There is a common misconception that advertising doesn’t
work on you—it works on other people—but not you.
Many of us try to be conscious of the forces shaping
our decisions, but even beyond advertising, many of the
things we interact with warp our behavior in subtle ways.
The truth is, a lot of decisions you think you are making
rationally were already made for you. Even if you are a
“conscious consumer,” your decisions have been formed
by information gleaned from a particular perspective.
The deck is nearly always stacked in a certain direction.
There is value in being aware of the unseen forces
that are always around us. As marketers, we need to
understand the science of decision making, and as
consumers, we need to be cognizant of these forces
and their implications.
Path dependence is the idea that the set of decisions one
makes today are shaped by decisions made in the past.
Understanding this requires stepping back and exposing
the hidden forces that drive decisions. When you start to
be conscious of path dependence, you start to see these
previously determined paths everywhere. Even things as
simple as deciding where to eat lunch or what song to play
can be driven by path dependence.
One of the most common types of this bias can be found
in top ten lists.
Top ten lists are useful. It is how Google and Yelp structure results for anything you search for–from the best
cafes or bars to news and top stories. Increasingly, we
consume content in lists that are ordered by popularity.
On Spotify, top songs are at the top of each artist’s page
just below a big green play button.
Top ten lists can be useful shortcuts to finding what we are
looking for. But they also can end up distorting our reality.
Because content is ranked by popularity on many of our
digital platforms, it ends up skewing the data towards the
top of the list. The mere placement that content occupies
on the list changes the way we think of and consume
it. Ordered lists like this end up creating a power law
distribution, which is a relationship between quantities
where one is exponentially higher than the next. So, the
#1 option on the list becomes exponentially more visited,
played, shared, than the 10th.
The danger of these paths is that at a certain point, the
top slot becomes cemented at the top simply because
it is the top slot. There is a substitution in our question:
what is the best (which can mean any number of things)
to what is the most popular? We no longer listen to the
top song because it is good–we listen to it because it is
the most popular. And it is the most popular because it
is positioned at the top of the list. It becomes famous for
being famous and will stay at the top because of the real
estate it occupies.