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.
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:
- 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.
- 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 del.icio.us 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.