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.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, its social proof!

Imagine you’re walking down your local high street; perhaps you’re listening to music or on your phone attempting to ignore/avoid your fellow pedestrians, when you almost barrel into a man blocking your path. After swerving using the dexterity you gained navigating numerous nightclubs, you notice he’s looking up and away at something, unaware of the minor collision narrowly avoided. You forget about idiots with no sense of their surroundings and attempt to follow his gaze, searching for an item of interest; surely something’s got to be there. Alas no, you can’t find anything so you continue on your way, but why stop in the first place? It’s the plain old monkey see monkey do of social proof.

In 1969, Milgram, Bickman and Berkowitz essentially created the same situation described above in order to test the effects of crowd size on drawing power. But before I delve into their findings, I’ll first explain the principle of social proof.

In general terms, social proof provides the means to determine what is correct/socially acceptable in a situation, by looking at how others around us are behaving (Cialdini, 1984). This is a useful heuristic for when we find ourselves in an unfamiliar situation and want to avoid any potential embarrassment by doing the wrong thing. Additionally, compliance via social proof is enhanced when the size of the stimulus crowd is larger; if a lot of people are doing it, its’ probably the right thing to do.

What Milgram et al. (1969) investigated was the degree that a crowd (size ranging from 1 – 15), performing the same observable action (looking up at a window on a street corner), could draw people into performing the same action.
A confederate would be positioned on a street corner and look up at a window for a period of 60 seconds, observers noted how many pedestrians (N = 1,424) looked up or stopped to look. After this time the confederate left the crowd to disperse, this was repeated for all confederate group sizes.

The results (see figure 1) demonstrate that the number of people who will react to, and join in, the looking behaviour is related to the size of the confederate crowd. An increase of 44% (from size 1 to 15) was found for looking behaviour and 36% for stopping behaviour. Bearing in mind that the stimulus point was just a window, its no wonder why social proof is employed by a range of people and organizations to achieve compliance.

By relying on the automatic triggering of the social proof heuristic, profiteers can influence us without even knowing. Whether it’s a bartender slipping a few notes into the tip jar before his shift or the use of ‘canned laughter’ in TV, social proof is a cunning way to influence our behaviour.

Greg Vail - Blog 3


Cialdini, R. B. (1984). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Harper Collins Publishers Ltd, London.

Milgram, S., Bickman, L., & Berkowitz, L. (1969). Note on the drawing power of crowds of different size. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13(2), 79-82.

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