The Influence of Social Proof: Developers, Get Your Message Out Early

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By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

social proofOne of the lessons Chevron CEO John Watson learned from environmental opponents to the Keystone XL Pipeline is that energy companies need to be more pro-active, get out early, be factual and address public concerns fully.

The same can apply to developers across all property sectors in land use politics.  But this is not just to counter opposition to your project, it’s to prevent the unaware or undecided from following their herd without having the benefit first of good information from you.

When people are faced with uncertainty about how they should act, they look to others for social cues on appropriate behavior.  This is the principle of social proof, which can help explain a variety of human conduct.

It can also influence people in not only conscious but subconscious ways.  For instance, as Robert Cialdini states in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, this is why laugh tracks are still employed by television executives for situation comedies.  Despite the fact that people recognize this as manufactured laughter, research has shown that people laugh longer and more often when these devices are used.

Social proof can also help us understand the Werther effect.  This phenomenon was named after a novel written by Johann von Goethe in 1774 entitled Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther).  The book, in which the main character commits suicide, sparked a wave of suicides across Europe.  Today, this effect refers to an increase in the suicide rate in the wake of a highly publicized suicide.

The bystander effect is a product of social proof as well.  This effect arises in circumstances where a person might require emergency aid such as an accident but, because the need is unclear, bystanders rely on others for evidence.  That is, if witnesses don’t see other people reacting then they are likely to interpret the situation as a non-emergency.

Moreover, Cialdini cites several studies which found that social proof is especially effective when we are observing the behavior of people who are similar to us.  He contends this is the reason we see so many testimonials from ordinary people in television advertising.  Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the authors of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, claim that social influence is also why so much advertising invokes the popularity of brands such as the “most people prefer” strategy.

As further evidence of social influence, Thaler and Sunstein point to the numerous conformity studies that have confirmed the results of the Solomon Asch experiments, which we discussed in a previous post (see Engage Supporters, Avoid a Spiral of Silence).  Briefly stated, these studies found that a significant number of people will conform to the majority when they are asked to publicly state their answers to experimental questions after first hearing from others.  This is thought to be primarily the result of social pressure but a recent brain-imaging study suggests that people even become convinced of these inclinations when they conform in these settings.

Therefore, social proof can influence people in several ways.  It is most influential in situations where there is uncertainty but it can also dissuade people from speaking out if they fear they hold a minority viewpoint as we earlier discussed (see Engage Supporters, Avoid a Spiral of Silence).  Now it appears that, left unchecked, it can even convince people of alternative views.  This makes it all the more imperative to get your message out and organize early.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communication and the performing arts. Email Eagan@tscg.biz

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