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Choiceology: Season 2 Episode 3

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You’re an independent-minded person. You make choices for yourself based on the best information available. You own your decisions, right or wrong. Right?

You are, in fact, a social animal. You take many visible and invisible cues on how to behave from the people around you—family, co-workers, friends, social media, even the folks in the elevator or on the bus. So your decisions and behaviors aren’t always as independent as you might think.

In this episode of Choiceology with Katy Milkman, we look at a phenomenon that may have you running with the crowd, even when it’s not in your best interest.

  • The episode begins with an experiment. A benign but peculiar behavior appears during an otherwise normal orchestra rehearsal. It starts with a few members but spreads rapidly through the orchestra. What’s causing this behavior, and why is it so contagious?
  • From there we move to a much more consequential behavior in the world of professional cycling. We examine a high-stakes decision by cyclist Tyler Hamilton in his quest for Tour de France glory and Olympic gold. It’s a story of peer pressure, deep secrets, subterfuge and, ultimately, redemption.
  • Then behavioral scientist Todd Rogers of the Harvard Kennedy School explores the myriad ways we’re influenced by those around us. He speaks with Katy about some of the ways that businesses and institutions can harness our social nature for the greater good.
  • Finally, Katy Milkman looks back at some of the early research on how individuals can be manipulated by social groups. She offers tips to help you avoid falling victim to mob mentality.

Choiceology is an original podcast from Charles Schwab.

If you enjoy the show, please leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.

Click to show the transcript

Katy Milkman: Hi, I'm Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology. We're starting off today at a rehearsal. The orchestra has started in our piece of music, but slowly, one by one, members begin to stand up for no apparent reason. Eventually, almost the entire orchestra is standing. Now, most of the orchestra members were in on the joke. We asked them ahead of time to stand up during the piece, but several of the members were totally oblivious to the plan. They had no idea what was coming, but most of them stood up as well. Why?

Speaker 2: For the people that stood up, could I have just a quick moment in the hallway for … [laughing]?

Speaker 3: Don't worry. You're not in trouble.

Speaker 2: Maybe just describe what you just witnessed and what just happened.

Speaker 4: During the middle of the rehearsal, everybody started standing up.

Speaker 5: Just some people started standing up, and so I stood up too. I thought it was part of the piece, so I stood up too.

Speaker 2: What was going through your head when you saw everybody stand up?

Speaker 5: While we're playing, I realized, "This is really strange." We're like, "Why are we all standing suddenly?"

Speaker 2: Why did you stand up?

Speaker 5: Well, because I saw people in front of me standing up, because everyone stood up, and I didn't want to be the only one not standing up.

Katy Milkman: On this episode of Choiceology we'll talk about a behavioral bias that pushes you to follow the crowd even when it's not in your best interest.

This is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It's about decisions, big ones and small ones, along with the subtle biases that affect those decisions. We guide you through a world of hidden psychological forces, forces that can affect your heating bills, your willingness to vote and even what you choose to wear to work. We isolate these forces in order to understand them and to help you avoid costly mistakes.

Tyler Hamilton was born in 1971. The 1980 Olympic Games had a huge impact on him when he was just a kid.

Tyler Hamilton: I remember being glued to the TV watching the U.S. hockey team play and beat the Soviets at the time and go on to with the gold medal. I remember Eric Heiden, this famous speed skater winning five gold medals. I told myself, "I want to win a gold medal someday." I don't know what sport it was going to be in, but I thought representing your country at the highest level would be a pretty cool thing to do.

Katy Milkman: Tyler found cycling when he was in college.

Tyler Hamilton: And that became my big focus and something that I was pretty good at.

Katy Milkman: He was so good at it that it became the center of his life.

Tyler Hamilton: I turned professional as a cyclist in 1995.

Katy Milkman: Professional cycling may not be a huge sport in the U.S., but it's massive in Europe. Tyler's U.S. racing team was stationed there in 1997.

Tyler Hamilton: We set up a base there in Girona, Spain, north of Barcelona. So yeah, I had a bunch of teammates who were also Americans that I shared an apartment with. That was a lot fun, but it was also super hard, and I built some strong relationships. With the veterans, they were really good mentors to me, and I always had a lot of questions.

Katy Milkman: The more he learned from those mentors, the more he began to feel like an insider.

Tyler Hamilton: You felt like there was something going on behind closed doors. A couple of two, three months into that season is when I was invited into the, I call it, a secret fraternity.

