to actively or opt-in. In other countries the default is opt-out, and so organ donors remain a minority in Australia.

Conform to good behaviour

Understanding how social norms develop can help us to develop positive behavioural changes, for example encouraging healthy eating, reducing tax , and decreasing long-term energy use.

Now that we understand the arbitrary origins of many social norms, new for facilitating behavioural change have opened up.

Answer the questions as you listen.
Write ONE OR TWO WORDS for each answer.

People copy other people, even when the preferences of other people are different from theirs.

The orthodox view is that when people copy the behaviors of other people they are simply following social norms (1).

Our research shows that actually people copy behaviour of others even when they know that the choices other people make are arbitrary.

Would you do as others do?

In an experiment, 150 people were told about a situation in which a man robbed a bank but then gave the money to an orphanage (2).

People were asked whether or not they would report the robber to the police.

They were told that in a similar experiment conducted previously, half of participants reported the robber to the police and the other half did not.

Whom did they follow?

Participants in the experiment followed the same social norms as the people in the previous experiment, even though the original choices were arbitrary.

Other experiments dealing with a range of moral dilemmas (3) and involving 631 participants online produced similar results.

Is it the right thing to do?

Common explanations for norm conformity:

  1. It is good to do something if other people choose to do it.
  2. Not following a social norm might result in negative social sanctions (4).

An alternative explanation offered by self-categorisation (5) theory:

  1. If people feel that they want to belong to a group then they choose to behave like members of that group.
  2. Even if members of a group behave in a way that we do not prefer, we copy their behaviour in order to become members of their group.

The cascade effect

Following the arbitrary decisions made by other people – for example to choose one restaurant (6) rather than another – can result in an information cascade.

In an information cascade, norms can snowball (7) from irrelevant starting conditions.

Inaction, as well as preference, can lead to social norms.

By default, Australians who wish to donate their organs have to actively register (8) or opt-in. In other countries the default is opt-out, and so organ donors remain a minority in Australia.

Conform to good behaviour

Understanding how social norms develop can help us to develop positive behavioural changes, for example encouraging healthy eating, reducing tax evasion (9), and decreasing long-term energy use.

Now that we understand the arbitrary origins of many social norms, new avenues (10) for facilitating behavioural change have opened up.

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