Today you’re going to learn why news coverage makes school shootings more likely by a factor of more than 30 times, which is pretty insane; how someone can get stabbed to death in front of 38 people and no one does a thing; and why you should always point at the dude in the blue jacket and tell him to help you. If you missed last week’s episode about weapons of influence, don’t worry. I explain the series now, but you should absolutely go back and listen to it.
For those of you who were here last week this is going to serve as a quick refresher on the topic. This is the third episode in a six part series based on the bestselling book Influence by Robert Cialdini. If you love that book you’re going to find this to be a great refresher on the core concepts, and if you haven’t read it yet some of this stuff is going to blow your mind.
So, what are the six weapons of influence? “Reciprocation”, which we talked about two weeks ago. Highly recommend you go back and listen to that episode, as well as the second one, which is “consistency and commitment tendency”, which we talked about last week; “social proof”, which we’re going to talk about today; “liking”, “authority”, and “scarcity”. Each one of these weapons can be a powerful tool in your tool belt, and something to watch out for when others try to wield them against you. Alone each of them can create crazy outcomes in our lives, and in social situations, but together or combined, they can result in huge impacts.
In episode one we talked about the biological limits of the human mind. If you haven’t listened to that episode yet you should really go back and check it out after you listen to the Weapons of Influence series, or even just after you listen to this particular podcast, because it explains how these automatic click-whirr responses get triggered when cognitive biases, like social proof, come into play. It explains how some of these evolutionarily beneficial traits and behaviors can sometimes result in crazy, ridiculous outcomes.
In episode one we talked about the example of the mother turkey taking care of a polecat, which is one of those examples, and in the last two episodes of Weapons of Influence we’ve gone through dozens of research studies and examples that show how tiny little tweaks in behavior can result in substantial differences in outcome solely based on activating, or triggering, cognitive biases.
The weapons of Influence series- and this is again the third part; we’re going to talk about “social proof”- is really going to dig into the meat of some of the most powerful cognitive biases that can impact your mind, and we’re going to learn how these can be used to manipulate you if you don’t know how to defend against them, and how they can be part of your arsenal if you learn how to harness them. Here’s how Cialdini describes the impact of these weapons of influence: Quote, “Each principle has the ability to produce a distinct kind of automatic mindless compliance from people that is a willingness to say ‘yes’ without thinking first.”
Today we’re going to talk about “social proof”. It’s so powerful it can literally override someone’s desire to live. Have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t know what was going on? Maybe in a foreign country, or a new city, and you get caught up in something and think, “What am I supposed to do next? What am I supposed to do here?” Do you ever have that tendency to look around and see what other people are doing? They probably know what to do so you follow them; get in line; etcetera; right? That’s “social proof” and sometimes social proof can be totally conscious. If you’re in a foreign country and you go somewhere and you don’t know where to stand; you don’t know where to line up; you don’t know how to eat your food; you don’t know what the customs are; you look around and you figure out, “How’s everybody else doing it?” and you consciously imitate them. That’s a conscious example of social proof, but there are also a number of ways social proof can manifest itself totally subconsciously. Like I said at the top, “It is an incredibly powerful phenomenon.” Literally in many cases can override the desire to live. Here’s how Cialdini describes it in Influence: “This principle states that we determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct. The principle applies especially to the way we decide what constitutes correct behavior. We view a behavior as correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it.”
This week is going to get a bit darker than some of the other weeks as we look at some of the crazy things social proof can motivate people to do. As I said before, “It’s literally so powerful that it some instances it can result in people committing suicide as a result of social proof.”
Here’s another quote from Influence: “Work like Phillips helps us appreciate the awesome influence of the behavior of similar others. Once the enormity of that force is recognized it becomes possible to understand one of the most spectacular acts of compliance of our time, the mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana. If you remember- if you’ve ever heard of Jonestown- it’s the instance where a huge cult of people all drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid and killed themselves, and that’s something the we will talk about in a minute, but something that is a striking and haunting example of the ridiculous power of social proof.
One of the most simple experiments, and it’s just something -it’s a little bit more uplifting than some of these other ones- but I call it “The Dog Terror Experiment”, and it was conducted in 1967 on nursery school age children. They were chosen because specifically they were terrified of dogs, and the experiment was really basic. Essentially they had these children who were really scared of dogs watch a little boy play with the dog, and have a lot of fun, and be happy for 20 minutes a day. These children- the result of just watching that video produced such as drastic change in these children that were terrified of dogs that after only four days 67% of them were willing to climb in a playpen and play with a dog, with being literally terrified of dogs four days earlier. That shows you how someone who’s very similar to you- and similarity is one of the key drivers of social proof- people who are really similar to you, just watching a video of them doing something can subconsciously change your perception. It can overcome phobias; that’s how powerful social proof is as a phenomenon.