Katy Milkman: That fraternity was secret for a reason. Its members shared a certain ritual, a practice Tyler was introduced to after a race in Spain.

Tyler Hamilton: Spring of 1997 I just finished a week long stage race in southern Spain. Extremely hard, extremely taxing. I remember finishing the race. I was there in my hotel room. I was laid out on the bed like a starfish, just exhausted. The team doctor walked into my room and praised me for working so hard, and how impressed he was, how new I was at the sport and all that. But he also said I had to start living a little bit more professionally, start taking care of my body better. He was wearing this fly fishing vest that he always seemed to wear when he'd visit the riders in their rooms. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a little red egg-shaped capsule. He said, "Tyler, this is for your health." I'll never forget it. He kind of reached out and handed me this little red egg-shaped capsule. I thought about it for a second, swallowed that pill, and the rest is history.

Katy Milkman: This was a pivotal moment in Tyler Hamilton's career. That little red capsule was no vitamin. It was a testosterone pill. His ticket to glory, or so he thought.

Tyler Hamilton: My first Tour de France was that year in 1997.

Katy Milkman: The Tour de France is the pinnacle event in road cycling. It's one of the most watched sports competitions in the world. In this 1997 tour, there were 210 cyclists who started. Of those 210, Tyler says he'd be surprised—

Tyler Hamilton: I'd be surprised if five were clean. That was what people did, and that was what you were expected to do. Back in 1997, I'd guess that 95%-99% were doping.

Katy Milkman: 95%-99%. No matter what the actual number was, doping, the practice of using performance enhancing drugs, was clearly widespread in the sport of cycling.

One of the reasons it was so pervasive is that cycling is a team sport. In the Tour de France, for example, there are six to nine racers on a team. Typically, there's one leader on that team that everyone's working for during the race. If you're the leader, that means your teammates are often riding in front of you in certain segments of the race, so you don't have to work as hard. You can ride in their slipstream. Your teammates are doing most of the work, pushing the wind out of the way, and you can save energy for when it counts.

In 1998, a big name joined Tyler's team as leader. The pressure to perform got even more intense.

Tyler Hamilton: Lance Armstrong joined the team in 1998. A good guy, very strong, super determined. Once he set his eye on the prize, there was no turning him down. There was a lot of pressure, a lot of pressure to be there for him at the right moment. When you did your job well, he took good care of you. When you didn’t, when you weren't at your best, it seemed like there was a price to pay usually.

Katy Milkman: Lance could be tough.

Tyler Hamilton: He got under your skin and made you scared for your job.

Katy Milkman: That pressure to win at all costs was intense. Everyone on the team had to perform at their absolute best, and that meant sticking to a regimen of performance-enhancing drugs.

Tyler Hamilton: I felt like it was what I was expected to do. I feel if I said no to that testosterone pill, I'm not going to the Tour de France, and who knows what the rest of my professional career would’ve looked like?

Katy Milkman: Who knows? But Tyler followed the herd and conformed.

Tyler Hamilton: Little did I know that little red egg-shaped pill was going to lead to much bigger things like a secret double life. Yeah, it was a turning point for me. I knew it was wrong. The whole time I knew it was wrong, but I told myself everybody’s doing it.

Katy Milkman: Everybody’s doing it. That doesn't make it right, but as I'm sure you can imagine, it makes it a whole lot more likely you'll join in.

Tyler Hamilton: With Lance, there was a high pressure to win. He wasn't the one that told me I had to dope, but I would certainly say if I he knew that I was not doping he knew I wasn't 100% into the task at hand. Pretty much from my experience, all the guys underneath him that were trying to help him win the Tour de France, they were all doping.

Katy Milkman: Tyler just got deeper and deeper into doping as the years went on.

Tyler Hamilton: There was a lot of it. It was pretty extreme, but that's what you had to do. Eventually, I was trying to win the Tour de France myself.

Katy Milkman: I want to point out here that the decision Tyler made was in some ways a rational one. Using performance- enhancing drugs made it more likely that he would succeed. Unlike our orchestra experiment earlier, Tyler wasn't influenced to do something totally irrational like standing up for no reason in the middle of a performance. He simply looked around and saw that doping was a common practice, and he went along with the crowd. But still, this was an unethical choice, an unhealthy choice, and one that would haunt him in the future.

