The Six Weapons of Influence – Part 3: “Social Proof”

So far in this six-part article, we’ve covered two of Dr. Robert Cialdini’s six “weapons of influence”Reciprocity and Commitment/Consistency. Time to move forward with the next weapon, which is incredibly useful, especially in marketing and advertising…

Weapon number three: “Social Proof : Is there really strength in numbers?”

Social Proof is why network sitcoms still use laugh-tracks, even though everyone thinks they’re lame and outdated. Social Proof is also the reason people like to take pictures of themselves having fun with their attractive friends, and use those as social network profile pictures.

We understand Social Proof as the tendency for people to take their behavioral cues from the group of people around them, especially in situations where the correct behavior might not be obvious or where we particularly identify with the group of people we’re with.

When fleeing a Tyrannosaurus, sometimes it's best to stay with the pack...

It’s fairly easy to see how the idea of Social Proof may have evolved. If we accept the notion from evolutionary biology that early humans lived in clans of a couple hundred people, then we can envision situations when you survived by unhesitatingly following the herd, in the absence of better information. Even if the herd was not correct about which way to dart to avoid the predator, you would make a more attractive target on your own as opposed to keeping with the herd.

In my post about how attraction works, I introduced AskMen.com’s dating advisor David Deangelo. He is one of many dating experts who talk about Social Proof in the context of attraction and dating. For example, we will tend to assume that a person is socially valuable and in-demand if s/he is surrounded by friends who are laughing and having a good time. Doubly so if his friends are very attractive members of the opposite sex. He or she has been “proved,” or validated by the social group. We assume that the friends (who are all laughing and having a good time) have better information about this person than we do, and we defer to their apparent approval.

If this is the image you see a lot, you might have some Social Proof...

Everybody remembers the movie Schindler’s List, but few people think about the amazing scene at the very beginning where he goes to the German night club to meet all the generals and military men who become his future clients. The scene starts with Schindler being seated alone at a table, and it is clear that no one knows who he is. He is anonymous.

Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler

He then sends excellent brandy over to one particular general and his date. When the general walks over to inquire, Schindler acts gregariously, like he has known the general all his life and is thrilled to see him. Suddenly he is entertaining the general’s party, and has leaped in social proof. More people start inquiring about him. People try to get pictures taken with him. There is a mystery about him because he is anonymous, yet seems to be the life of the party. By the end of the night, he a large, drunken group of Nazi generals in song, and everyone knows his name. He has the most powerful position in a room full of immensely powerful and egotistical people, and the single source of his power is the fact that everyone else seems to want to be around him.

Cialdini tells the story of the famous Kitty Genovese murder in New York, the one where a woman was beaten and stabbed on a city street over the course of a half hour, and of the nearly forty people who saw this take place from their adjacent apartment buildings, none of them called the police or offered help.

At the time, everyone came to the obvious conclusion: we have become a society of cynical, desensitized, evil human beings who can’t even be bothered to pick up the phone to help stop a murder in progress.

But, as with so many things in life, the truth is more complicated and interesting.

Cialdini introduces us to the concept of  “Pluralistic Ignorance,” or the Bystander Effect. According to the summary on Social Proof from Strategy Insight, Pluralistic Ignorance assumes:

…that when multiple people are present, people will (a) assume others will take actions and (b) look to others to see what actions should be taken because, to some degree, (c) they are uncertain.

The witnesses in the Kitty Genovese story were not particularly cruel and jaded. But they did fall under the sway of Pluralistic Ignorance. Even though the situation looked dangerous, they were not 100% certain as to the nature of what was going on. And having that uncertainty, while knowing that there were others witnessing the same event, they deferred to the group. Someone else in the herd must have better information, and will get involved.

Strategy Insight points out that this is the same phenomenon that explains why the more people you send an email out to, the less likely people will be to respond to it. Or why it is that the more people witness a car crash, the less likely people are to jump out and help (this one actually happened to Cialdini). Everybody assumes that since a large group of people witnessed, everything will turn out alright. They unconsciously defer to the group.

This is not to say that hope is lost. It’s just that people have to be engaged more directly. When Cialdini himself was in a bad crash in the middle of an intersection, he had the presence of mind to know how to engage the help he needed. Staggaring out of his car, he singled out a driver, pointed to him, and yelled, “Call the police.” To another one or two passing drivers, he similarly pointed straight to them and said, “Pull over, I need help.”

And based on what we know about social proof, it’s easy to predict what happened next. Not only did the selected people comply immediately and agreeably, but other drivers started pulling over to help with the situation as well. The snowball just needed a little push to get it started.

In marketing, Social Proof is the mechanism of the testimonial. If influential (or influential-looking) people endorse your product, that product will appear more attractive to the rest of us. It has been “proven.” This principal grows in strength as we identify with or idealize those giving the endorsement.

I only just now found the site Copyblogger, and they wrote an article for their blog-triggers series expounding on Social Proof and it’s usefulness in publicizing one’s blog.  It’s fascinating.

I found another great blog called Maloney On Marketing, which features an interesting article on what’s called the Diffusion of Innovation theory, which has to do with the rate of adoption of new innovations. Social Proof is a large factor that drives customers who tend to be later adopters.

One of my favorite recent commercials is the Bacardi Mojito commercial. It the one that features cuts between different tropical dance clubs as night, where all the insanely beautiful dancers are doing a body-twist kind of dance that evokes the twist motion of muddling the mint leaves when making a Mojito cocktail. As soon as the bartender stops muddling the drink, you hear the music cut out, and see all the dancers stopping and looking around in silence, all seeming to wonder where the good time went. The bartender, realizing the influence of his Mojito, resumes making the drink, and the music comes back in and everyone starts having a good time again.

This commercial tells us nothing about the taste of the drink. It tells us nothing about its nature. It doesn’t show us anyone even drinking the drink, or being refreshed by it (an a Mojito is a very refreshing drink). It shows hordes of beautiful who so approve of it, that they “dance the Mojito.” We are all the more swayed by the group’s approval of the Mojito for the fact that they are beautiful people, and we want to be out there dancing with them.

Remember Dr. Leary’s Sociometer Theory: we are motivated to be a high-value member of the group, and we measure that through receiving positive social feedback – attention, approval and validation. Now, remember the Status Transaction: we believe we can raise our own value by identifying the high-status members of the group and associating ourselves with them by taking our behavioral cues from them. Ask the generals who bought their mess kits from Oskar Schindler: positions right up next to the apex of power have a power of their own…

Please comment on this idea. If you comment and share this article, the idea of Social Proof suggests people will value this information, and comment on your comments! Please help me get the word out by using the quick link below.  Thanks!

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Continue on to Part 4: Liking…

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