It doesn’t happen every time we’re stopped at the traffic lights.

But it happens often enough.

My wife is driving, so she has her foot on the brake.

We’re talking, but I’m watching the traffic lights.

Suddenly the car next to us starts to move off, so all the other cars around us start to move off.

So my wife starts to move off.

I yell “What are you doing, the lights are red?” and my wife stops.

And all the other cars stop too.

What’s fascinating is that I’m the only one watching the lights, and I’m not even driving.

All the other drivers are just watching each other.

When one moves they all move, whatever colour the lights are.

Daniel Kahneman calls this behaviour ‘Social Norms versus Injunctive Norms’.

In other words, copying the behaviour of our peers, the need to be part of the crowd, is much more powerful than the instructions of an authority.

So whatever the traffic lights say, we do what everyone else does.

We see this in every walk of life.

This is the problem over e-cigarettes.

Electronic cigarettes generate a vapour, like steam, that dissipates really fast into the air.

It’s far less harmful than tobacco, to the user and the bystander.

Everyone accepts this.

But the government wants them restricted like cigarettes.

They want them banned in indoor public places, like pubs.

They want e-cigarette smokers to be forced to smoke outdoors like tobacco smokers.

This is because the government worries that e-cigarettes may normalise smoking.

Seeing everyone else doing it around us may encourage us to take up smoking again.

Whereas the opposition uses the same argument to advance the opposite view.

They don’t want e-cigarettes subject to the same restrictions as tobacco.

Their view is that if people are forced to smoke outside with tobacco smokers they won’t see any advantage to e-cigarettes.

So they may as well go back to smoking tobacco.

The interesting part is that in each case everyone involved accepts that e-cigarettes are less harmful.

Each argument hinges on the interpretation of the fact that people are more influenced by the behaviour of those around them.

The arguments aren’t based on the fact that people will smoke e-cigarettes for their health.

The arguments are simply based on the fact that people feel comfortable doing what they see other people doing.

The urge to do exactly the same as everyone else is stronger than the urge to rationally work out what our own behaviour should be.

We need to fit in, above everything else.

We resist being different.

When it comes to advertising, we know what the numbers are: 4% is remembered positively, 7% is remembered negatively, 89% isn’t noticed or remembered.

This is simply because roughly 90% looks the same and 10% doesn’t.

Rationally we know that we have to be different to stand out.

But the urge of agencies and clients to fit in is stronger than logic.

Because most of us would rather copy the other cars than watch the traffic lights.

  • Paul Gailey


  • Dave Trott


  • Pete

    It works too – here’s a childish, but interesting way to prove it. Next time you get in a lift with a group of friends agree beforehand that you’ll stand facing the rear wall, instead of towards the doors. If the lift stops on another floor and someone else gets in, you can virtually guarantee that they’ll face the same way as you.

  • johndodds

    A scary manifestation can be seen at pedestrian crossings. I watch the
    traffic as well as the lights and will often cross when the light is
    against me but the traffic isn’t.

    Of course, the situation for those crossing in the opposite direction is likely to be different, but do they look at the traffic or the lights? No, they see I’ve started to
    cross and step into the road. And then step back very quickly. Crazy.

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