The contagion effect of bad decisions

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Finding comfort within a group may be helpful when it comes to therapy, but when it comes to justifying bad ideas, taking cues from others can steer you the wrong direction, according to new research from Northwestern University. As the Los Angeles Times reports, the notion that “everyone else is doing it” can be detrimental—and even devastating—when it comes to justifying bad decisions. In a series of four experiments, which tracked decision-making on everything from finances to personal life, researchers found that, regardless of the independent value of a decision, if participants saw that others had opted for a particular path, they were more likely to justify that decision, and lean toward it themselves. In other words, bad decisions were contagious.

The study, published this week in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that, in a computer program designed to test decision-making, participants who identified with a fictitious person who had gone through the experiment previously—by learning that they graduated the same year, for example—were more likely to plod along in that earlier player’s footsteps, even in the face of clear information undermining the value of such decisions.