Michelle Baddeley


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

Cover Interview of May 01, 2019


To capture the overall point of the book, the final chapter argues that social media and online social networks have perverted our instincts to follow others. Social information and social feedback travel rapidly and in large volumes via our online social networks. Added to this, the anonymity of online interactions means that people do not have to take the same responsibility that they have to take when interacting in more traditional contexts.

The pre-online equivalents of Twitter trolls and cyber-bullies, for example, may have had the inclination to persecute others but the channels for their anti-social behaviors were limited, and the chances of being detected and suffering social sanctions were larger. More benignly, memes can circulate and multiply online in ways that would have been unimaginable even 20 years ago.

Online, we tend to gather in echo chambers; most of us are selective about who we follow online and we tend to follow those who share our opinions. In these echo chambers, herds of voters quickly reinforce each other’s social opinions and partisan political positions. So herds’ opinions are magnified much more quickly than in the past, tipping over into impactful, real-world choices– for example, voting patterns. We may dismiss online opinion as ephemeral and diffuse but when it generates herds of people reinforcing specific political and social positions, and if these online herd opinions change people’s behavior, there will be wide-reaching consequences.

One solution would be to institutionalise mechanisms to preserve contrarian opinion - for example by protecting mavericks and contrarians, including whistle-blowers, from vilification and ostracism. Given that humans are inclined to be copycats most of the time, our world urgently needs more contrarians to ensure that wrong-headed conventional wisdoms cannot persist for too long.