84 - Habit-building 12: Habits at scale is culture



Imagine yourself, young and nervous. You’ve gathered the courage to sidle up to your mother and tell her that you’ve decided to drop out of college to start a T-shirt company. As you try and stitch the words right, your grandmother walks in and chimes “Like mother, like daughter.” Newsflash: Your mother had dropped out of school to start something on her own. Suddenly, a weight is off you.

We’re born imitators and there’s no better model worth emulating than what we’re born into. Our families are the first social group we seek permission from; seeing someone from the family pursue something empowers us to do the same.

The same craving for social conformity forces us to study harder in a high-performing peer group or follow the same career as our friends.

The model of “copy and paste” as Katy Milkman, the author of How to Change, calls it is everywhere and at scale too. When group behaviors flourish they lead to social norms. Mumbai is a commune for entertainers, Montreal to clothing businesses, SF to tech companies, and so on. Those in these bubbles don’t see anything special. Those outside are left to wonder: “What’s up in the water there?”

You may wonder what it has got to do with your own quest for habit change. Consider this: You’re an adult and you believe you can think for yourself. Yet, study after study shows that the idea of freethinking man is a myth. We’re highly vulnerable to what Robert Caldini calls peer-suasion. You can call it peer influence. This much has always been true.

What has changed is that the levers of social influence have been turned up several notches. While in the pre-Internet world you paid an admission fee to join a group, the barrier to participation today is next to nothing. While it took years for a physical cult to set itself up, digital crews today pursue a quicker path to followers.

This urgency brings both freedom and caution.

Because it’s not just businesses and creators who are using the power of social influence to create minimum viable communities to further niche causes, it’s also the alt-rights and the QAnons who are betting on our tendency to be social sponges to trigger our collective madness.

What you copy and paste into your life needs your attention. You want to use the wisdom of the crowd to reach your goals, not be sucked into poor choices by the madness of the crowd.

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