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Updated: 2018.9.27 05:17
 
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Crowd Psychology in Korea
[ Issue 164 Page 11 ] Tuesday, September 25, 2018, 20:48:18 Hongseok Lee Staff Reporter leehong@kaist.ac.kr

At first glance, the development of global connective networks, such as social media, may seem to have eroded the geographical borders and extended the level of freedom of individuals. Yet, to others, it acts in the opposite way. In 2014, the Honey Butter Chips Syndrome hit Korea. The syndrome first spread through social media, affecting tens of thousands of users. The people’s interest in the chips was abnormal. The madness for buying the honey butter chips far exceeded expectations, ranging from hoarding the product to individuals reselling the snack in single pieces. It hit its zenith when there was a news report of how an individual tried to resell an empty bag of chips so that the buyer could “smell” the Honey Butter Chip. However, Honey Butter Chip is just a potato chip with a tint of honey and butter added to it. What made it so special that the whole country went mad about this product?

   
Customers scramble for the Honey Butter Chips

To be clear, there is nothing special about the snack itself. As always, it is humans who apply the value to a product. In the case of the Honey Butter Chip’s mad popularity, it was a simple reaction of crowd psychology: the bandwagon effect.

Unsurprisingly, Honey Butter Chip is not the only example of the bandwagon effect in Korea. The bandwagon effect definitely has shown itself in politics and society. The spread of social media has facilitated the comparison between individuals with greater intensity. One can easily stumble upon posts regarding how their social media friends have traveled to a new place or have dined in a fancy restaurant. Displaying such experiences to others has become a “trend”, and it has become a site of competition in comparing oneself to others. It has become the “norm” to follow the trend. It is now abnormal to not travel or not to be in a relationship. Ironically, though every individual and their personality is different, everyone is examined under the same qualification of the “norm”.

Then from where does this strong sense of the bandwagon effect originate?

The primary reason Koreans are especially sensitive to the bandwagon effect is that they do not have a strong sense of ego. Koreans are educated from a young age to blend in with society. “Do as others do” — This is probably a saying that most Koreans have heard at least once in their lifetime. Even in public schools, students are required to dress in uniforms. Expressions of ego and individuality through style, such as clothing, fashion, hairstyle, and makeup, are forbidden. It is mandatory for everyone to study the same material from the moment one starts school to until one leaves school. One cannot grow a sense of independence and ego in such an environment. Though a reed cannot even resist a breeze, a tree trunk can withstand even the strongest winds. As such, a strong ego can allow an individual to stay firm to one’s roots and beliefs. There will be no more need to swing to the “trend”.

There are definitely cases in which the crowd mind has led to positive effects. The ice bucket challenge, for example, had stirred a sense of awareness of the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) disease. Though not all people had pure intentions of helping the needy, it had caused people to take interest in the cause. However, easily shifting public mind brings about more bad than good. Though extreme, the Nazi Germany was a stark example of how the crowd mindset can be utilized by those in power. Though there are complex backgrounds and reasons why Nazism came to power, one of the reasons that helped was the bandwagon effect. People followed others into Nazism. It was the trend and the “norm”. Like such, crowd mind can be and has been used by politicians to gain power, which is why one must be aware of falling into it.

Honey Butter Chips have left a great impact on the Korean society. The situation has instilled a sense of uncomfortableness or even fear of the bandwagon effect. Many have realized the potential for abuse in crowd psychology. Yet there are many more who are unaware of such possibilities. Facebook is still a site for comparison and people still try to follow the trend. So I ask: what will be the next Honey Butter Chip?

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