Are We Led Like Sheep To the ....Coffee?

November 20, 2010

In a Montreal Gazette post of November 20, writer Irene Seiberling asks why consumers will wait in lengthy lines or pay hefty sums for a specialty coffee such as a Starbucks latte.

In her answer, Seiberling ascribes such behavior to our herding mentality. She quotes a professor who teaches consumer behavior at a business school, who says humans adopt the behaviors of those around them, consciously or unconsciously. Comparing this tendency to animalistic instinct, as in sheep, the professor thinks we have built-in swarming and herding mechanisms. Following this logic, we value the coffee drinks because they‘re popular with those around us.

A second reason given is that the drinks fill a hedonistic need because they are pleasurable. They’re a comfort food that makes us feel good, filling an emotional void.

While most of us coffee lovers - especially the mocha, latte and flavored coffee drinkers - would be quick to agree that these drinks are valued because they taste good and fill emotional needs, we might have some trouble accepting the first part of Seiberling’s explanation. If the herding mentality were so important, why wouldn’t we be as likely to go to taverns and guzzle beer? Or would you find women in the coffee shops and men in the taverns? That isn’t the way it’s working out, as there are plenty of men at Starbucks or Caribou etc. at any time of the day (or night, if they are open.)

It seems silly that to some, every behavior has to have a psychological reason behind it. Would a sheep opt for coke over the watering trough if some other sheep around him got hooked on the soda? Until someone publishes the double-blind research to prove this, it’s easier to simply believe that coffee drinks are a comfort food that fills an emotional need in our stressful world because they taste and smell wonderful.

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