Post No.: 0431
Especially in ambiguous or unfamiliar social settings, we tend to look for ‘social proofs’, follow the herd and copy the actions of others in an attempt to reflect the appropriate behaviour or social norm for a given situation. For example, people are influenced by how other people dress and it often feels important to ‘fit in with the group’ with how one also dresses.
Sometimes it helps to dress similarly to others because it’s associated with being on the same team. However, at other times it helps to dress like someone who has greater authority. For example, people tend to be more persuaded by a scientific fact if it comes from someone who’s wearing a lab coat. Our lazy, shortcut-seeking intuitions rely on cues that are associated with authority, such as people on work sites or car parks who are dressed in high visibility jackets, or simply people who have special titles. These associations or stereotypes attached to a person’s appearance, address or presentation can be more persuasive than the content of what they’re saying or asking us to do. This is related to the deference to authority or experts – read Post No.: 0378 for more about obeying authority figures.
But of course watch out because con artists can exploit these assumptions too! People who wear lab coats frequently present pseudoscience. In the context of IT security, ‘social engineering’ examples include hackers posing as IT technicians, or wearing suits with name badges on, simply asking workers for the network access password! They ‘look official’ and so are often assumed to be official. Company information found online can even be faked because anyone can set up a website cheaply and quickly. Even if some of the information presented isn’t false, trusting in someone’s true sparkling background and seeing them talk to huge audiences in conferences should not alone be reasons to trust them – a few such people have started or promoted cults or scams that have fooled thousands.
This is not to say that all authority figures or experts shouldn’t be trusted – it’s to say that outward appearances can be misleading. It’s like all that glitters is not gold, but some things that glitter are. We shouldn’t coarsely over-generalise in either direction. And rather than relying on simply trusting in what lots of other people are trusting in, we need to find out more about the person in question and more crucially what they’re exactly proposing here and today. Judge the basis of their arguments rather than them as a person.
Nevertheless, people do like to rely on social proofs to decide what they ought to also do. For instance, people will more likely donate to a cause if they’re told that 70% of other people did so too. (Much more and it might seem implausible though.) Even more persuasive is following our particular peer group norms – knowing that our own peer group is using a particular donation method will increase the chances of us using that same method too. And seeing pictures attached of our friends or colleagues donating to a charity also increases the level of our own donations due to the feeling of peer pressure.
Other people doing something or liking someone is inferred to mean that it’s safe for one to do or like the same thing or person too. There’s also the fear of missing out (FOMO). Popularity therefore breeds further popularity. The reliance on the social proof heuristic makes people desire something more if other people desire it first – especially if one’s peers do so. A key way in which people learn is by copying others, but this can result in people blindly following the herd. For example, people will more likely follow a social media account if they see that many other people like them are already following it. But what’s popular or trending doesn’t necessarily make it an authoritative or reliable information source, or vice-versa. (Those who purchase lots of fake followers can therefore get the ball rolling. There have also been cases of authors or publishers who’ve bought their own books to get their products onto the best sellers lists, which then attracted genuine sales because many people buy what appears popular. As you should be able to tell – I’m not the kind to use such expedients!)
It’s a cognitive shortcut based on the assumption that other people have already done the homework to verify or trust in something – but this is indeed a lazy and fallible assumption. So people frequently subconsciously behave like sheep due to the effect of social proofs (although this is arguably a slur on innocent fluffy sheep!)
People’s intuitions tell them that if other people are doing something and they seem okay then it must be good and safe enough. This efficiently (or lazily) saves one’s own energies and efforts in researching or testing something for oneself, or thinking for oneself. People, especially younger people, tend to conform with their peer crowds also because it’s socially safer than going alone and appearing ‘abnormal’ or an ‘outcast’. Many people also believe in ‘the wisdom of the crowd’. The social proof heuristic works most powerfully on those who feel unfamiliar or unsure of what to do in a particular situation and so must look towards others for what to do – the least informed or knowledgeable people are therefore more likely to just follow the herd, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective for if you don’t know where to go then you don’t want to be split from your tribe and get easily picked off by predators or rival tribes. Overall and in general, a herd is safer for being a herd even though it might not be the most optimum choice for some of those in it. Yet the crowd isn’t always correct even overall or in general (well many entire tribes or even civilisations have gotten wiped out or disappeared in the past!) This is one of the values of embracing diversity within our groups. Woof!