A test came out in the year 2000 that could detect the hormone Tyler was taking, so Tyler's team decided to switch to something called blood doping, which improves performance in a similar way, but it was harder for the anti-doping authorities to detect. The problem was it also took more effort. The rider's blood had to be extracted and then re-injected before or during a race. Here's an example of the kind of crazy scenario Tyler found himself in on a regular basis.

One time in Madrid Tyler left his doctor's back-alley clinic after having blood extracted. He rushed out to the main road to hail a cab to the airport.

Tyler Hamilton: I remember this feeling of it felt like water was running down my arm, and I looked to see just the hole from the extraction needle hadn't closed. There I was in the middle of Madrid looking like somebody had just stabbed me in the arm, and my sleeve is completely soaked in red. I'm hiding behind sunglasses and a baseball cap because I'm paranoid of being seen there. That was a moment where I was like, "What am I doing here? This has gone too far."

I questioned almost on a daily basis what I was doing, but I always told myself it was just part of the sport, part of what I was expected to do.

Katy Milkman: This may sound a bit like a bias you heard about in the first season of Choiceology: the sunk cost fallacy that leads to an escalation of commitment. Once you start down a path, it can be extremely psychologically hard to turn back, particularly when it's been a costly path.

Tyler Hamilton: Typically, I'd deal with it. In the middle of the night I'd wake up and just staring at the ceiling thinking about all that stuff and the price I might pay someday if the truth comes out.

Katy Milkman: And of course, the truth did start to come out in the media, slowly at first.

Tyler Hamilton: Early on, there weren't a whole lot of questions about doping, but fast-forward a few years and Lance started winning and a lot more questions came out, so you were getting asked the doping question a lot more frequently, and you did your best to avoid it and just cover it up the best you can. That's not much fun, and then you're making smaller lies to cover up for the bigger lies.

Katy Milkman: Tyler was stuck. He knew what he was doing was wrong, but he'd made a pact with his teammates.

Tyler Hamilton: We had like an unofficial code, and it was called the omertà, the code of silence. You didn't really speak about the doping at all, and then if you did ever get caught, you keep your mouth shut. It wasn't just a secret. It was a massive secret, so we were all kind of living a little bit scared. Certainly, I was.

Speaker 6: ... the same time at the end of the day. I haven't seen Tyler Hamilton. That accident happened, Phil, at one kilometer to go exactly. Oscar.

Tyler Hamilton: In 2004, I had a crash and had to drop out of the Tour de France, but then I quickly shifted gears and focused on the Olympic Games, which were in the end of August. I focused on the time trial, the race against the clock, Point A to Point B as fast as you can go. I trained specifically for that event. It was about a 50-kilometer event. I had a great day and won.

I kinda dreamed my whole life about winning a gold medal ever since really watching the Olympics on television in 1980. Then, when I got there and when I finally stood on the top step of the podium hearing the national anthem with the gold medal around my neck, something wasn't right. It didn't feel like it was supposed to feel. That's for sure. That's when I realized that's the price you pay when you're doing it unethically.

Katy Milkman: That price would just keep going up.

Tyler Hamilton: Eventually, I did get caught. The Tour of Spain—it was weeks after the Olympic Games. It was about halfway through and I tested positive for blood doping. I had a two-year suspension. I didn't race for about two and a half years. Looking back, I wish I had been open and honest when I got caught and told the whole truth then. It would have been the perfect opportunity, but I didn't. I felt the pressure to live by the omertà, the code of silence. I got caught. My teammates or competitors did not. It was something I had to just sit and suffer in silence with.

Katy Milkman: But that silence would not last forever.

Tyler Hamilton: In 2010, I got subpoenaed by federal agent Jeff Novitzky. So yeah, I was basically forced to come in and tell the truth.

Katy Milkman: Tyler had to testify against his former teammate, Lance Armstrong. He spent hours in front of a grand jury talking about the widespread practice of doping.

Tyler Hamilton: Just telling the truth, I just felt this massive weight come off me. For me, that was really a turning point in my whole life.

Katy Milkman: Tyler went on to do media interviews and eventually wrote a tell-all book, but there was still more to do to atone for his cheating.

Tyler Hamilton:  I knew at that point the International Olympic Committee would be probably knocking on my door to ask for the gold medal back, so I voluntarily gave it back. They'd wrote me this letter and told me it was a courageous move, and they told me obviously what I did was wrong, but for coming clean they had a lot of respect for that. In a way it was like a handshake and a good luck moving forward. That letter to me got more important than a gold medal for sure. It shows that I finally, finally did the right thing.

