Social Proof: Herd it Through the Grapevine

Blog Triggers

No, that’s not a typo in the title above, as we’ll soon see. But first, some disturbing news.

It’s become fairly well-known that unfortunate events reported heavily in the media lead to other similar unfortunate events due to copycat behavior. Suicides, murders, and school shootings tend to occur in alarming clusters once the news about the initial event gets out.

What you may not know is that after a suicide is publicized, deaths by single-car accidents spike. When a murder/suicide is heavily reported, head-on car collisions and airplane crashes go up immediately afterward.

What’s going on here?

Sociologist David Phillips calls it the “Werther” effect, named after a character in a Goethe novel who committed suicide, which itself prompted a rash of suicides in Europe over 200 years ago. Phillips established the link between newspaper reports of suicides and the resulting copycats using data accumulated between 1947 and 1968, and also discovered the concurrent fatal automobile and airplane accident data. He theorized that these drivers and pilots were also committing suicide, but couldn’t bear the stigma that an overt suicide would bring to their families.

Scary, huh?

This phenomenon is one of the more dramatic illustrations of social proof, a powerful psychological mechanism by which we look to others to guide our own actions. In the suicide examples, the influenced people already wanted to kill themselves, and seeing someone else take their own life provided them with definitive motivation.

Here are two more research-based examples of social proof in action:

  1. A person in distress is better served by having only one person available to help them. If several people observe an ambiguous situation where someone may be in trouble, they will look to each other to see how to act. If no one takes immediate action, the likelihood that no one will do anything at all grows, which is called pluralistic ignorance. If only one person is in the vicinity to help, the level of personal responsibility is higher, and aid is more likely offered without hesitation.
  2. A child is more likely to learn a new skill (such as swimming) if he observes a child of similar age that engages in the activity. Before this happens, one-on-one parental instruction will likely fail to influence a reluctant child. As children become teenagers, the importance of peer behavior and approval needs no elaboration. Likewise, adults are more likely to ethically act in concert with those they feel to be of a similar education level, income bracket and social status, rather than looking to a purely independent moral compass.

So, does the misspelling of “heard” in the post title now make sense? Social proof is at the root of what’s been dubbed herd mentality in humans, with every “cattle” and “sheep” reference that goes along with it. Our need to look to other people for how to behave is an important key to the growth and maintenance of societies, so it’s not necessarily always reason for disdain.

Despite all the dramatic examples, social proof can be a very useful adaptive trait. It helps us solve problems and formulate shared values, and it really only hurts us when we fail to apply critical thinking to important choices and actions.

From a marketing standpoint, social proof is the basis of both buzz and large sales figures. Without it, there’d be no “grapevine” in the first place. It’s also why testimonials are so essential in direct marketing.

Social proof is ultimately the most powerful force involved in growing a successful business blog that helps you sell products or services. The quality of your content is still the most important element, but other subtle influences may well dictate whether you turn a new visitor into a subscription or bookmark.

For example, displaying your large number of Feedburner subscribers will likely lead to that number growing more quickly than if you hadn’t (while displaying a low number may hurt you). It’s fairly well known that blog reader comments often lead to more comments, so you should encourage reader interaction at every opportunity. A similar domino effect occurs with popular tags, inbound links from others and Digg votes.

In other words, the ultimate digital expression of society itself is the emerging social media, which will most certainly evolve into more sophisticated replications as it grows. Sometimes we create a conversation, sometimes we add to it, and sometimes we just follow along. Such is the fastest growing aspect of the Internet, and such is life.

As we continue with the Blog Triggers series, we’ll examine other important naturally-occurring aspects of blogging that can help get the ball rolling until the magic of social proof kicks in. Stay tuned.

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Reader Comments (86)

  1. says

    Mike, it looks like you’ve got your dancing shoes on!

    Char… well, the real answer is I’d love to proudly display my number of subscribers, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t work as well for me at the moment. Come on now, it’s only been two months. :)

  2. says

    David, yes, that’s a call to action that very few bloggers seem to make. What’s wrong with asking people to subscribe?

    The great thing about using Feedburner is having one chicklet that goes directly to a page that offers an array of feed-reading options. Simplicity mixed with choice is a winner, IMHO.

  3. says

    Hi Brian,

    I’d love it if you’d reference the source of the data — I’d like to have a look.

    One competing theory to explain the increase in suicides when a suicide is reported in the press — that there isn’t an increase in suicides, but that once there’s been a sensational account in the press, the press itself begins to report more on the suicides that *were happening anyway*.

    In other words, it was the rate of press coverage that went up, not the suicides themselves.

    But given that we’re talking about blogs (e.g. the press), I’m not sure that invalidates your point.

    P.S. I don’t have the reference for that counter-study, but I could find it…

  4. says

    Phillips D.P. (1974). The influence of suggestion on suicide: Substantive and theoretical implications of the Werther effect. American Sociological Review, 39, 340-354.

    Phillips, D.P. (1979). Suicide, motor vehicle fatalities, and the mass media: Evidence toward a theory of suggestion. American Journal of Sociology, 84, 1150-1174.

    Phillips, D.P. (1980). Airplane accidents, murder, and the mass media: Towards a theory of imitation and suggestion. Social Forces, 58, 1001-1024.

    Who says I don’t aim to please? :) Remember though, this blog is about social media marketing; it’s very, very far from a scholarly journal. So I really don’t want to type out this stuff all the time!

    Also, the suicide / murder thing is simply a great story, no matter what!

  5. says

    Hi Brian

    We’re discussing social proof and other weapons of influence over at my blog at the moment – pop by and have your say.

    I also make it a habit on as many posts as possible to invite people to comment, partly for the reasons you’ve outlined. Plus, commenting is a little commitment, which you’ll know could possibly lead to more consistency (i.e. turning a casual browser into a regular visitor).


    Paul Hancox

    P.S: If you have a moment, perhaps you could pop over to my blog and post a comment, because I’d really appreciate it!

  6. says

    I am in a hurry and I don’t want to spend too much time in writing this comment as probably you would not even notice it, since I am out of your circle, but the social proof you mentioned have verified personal experience and given it a firmer footing and valuable reference. Thank you.

  7. hesinswithfrogs says

    Hahaha …. I’m reading that book right now! Influence, Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini. This post is pretty much the cliff notes for one of the chapters.

  8. says

    net3, I’ve read all the comments for this post, so as you can see, everyone’s opinion does get noticed :)

    Brian, your post is on par with Seth Godin’s new book, Tribes. People tend to listen to those who have built up a following and whom they can relate to.

  9. says

    I am in a hurry and I don’t want to spend too much time in writing this comment as probably you would not even notice it, since I am out of your circle, but the social proof you mentioned have verified personal experience and given it a firmer footing and valuable reference. Thank you.

  10. says

    >The quality of your content is still the most important >element, but other subtle influences may well dictate >whether you turn a new visitor into a subscription or >bookmark.

    So developing quality content is still the first and foremost factor. And that takes a lot of practice, effort and time…. well, I better get back to researching and writing my latest blog post.

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