#5 Social Proof: Why we knowingly make stupid choices with our friends

If all of our friends jumped off a cliff, chances are we would too. Same goes if that cliff is a new restaurant, movie or fashion label. In this episode, Mel and Dan look at how our innate desire for social connection can be a marketer’s best friend.

Mel: 00:17 Hey guys, welcome to Bad Decisions.

Dan: 00:20 Congrats on making at least one not bad decision. This is the show that helps us understand why we choose what we choose ...

Mel: 00:26 … Why we think, what we think …

Dan: 00:27 … and how to explore this stuff for fun and commercial gain.

Mel: 00:30 Always in an ethical and professional manner.

Dan: 00:32 Yep, Yep, Yep, Yep, Yep.

Mel: 00:33 I'm Mel Weinberg. I'm a performance psychologist.

Dan: 00:36 I'm Dan Monheit, co-founder of Hardhat, a creative agency built for the digital age. Let's do this.

Mel: 00:47 So, Dan.

Dan: 00:48 Yeah. Well actually no wait, so it's early to be interrupting you but before we start, I think we've got to say, first of all big shout out to all of our listeners who have been subscribing and downloading and super importantly rating and reviewing the show. It's been a massive first few episodes and we're kicking some ass in the podcast charts. So please keep them coming. If you are enjoying the show, tell some friends, write us a review, show us how witty you could be.

Mel: 01:17 Yeah. We do appreciate all of our fans. Can we call them fans?

Dan: 01:21 Yeah.

Mel: 01:21 Was that a bit sneaky?

Dan: 01:22 We mainly appreciate the ones with five star ratings for us.

Mel: 01:25 They are special.

Dan: 01:26 Yep.

Mel: 01:27 So, Dan?

Dan: 01:28 Yes.

Mel: 01:29 Can I take you back a little bit to your teenage years? I know they weren't all that long ago. I want to ask you if you can remember a time when all of your mates wanted to do something but for whatever reason you weren't allowed.

Dan: 01:42 Sure.

Mel: 01:43 Did you ever have that chat with your mom where she goes, “if all your friends went and jumped off a cliff would you jump off a cliff?”

Dan: 01:50 No. No, of course. Probably. Probably once a week I had that conversation with my mum.

Mel: 01:55 I feel like everybody has that and you've got to roll your eyes and just say “of course not mum. I'm not an idiot. I wouldn't jump.”

Dan: 02:03 “I don't want to jump off a cliff, I just want to go to a rave party under a bridge mum. It's not the same thing.”

Mel: 02:07 Totally different. Right?

Dan: 02:08 Yeah.

Mel: 02:08 Well, it turns out that mum's question, cynical and exaggerated as it might be, is actually a pretty good one because what she's picking up on is the fact that your friends don't always make the most rational decisions and she tried to catch you out and say, are you actually going to be able to make the rational decision in that circumstance when all your friends are doing something stupid? The thing is that chances are higher than you think, and that you probably would follow them all off the cliff.

Dan: 02:36 Yeah. If only my mum would just get out of my way and let me go and hang out with my friends at the edge of the cliff.

Mel: 02:41 It could be a cool place to hang out. Who knows but let's think about this for a second, if that actually did happen, what are your options? If you don't do it and all your friends jumped off a cliff and die then you're left alone and you don't have any friends.

Dan: 02:54 Yeah. That sucks. That's a bad option.

Mel: 02:56 That's bad. If they all do it and it's not really that dangerous and turns out jumping off this cliff is actually pretty fun and some thrilling thing to do-

Dan: 03:04 They actually is a Nordic sport, like cliff diving.

Mel: 03:06 People do that.

Dan: 03:07 I wonder what their parents say to them.

Mel: 03:07 That's an interesting question.

Dan: 03:07 Maybe for another episode. Yep.

Mel: 03:13 If that happens then you're the loser who was too afraid to jump and you're going to wear that for the rest of your life if they even stay friends with you.

Dan: 03:19 Yeah.

Mel: 03:20 So not that we're encouraging cliff jumping behaviour on the show, it's not something that we endorse unless it is for-

Dan: 03:26 Nordic and for recreational and athletic purposes.

Mel: 03:28 Of course and if you do that you can feel free to write us a review and tell us all about it as well, but just trying to make the point that we are social creatures by design and so choosing not to do what everybody else is doing is actually a form of social suicide in itself.

Dan: 03:42 Right. So basically what we're saying is our brains would rather us die with friends, than live lonely.

Mel: 03:50 Totally. Our brain is actually wired for connection, where we've said already we're inherently social creatures by design so our brains have actually evolved for us to be like that and we now know thanks to neuroscience that there’s actually particular types of neurons in our brain whose job it is to copy the behaviour that we see other people doing.

