Michelle Baddeley


On her book Copycats and Contrarians: Why We Follow Others... and When We Don't

Cover Interview of May 01, 2019

The wide angle

Copycats and Contrarians explores our instincts to follow others from a uniquely multidisciplinary perspective. It draws on insights and evidence from economics, finance, psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and behavioral ecology. In explaining our herding propensities, the book suggests that our copying behaviors reflect complex interplays of cognition and reason with instinct and emotion.

The analysis in Copycats and Contrarians draws on some of my early thinking about herding and imitation, which I developed as a PhD student in Cambridge, UK, in the 1990s. There I looked closely at the British economist John Maynard Keynes’s writings, including his 1936 book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. In his work, Keynes explored how and why conventions, social learning, and other social influences drive financial speculation, business investment, and entrepreneurship. One of his key insights, picked up in modern microeconomic theories of herding, and consistent with insights from behavioral ecology, is that herding is about social learning. We copy others when we don’t know what to do ourselves. We assume that others around us know more than we do, and so it makes sense for us to follow them. The problem for macroeconomists, however, is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to pull together robust empirical evidence about what drives the behavior of individuals within the economy.

So, from around 2004, I began exploring models of herding developed in microeconomics, in addition to models from macroeconomics with which I was already familiar, alongside insights from behavioral economics, social psychology, and neuroscience. I worked with some Cambridge neuroscientists, and devised with them some behavioral and brain imaging experiments to gather some evidence about how likely people are to copy others, and what is going on in their brains when they do.

This focus on biological sciences also led me into some of the related literatures, including evolutionary biology. My herding research had attracted some interest from other behavioral scientists, including behavioral ecologists, with whom I had the opportunity to learn more about herding and social learning, not only among humans, but also in the animal kingdom.