Riding the Herd Mentality (Ep. 80)

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A traffic mime in Lima, Peru. (Photo: David Berkowitz)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Riding the Herd Mentality.” The gist: How peer pressure – and good, old-fashioned shame – can push people to do the right thing.

(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript here.)

Antanas Mockus. (Photo: Heinrich-Boll-Stiftung)

Our story begins in Bogota, Colombia, where a new mayor, Antanas Mockus, used some unconventional methods to bring order to a disorderly and unsafe city. Mockus, trained as a mathematician and philosopher, had been president of Colombia’s national university but things went south when he mooned a group of dissenters. As mayor, he dressed up as a superhero and enacted all sorts of rules and programs that tried to change the way a government gets its citizens to do the right thing. You’ll hear directly from Mockus as well as the filmmaker Margarita Martinez, who made a film about him.

We also speak at length to Robert Cialdini, a giant in the “influence” field (indeed, Influence is the title of his best-known book, and is well worth a read). For years, Cialdini and colleagues have been exploring how “social norms” can lead to more “pro-social behavior” — or, translated into lay speak, how getting people to fall in line with their neighbors can make life a little better for everyone:

CIALDINI: Birds flock together in very neat patterns, fish school, cattle herd, social insects swarm together. So this is something that doesn’t require a lot of cognitive capacity in order to trigger the conformity. All you need to do is to see what those around you, like you, are doing. And it’s a good shortcut to deciding what you should do in a situation.

A former “lush green lawn” in Midland, TX, before restrictions on how much residents could water their lawns were imposed. (Photo: Krissy Clark)

You’ll also hear a really interesting piece by Marketplace reporter Krissy Clark, who spent some time in west Texas, where a severe drought forced people to cut down on their water use. At least they were supposed to cut down — but those lush green lawns that some Texans were used to don’t just get green on their own. You’ll hear from Barbie Jones, president of the Grassland Estates homeowners’ association; Wes Perry, the mayor of Midland; and local talk-show host Robert Hallmark, who noted that people got creative when it came to skirting the new watering rules:

HALLMARK: The Slip ‘n Slide Rule was that you could operate a Slip ‘n Slide in your front yard for the kids anytime you wanted to. Now you know as well as I do a Slip ‘n Slide is nothing but a water hose with holes in it. It is just pouring water out onto the lawn. So we determined how much it would cost to hire kids to stand in your yard in a bathing suit just so you could water your yard.

And you’ll also hear from our resident economist, Steve Levitt, who has a unique way of assessing the value of using guilt and shame as motivators:

LEVITT: From an economic perspective, shame is a wonderful punishment because unlike imprisonment, it’s free. It’s not only free but the society can impose as much shame as they want on people without any kind of cost or resources used up. But in fact, the rest of society actually likes it when other people get shamed. People love to read in The National Enquirer or The New York Times about the shame that comes down on public people. So it’s actually a really incredibly efficient mechanism for punishing people who do things we don’t like.

Hope you enjoy the episode. It was a lot of fun to produce. I’d particularly like to hear your instances of successful (or unsuccessful) applications of peer pressure and shame, whether in your family, company, or government.


You missed relating the eternal battle into this commentary; no, not between good and evil. The battle between shame and stubbornness. In addition to the "Would you jump off a bridge if your friends(neighbors) did?" My family, for one, has a stubborn streak that can, but know always, push us in the opposite direction. On the good side, it helps resist bad peer pressure. In this case, just because everyone else is doing it, does not convince me they know why they are doing it. Like this who put solar panels on the shade side of their house to APPEAR 'green', I grow more and more skeptical.

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I sometimes do this deliberately. Well, both of these things.

On the stubborn or contrarian front, I sometimes deliberately go against the herd. Consumer confidence is up? I go on a spending strike. Everyone goes out for dinner on Friday nights? Dinner will always be at home on Fridays. Everyone buys flowers for Valentine's Day? I refuse to have them in the house on that day.

But I do it the other way, too, by deliberately outsourcing as much of my decision making as practical to the herd: Sorting Amazon's search results by popularity is almost always the fastest path to finding the item I wanted, or if there are multiple listings for the same item, to finding the best price for it. If "everyone" has decided that Google is the best search engine, then I'll use it, too.

Howard Brazee

As I was listening to this, I kept thinking that we live in a time when we "herd" can be very different from the past. We go on the Internet and find members of herds which that others find to be quite extreme. But we can join them and adjust to fit them.

As ever, we see our herd as being the norm - even though most see it as being extreme.

This obviously has its dangers to greater society, but it also has benefits.


Shame is a driving force in Confucianism. The idea being that if a person is taught to feel shame, then the punishment precedes the crime and may prevent it.