Dan: 04:10 Which this is important because this is how little kids learn how to walk and talk and not touch hot things and you know-

Mel: 04:17 All those things-

Dan: 04:17 Copying is important.

Mel: 04:20 It's not you, it's your brain.

Dan: 04:21 Yeah.

Mel: 04:21 So what we're talking about here is the heuristic that is referred to as Social Proof, which is one of the heuristics that we talk about and of all of the heuristics and all of the tricks that our brain plays on us, this is probably one of my favourites and we're allowed to have favourites. Ain't we?

Dan: 04:21 Yeah.

Mel: 04:40 It's probably one of my favourites because it really just illustrates how stupid we really are sometimes.

Dan: 04:47 Right. So let me ask. This is the thing where if we find ourselves maybe in a situation where we don't know exactly what we're meant to be doing, I've never been here before and we see a whole bunch of other people doing something, lining up for something or all going, doing something in a particular way. We just go, I don't know but they all look like they know what they're doing, so I'm just going to copy them exactly.

Mel: 05:08 Yeah. That's spot on. With all of these heuristics, they come to the fore most in times of uncertainty or whenever there's ambiguity or whenever we're looking or we're not sure about what decision to make. So, in those times what we do is we look to our friends. We don't always need to even ask them for advice, we just need to see it or we need to hear about what they've done and that's enough to motivate us to believe that it's going to be good for us as well. The chances are also that we're going to end up enjoying whatever it is that they did more because they told us that we would.

Dan: 05:37 So for me, I guess the most obvious example of where this come to life is where you decide you're going to go out for dinner and especially if you're going out for dinner in a place that you're not used to being ... overseas, interstate, whatever it is. You walk down the street and there's two restaurants side by side and you know nothing about either of those restaurants and objectively they both could be exceptional but you see one restaurant is absolutely jammed and there's a line of people at the front waiting to get in and the restaurant next door is completely empty and what do we do? Do we roll the dice and go to the empty restaurant next door? Of course not. We get in line we say “yeah, I'm happy to wait an hour for a table because this must be a much better restaurant because look how many other people who are clearly not idiots have already selected this out of the two restaurants.”

Mel: 06:25 This is an interesting one because we talk often about the heuristics guiding us towards the most efficient response and this is actually one where we would sacrifice our own time to wait in line and maybe that's just proof of how strong this heuristic really is.

Dan: 06:39 Absolutely. You were saying before that we're wired for connection as humans and I don’t know if you’ve watched a lot of bad prison shows like I tend to, you’ll know the lowest of the low, the worst thing you can do to somebody who's already in prison is to take them away from the people who are probably beating the shit out of them and punish them further by putting them in solitary confinement. So detached from any form of connection whatsoever. So I think that to your point it just shows how strong the desire to mimic and copy and be around other people really is.

Mel: 07:11 I'm going to give you another example and of course it is going to come from the research.

Dan: 07:14 Yes, from the research.

Mel: 07:16 It's research time.

Dan: 07:17 We need research music. Producer Kops can we get some music for introducing research? Yeah. I feel it needs to have a going back in time feel to it.

Mel: 07:34 Well-

Dan: 07:34 Like a harp? To the research!

Mel: 07:42 This one will data particularly dated instrument such as the harp because for this one we're going back to research from the 1950s.

Dan: 07:49 Excellent.

Mel: 07:50 So win yourselves back in time to when psychological research was questionably ethical and well, I'll give you one that would probably still make the bar, as it only involves a little bit of a manipulation of subjects. So the idea for this one is that a participant is brought into a room and there's a number of other participants sitting there and they're all involved in a task where they're presented with a line, a vertical line and that line serves as their reference or their target line. Okay? Then they're shown three other lines, we'll call them line A, line B and line C and they are varying in length and the participants job is-

Dan: 08:24 Budgets in the fifties were pretty small.

Mel: 08:27 All we had to do was draw lines on paper.

Dan: 08:28 Sorry. Keep going.

Mel: 08:31 All they have to do, their only task is to identify which line, A, B or C, is the same size as the target line that they were originally shown and one of the key elements of this is that the task is manipulated so that the correct answer is pretty damn obvious, right? So the three lines are so different that you can pretty clearly see which one is the right line. So here's the catch, what the participant doesn't know is that all of the other participants in the room aren't real participants, they're confederates, they’re in on the study.

Dan: 09:00 You dodgy, dodgy, dodgy psych people ...

Mel: 09:00 Here we go, here comes the deception and the job is, or what the job of these confederates is, is to all identify an incorrect line as the one that matches the target line. So as they go around the room saying which line do you think stayed out loud, which line you think matches the target line? Even though line A might be the obvious correct answer, everybody else has decided that they're going to all say C, okay? So they all say C. Yep, now C the right answer. Yep. I'll go with C. C it looks correct. Okay. When it gets to the last person who is actually the real participants, they. They have no idea what's going on. They can see what the clear answer is but what they actually tend to do is to conform with everybody else even though they clearly know they’re giving the wrong answer.

