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Three Questions to Remove Ego from Decision Making

Here are three questions leaders can ask to help make better decisions.

1. How will this decision make things better for the organization?

Consider how the decision will affect the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission. Managers who push their teams to achieve “stretch goals” without providing adequate support and resources may be seeking to get noticed by their bosses rather than helping the company serve its customers. Such behavior will have another side effect — talent will exit. The answer to this question must enhance the organization, not simply the resume of the manager.

2. How will this decision affect employees?

The business case for your decision should factor in the people quotient and affects on headcount, training, and development. Employees must execute what leaders decide, so if employees perceive that their boss is only doing something to make himself look good, they’ll be reluctant to embrace the change. They may comply, but they may never commit unless they determine the benefit for themselves.

3. How will this decision affect me?

When you are involved in a project, it is easy to entangle ego with outcome. Healthy ego is necessary, but when too much ego makes a you blind to obvious problems such as lack of resources, customer disinterest, and employee morale, problems arise. As we have seen with corporate executives in the financial sector, it isn’t positive when personal interest comes before corporate and public interest. So if the answer to this question is more in favor of you rather than the company, the issue may be over-personalized and need more deliberation.

Bertrand Russell: On Avoiding Foolish Opinions

We’d all like to avoid folly, wouldn’t we?

Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance. It doesn’t take a genius. Only a few simple ideas.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) offers some advice, which will not keep us from all error but will help us navigate away from obvious error.

On Avoiding Foolish Opinions

Via The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell:

If the matter is one that can be settled by observation, make the observation yourself. Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men, by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted. He did not do so because he thought he knew. Thinking that you know when in fact you don’t is a fatal mistake, to which we are all prone. I believe myself that hedgehogs eat black beetles, because I have been told that they do; but if I were writing a book on the habits of hedgehogs, I should not commit myself until I had seen one enjoying this unappetizing diet. Aristotle, however, was less cautious. Ancient and medieval authors knew all about unicorns and salamanders; not one of them thought it necessary to avoid dogmatic statements about them because he had never seen one of them.

Many matters, however, are less easily brought to the test of experience. If, like most of mankind, you have passionate convictions on many such matters, there are ways in which you can make yourself aware of your own bias.

If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do. If some one maintains that two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator, you feel pity rather than anger, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction. The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.

A good way of ridding yourself of certain kinds of dogmatism is to become aware of opinions held in social circles different from your own. When I was young, I lived much outside my own country in France, Germany, Italy, and the United States. I found this very profitable in diminishing the intensity of insular prejudice. If you cannot travel, seek out people with whom you disagree, and read a newspaper belonging to a party that is not yours. If the people and the newspaper seem mad, perverse, and wicked, remind yourself that you seem so to them. In this opinion both parties may be right, but they cannot both be wrong. This reflection should generate a certain caution.

Becoming aware of foreign customs, however, does not always have a beneficial effect. In the seventeenth century, when the Manchus conquered China, it was the custom among the Chinese for the women to have small feet, and among the Manchus for the men to wear-pigtails. Instead of each dropping their own foolish custom, they each adopted the foolish custom of the other, and the Chinese continued to wear pigtails until they shook off the dominion of the Manchus in the revolution of 1911.

For those who have enough psychological imagination, it is a good plan to imagine an argument with a person having a different bias. This has one advantage, and only one, as compared with actual conversation with opponents; this one advantage is that the method is not subject to the same limitations of time or space. Mahatma Gandhi deplores railways and steamboats and machinery; he would like to undo the whole of the industrial revolution. You may never have an opportunity of actually meeting any one who holds this opinion, because in Western countries most people take the advantage of modern technique for granted. But if you want to make sure that you are right in agreeing with the prevailing opinion, you will find it a good plan to test the arguments that occur to you by considering what Gandhi might say in refutation of them. I have sometimes been led actually to change my mind as a result of this kind of imaginary dialogue, and, short of this, I have frequently found myself growing less dogmatic and cocksure through realizing the possible reasonableness of a hypothetical opponent.

