Sharing is Learning: How word-of-mouth helps us overcome information overload.
Op-Ed is a column on our blog where we share our thoughts about business, marketing, philosophy and general idea-y stuff.
We were consumers before anything else.
And we still are! This was straightforward when there were only a few things to barter or pay for. If you saw something you liked – a goat, maybe, or a sweet chainmail suit – you got it, period. There were no complicated catalogs to analyze, no payment processing to worry about. Here, I trade you my leather boots for your sweet chainmail suit, we shake on it, done deal.
(On the flip side, there wasn’t much to choose from. Also, there was a chance you might catch the bubonic plague while hanging out with your fellow peasants. Not cool.)
(Everybody needs a sweet chainmail suit. Unfortunately, chainmail won’t protect you from plagues.)
How do we make good decisions in today’s increasingly complex marketplace?
Our marketplaces are saturated with glitzy advertising and sleazy-sounding schemes designed to exploit our subconscious impulses. The function of an ad, said David Foster Wallace, is to “create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”
“Nobody will love you if your breath stinks, so buy our mouthwash!” “Drink our beer! Because boobs.”
There are just too many choices to make, too many options to wrap our heads around. It’s cripplingly chaotic. Economist Tim Harford explains how human hubris in the face of overwhelming market complexity has led to bad decision-making, and psychologist Barry Schwartz describes how the overabundance of choices create consumer anxiety.
It’s a problem that our ancestors were blissfully exempt from: In a world of anonymous strangers and legalese-spouting bureaucracy, how do we know who we can trust?
How do we make decisions when we’re overwhelmed with more data than we can process?
(Dilbert’s comical anxiety is a very real phenomenon we all face in today’s marketplaces, explored and studied by earlier-mentioned psychologist Barry Schwartz)
Ants seem to have got it figured out pretty well.
We often wreck our brains trying to figure out how to make better decisions. Ants don’t have that worry at all – they naturally make optimal decisions…all the time!
Ant colonies aren’t dependent on the intelligence of ants for their continued survival. They rely instead on a simple process that builds on information gleaned from past decisions. (So a “stupid” ant that makes a “bad” decision still contributes to the collective wisdom of the colony.)
(From Wikipedia: Ants try every possible path through trial and error, and leave behind “good reviews” in the form of pheromone trails for other ants to pick up. The stronger the trail, the better the path. Quickly, the best-fit path emerges- which is optimal for all ants, and the colony.)
We might not be able to make sense of the big scary marketplace on our own, but we can reasonably negotiate it by learning from the decisions of others – by sharing our experiences with one another. We all already do this:
“Don’t lend Steve anything, he borrowed my vacuum cleaner months ago and still hasn’t returned it. The hotdog stand that just opened up down the street? Best. Frankfurters. Ever. If you’re taking Algebra 101, you should totally sign up for Mr. Flitwick’s class, because he explains things in the clearest way.”
(The existence of the Scumbag Steve meme is proof that we like to share our misery with others. See: PsychologyToday’s article on why and how gossip is essential to socializing.)
Even without any extrinsic incentives, people talk to others about their experiences. We can’t help it. We’re social creatures, both naturally predisposed and culturally socialized to do this. The stories we tell each other function like the pheromone trails that ants lay down for other ants. We learn from each other’s experiences and emerge collectively better off.
The more we share, the more we know, and the better the decisions we make.
Here’s a thought: As consumers, when we refer our friends to good products, we drive more customers to the merchants that sell them. By rewarding those merchants, we create an incentive for them (and other merchants) to continue selling more good products. A smarter and more enlightened marketplace for all.
So I’d like to think that the work we do here at ReferralCandy is not just challenging but meaningful, because it contributes (in its own little way) to the refinement of the online marketplace. Smarter consumers (because sharing is learning), more business for the folk who make great products, and a marketplace we can all be proud of!
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