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Social Proof

Social Proof
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Hello, it’s great to see you again. I hope you’re doing well. This week we’re talking about influence and persuasion, but with a key qualifier. Influence and Persuasion without formal authority. So we’re gonna be discussing those situations where you either do not have or cannot exercise formal authority. That power that stems from your title, your formal rank in the organization. And I’m very excited to have this discussion with you for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s an absolutely fundamental leadership skill. By definition, leadership is an influence process. I hope you can immediately see relevance for influencing upward. Influencing your boss, your manager, standing in front of an executive committee and reaching an idea, a business case.
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Securing a sponsor for your project.
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For lateral influence we have to influence your teammates. And even for downward influence, we live in a day and age where you can’t just order people around, you have to influence and persuade them.
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It’s also really important for us to have this conversation now. Because we’re undergoing massive changes in organizational design, in how companies are organized. We used to live in the world of predominantly vertically structured organizations. Where most large companies were organized on these deep verticals, focused on products, services, geographies. That’s no longer the case. Most large companies have some elements of a matrix structure in place. Where you simultaneously organize by products and customer groups. By customer groups and geographies. Many small companies are increasingly project driven and they organize their own projects. What that means, first of all, is that the verticles are much flatter now. Organizations are much flatter than they used to be.
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You don’t have the same deep well of formal power to go to. And secondly, perhaps more importantly for us, is that a lot more activity in organizations is now happening in this white spaces in between the verticles. And this is where your ability to rely on your formal rank, your formal authority is very much limited, and you have to rely on influence and persuasion. In contemporary economies, which are very interconnected, think about the need to influence stakeholders outside of organizational boundaries, your customers, your suppliers, your strategic partners. Again, your ability to rely on formal authority is very significantly limited. It only takes you that far.
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I would like for us to start the discussion of influence and persuasion, with a notion of social proof. Take a look at these two cards. Which line from the right card matches the length of the line on the left card? Which one is it? This is not a vision test. Although to participants who first participated in the study, it was presented exactly as a test of visual judgement. But in reality, it is a test of social influence and conformity designed by Solomon Asch. Take a look.
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What Solomon Asch has found, is that when comparing lines individually, participants provided correct responses in more than 99% of the cases. But under group pressure, when you have five or six confederates speaking out before you and providing the wrong response. 76% of participants yielded to group pressure and provided the wrong response at least once. The question is why did they do this? Some said that they just wanted to avoid the discomfort of disagreeing with the group. They didn’t want to appear deviant compared to the group. This is what we often refer to as Normative Pressure.
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But there’s a more disturbing effect which is in post experimental interviews some participants said that they felt that the majority had to be right and they had to be wrong. So we can genuinely distort our judgment, under group pressure. And this is what we refer to as Informational Influence. And it brings us to the notion of social proof, which is a situation that we often don’t know if this is the right idea. If this is a good business case. If this is a worthy proposal. If this is acceptable behavior. And the easiest way for us to resolve that uncertainty, is to look around and see what others are doing.
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Take a look at another example of social proof, that comes from studies by Solomon Asch.
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Social proof, is an incredibly powerful influence tactic.
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You can often influence people without people even realizing that they’re being influenced. What I’m about to show you is arguably the most consequential study of social proof in the history of social sciences. It was carried out by David Phillips who is a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego. He studied the connection between front page coverage of suicide in newspapers, and commercial airplane fatalities, non-commercial airplane fatalities, and motor vehicle fatalities. What he found is that shortly after the story of a suicide comes out on the front page of a newspaper, which is day zero on these graphs.
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He registered a statistically significant spike in all these different kinds of fatalities, again, commercial airplane fatalities, non-commercial airplane fatalities, and motor vehicle fatalities. Sometimes the increase in fatalities was as significant as 1,000%. And it persisted for about seven to ten days. What was particularly powerful about his findings is that the statistically significant spike in fatalities was limited to those geographies where suicide were particularly highly publicized.
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His explanation for those findings was that we often don’t know what to do with our lives. We’re uncertain, and front page coverage of suicides legitimizes that behavior for us. It makes it more acceptable, and you have people crashing cars and pilots crashing planes. Since these studies came out, it is very rare that you will see prominent placement of a suicide story in any newspaper.
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On a more positive note, you can use social proof to build an entire company. Listen to Alex Laskey’s discussion of the idea behind founding the company called O-Power.
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As you can see in this case, the entire company is built on the concept of social proof. They’re influencing people to conserve energy use by comparing their energy consumption to their neighbors. I should also tell you that the founders of this company were very effective at influencing the regulators to make sure that O-Power is adopted by utility companies as one of the tools to develop and propagate efficient energy use practices. So this company is truly based on influence, on 360 influence, if you will. As you can see from the example of O-Power, you can use social proof in a very practical and very pragmatic way to change people’s behavior.
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I wanna give you another example of such a practical application of social proof. It comes from a fascinating field experiment conducted by Norm Goldstein, Robert Chaldean and their colleagues. A hotel in the Southwest of the United States wanted to influence its guests toward more environmentally friendly practices and save some money along the way by asking their guests to reuse their towels. The hotel management and the scholars approached one group of guests with a message about saving the environment. It read, you can show your respect for nature and help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.
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And they approached another group of guests with a message of activated social proof, join your fellow guests in helping save the environment. The message stated that almost 75% of guests were asked to participate in our new resource saving program do so by reusing their towels more than once.
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What they found is that guests that received the second message that activated social proof were 26% more likely to reuse their towels. Unfortunately social proof can sometimes can impede positive action. There studies showing that in situations of emergency we are likely to help others in over 90% of the cases. But the moment we’re surrounded by two or more passive bystanders, people who don’t offer help in situations of emergency, we’re not likely to help either. Only 16% of us would help. So social proof is one of these tactics that we fall prey to on a daily basis. That canned laughter in the background of comedy series.
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There’s studies showing that when we hear that laughter we think that the show is funny and we’re much more likely to laugh ourselves. Best sellers list. Benchmarking. Four out of five dentists recommend it, even if they only spoke to five dentists. All these are tactics to activate social proof. Every time your team engages in the public vote, you’re activating social proof, because people who are uncertain are much more likely to follow the majority. So the idea of activating social proof is you need to show that similar others are doing what you are asking this person to do.
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Keep in mind that social proof is particularly powerful when the conditions are uncertain and when the cited source is very similar to the person you are trying to influence. Think also of the ways to mitigate social proof. So for example if you happen to be in the majority calling for public vote is a very effective strategy. But if you happen to be in the minority calling for a public vote might not necessarily be the most effective strategy, because social proof would be working against you. So think of ways, concrete ways to mitigate social proof. Using your private vote, using surveys or face to face meetings to collect information.
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Any strategy that would create conditions that we’re not seeing the majority of people endorsing a particular view.
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