Chris Land

Really interesting show today. It reminded me of a study that I heard about on NPR. It turns out that the likelihood of dying in the world trade center attacks was most greatly informed by the number of people in the particular office. In small offices, it was more likely that a single person would leave and the rest of the office would follow. In larger groups, people were more likely to wait around to see what other people did. Many of those who lingered, died.


Yey for Lithuania! :) Antanas Mockus is lithuanian!


No, he's a Columbian. Sure, his ancestors - like those of many Columbians & Americans - immigrated from somewhere else, but that doesn't affect him.


Speaking of "herds," I wonder how the shame spiral idea of getting groups of people to stop a particular behavior could or should be applied to the obesity epidemic.


Problem is, the herd mentality works both ways. The herd (prompted by advertising driven by the profits inherent in e.g. fast food) has already stampeded in the direction of overeating.

Jeremy Hofman

We're having an argument over our company's social network over this very topic regarding some people's ability to have very messy desks with potentially confidential information out in the open. Someone posted an anonymous (or what was supposed to be anonymous) picture of the desk asking "Do you wonder why the cleaning staff doesn't bother to clean around your desk?"

Clear Desk (not Clean Desk) policies are put in place for security reasons. Not surprisingly, the person who identified their desk as the subject of shaming complained because the picture may have been showing confidential information...pretty ironic.

They were able to get the picture removed and some management weighed in with some off the wall examples of how it could get out of hand to "spread fear" of being criticized for grammar, dress, performance, etc, and saying, "Management by humiliation is not an option". I asked how many of them clean their houses before having company over and why. I then encouraged them to listen to the podcast or read the transcript to see if they still agree with their initial reaction.

Sure, its not right for management to humiliate people, but it wasn't management doing the shaming. It was the employees self-policing and I argued that the subject of ridicule had it in his or her power to prevent the event from even occurring. By management taking their position, I also argued that their very close to nullifying their own policy and that they should really be more careful before debating their own policies.



We've known a lot a our the forces of peer pressure for going on 50 years now: Milgram, Zimbardo, the most famous. Especially Zimbardo's "the lucifer effect". Even further back, Balise Pascal's "Culture is our nature." time to use this very old knowledge

Paul Tucker

Dear Freakonomists,

Thanks for making what is, I think, the most enjoyable and educational podcast in the universe! While listening to the Herd Mentality podcast piece about the Petrified Forest National Park I thought you missed a very pertinent display at the park. At the south entrance to the National Park the visitor center has the Rainbow Forest Museum. In the museum there is a room dedicated completely to the theft of petrified wood. It is called the Guilt Room. The room is filled with pieces of petrified wood and the packages they arrived in and their accompanying letters of remorse and contrition by people who are trying to assuage their guilt by returning the offensive fossils.

Check out this link to the Rainbow Museum guilt room:



Love everything you guys do - entertaining, informative and sensible - can't get that many places 'round these parts!


Water restrictions have been imposed at some point in most states of australia over the past decade. Using a market mechanism ,such as pricing,sliding scale pricing etc has been discussed but typically not imposed to restrict the overall use of water. Pricing for control could make a green lawn a statussymbol and buys people the 'right' to be wasteful. The incentive of shame remainedeffective.
I tried in a somewhat anecdotal way to measure the driver of shame versus that of conservation by looking at google earth images and comparing private backyards against corresponding front yards.i observed many images of brown dead front yards, but lush green backyards... would be interesting to do scientifically.


Oh the shame! In our office's shared kitchen space people are constantly leaving the sink full of dirty coffee mugs. After listening to "Riding the Heard" I decided to take a new approach to fix this problem.

Check out the sign I made here - http://www.airohmail.com/blogs/news

Thanks for the tip Mr. Dubner, now let's see if it works!


Um, this is creepy. Of course, we're not allowed to shame able-bodied people to get off of welfare, no no no. That would be mean, but we should be shaming people into conforming to one subset of people's pet causes... like enviro-extremism. Or as I like to call them, greeniacs. My local utility company is now sending each person a report of how much electricity their neighbors are using... to shame people into using less. How about this: if I want to use it, I pay for it, none of your business, end of story. Now, those people on welfare that can work... well, that is my business because I pay for it.

Curious City

Hey Freakonomics! Turns out we were bathing in the same collective unconscious juices. We found out about this great podcast you did after we began reporting our own story on crosswalk safety featuring mimes!

We ended up trying the mime experiment in Chicago recently, and have a video here to show how it went: https://vimeo.com/45670600

An in depth article here:

Keep up the awesome work!

Peter of Brooklyn

Too bad there was no mention of financial speculation, herd effects among bond traders (esp. phenomenon of contagion), etc.

Also, too bad there was no discussion of what this herding phenomena implies for economic theory. If we are in fact subject to these herd tendencies, do we still expect a market economy to function efficiently?

These would have been cool points to at least mention in an economics oriented show.


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So if peer information normalizes undesirable behavior, should we stop all of those news stories about people not eating enough vegetables as a public health service?