Katy Milkman: Looking back, Tyler sees where he went wrong, how the group dynamic influenced his decisions.

Tyler Hamilton: You get wrapped up in it, and then you realize, "Oh yeah, everybody else is doing it, so it's OK." Before you know it, it was like point of no return.

Katy Milkman: As with all the stories we tell on Choiceology, there are often many different factors that influence decisions, but it seems that a big factor in Tyler's decision to use performance enhancing drugs was the fact that everyone around seemed to be using them as well.

We all like to think that we behave rationally and that our choices are based on a careful and balanced evaluation of the information we have at hand. But, in fact, subtle and sometimes subconscious cues from others around us can have an outsize effect on the way we behave.

Remember the musicians in the orchestra who stood up even though they weren't instructed to do so? A similar thing happens when a group of people stop on the sidewalk and look up into the sky. You're likely to do the same thing.

There's a famous episode of the old TV show Candid Camera where this behavior was exposed to a hilarious effect. In their experiment an unwitting participant walks onto an elevator and promptly turns to face the door as people normally do. But then, several paid members of the cast from the show walk on, and following a script, face the back of the elevator.

The unwitting participant quietly, slowly and comfortably starts to turn toward the back. It's so awkwardly funny because you can imagine what you might do in a similar situation to relieve the discomfort of standing out from the rest of the crowd.

When the experiment was over, people in the elevator would often come up with explanations for why they turned around, but these explanations usually have little to do with the real reason. The real reason has to do with what scientists call social norms.

We use the term social norms to describe what the majority of other people in a given situation are doing. For instance, if you learn that most of your colleagues are going out for drinks together this afternoon, then going out for drinks is the social norm.

Social norms can influence our behavior in a couple of key ways. First, they can convey useful information. For instance, if you're in a public space and everyone starts running for the exit, you better do the same, right? They probably see some threat you don't.

Second, for better or worse, we care about what other people think of us. No one wants to be the only person to show up at a black tie wedding dressed casually. You'd stand out like a sore thumb, and who would want to hang out with you? We often go along with the crowd to avoid their wrath or curry their favor.

For Tyler Hamilton, the social norm was that nearly everyone in his sport and on his team was involved in doping. That's just how it was. For the members of the orchestra, the rules changed unexpectedly, but because so many people stood, the rest assumed that this was a rule they should follow. Same for the poor folks in the elevator. In all of these examples it was very difficult to go against the crowd even when the crowd was doing something irrational or unethical.

We've talked a little bit about why this happens, but how much does it really matter? And if we're all influenced by the crowd, is it possible to channel that tendency in positive ways? I've asked Todd Rogers, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, to talk about how social norms can affect behavior. Hi, Todd.

Todd Rogers: Hi, Katy.

Katy Milkman: So what's an example of a place where you would actually just do what everyone else was doing if you weren't sure of the right behavior?

Todd Rogers: You go to a restaurant and you're unfamiliar with any of the food, which is actually what happened this afternoon for lunch. I went to a place. It was an incredibly, interesting, flavorful vegan place with other people. I didn't recognize anything on the menu, and someone ordered before me. I tried to repeat back as fluently as I could whatever that person just said and ordered exactly that.

Katy Milkman: I've totally done that. Can you talk a little bit about the power of social norms to change behavior in consequential interesting ways?

Todd Rogers: So one of the domains where social norms has been used to change behavior at very wide-scale is energy use. And a large fraction of your listeners are going to be recipients of monthly or quarterly letters comparing their energy use to their neighbors. This is based on research from about a decade ago showing that when you compare people's energy use to that of their neighbors, it reduces their energy use pretty substantially. What other researchers and I have learned as we studied them is that the energy use reductions sustain and grow over time, and it turns out that it's so potent at changing behavior that it's the equivalent of increasing the price of energy by about 25%, so you can either increase the price of energy by 25% or compare people's energy use to their neighbors to get roughly the same effect size.

Katy Milkman: Could you give me another example of where this has been studied?

Todd Rogers: One really interesting social norms application is in towel reuse where Noah Goldstein at UCLA and collaborators did a set of studies in hotels where they told people that most people in this hotel reuse their towels. And so you may know that when you go in a hotel if you use the towel and you throw it on the ground, you come back and magically the housekeeping staff have come in and given you fresh towels. It turns out that uses a lot of energy and wastes a lot of water. And so hotels have an incentive, both financially and environmentally, to reduce the wasting of these towels and increase reuse of them. Giving the social norm information that 87% of people in this hotel reuse their towels gets people to be more likely to reuse their towels than just saying, "Please reuse your towels."

