CLAIM 2: “social proof” describes all forms of social influence
Social influence may be the most volatile form of applied psychology, producing the best results when applied correctly, but the worst when misapplied.
Exacerbating this is the widespread misapplication of social psychology by industry professionals who routinely treat “social proof” like the only form of social influence.
The success of Dr. Cialdini’s persuasion system is both a blessing and a curse for professionals. What’s great about his system is its small number of simple and effective principles. They’re easy to learn and straightforward to apply.
However, his system’s simplicity is a double-edged sword, leading professionals to falsely believe they understand social psychology while overlooking crucial details.
Industry professionals frequently misuse his system by lumping all types of social influence under the heading “social proof”. Modern psychology and neuroscience show many nuanced forms of social influence that operate in distinct ways.
In this second myth-busting article, I'm taking on more of an industry misunderstanding than a false claim–but it's one that many people make.
So by the end, I hope you'll see distinctions that matter in social influence, improve your ability to spot backfires before they happen, and develop a better sense of the right social influence strategy for different design and marketing projects.
Social psychology needs to be handled with care
Let’s start by looking at the ridiculous hype surrounding digital psychology, with a focus on what professionals in my industry rarely discuss.
Chances are you’ve heard endless praise about the positive impact of applied psychology, with the worst hype-masters claiming it’s like magical ninja voodoo that hijacks your customers’ minds, addicts them, and makes them do what you want.
What you’ll rarely hear is how often backfires and unwanted outcomes occur. Negative outcomes bring shame to those who misapply psychology and can even get you fired, which is something Prof. Stibe (https://transforms.me) and I discovered while undertaking a study on what happens when people misapply digital psychology. Here’s a blog about a study we carried out on psychological backfiring.
During this study, we concluded that social psychology was the most dangerous form of misapplied psychology because it was the most common source of backfires tied to the worst outcomes.
How industry got so misinformed about social psychology
In teaching digital psychology over the last 7 years I’ve become acquainted with several popular misunderstandings.
One I routinely deal with is the widely held belief that Cialdini’s concept of social proof is the only form of social psychology that matters in interactive technology.
If you don’t know his system, here’s some background. Cialdini is a scholar who produced a well researched and practical set of persuasion principles. I don't know any system that is as credible, effective, and easy to learn.
Perhaps this is why his work has inspired so many spin-off blogs and books that extend his principles to various digital applications. Or why there are so many webinars, presentations, and speeches that teach persuasion with his 6 principles.
Every few years someone writes a book or blog on using psychology in technology. The vast majority are not much more than summaries of Cialdini's principles with examples of how they operate in various technology.
Academics cite academics, bloggers cite bloggers, and pop-psychologists cite pop-psychologists. This is why knowledge from the sciences doesn’t reach industry easily or quickly. Cialdini is a rare exception, being one of the few scientists who has had a massive impact on industry.
The biggest problem that I see with Cialdini's system is that he simplified a vast body of science into a small number of principles, which sometimes leads to misjudgment.
Also, many people don't know that Cialdini's system was initially derived from high-pressure sales applications, and though he's broadened the applications over the years, his system remains sales-focused.
Most businesses or organizations have something to sell. So chances are that his principles will be relevant to most organizations, to some degree. However, once you move beyond sales and a few other suitable applications, you’ll need to get your advice on applied psychology from more specialized sources.
Why it's dangerous to misunderstand social influence
You may have heard the saying, “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing”. What makes it dangerous is that it misleads people into thinking they’re more expert than they really are.
Industry is full of professionals who have learned Cialdini's basic 6 principles and use “social proof” to describe all forms of social psychology and influence.
Social proof is the idea that people look to others for cues on how to act in a given situation. Many consider it synonymous with a social norm while others suggest it's distinct. Many behavioral scientists including myself see it as virtually the same concept.
Years ago I completed a statistical meta-analysis (https://www.jmir.org/2011/1/e17/) and was shocked to learn that social influence was not just one of the most powerful contributors to behavior change but potentially the worst detractor, too.
Here’s an example of bad social influence: have you ever judged a digital marketing company to be incompetent because they didn't have enough followers? Or, have you ever deemed a blog not worth reading because there weren't enough shares?
Another example of bad social influence comes from the DARE anti-drug program, where impact studies showed it increased drug use among children. One sarcastic program evaluator argued the program's core message was “everyone's doing drugs except you”.
What people don't understand about social influence is that it starts with awareness of others. This means you're applying social influence the moment you make people aware of what others are doing or what others believe; it also starts when you make them feel like they’re being watched.
It's so easy to turn on the social influence switch that people use it all the time without even realizing it.
Given its massive impact on behavior and ease of deployment, it's no wonder that so many rookie web designers and digital marketers trigger psychological backfires without even realizing what's going on.
This is something Prof. Stibe and I discovered a few years back while investigating how psychology backfires in interactive technology (https://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/108479).
Why social influence matters online
In 2015 I traveled to Boston/Cambridge to give a lecture in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT Media Lab) and start a study with Prof. Stibe on backfiring psychology
As we learned more about each other's work we realized we carried out similar research during our doctorates but from a radically different perspective.
My goal was to integrate all behavioral science systems into one unifying model. Prof. Stibe’s goal was to integrate all the major principles of social influence solely. I went broad; Prof. Stibe went deep.
At the time I didn’t understand why Prof. Stibe would focus on such a small area. For me, social psychology was just one of many domains. I asked him why and his answer completely changed my perspective.
