Copycats & Contrarians: Why We Follow Others…And When We Don’t, by Michelle Baddeley
It must be said that this book has an interesting idea behind it, even if that idea is cloaked in bogus evolutionary thinking. Even with this, though, there is something quite entertaining at the core of this book, and that is a tension between wanting to praise contrarians while also recognizing that society does not want there to be too many of them. As is the case fairly often when one deals with this sort of phenomenon, I find myself quite interested in the way that there are qualities that society claims to support (like creativity) in the abstract that it does not in fact support as much as one might hope. I’m not always sure why this is the case, but in the case of contrarians, it is easy to see why people would support contrarians in the abstract because they fancy themselves so but not appreciate people who go against the herd in practice when they are being questioned and opposed. This is a fairly obvious example of the tendency for people not to have self-knowledge about where they stand and who they truly are, and this book does a good job at bringing this point out.
In a bit more than 250 pages of material the author looks at how the dynamic between copy cats and contrarians plays out in various aspects of human life and also points out that both are related to a common herd instinct where copycats go along with the herd while contrarians trust their own inner insight more than the wisdom of crowds and stand out on their own. There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. The author begins with an introduction and then discusses clever copying (1) as well as the positive and negative sides of mob psychology (2). The author talks about the relationship between herd instinct and the brain (3) as well as coming to a comparison about animal herds (4) and their operation. After that the author discusses mavericks (5) in some detail and also looks at the comparison between contrarian entrepreneurs and copycat speculators (6) who have a valuable purpose even if they depend on the originality of others. Finally, the book closes with a discussion of herding experts (7) and the phenomenon of following the leader (8) before ending with a contrast of contrarians and copycats as well as endnotes, suggestions for further reading, acknowledgments, illustration credits, and an index.
The author puts herself in a strange position by being copycat authors of a book while simultaneously praising more original contrarians. She offers received wisdom that claims evolutionary insights and looks to compare business behavior with the animal world as well as psychology. None of this is particularly original that has not been done equally well by dozens of writers. This is not a bad book, and at times it is entertaining, but it certainly is a redundant book that offers little that is contrary to the contemporary conventional wisdom. The author seems somewhat unaware of where she stands, or at least unwilling to use themselves as object lessons of copycats whose efforts may help promote the ideas of more original thinkers, because it is so much more exciting to paint oneself as a contrarian going against the current even when that is clearly not the case. It would appear unlikely, given the amount of study that the author has undertaken in reading about the subject, that she could be unaware of being a copycat, but it is quite possible that she underestimates the way that she too follows as part of a herd of evolutionary-perspective writers who ponder questions of creativity without having very much new or striking to say.