The Ins and Outs of Social Proof as an Influence Technique

It has been estimated that only 5 percent of people in the world are innovators. That means that the vast majority of the world, 95%, are imitators. This understanding of people provides some very powerful opportunities to influence. We can increase our influence with others by giving them something to imitate.

Social Proof

In his best-selling book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini refers to this method of influence as social proof. He describes social proof this way. “One way we determine what is correct is to consider what other people think is correct.” Telling someone that others have made the same decision is an effective way to influence someone towards that same decision. There are a few ways to make this method of influence even more effective. It is more effective if we can show that a large number of people have chosen a particular course of action. We can also suggest that someone, perceived to be an “expert,” also agrees with our suggestion. Finally, we may want to show that people similar to the person we are trying to influence agree with our idea as well.

When Social Proof Does Not Work

In a recent article at Influence at Work, which was founded by Dr. Cialdini, the author shares some interesting information about social proof. This information came from recent studies about why some people do not follow the crowd. This research provides insight into when social proof might not be an effective influence technique. These studies were conducted by social psychologist Jonah Berger at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Berger is an expert in social influence and the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. The two studies dealt with purchasing consumer products and new cars.

In-Groups and Out-Groups

In the first study, participants made choices from consumer products. These included paper towels, clothes, detergents and music. Half of these participants were told what products someone a few years older had chosen. The results were interesting. Participants were 10% more likely to choose the same detergent and paper towels as the older person. They were 15% less likely to choose the same music and clothing. These differences resulted from the impact of social identity. Social identity suggests that people get their identity from the groups they believe themselves to be members of. Items like paper towels and detergents are generally neutral in regards to social identify. Social identity therefore does not adversely impact the effect of social proof. Items such as music and clothing have a much greater connection to a specific social identity. Therefore, the decision of out-group (i.e. older) individuals will tend to have a negative impact on social proof as an influence technique.

Satisfying In-Group Identity and Individualism

In the second study, participants were asked about purchasing new cars. The researchers provided information as to how each car ranked within their in-group. The study used three cars: (1) a black BMW, preferred by 60 percent of the in-group; (2) a silver BMW, preferred by 20 percent; and (3) a black Mercedes, also preferred by 20 percent. Separately, the researchers determined which of the participants had a greater need for uniqueness. The results showed the greater the need for uniqueness, the more likely the participants were to select option (2). It appears these individuals were able to satisfy their social identity by selecting the same make of car as the majority of their group. They were also able to maintain their individuality by selecting a less popular color.

Using Influence Intelligently

Studies such as these remind us of something important. We cannot just apply influence techniques without considering whom we are trying to influence. Effective communication takes work. It is not something we “just do.” This is why we built into the Intelligent Communication approach a proper consideration of those with whom we are communicating. From the outset of an interaction, we must consider the context:

  • With whom are we communicating?
  • About what are we communicating?
  • Do we share a social identity?

Are we likely to be sharing information that is derived from this person’s in-group?
This will guide our preparation for the interaction. It will help us select the right communication and influence techniques. The techniques that will best help us achieve our goals and objectives.

Smart Talk Model of Communication
Smart Talk Model

We also must continually remind ourselves about the individual with whom we are communicating. This is particularly important if we do not share a common in-group. If we are not careful, our mental processes will be too self-focused. We will assume that the person with whom we are communicating will think and feel about things just as we do. This will result in less effective communication.
We must diligently apply the steps of the Think and Feel process in our communication. Of particular importance is the feeling step. When we properly apply the feeling step in Intelligent Communication, we engage our empathy. We engage empathy to try to understand information from the other person’s perspective. Part of this empathic understanding is considering the social identity of the other person. This will help us determine whether the our communication is social neutral or not. Applying this to our interactions will make us more effective communicators. Communicators who achieve goals.
Remember in identifying and considering the impact of social identity in communication, it is always good to be swift to hear and slow to speak.

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