Social Proof (Weapons of Influence, part 3 of 3)

This is the third part of the series on Weapons of Influence, based on Robert Cialdini’s book Influence, Part 1 discussed the principle of reciprocation; Part 2 covered the principle of commitment and consistency.

Social Proof

Birds of a feather, flock together. Or so we’ve been told. In other words, we like to be around people like us and we like to be like them. We also look to others for cues as to how to act. This explains a famous incident in New York where 38 witnesses heard a woman’s scream for help and did nothing. The failure of others to respond is a clue to us that the situation is not serious, we don’t need to respond either. Unfortunately, that cue, often reliable, cost the woman her life in this case. It turns out that you’re much better off if one person sees you being attacked or sees smoke coming from under a door than if a crowd of people do. If you do find yourself in a bad situation and there’s a crowd, use the word "help", look someone in the eye, point at that person and say "You, sir, in the red shirt, please help." General pleas to a crowd tend to go unanswered until one person responds, then the social proof works in the other direction and others will jump in to help.

The effects of social proof go beyond what I would have guessed. For example, in the months after a highly publicized suicide, the rate of airplane and automobile fatalities goes up significantly. This has been observed over long periods in large numbers and with numerous controls. Furthermore, if it’s a murder-suicide, it is more likely for multi-passenger airplane and multiple vehicle automobile fatalities to occur. If it’s a simple suicide, it correlated with single-victim crashes. After adding in numerous controls to the data, researchers were forced to conclude that these increased crashes were secret suicides. In a similar vein, after a heavyweight boxing championship bout, murder rates briefly rise around the country.

Back to how this is typically employed specifically to influence you, Cialdini looks at laugh tracks. Everyone polled says he or she hates canned laughter soundtracks on television shows. And yet, research shows that even though the canned laughter is obviously fake and we say we hate it, we find shows funnier if they include a laugh track because our subconscious mind can’t escape the fact that "others" are laughing so it must be funny. Similarly testimonials, even when it is obviously not a "natural" unsolicited testimonial, influences our decision to buy (and someday I have to tell the story of the Hansen’s soda lady trying to elicit a testimonial from me. I didn’t end up famous).

There are some crazy variations on the influence of social proof. For example, in a study by Kimberlee Weaver of Virginia Polytechnic University, the researchers created two conditions: one where people heard several people express a given opinion once each and one where one person expressed an opinion several times. It turns out, that in both cases, respondents judged opinions to be popular based on the number of times they had heard the opinion, but did not adjust for the fact that in some cases it was actually an opinion expressed repeatedly by one person [1]. So strangely, we sometimes perceive social proof when what we’re really seeing is one persistent loudmouth. That’s a good lesson if you really want to get something done in your community, but it’s not so good if someone just has a big enough budget to broadcast that message at you 12 times per day.

How to Say No. First, remind yourself that the testimonial you’re seeing is quite possibly faked. Large numbers of review sites on the web are laden with fake reviews. If you don’t have a reason to trust the testimonial, don’t. Second, don’t assume that if a lot of people are doing something, they must have information that you don’t (that’s not a person in a diabetic coma who needs help, but a drunk sleeping it off in the gutter). I must say, I don’t think Cialdini has read Kierkegaard, because he grappled with this question over 150 years ago with his famous ruminations on Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, knowing that this was a solitary and unjustifiable act. Kierkegaard believed that only "the crowd" could have executed Christ and that if each person had had to face Christ alone, one at a time, he would never have been crucified. Kierkegaard argued that truth is subjectivity, not objectivity and that when you side with the crowd, you cannot know if your decisions are moral
or true. It doesn’t make them immoral, it’s just that you don’t know. So Kierkegaard’s philosophy implies a simple question: what would I do if I had to make this decision with nobody else around? What would I do if everyone else were doing the opposite of what they are doing now? In other words, if everyone wanted to honor Christ, would I still vote to crucify? If everyone was rushing around in a panic because there was smoke coming from under a door, would I calmly walk past? Are my actions conditioned by the crowd, or by my sense of what I should do in this situation? I think Cialdini finds it impractical to pose such questions every minute of the day and that may be why he doesn’t invoke Kierkegaard. I cite Kierkegaard because I like to pretend I’ve actually read Kierkegaard instead of just heard about him on Jeopardy. Don’t tell Alex Trebeck.


[1]"Everyone Agrees", but Melinda Warner, Scientific American Mind, Aug/Sept 2007 (vol. 18, no. 4), p. 13.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>