Our surroundings and the behaviour of those around us have a powerful influence on our behaviour.
In his book Influence, Robert Caldini gives the example of the laughter tracks you hear on lamer sitcoms or comedies. You have probably wondered why some comedies have the laughter track, particularly when the show is not very funny.
Caldini gives three reasons. Canned laughter has been consistently shown to cause, “an audience to laugh longer and more often when humorous material is presented and to rate the material as funnier.”
It’s a no-brainer. Canned laughter makes lame comedies seem less lame.
Lab experiments into social proof have shown this phenomenon many times over.
Usually the subject is asked something that requires their subjective choice. It could be they are shown a picture and then have to pick that person out from a line-up. This is a relatively easy task.
When people are tested individually, they can readily pick the right person out of the line-up.
Then the researcher asks people to join groups to pick the person out. To liven things up, there are actors within the group insisting that a different person in the line-up is the right person. In this scenario, many of the subjects will change their minds and go along with the group.
But why? The answer is again social proof. We are strongly influenced by the behaviour of people around us.
There are sound evolutionary reasons for this.
Imagine a time thousands of years ago with humans living a precarious existence. People lived in social groups and sticking together increased any one individual’s chances of survival. Reacting to the group and conforming to that behaviour has deep evolutionary roots.
Today, this same behaviour can be seen in a myriad of ways, from the spread of different fashions, to musical styles to political attitudes, but all show how individuals repeatedly and subconsciously conform to social norms.
Social proof can be the difference that makes people chose your brand, particularly in an age of social media, digital recommendations and so on. It is also a human trait that can easily be gamed. One journalist managed to have his garden shed listed on TripAdvisor as the best restaurant in London, with frequent, desperate calls to reserve tables despite the restaurant not existing at all.
Social proof – how consumers look to others when making decisions; how social proof can be used creatively, and how it can backfire – is just one of many subjects covered in the IDM Professional Certificate in Behavioural Economics.