Dan: 09:47 So they'll sit down and say clearly the answer is A they'll know but because everybody else has just said C, they say C?

Mel: 09:54 So that's why it's over a number of trials about 32 percent of participants agreed with the majority every single time, even though they knew they were wrong and 75 percent did so at least once. So we are very vulnerable and very stupid human beings.

Dan: 09:54 We are so precious, aren't we?

Mel: 10:09 We are.

Dan: 10:10 It's one thing to say we'd rather be dead with our mates than alive by ourselves but clearly we would also be wrong with all of our friends than right by ourselves.

Mel: 10:20 Yeah because what better way to look like an idiot than to do so surrounded by a bunch of other idiots.

Dan: 10:25 This just explain so many parts of our society.

Mel: 10:29 It does.

Dan: 10:31 Wow and I guess collective bad decision making, misguided groups of youths ... It all comes together under social proof. Yeah, yeah, yeah,

Mel: 10:40 Yeah. You understanding bad decisions.

Dan: 10:42 Wow. Alright. So, in the real world is pretty easy to see how this happens. Right? So you're in a lab study or you're at a restaurant and you can see what decisions other people are making and so it's easy to peg yourself to them but I guess for guys that work in internet spaces as I often find myself doing, the internet can be a pretty lonely place and people are trying to make decisions about what restaurants to book or what products to buy, often in the seclusion of their own homes, in their underpants. Not that that makes a difference but I'm just-

Mel: 11:11 Hang on a second. How are you looking at the internet?

Dan: 11:12 In my underpants.

Mel: 11:14 Okay.

Dan: 11:14 So my official internet browsing attire that's why I don't use internet work. So the people of the internet have found some really interesting ways to convey social proof even when there's no other people around. So, one of the earliest examples I remember saying is if you jump on the Kogan.com website for any of our international listeners which we do have some, Kogan.com is one of the biggest online retailers in Australia. Very early on in the peace one of the things that the Kogan website used to do is as you're browsing around it would bring this little pop up in the bottom left or right hand corner telling you that someone from a suburb somewhere near you has just bought a product off this website. It was pretty non-invasive but you just notice it. Notice this gentle nudge or stroke that said, "Hey mate, you're not the only idiot on this website at three in the morning there's other people on here and they're transacting".

Similarly, if we take the restaurant example onto the internet and you see a restaurant that you're looking to go to that's got two reviews with an average of five stars and another restaurant that's got 136 reviews with an average of four stars, you tend to put more faith in where more people have been and more people have endorsed. I don't know, a lot of news websites you see things like how many other people are currently reading this article. So there's lots of interesting tips and tools that we're seeing online players use to reinforce people's behaviour by letting them know other people are doing this as well.

Mel: 12:40 That's right and they actually serve two purposes. The one is to get people in and to convince people if they are uncertain about what choice to make that they'll be making the right choice. The other thing is that when they're already engaged with it, so if they're already reading a news article telling them that five thousand other people are currently reading this article as well, reinforces their enjoyment of what they're actually doing.

Dan: 13:00 It must be good because five thousand other people are also enjoying this.

Mel: 13:03 Can't be a waste of time and if you're wasting your time, hey so is everyone else good.

Dan: 13:07 God we’re idiots … not that Facebook is a time waster at all but Facebook are very prolific with this stuff as well where they do an amazing job of showing you brands or stories or other pieces of content that your other friends like and so you can't help it go, “God if 28 of my friends already like this brand or this product or this venue then geez, I should probably give it a look in as well.”

Mel: 13:29 People have gone even one step further with this where you can actually pay for social proof, right?

Dan: 13:36 Uh-huh.

Mel: 13:38 So, the idea of being able to buy followers on Instagram so you can pay x amount of dollars and they'll give you a thousand followers. What that does is increase your perception of popularity to other people. People think that, okay, other people are following you, this many people are following you, there must be something here worth following, I'm going to join the herd and I'm going to click like or I'm going to click follow as well. So it's, I think a pretty cool offshoot that you can actually now sell the heuristic.

Dan: 14:03 Yeah. Unethically of course but yeah, it's-

Mel: 14:06 Who’s the ethical police now.

Dan: 14:09 It's a bizarre thing and it's always a fundamental rule, it pays to be popular and this is the thing that businesses have known forever. If you are a nightclub, it pays to leave a whole bunch of people waiting out the front, some people driving past think that must be really popular because there's people just queuing up to get in there but the modern economy and the internet have given us a whole bunch of interesting ways to both make people feel they're doing something that lots of other people have selected and also a way of showing people that friends and contacts and people just like them are into whatever it is we want them to buy.

