The Danger of Informational Cascades

Informational Cascades are crucial drivers of choice. They’ve directed the course of evolutionary history and are responsible for many of our widely held beliefs. But the physical constraints of life normally govern the impact of such things since I don’t know exactly what decisions other people are making. The internet changes that pretty radically–I know exactly how many times a video has been seen on YouTube, the Alexa rank of a blog, the amount of diggs an article got and what purchases or interest my friends have according to their Facebook profile. I am more susceptible to thinking “Hey, I should like this because other people like it.”

They work like this:

Person 1 is faced between choices A and B. They choose A. Person 2 is faced with the same choice AND the knowledge that the subject before them went with A. The balance is tipped in that direction. Now, even if they choose B, Person 3 just starts the chain over. They’re deciding between A and B with 1 and 2 canceling each other out. Then their decision influences all those who come after until often so many A’s in a row make it irrational to go with B (even if B is better).

And so you see how easy it is for these chains start and how hierarchically dependent they are on the earliest players. As cascades form–an overwhelming favor of either A or B–people stop thinking for themselves and start letting others do it for them. This is how we get memes, Justin Timberlake, untrue beliefs that won’t go away, and people doing stupid things for no reason. For instance, Chief Seattle’s speech on property rights is the basis for much of our perception of Native American beliefs…but it’s totally false. Consensus leads us to accept it as true when a quick look at the facts say the opposite. Or more dangerously, people think that since a direction is the direction that most people head in, they ought to go the same way. The data is dictating their lives instead of dictating the data with theirs.

I think that it is a rather simple syllogism to live by: When you follow others, you add nothing to the information pool.

So go your own way. Carve your own path. I’m trying and it’s pretty goddamn hard. Carve a path. No matter how much it bothers other people, however much you’re “messing up what we had going here” or labels you get branded with (“even if it lands you in a straight jacket or a padded cell“), they can’t argue with the facts. And the facts state that those who make their own choices, independent of “common opinion”, contribute more to our understanding of what works and what doesn’t then anyone else.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.