Social Influence - Why people follow the crowdby Steve Martin, CMCT

Social Proof – at some point most of us will have succumbed to its powerful draw. Perhaps we’ve chosen the busy restaurant over the quieter one, been carried along by the momentum of the Mexican wave at a sports stadium or simply joined the burgeoning line at the airport without really knowing for sure if we are in the right line.

Regardless of ‘the what’ and ‘the where’ there is a universal truth at play. Witnessing others behaving in a particular way will often lead to us “follow the crowd” in a largely automatic and unthinking fashion.

That a context of consensus will frequently trump cognition is both worrisome and comforting. We worry about being seen as lemming-like, of submitting control of our decisions to the crowd, even if doing so allows us to gain command of some of the more important decisions that we need to make in our daily lives. And yet we can take comfort because such submissions mostly lead us to the right decisions regardless of their magnitude. If my work colleagues are all talking about how they enjoyed that latest movie then I will likely enjoy it too. And if hundreds of them rush from the office building shouting ‘FIRE’, it probably makes sense to follow them.

Of course, not everyone follows the crowd in every context. In some instances, some people will purposely not follow the crowd because they want to be different. And some new research is shedding light on when people are most likely to diverge from the social proof of a situation. Understanding these insights could be very useful for anyone looking to ethically and effectively influence others.

Recognizing that sometimes people move away from and not towards the norm, University of Pennsylvania social psychologist Jonah Berger set up a range of experiments to identify the situations in which people seek divergent behavior from others.

In one of Berger’s studies participants were asked to make choices from a range of consumer products that included paper towels, clothes, detergents, and music. Before making their choices, they were told that a peer would witness the choices that they made and, as a result, be able to form inferences about them. Half the participants were also told how someone who was a couple of years older than them had previously chosen.

Consistent with decades of research on conformity, the participants were at least 10% more likely to choose the same detergent and paper towels brands that the older person had selected compared to the control condition when no-one else’s choices were shown. However, when making choices about music and clothes, participants were 15% less likely to select options that the older person had chosen.

That younger people made clothes and music choices which were different from someone older than them hardly seems surprising or worthy of attention. But understanding the mechanism as to why could well be. The fact that the choices made were different for music and clothes than for detergent and paper towels lies in a phenomenon that social psychologists call ‘social identity’. Simply put people derive their social identity from the groups they consider themselves to be members of. As a result people tend to express their existing and desired social identities by behaving and choosing in ways that are aligned to their ‘in- groups’.

For example, economics students are more likely to wear business clothing than those studying literature, driving a high end SUV might signal a nouveau riche or wealthy identity, and classical music is typically more associated with well-educated groups. Woman on the phone in a grocery aisle.

Equally people will tend to avoid behaviors and choices that are associated with their ‘out-groups’. Literature students might deliberately avoid wearing clothing associated with a business identity and people who do not want to signal a wealthy identity are less likely to drive that high-end SUV slowly through town.

Now let’s go back to the study described earlier. Why were the participants more likely to choose the same detergent and paper towels as an older confederate but less likely to choose the same music and clothes? It turns out that it is all about the product domain. People are more likely to be influenced to make choices about products and offers that fall outside of their in-group if those products and offers are identity-neutral (such as the paper towels and detergents). However they are more likely to diverge from, even avoid, options chosen by out-groups in more identity-relevant domains (as was the case for clothes and music).

So if your product, offer or service is one that allows people to, in some way, signal their identity, it will be especially important that your communications and messages align to that target group. That’s all well and good and reinforces previous Inside Influence Reports on social proof that have stressed the need for communicators to provide evidence of what multiple, comparable others are doing that they would like their influence target to do also.

But what about those situations when people diverge not just from the choices made by an out-group but even those made by their own in-group?

In a separate study the same researchers asked participants to consider the purchase of a new car. Information about three cars was presented to them along with some additional information about what other car purchasers who were similar to them (their in-group) had chosen. Specifically they learned that out of 100 similar car purchasers 60 preferred product A1 (e.g. a black BMW), 20 preferred product A2 (e.g. a silver BMW), and 20 preferred product B1 (e.g. a black Mercedes).

The results showed that the greater the need for uniqueness in participants (this was measured separately), the more likely they were to choose option A2. Why? Well by choosing the favored brand of their group (BMW) they satisfied their need for social group identification, while at the same time by choosing the less popular color (silver) they distinguished themselves from their group and satisfied their desire for individual uniqueness. In conclusion, they identified with their group on the brand level and sought individual differentiation on the product level.

In sum, these studies confirm that both the principle of social proof and the tendency to follow authority cues are highly applicable to the majority of consumer decisions, particularly if products are identity-neutral and have no utility in enabling consumers to signal their identification with a particular social group. However, the more identity-relevant your product or brand is, the more important it is for your marketing campaigns to target the groups that identify with it. Be aware also that if your goal is to gain new market segments, your campaigns will need to be planned carefully to avoid groups that currently identify with your product potentially dissociating themselves if they see the new audiences you are attracting as an out-group.

They also demonstrate the importance of providing multiple options in identity-relevant products so that certain customers are able to satisfy their need for uniqueness. As a result creating more customized options similar to those for new cars, or programs such as NIKEiD, that let consumers customize the materials and styles of their shoes, might be worth considering for other products and services also.

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Can you remember products or brands you (or others) have or haven’t bought due to other people buying them?
Did you choose slightly different versions than your group members?

Berger, J. (unpublished manuscript). When Does Social Influence Attract versus Repel?
Identity-Signalling, Conformity, and Divergence. University of Pennsylvania.
Chan, C., Berger, J. and Van Boven, L. (2012). Identifiable but Not Identical: Combining Social Identity and Uniqueness Motives in Choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(3), pp 561-573.
Hat Tip: Danica Giles

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