Mel: 14:45 We’ve got to be careful with it though because you know that feeling that you get when you do wait in the club -and look it's been a while for me - but that feeling when you do wait in a club where you wait to get in for a long time then you walk in and you're like, this place is empty, what the hell is going on? You just go, this was a sham.

Dan: 14:59 Yeah. So, the best I can do on that is that’s what Google+ was like, which is an easier reference for me than clubs, it’s been a long time, but remember when Google+ came out, which is Google's attempt at social network and there's this crazy waiting list and you had to try and get on the Beta and you're doing everything and you've got friends that’ve got limited invites and you sign yourself up for an account and you get in there and it's like “hello! (hello, hello, hello) .... There's nobody here, what the hell is this” and I'm backing out straight away and then everybody starts flaming about Google+ and saying it's terrible and then social proof ends up working against them because everybody just ended up bagging the crap out of it and it died a pretty quick death.

Mel: 15:39 So if the social proof isn't authentic or if you get caught out on it, if people realise that it's not really something worth waiting for, then you're screwed, then it's over. So the best way to overcome that is to have, to use people, when I say use people not in the unethical use people way but just use people who are most like you. So the more, if somebody, obviously we're very similar Dan, right?

Dan: 15:39 Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Mel: 16:07 If somebody, if I get a notification on my Facebook that says Dan Monheit liked this, I'm like “Dan Monheit liked this okay, well Dan Monheit...”

Dan: 16:16 “… must be awesome he’s like a connoisseur of all things … awesome …”

Mel: 16:17 We seem to like the same things. So right, I'm in. So it's got to be genuine and the most genuine way to do it is to promote the actions of people who are most like or most similar to the person who you actually targeting.

Dan: 16:29 Yeah. So, in completely unrelated news we're talking about getting our reviews and ratings earlier and what you dear listeners should know is that a lot of people who are very, very similar to you and we know what similar to you is. We're basically inside your ear now.

Mel: 16:29 Over here.

Dan: 16:45 Yeah. A lot of the people that have been giving us five star ratings and reviews are really similar to you so it's probably something you should consider doing.

Mel: 16:53 You should do it because all of your friends who are very similar to you are also going to enjoy having us inside their brains just as much and you wouldn't want to deprive them of that, would you?

Dan: 17:03 Not at all. So, hey it's good to talk about how we can sell more nightclub admissions and restaurant food and sorts of  other things with this but there was also interesting thing we were talking about a bit earlier today about how this was used for good, how social proof was used for social good as well?

Mel: 17:19 Yeah. So instead of using social proof as a reason to jump off the cliff with your mates, you can also use social proof and probably what you should use social proof for more than anything is to encourage pro-social behaviour. So, an example out of the UK had to do with people's compliance to paying their taxes and they were trying to figure out different ways to get people to be more compliant when it comes to paying taxes. So there are a number of different strategies that they used involving sending threatening letters, sending letters reminding people of their civic duty to pay taxes, but by far the most effective message when it came to increasing the number of people who would pay their taxes was to let people know how many other people within their neighbourhood had already paid their taxes. By doing so, you become victim to social proof and you feel that obligation that everybody else has done this, I should probably do it too.

Dan: 18:18 Just like that people paying up the taxes.

Mel: 18:20 How easy is it?

Dan: 18:21 Yeah. Amazing. Alright, I think that's everything we've got on social proof. Let's wrap this up.

Mel: 18:27 So takeaway number one, our brain is wired for social connection so much so that our instinct to connect with other people is always going to override any rational thought processes we may have.

Dan: 18:39 Like jumping off cliffs. Point two is that, if you've got a product or service to sell, what you want to do is find some really interesting or creative ways to show the person you're trying to sell to that lots and lots of other people just like them have already bought this product and they are thrilled with it. And we don't talk a lot about data on this show but this is somewhere where data can be really interesting, you can use all of the data that you have on users or prospective users to make sure that you're matching up your existing customers with your prospective ones.

Mel: 19:07 Then to expand on the last thing we learned is don't just tell them what other random people are doing, tell them what their best friends are doing, tell them what their siblings are doing, tell them what the closest people to them are doing and they're going to be more likely to do it themselves.

Dan: 19:21 And pay your taxes, everybody else in your neighbourhood is doing it. Alright. I think that's a wrap. Make sure you tune in next episode, we've got another awesome heuristic to unpack for you.

Mel: 19:31 If you guys have any questions for us or you just want to let us know what you think, please hit us up on social media. You can find me on Twitter or Instagram @DrMelW.

Dan: 19:39 I'm also on Twitter and Instagram @Danmonheit.

Mel: 19:43 See you next time.

Dan: 19:43 We out.