Social proof is a powerful influencer.
I’ve read a good deal of the writings of Robert Cialdini. He is well known for his studies on influence and the factors associated with it. He has put forth that there are six key principles of influence. They are; reciprocity, commitment, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity. One of the most researched of his six principles of influence is social proof.
What is social proof? The Wikipedia definition is, “a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior for a given situation.” It goes on to point out, “The effects of social influence can be seen in the tendency of large groups to conform to choices which may be either correct or mistaken, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as herd behavior. Although social proof reflects a rational motive to take into account the information possessed by others, formal analysis shows that it can cause people to converge too quickly upon a single choice, so that decisions of even large groups of individuals may be grounded in very little information.”
If you’ve never read any of Cialdini’s work, you’ve likely still heard of some of the studies his work is based on. I’ve used some of these famous experiments in presentations over the years. I love the Asch Conformity Experiments, mainly because of how obvious the correct answers are in his work. Bear with me as I expose these experiments more fully. From Wikipedia:
“In 1951, Solomon Asch of Swarthmore College conducted one of his first conformity laboratory experiments, laying the foundation for his remaining conformity studies. The conformity experiment was published on two occasions.
Male college students participated in a simple “perceptual” task. In reality, all but one of the participants were “confederates” (i.e., actors), and the true focus of the study was about how the remaining student (i.e., the real participant) would react to the confederates’ behavior.
Each participant was placed in a room with seven “confederates”. Confederates knew the true aim of the experiment, but were introduced as participants to the “real” participant. Participants were shown a card with a line on it, followed by a card with three lines on it (lines labeled A, B, and C, respectively). Participants were then asked to say aloud which line (i.e., A, B, or C) matched the line on the first card in length. Each line question was called a “trial”. Prior to the experiment, all confederates were given specific instructions on how they should respond to each trial. Specifically, they were told to unanimously give the correct response or unanimously give the incorrect response. The group sat in a manner so that the real participant was always the last to respond (i.e., the real participant sat towards the end of a table). For the first two trials, the participant would feel at ease in the experiment, as he and the confederates gave the obvious, correct answer. On the third trial, the confederates would all give the same wrong answer, placing the participant in a dilemma. There were 18 trials in total and the confederates answered incorrectly for 12 of them. These 12 were known as the “critical trials”. The aim was to see whether the real participant would change his answer and respond in the same way as the confederates, despite it being the wrong answer.”
The results may or may not shock you, depending on your familiarity with these experiments. “In the control group, with no pressure to conform to confederates, the error rate was less than 1%. An examination of all critical trials in the experimental group revealed that one-third of all responses were incorrect. These incorrect responses often matched the incorrect response of the majority group (i.e., confederates). Overall, in the experimental group, 75% of the participants gave an incorrect answer to at least one question.” The confederates were able to influence others into giving obviously incorrect answers. Social proof is powerful.
The most famous of these were conducted by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960’s. His work always used “confederates” to influence the behaviors of others in the group. The most alarming and perhaps important study being his controversial work on obedience to authority conducted while he was a professor at Yale. The video below will give an a deeper look at those studies. They are disturbing look at the power of social proof, to say the least.
A decidedly more light-hearted experiment was conducted by Milgram and a couple of his research assistants on the streets of New York in 1968. In this experiment they first watched instances of a single “confederate” standing on a street corner and simply stare into the sky for 60 seconds. When only a single person was staring at the sky, a very tiny faction of the pedestrians passing by joined in the behavior. They simply ignored him and walked by. In the second set of experiments, they monitored instances where five people stared at the sky for 60 seconds. In this case four times the people joined in looking up at the sky with them.
In his book, The Wisdom Of Crowds, James Surowiecki explained, “When the psychologists put fifteen men on the corner, 45% of all passers by stopped, and increasing the cohort of observers yet again made more than 80% of pedestrians tilt their heads and look up. This study appears, at first glance, to be another demonstration of people’s willingness to conform. But in fact it illustrated something different, namely the idea of “social proof”, which is the tendency to assume that if lots of people are doing something or believe something, there must be a good reason why. This is different from conformity: people are not looking up at the sky because of peer pressure or a fear of being reprimanded. They’re looking up at the sky because they assume – quite reasonably – that lots of people wouldn’t be gazing upward if there weren’t something to see. That’s why the crowd becomes more influential as it becomes bigger: every additional person is proof that something important is happening.”
And so this brings me to the topic of my post today, the value of confederates. Sometimes articles on the principles of influence come with a disclaimer that goes something like this one; “Be careful how you use the six principles – it is very easy to use them to mislead or deceive people – for instance, to sell products at unfair prices, or to exert undue influence.”
I’d like to turn that disclaimer around a bit. Don’t be afraid to use the six principles of influence – just don’t mislead or deceive people.
These principles, especially social proof, are used daily, consciously and unconsciously, in marketing in general, and via social media specifically. Let me give you an example some of you may be familiar with. It is common, for example, for conferences to “seed” audiences with people who are there to say positive things about the sessions in social media. The tactic was alluded to by Peter Brewer in his recent post entitled, How social do you want your next conference event to be? In it he suggests that one of the techniques conferences should employ is to live-tweet their event “at up to 20 Tweets per speaker session, targeted to your chosen audience from your Twitter account. Monitoring, responding, @replies, retweeting, etc. on Twitter.”
For most conferences, this can’t be done with a single person. It requires a team. And the impact of this team’s actions can have a real influence on the actions of others watching and monitoring a conference via social media streams. For example, at Inman Connect these “confederates” are called, “Ambassadors.” What Inman has done is employ a social proof tactic to the conference realm as it relates to influencing social media. How well this has worked, in terms of impact on bottom line is something only Inman can answer, but the tactic’s impact on the spread of specific messages seems positive from my perspective. Further, they are not hiding their confederates, as social scientists did in their experiments. They are open with who they are and with their objectives. And given the quality and qualities of the people they’ve chosen over the history of their events, it’s clear to me that the motives of the group are pure. It is a positive way to use social proof.
Most of us aren’t conferences, however. We’re people and businesses. If you’re using social media to attract attention to your business, the question you should be asking yourself is this, who are the confederates in my social media experiments? Who can I depend on to influence the opinion of others? If you don’t know or don’t have any, I’d point to social proof as a reason why you should consider finding a few. Just be sure to use your powers for good and not evil.