I was once taking a stroll around my campus in the subnivean city of Seattle. On the floor, I suddenly spotted before me a petite sparrow. She was seemingly in pain and unable to fly. Around me were a good number of collegers streaming by. Several passed by and went on with their day without paying attention. The few who noticed the struggling bird or the bothered look on my face checked the social evidence around them and, seeing no one reacting with any real concern, walked on convinced that nothing is wrong. A little while later, for no other reason other than my intense love for nature and its animals, I stopped two of my friends to come and stand next to me and the bird. To my surprise, passerbys started to join us after absorbing the scene: a snow coated street, a helpless little bird, three people with troubled looks on their faces. Together we rescued the sparrow, putting her in an area of safety.
I recently read the book Influence, a New York Times Best-Seller, by Robert Cialdini on the Psychology of Persuasion. Robert, a professor of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, explains, “when we are unsure, we are more likely to use others’ actions to decide how to behave”. Here comes the power of “the many”. A chain of restaurants in Beijing partnered with researchers as owners wanted to see if they could get customers to purchase a specific item in the menu. As it turned out, a simple label did the trick that read: “most popular”. Sales of this dish jumped by an average of 13 to 20%. Entire phobias can be gotten rid of in a similar fashion. Albert Bandura, a Canadian psychologist, provided live demonstrations of children interacting with dogs to children who had a fear of dogs. 67% of them were willing to climb into a playpen with a dog after watching the demonstration. Both examples involved achieving targets through a persuasive practice, a potent lever of influence: the social proof. Moreover, all of us have a natural desire to fit in with others. But often, we are unsure of ourselves. So, we determine the behaviours of others as more correct. During my first few days of Freshman year at the University of Washington, I was desperate to get along with other students but was unsure if I would blend in the unfamiliar American environment. I then naively assumed that everyone else had a better grasp of what they were doing. However, majority of the students must have felt equally unsure about things as me. Social proof works in a similar way where we take clues from the ones around us as to what counts as acceptable, correct, better behavior (perhaps this could also rationalize why I was hesitant to help the bird alone).
So how does this social proof manifest itself in real life?
Firstly, popularity is effective in the business world. Cavett Robert, a sales consultant, captured this principle beautifully: “since 95% of us are imitators and only 5% are initiators, we are persuaded more by the action of others rather than any proof we can offer.” Smart advertisers and marketing minds are well aware of this tendency so they use the leverage of social proof to better connect with their target audience. For instance, I looked at consumer reviews before purchasing my trendy Dyson airwrap, where I judged the opinions of ordinary people ‘like me’ as more trustworthy than the Dyson company. But there are PR companies who specialize in ensuring “great” consumer reviews on popular sites, even paying some of these reviewers. So, we as consumers can be manipulated by these shrewd, unscrupulous advertisers. We are influenced to make decisions we would never have made otherwise (there were other less expensive hair stylers than the Dyson airwrap!).
Secondly, a harsh reality in our world is that the more people do something, the more acceptable that thing becomes. So social proof might be problematic since groups of people can reach suboptimal or even outright wrong conclusions, the classical herd behavior. But “everyone’s doing it, so it must be okay” mindset is highly debatable as American writer Walter Lippmann fantastically summarized, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
Also, a very happy New Year and Happy Holidays. Here’s to a blissful 2023!
– SaaniaSparkle 🧚♀️