In a world full of misinformation, large herds can follow what’s not best for them or wider society – a prime example exists today regarding those who aren’t taking this coronavirus seriously to protect themselves, as well as critically each other. When people believe that they’re not following the herd, they often still are, but just a different one because they haven’t really thought for themselves but have simply followed those who are saying what they personally want to believe.
If there’s already an initial, generally-agreed position or view within a group of people then group discussions between these people will tend to reinforce and intensify those initial average opinions – for instance, highly bigoted views will form if the initial opinions of the group members were only slightly bigoted to begin with. In an inter-group setting, an ingroup’s norm will be the position that maximises the similarity of all of its own members whilst potentially minimising its similarity to other groups, which therefore results in stark inter-group divisions – so the conservative will become more conservative, and the liberal will become more liberal, for instance. This ‘group polarisation’ can be seen with cliques, gangs, online groups, sports club fans and political supporters, where like-minded members intensify each other’s shared attitudes.
People want to fit in and be accepted by their peers hence social proofs and social comparisons are quite influential on their value-laden judgements, whilst persuasive arguments will be more influential regarding issues that have a factual element. Because alliances are hard to change, the best strategy is to not let harmful groups form in the first place, if possible. Grouping delinquents together is therefore not a great strategy because they’ll just reinforce each other’s attitudes and behaviours.
TV shopping channel hosts could say, “If the operators are busy then please call again” because this conjures up images of high demand and therefore high desire in the product being promoted. This plays to that herd mentality as well as that FOMO – when people are uncertain about something, they’ll most likely follow the lead of the herd. So to be more persuasive, make it seem like everyone else is doing what you want them to do, such as by pointing out that this is the best-selling product, or asking for people to join their fellow guests in reusing towels in this hotel, or stating that consumer surveys show that this product is the tastiest compared to its competitors in blind tasting tests.
There are many different herds one could follow though, so to make it even more persuasive, link the social proof to a tighter, more similar group that the person may belong to, such as by stating that 75% of people who stayed in this room reused their towels, or these are the most popular pies in their local town, or this is how most people in their department voted in the past. This is because we primarily follow those most close or somehow even just tenuously connected to us (our ‘provincial norms’). Sometimes we can fail to point out such a fact when it’s true because when the desirable behaviour is the norm, it seems unnecessary to mention it – but other people might not know about it. So be sure to point out the desirable norms, and point out the right herd too i.e. the herd most similar, closest or connected to the target customer or audience.
To get someone to actually more likely follow through with executing a call to action (instead of them just saying, “Yeah I’ll do it” but then they never do!) – it helps to not only give them reasons to act, and to personally ask each person if they’re going to act, but to also ask them how and when they’re going to act and where they’ll be just before they act. This more concretely plans and mentally vividly walks them through the process of acting, it helps them to schedule the action, and it helps them to remember to act come the time. Very often, many failures to act are not motivational failures but failures in planning – so help them to plan the act.
So secure an early commitment, get them to actually say that they’re going to act, help them to plan the action or even walk them through the registration right now (e.g. on the phone) if relevant and possible. Also state that everybody else, who’s similar to them, is going to be there or is going to do it – emphasise a high turnout as a social proof. For example, if it’s an election, state, as the kind of person who votes, they’ll be joining millions of others like them to vote on Thursday. Appeal to ‘the person who acts’ rather than the ‘action’ too, such as the importance of being a voter rather than the importance of the vote.
A more dramatic tactic is to say that you’re going to divulge information to everybody about whether they and their neighbourhood, colleagues or peers had acted afterwards (although this could be coercive and breach privacy laws!) Another is to state the statistics of whether they’ve acted or not before and how it compares to the average in their area. Or to say that you may call them up afterwards to discuss how the process went, which presses for the accountability in the person’s actions/inactions. These (possibly highly unethical!) tactics are about exploiting peer pressures and checking up on whether people did act. You could also try exploiting environmental channel factors to nudge them into action too.
In a nutshell – especially in ambiguous or unfamiliar social settings, we tend to copy the actions of the herd in an attempt to reflect the appropriate behaviour for a given situation. We look for social proofs. But this assumes that other people are behaving correctly in that given situation in the first place and aren’t just copying each other’s mistakes!