Cialdini: Social Proof (1)

We are going through Bob Cialdini’s seminal book “Influence” and are about to look into the third category of tactics that trigger automatic responses – social proof.

So why does canned laughter work? It does, by the way. That is why TV executives use it so liberally. It makes viewers laugh more and longer. The answer is that humans often determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct. We do it in many situations, for example, by watching how fast other drivers go on a highway. This is a convenient shortcut to deciding how to act.

Consider how often you see ads for products that say “fastest growing” or “largest selling”. Notice that this says nothing about whatsoever about the quality of the product.

This principle works best when the subject loses his or her sense of certainty – when a belief structure is jolted so severely that relying on social proof is the only way forward. So religious sects predicting the end of civilization do not disband when the apocalypse fails to materialize as predicted. Their commitment to the group and desire for converts grows stronger.

This explains the phenomenon of “pluralistic ignorance”.  Research shows that bystanders in a group are less likely to help someone in an emergency than a sole witness. The individuals in the group seem paralyzed by the fact that the other group members do not act. They are unsure what to do, and take the inaction as the cue for what is appropriate. Of course, the likelihood that someone will break out of this pluralistic ignorance goes up when it is obvious that an emergency is at hand. It is the questioning whether action is urgent that opens the door to group paralysis.

If we are in this situation — where group uncertainty is blinding people to the need for assistance — we now know how to get beyond it. Be clear in shouting out that this is an emergency. And target an individual in the group rather than the group itself. These steps dispel the uncertainty and stimulate individual attention.

Uncertainty is one trigger for social proof tactics. But there is one more — similarity (monkey see, monkey do). We will address that next! Stay tuned!

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