Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Monday, February 1, 2016

You ain’t nothin' but a hound dog...If you don’t buy my album: The impact of social proof

The principle of social proof states that, when making a decision, individuals analyse the behaviours of others to determine what is and what is not appropriate in any given situation. We look to others to confirm our behaviours, thoughts, beliefs and values. If a substantial amount of other people are thinking or behaving in a way which is similar to our own thoughts and behaviours, then our own thoughts and behaviours are validated. However, if the thoughts and behaviours of others are divergent from our own then we are motivated to act as the majority does, with the assumption that the majority must be correct (Kelman, 1958).

The technique of social proof has been widely utilised in advertising for many decades. The example below, of Elvis’s 9th album cover, released in in 1959, is an instance of the use of the social proof principle. It attempts to persuade individuals to purchase the album by playing on the fact that Elvis had (by 1959) sold approximately 50,000,000 albums worldwide. This makes individuals want to purchase the album under the assumption that other people’s behaviour is indicative of the ‘correct’ behaviour; as the album itself states “50,000,000 fans can’t be wrong”. 

The technique of social proof is still widely used in the modern era. For instance, social proof is heavily integrated into modern technology. Take this blog for instance, the number of page views this blog has received is displayed on the right-hand panel. Given the vast number of views the blog has received, it signals to you, the reader (rightly, or wrongly), that this blog is a valuable and suitable source of information. After all over 400,000 people have used it so far, right? Surely the judgement of 400,000+ individuals couldn’t possibly be wrong? This is the ‘logic’ that underlies the effectiveness of social proof.

Cialdini, Wosinska, Barrett, Butner and Gornik-Durose (2010) found evidence of the effectiveness of social proof in gaining participation to a request. The researchers asked students (from both the USA and Poland) to imagine that they were approached by a representative of ‘Coca Cola’, then asked to sample the product, and finally asked to complete a questionnaire about the product which would take approximately forty minutes.

Participants were required to indicate their likelihood of completing the request under different conditions of social proof (SP), on a scale from 0 (no intentions to comply with the request) to 8 (very high likelihood of completing the request).

First participants were asked to indicate the likelihood that they would complete the survey, having been told that all their classmates in the past had complied with the request (high intensity SP condition). Then, at a later date, the same people were asked to indicate the likelihood that they would comply with the request, with the knowledge that approximately half of their classmates had agreed to complete the request (moderate intensity SP condition). Finally, the participants were asked how likely they were to complete the request with the knowledge that none of their classmates had completed the request (low intensity SP condition).

The participants (both from the USA and Poland) were significantly more likely to comply with the request when they were told that all, or half, of their classmates had complied, compared with when they were told that none of their classmates had complied previously. These results are displayed in the graph below. The authors conclude that social proof led participants to believe that agreeing to the request was the ‘correct’ behaviour in the situation, compelling them to complete the request themselves, out of a desire to behave in the ‘correct’ way. 

Cialdini, R. B., Wosinska, W., Barrett, D. W., Butner, J., & Gornik-Durose, M. (1999). Compliance with a request in two cultures: The differential influence of social proof and commitment/consistency on collectivists and individualists. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 1242-1253.
Kelman, H. C. (1958). Compliance, identification, and internalization: Three processes of attitude change. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2, 51-60.

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