Katy Milkman: That's great. I think the effect size there is also really impressive. It's something like if I tell you do this for the environment versus do it because everybody else is. I see it's something like an eight percentage point boost in towel reuse. Am I remembering that right?

Todd Rogers: That sounds right. Eight percentage points may not sound like a lot, but it turns out changing people's behavior is pretty hard. They benchmarked it against the next best appeal, which is please reuse your towel because it's good for the earth. It still even more effective to just say, "Please reuse your towel because most people do."

Katy Milkman: I seem to remember you did some work on high school students and social norms that didn't turn out exactly as you'd expected. Is that right?

Todd Rogers: We worked with over 10,000 students in high schools across 14 school districts in California. We did a study where we looked at what happens when you give them awards for good attendance. And so we found 10,000 students who had a single month in the preceding semester of perfect attendance, and we randomly assigned them to get an award for having had perfect attendance. It turns out that getting the award subsequently decreases attendance relative to not getting the award. Giving these students these really nice embossed awards decreased their later attendance. What we think is going on, and we later learned, is that receiving the award gets interpreted by the students as I attend school more than everybody else. There is this unintended signal that we had sent when we send this awards saying—

Katy Milkman: "You're an outlier."

Todd Rogers: Yeah, "You're an outlier. Other people don't go to school as much as you." School is a funny one for high school kids where it's compliance, and many of them would be happy to not go, especially not go more than everybody else. And so the award actually demotivates attendance because of the unintended signaling that it has about the behavior of others.

Katy Milkman: Really interesting. Thank you so much, Todd, for taking the time to talk with me today. This was great.

Todd Rogers: No, my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Katy.

Katy Milkman: I'm Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It's no surprise that cognitive and emotional biases like blindly following social norms can affect your financial decisions, but we have help for you on that front. Check out our sister podcast, Financial Decoder. It's designed for folks who want to make better decisions with their money. Mark Riepe hosts the show. Mark is head of the Schwab Center for Financial Research, and he can help demystify some of the financial choices you might be facing, so you're better equipped to avoid mistakes. You can find it at schwab.com/financialdecoder or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Social norms are a little different from some of the other biases we've talked about on the show because it's not always a mistake to follow your instincts when it comes to social norms. Sometimes following the crowd is exactly the right thing to do, but sometimes the behavior can be truly frightening.

Some of the earliest work on social norms was done in the 1950s in the laboratory of legendary psychologist, Solomon Asch. Asch was studying social norms at a time when many psychologists wanted to understand how so many people in Nazi Germany could have been compelled to commit atrocities during the Holocaust.

It was natural to wonder if maybe social norms could be so potent a tool of influence that they might lead people to abandon all reason. In some pretty astounding studies, Asch proved that normal people will start to say and believe extraordinary things when surrounded by other folks who uniformly say and purport to believe those things.

Why am I mentioning all of this now? Well, Asch's studies and the experiments we talked about earlier in this episode involving elevators and orchestras, they highlight that there are plenty of situations where it's irrational to follow norms. For Tyler Hamilton, social norms led to seriously unethical behavior.

The key for you will be to recognize your instinct to follow norms, and when it kicks in, try two things. First, try to stop and ask yourself, "Is this a norm I should be following because there's useful information in the behavior of the crowd, or is this a norm that I might regret following, that I'm tempted to follow for the wrong reasons?" If it's the latter, don't do it. If it's the latter, you might also want to look around and see if there's anybody else who also looks uncomfortable and who might see the world the same way you do.

Asch's experiments actually show that if just one other person is with you and goes against the norm, it's much easier. My hope is that by doing these things, you'll be able to make better decisions about when to follow the herd and when, instead, to march to the beat of your own drum.

You've been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you've enjoyed the show, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps other people find the show. While you're there, you can subscribe for free. The same goes for other podcasting apps. Subscribe and you won't miss an episode.

Next time on the show we look into the unexpected and sometimes counterintuitive ways the choices you make about how to spend money and time can affect your happiness. I'm Katy Milkman. I'll talk to you next time.

Speaker 8: For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit schwab.com/podcast.

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