Prof. Stibe explained that few scholars understood how social psychology operated online and that they routinely mistook the principles. He also explained that industry professionals were making the same mistakes, but on an epic scale.
Industry is full of social psychology blunders such as leaderboards that humiliate users, competitive patterns that trigger performance anxiety, peer observation that pushes people into reckless behavior, reverse social norms that accidentally make bad behavior appear desirable, and downward social comparison that causes people to dislike themselves.
Not surprisingly, industry is also full of designers who argue leaderboards motivate people because of social proof. Exercise apps get people to form healthy habits because of social proof, and social media sites drive the sharing of content because of social proof. Studies often show other principles that do a better job of explaining how these interactive design patterns drive user behavior.
Earlier I said that the moment you make users aware of others, you are applying social psychology. You can show them how others are feeling, thinking or acting; or just make them feel like they’re being watched.
I tell my students to think about social psychology like a switch that you can turn on or off, simply by making users aware of other people. Since it’s so easy to apply social psychology, it’s just as easy to misapply it and cause all sorts of accidental harm to the user or your company.
Social influence techniques may be the most powerful and easiest to deploy. This makes them extremely useful but risky, which is why it's important to understand how they operate online.
Seven social psychology principles
In this section, I'll take you through a summary of Prof. Stibe's principles of social influence along with insights on the types of people they work on best, as well as examples of how they operate in digital media.
I hope that you'll start to see how something as simple as a leaderboard operates through a psychological architecture that combines many distinct but mutually reinforcing social influence principles.
Here are the principles:
People cooperate to achieve common goals, creating a win-win context that increases group trust. The types of people who are most sensitive to collaboration appeals are those who enjoy the process of co-creating and collaborating with others.
Applying: To apply these principles in interactive environments, give members a common goal and opportunities to collaborate in its pursuit. To really make it effective, build your system so that it facilitates collaboration and show users the results of their collaboration.
People compete when working against each other to achieve their goals, fostering a win-lose context where competitors mistrust each other. In cases of intra-group competition, like members of sports teams competing with each other, they tend to be over rank or status while members still share a common set of win-win goals. The types of people who are most sensitive to competition are those who are competitive by nature and enjoy competing with others on every level.
Applying: Provide competitors with a common goal and information about other persons or groups pursuing it. Ensure the system stimulates and allows its users to compete among each other.
People are driven to connect with others and build social relationships. Group approval and acceptance is motivating while group rejection and disapproval are demotivating. Group disapproval can be used as a loss-aversion technique if issued as a conditional threat. Those sensitive to recognition feel excited when publicly recognized and honored for their achievements.
Applying: Give opportunities for people to receive feedback from others, showing social approval and the conditions required for it. Ensure the system publicly recognizes participants for their participation.
People learn by seeing others perform a task. To encourage the target behavior, give a demonstration of someone performing it. This works best for those who learn by observing others rather than those who learn entirely on their own.
Applying: Instead of telling someone what to do, show them how to do it. Hands-on tutorial videos are fitting examples of modeling. Also show examples of others performing tasks to model the behavior. Whenever your content contains a demonstrable skill, be sure to include examples of people actually performing it.
The mere presence of other people (real, virtual, or imagined) influences how we perform tasks. It increases the performance of well-known tasks, but the backfire is that it reduces the performance of unfamiliar tasks. It also works by showing users who are already motivated to do something examples of others doing the same thing.
Applying: When someone is performing a task, let the user know their feedback is being provided to a third party. Also, let the person know that other people are able to observe them performing tasks or the outcome of their work. You can also demonstrate the number of participants in the system.
When unsure how to act in a situation, people observe what others are doing to determine the correct way to think, feel or behave. Social pressure is exerted when expectations or judgments are directed at an individual. This principle works best on people who feel a strong need to fit in and feel uncomfortable when they stand out as different from others.
Applying: Show the audience how other people think or behave in relation to the belief or behavior being promoted. Demonstrate to the user what most other users do within the system, how they are currently using the system and any other data that shows what they are doing in large numbers. You can also show how people normally respond to situations the user might be thinking about.
People are constantly comparing themselves to others and making evaluations of higher/lower ranking. Evolutionary psychologists believe social status increases an individual’s survival options by giving them access to greater resources and mating options. This principle works best on people who are extremely sensitive to their ranking in relation to others and engage in constant comparisons of their relative status achievements. There is a positive and negative factor in both upward and downward social comparison. When looking up, someone may feel inspired but they may also feel demotivated by their inferiority. When looking down, they may feel contempt but also sympathy or gratitude.
Applying: Provide a mechanism by which people can compare themselves with others. Demonstrate users’ relative ranking compared to other individuals or groups of people by showing average behaviors.
The backfire in social comparison may be one of the worst in terms of triggering punishing emotions that I believe are tied to self-hatred and depression. So never use social comparisons that could trigger feelings of inadequacy or inferiority, and NEVER use gamification design patterns that may humiliate users by forcing them into demeaning games they never wanted to play. If you’re not on the top, leaderboards can equally be called loser boards. Some of the scientific papers on why Facebook triggers depressive symptoms is tied to social comparison where people are more likely to share photos of themselves in higher-status situations, and more likely to feel like crap when comparing their boring life to all those cherry-picked high-status photos.
If you wish to learn more about social psychology and persuasion principles, check out Prof. Stibe’s extensive body of work at https://transforms.me. I also cover social influence in my training, so stay tuned for any follow-up blogs which I normally put out in my social media and newsletter. With that said, we’d love to hear your experience in applying these principles so be sure to let us know if you find Prof. Stibe’s concepts helpful.