The next instance of social proof, and this isn’t necessarily an experiment, but it demonstrates a concept which is called “pluralistic ignorance”. It’s something that’s pretty shocking, but you may have heard of it if you’ve dug in or done much reading about psychology, but it’s the infamous incident of Kitty Genovese. I’ll read you this quote from Influence: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable law abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice the sound of their voices, and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights, interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault. One witness called after the woman was dead. That was two weeks ago today, but assistant chief inspector Fredrick M. Wilson, in charge of the borough’s detective activities and a veteran of 25 years of homicide investigations, is still shocked. He can give a matter-of-fact resuscitation of many murders, but the Kew Gardens slaying baffles him. Not because it is a murder, but because quote unquote: ‘Good people failed to call the police,’ end quote. How does something like that happen? How does somebody get stabbed in front of 38 people and nobody does anything to stop it? Again, it’s a phenomenon called “pluralistic ignorance”, and it’s a manifestation of social proof. What happened in the Kitty Genovese stabbing, and a lot of psychologist have talked about this; have researched this; have written about it; but essentially it’s the idea- and I’m sure everybody has thought this or felt this at some time: If you’ve ever driven by somebody with their car broken down on the side of the road and you think, “Oh, somebody’s going to help them,” right? That’s what pluralistic ignorance is. It’s the idea that every one of those 38 people saw this happening, heard this happening, and they thought to themselves, “Somebodies got to be calling the police. Somebodies got to be doing something. Somebody else is helping, so I don’t need to help,” or “I don’t want to help,” or “I don’t want to be another phone call into the police,” or whatever. The reality is because every single person felt that way, and thought the same thing, no one did anything and she was murdered in front of 38 bystanders, all of them which could have potentially saved her life. That’s pretty shocking and it shows you how social proof can have a huge impact.
Another similar experiment was conducted in Toronto in 1971. They had a single bystander- they created situations where there was a single bystander, and then they sort of created some kind of faux “emergency situation”; somebody collapsed on the ground, or something like that. In the instances where there was a single bystander, 90% of the time the single person helped the person who was having some kind of an emergency situation. In the instance where they then planted two passive bystanders to simply sit there and watch as the emergency situation- quote unquote- unfolded. In that instance only 16% of people helped the person who looked like they were having the emergency situation. So, if it happened to be one person walking down the street, and this person collapses on the ground and is writhing around, 90% of the time that person is going to help the person who’s on the ground struggling, but if you just plant two people standing there and watching, only 16% of people will then help the person who’s on the ground. And again, that’s “pluralistic ignorance” manifesting itself. It’s an example of how social proof can shape our behavior even if we’re not cognizant of it; even at a subconscious level.
The next example of social proof is something called the “Werther effect”, or as I like to call it, “Why I don’t like the evening news.” The Werther effect is this fascinating phenomenon where they discovered that every time a suicide is published in the news, there’s a massive uptick in suicides, and related suicides, and suicides that are very similar to that particular kind. I’ll quote here from Influence: “The Werther effect from examining the suicide statistics of the United States between 1947 and 1968 found that within two months of every front page suicide story, an average of 58 more people than usual killed themselves. In a sense, each suicide story killed 58 people who otherwise would have gone on living.” That’s pretty wild; it’s pretty fascinating. Again, they did a statistical analysis over a 20 year period where they controlled for seasonality; they controlled for age; they controlled for all these different factors; and they basically found that because of the idea that these people- again it’s about similar others; people who are like you- there’s this subconscious tendency that as soon as you see somebody who is like you doing something, it suddenly kind of enters the realm of “acceptable behavior”, or behavior that’s okay for you to do. Or maybe it’s like, “Oh, well somebody just like me did this. Maybe it’s something that I should be thinking about. Maybe it’s something that I should be doing.” Sometimes that can be good; sometimes that can be bad; sometimes it can be really, really bad. It blows my mind, but every time they publish a front page story about a suicide 58 more people, then otherwise would have, kill themselves.
