Social influence plays a big part in outcomes

The success or failure of a venture can be greatly influenced by the early reactions of people.

This statement may seem obvious to you, but a recent academic study recently showed just how important initial reactions can be on success or failure.

I read about the study in Michael Mauboussin’s recent Legg Mason article. Three Columbia University sociology researchers set up a website where people could download music. 20% of the people who went to the website were provided with no information about what others had downloaded. Another 8 groups (10% each) were formed which could see download rankings.

The study showed that top songs tended to finish in the top, and bottom songs tended to finish at the bottom regardless of whether download rankings were available. But, the vast majority of songs in the middle were ranked very differently depending on whether people could see download frequency.

In fact, the study showed that once 1/3 of the participants had downloaded songs, the next 2/3 of people followed their lead. This lead to very different outcomes between the 8 groups who could see download frequency.

In other words, the intrinsic quality of songs was trumped by the cumulative advantage of social influence for the vast majority of songs. Songs downloaded frequently by a group were then downloaded more frequently by others, creating cumulative advantage.

This may seem obvious when you think about Betamax versus VHS digital video tapes, or Apple versus Microsoft Windows, or, more recently, iPod versus any other MP3 player.

The same is undoubtedly true for picking investments. In the short term, people pile into the same investments that everyone else is talking about, regardless of the intrinsic value of the underlying business.

Luckily, the market has the benefit of quarterly and annual earnings reports, which force stock prices to track with underlying value over the fullness of time.

This doesn’t mean that stock prices are always right–quite the opposite.

Don’t judge an investment by what it’s stock does over the short term if you’re a long term investor. Otherwise, you may suffer from the social influence of following the crowd.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.