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Friday, June 22, 2012

All your friends are reading this

Have you ever found yourself in a foreign situation where it was unclear what you should be doing and what is the proper way to act?  Did you find yourself looking unto others around you as an example for guiding your own behavior?  This is a very common situation that most people are very likely familiar with.  If you can relate, you have been affected by Social Proof.

Social proof leads us to look at others to determine what is the correct behavior for the situation that we are in.  More often than not, when a lot of people are doing something, it's usually the right thing to do.  So, it makes sense why this phenomena  is so powerful and guides people's behavior.  We are risk averse and most of us won't publicly go "against the crowd" and take social risks, which can end in public embarrassment.  Most of us are also imitators, and not initiators.  Imitation is safe.  Imitation doesn't involve taking risks and paving new paths.  If the crowd is acting in a particular way, we assume they know something we don't.  Of course, sometimes the problem is that everyone is thinking the same thing and no one actually knows something you don't.

We are especially prone to following the actions of others when the situation is full of uncertainty and we are unsure of ourselves.  This is taken a step further if we consider the individuals we are observing as similar to ourselves.  For instance, if you are a college student, you are much more likely to take social hints from fellow college students than from seniors.

Advertisers realize the power of Social Proofing and they use it whenever possible.  Think about all the times you have seen an "average customer" or "ordinary person" give a testimony for a particular product.  One recent example that comes to mind is a commercial by ITT Tech.  They often show actual students from their program talking about their successes:

The advertiser is using Social Proof to get its point across.  The audience is much more likely to relate to a student than a professor. They are also much more likely to follow a student's words, who they are more likely similar to.

It's a shame that public agencies don't utilize similar strategies.  For instance, I mentioned a Metro advertisement in a previous blog entry that urged drivers to take the subway to the Dodgers Stadium.  This ad can be made much more effective through the inclusion of a picture depicting a baseball fan taking the metro.  A slogan could be used as well: "Thousands of drivers like yourself have switched.  Why haven't you?"  This ad would apply the principles of Social Proof and be more effective at promoting behavioral change.

The next time you find yourself squirming and looking around for social clues, realize that you are already under the powerful influence of Social Proof.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Get em' to commit

Being consistent with your beliefs, staying true to your word, and keeping your promises are all characteristics that most of us strive for.  Why is this so?  Perhaps part of the explanation is the way people view inconsistent individuals.  These individuals are generally seen as unpredictable, fickle, uncertain unreliable, untrustworthy, confused, and possibly mentally ill.  Put simply, a person who generally doesn't stick to his word and behave consistently is viewed unfavorably and not respected.  Such a situation is obviously very troubling and detrimental in both social and professional settings.  Although a case could perhaps be made that two-faced individuals get far in the professional world... On the other hand, if a person is consistent and true to his beliefs, he is often respected and admired.  This individual is often seen as someone you can trust and rely on because they aren't going to change their minds and back out of commitments.

Given how strong the pressure of being consistent is and the severe social consequences of failing to be consistent, it shouldn't be surprising that these same tendencies can be used to manipulate individuals in a variety of settings towards beneficial or detrimental ends.  One of the main paths for utilizing the strong desire to be consistent is through extracting commitments.  If you can make an individual  take a stand, ideally in a manner that involves others being aware of the commitment, then you might be able to set the consistency machinery in motion.  Once the stand is taken, there is a strong tendency to act in accordance to that initial commitment or else risk being viewed as inconsistent and suffer the consequences.  An additional step can be taken to make the commitment even stronger.  You can ask the person to describe why they are making the commitment.  This creates an even greater initial investment and makes it that much more likely that consistency pressures will win out.

Additionally, commitments can be used to change a person's self-image.  Once this change occurs, its effects are lasting and can apply to other relevant situations. Once the pressure to be consistent is set in motion, it is very difficult to stop.  The new commitment takes on a life of its own and future decisions, thinking patterns, and perspectives start to be filtered through the lens of the commitment.  In essence, all upcoming commitments and decisions further strengthen the initial one that started the trend.  For instance, if you get a person to publicly admit they value volunteer work, you will have an easier time convincing them to volunteer their time and show support in a variety of different settings.  This individual will also more likely  be favorable towards arguments that emphasize the benefits of civic engagement and volunteerism.  Every time a new related situation arises, the committed individual has to ask himself: "Is my current decision in line with what I promised I would do?" If the individual rejects your requests, he has the difficult task of internally (and perhaps externally) justifying his inconsistent behavior.  People generally do not enjoy being seen as fickle or inconsistent with their behavior and priorities, especially if others are aware of their initial commitments.

These behavioral findings can be applied in a variety of real-world settings.  For instance, I recently saw an ad by Metro for taking the subway to the Dodgers stadium.  The poster was advertising a shuttle service that leaves from Union Station and takes passengers to the Dodgers Stadium on game nights. This particular ad  could have been improved by the addition of messages such as, "Do you enjoy traffic? Do you enjoy the frustration of trying to find parking AND having to pay for it? Do you enjoy spending money on gas?"  These questions could get the audience to commit to a particular perspective that would make it more favorable for taking the subway.  The onlookers might think, "Wait a minute.. if I agree with these statements, why do I keep driving to the stadium and dealing with all this nonsense?"  The poster could end with this punchline, "Yet you still drive to the stadium instead of taking the subway..."  A poster such as this could potentially be much more effective than the current bland one being used which merely advertises the existence of the service and does nothing else to change behavior.

These findings can also be applied in another example dealing with community involvement.  For instance, the organization "TreePeople" allies itself with members of the community to plant trees, install bioswales, and construct rain gardens (in addition to many other projects).  The success of these projects largely depends on the continual involvement of the community members because without constant maintenance, the trees can wither away and die, the rain gardens can be infested with weeds, and the bioswales can get clogged with trash.  To help ensure continued involvement by community members, TreePeople can ask for a verbal or public commitment.  For instance, during the initial big gathering when the project is being constructed or installed, the staff members can ask all the community members present to verbally pledge their continued support.  This pledge should be asked after the work for the day is finished and the volunteers have already made the initial commitment.  Another idea might involve displaying a plaque on the property of one of the homeowners in the neighborhood.  The plaque can briefly mention the project and publicly display the continued support of the members of the community.  Later on, when maintenance is required, it will hopefully be more difficult for these community members to not get involved because doing so would mean they are being inconsistent with their initial pledge.

Whatever methods are ultimately used, the goal should be to tap into the powerful desire to be consistent.  Once this mechanism is accessed, behavioral change and compliance is much more likely.

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