There’s actually a related inference from the Werther effect, and I’m sure you might be thinking about it now, but I’ll read this quote from Influence and then we’ll talk about it: “Back in the 1970s our attention was brought to the phenomenon in the form of airplane hijackings, which seemed to spread like airborne viruses. In the 1980s our focus shifted to product tamperings, such as the famous case of Tylenol capsules injected with cyanide, and Gerber baby food products laced with glass. According to FBI forensics experts, each nationally publicized incident of this sort spawned an average of 30 more incidents. More recently we’ve been jolted by the specter of contagious mass murders occurring first in the workplace setting, and then, incredibly, in the schools of our nation. I don’t think that could be timely, or more relevant, today. When you think about the fact that mass shootings have become something that everybody’s talking about now in the United States, and it’s amazing, but when you think about it: every time we publish, and blow up, and talk nonstop incessantly about these things, FBI research and statistical analysis has shown every time one of these events gets publicized it creates 30 copycat events. That’s mind-blowing to me, and it’s one of the reasons that- and maybe we’ll talk about this in a future podcast- but I really… I don’t read the local news; I don’t read the evening news because it’s filled with so much negativity, but I won’t go down that rabbit hole right now.
So, what are the practical takeaways that we can learn about social proof, and this incredibly powerful phenomenon, and how can we take these lessons and apply them to our daily lives? Remember “social proof” is the conclusion that people often use other’s behavior in order to decide how they should handle situations. Especially when dealing with uncertainty. To quote Cialdini again: “The principle of social proof states that one important means that people use to decide what to believe, or how to act in a situation, is to look at what other people are believing or doing there. Powerful imitative effects have been found among both children and adults, and in such diverse activities as: purchase decisions, charity donations, and phobia remission. The principle of social proof can be used to stimulate a person’s compliance with a request by informing the person that many other individuals- the more the better- are, or have been, complying with it.”
Cialdini also nails the two most important implications of social proof in this quote: “Social proof is most influential under two conditions. The first is “uncertainty”. When people are unsure, when the situation is ambiguous, they are more likely to attend to the actions of others and to accept those actions as correct. In ambiguous situations, for instance, the decisions of bystanders to help are much more influenced by the actions of other bystanders then when the situation is a clear-cut emergency. The second condition under which social proof is most influential is “similarity”. People are more inclined to follow the lead of similar others.”
So, how do people make use of that? How do you see that manifesting itself in everyday life? Obviously there’s a lot of those negative consequences. One of the smaller ways that you see it, or one of the ways that people apply it in a sales context, is through the use of testimonials, or through the use of: “50 million households can’t be wrong that they’re buying XYZ,” right? Or, when you see your friends doing something and you want to do it as well, right? Trends- in a lot of ways- are kind of manifestations of social proof, but another way that you can kind of combat some of the implications of pluralistic ignorance, which is the Kitty Genovese phenomenon that we talked about before, is by using specific call-outs. Here is what Cialdini says, “Point directly at that person and no one else: ‘you sir in the blue jacket, I need help. Call an ambulance.’ With that one utterance you would dispel all the uncertainties that might prevent or delay help. With that one statement you will have put the man in the blue jacket in the role of the rescuer.” So, if you’re ever in a situation, and it’s an emergency and you’re being robbed, or being- you’re choking, or have some kind of medical situation and there’s a group of people, single out an individual person. Point to them and ask them specifically to help you. That eliminates the pluralistic ignorance; that eliminates social proof from kind of combating people from potentially being able to help you.
Another way that you can potentially use social proof to your advantage is by figuring how to arrange group conditions. If you’re in a management context- or something like that- to leverage social proof for your benefit. You want to be able to kind of demonstrate: “Hey, here’s how XYZ is doing it. Here’s how our competitors are doing it. Here’s how similar others are doing it,” right? Because similarity is one of the most powerful drivers of social proof, but there’s a lot of applications of social proof in day-to-day life and sales testimonials; all kinds of different things. So, it’s something that has these huge social implications. If you think about school shootings; you think about mass suicide- all this type of stuff- but it also has a lot of implications in our day-to-day life, and it’s something that- it’s really, really hard bias to combat. One of the ways you can defend yourself against it is kind of cultivating that ability to stop and say, “Hey, why am I doing this?” If you catch yourself saying, “Well, everybody’s doing this so I should think about doing it too,” that’s a red flag, and that’s something that you should really think about: “Hey, hold on. Pump the brakes. Maybe I shouldn’t be doing that. Maybe I should think this through,” and more logically really come to a conclusion then just be influenced by similar others, and kind of fall prey to social proof.