Be very wary of opinions that flatter your self-esteem. Both men and women, nine times out of ten, are firmly convinced of the superior excellence of their own sex. There is abundant evidence on both sides. If you are a man, you can point out that most poets and men of science are male; if you are a woman, you can retort that so are most criminals. The question is inherently insoluble, but self esteem conceals this from most people. We are all, whatever part of the world we come from, persuaded that our own nation is superior to all others. Seeing that each nation has its characteristic merits and demerits, we adjust our standard of values so as to make out that the merits possessed by our nation are the really important ones, while its demerits are comparatively trivial. Here, again, the rational man will admit that the question is one to which there is no demonstrably right answer. It is more difficult to deal with the self esteem of man as man, because we cannot argue out the matter with some non-human mind. The only way I know of dealing with this general human conceit is to remind ourselves that man is a brief episode in the life of a small planet in a little corner of the universe, and that, for aught we know, other parts of the cosmos may contain beings as superior to ourselves as we are to jellyfish.

Still curious? Check out Russell’s 10 Commandments of Teaching.

Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments

We tend to feel we’re more able and smarter than we really are. We think we’re above average drivers, we’re above average investors, and we make better decisions than everyone else.

According to a recent study, this occurs, in part, because we “suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

The study goes on to make several key points:

  • In many domains in life, success and satisfaction depend on knowledge, wisdom, or savvy in knowing which rules to follow and which strategies to pursue.
  • People differ widely in the knowledge and strategies they apply in these domains with varying levels of success. Some of the knowledge and theories that people apply to their actions are sound and meet with favorable results.
  • When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.

The authors come to the conclusions that the skills we need to have competence in any domain are often the same skills we need to accurately evaluate competence. The better we are at something, the better we’re able to judge ourselves. Because of this, incompetent individuals often exaggerate their ability more than competent ones.

Social Dilemmas: When to Defect and When to Cooperate

Social dilemmas arise when an individual receives a higher payoff for defecting than cooperating when everyone else cooperates. When everyone defects they are worse off. That is, each member has a clear and unambiguous incentive to make a choice, which if made by all members provides a worse outcome.

A great example of a social dilemma is to imagine yourself out with a group of your friends for dinner. Before the meal, you all agree to share the cost equally. Looking at the menu you see a lot of items that appeal to you but are outside of your budget.

Pondering on this, you realize that you’re only on the hook for 1/(number of friends at the dinner) of the bill. Now you can enjoy yourself without having to pay the full cost.

But what if everyone at the table realized the same thing? My guess is you’d all be stunned by the bill, even the tragedy of the commons.

This is a very simple example but you can map this to the business word by thinking about healthcare and insurance.

If that sounds a lot like game theory, you’re on the right track.

I came across an excellent paper[1] by Robyn Dawes and David Messick, which takes a closer look at social dilemmas.

A Psychological Analysis of Social Dilemmas

In the case of the public good, one strategy that has been employed is to create a moral sense of duty to support it—for instance, the public television station that one watches. The attempt is to reframe the decision as doing one’s duty rather than making a difference—again, in the wellbeing of the station watched. The injection of a moral element changes the calculation from “Will I make a difference” to “I must pay for the benefit I get.”

The final illustration, the shared meal and its more serious counterparts, requires yet another approach. Here there is no hierarchy, as in the organizational example, that can be relied upon to solve the problem. With the shared meal, all the diners need to be aware of the temptation that they have and there need to be mutually agreed-upon limits to constrain the diners. Alternatively, the rule needs to be changed so that everyone pays for what they ordered. The latter arrangement creates responsibility in that all know that they will pay for what they order. Such voluntary arrangements may be difficult to arrange in some cases. With the medical insurance, the insurance company may recognize the risk and insist on a principle of co-payments for medical services. This is a step in the direction of paying for one’s own meal, but it allows part of the “meal’ ‘ to be shared and part of it to be paid for by the one who ordered it.

The fishing version is more difficult. To make those harvesting the fish pay for some of the costs of the catch would require some sort of taxation to deter the unbridled exploitation of the fishery. Taxation, however, leads to tax avoidance or evasion. But those who harvest the fish would have no incentive to report their catches accurately or at all, especially if they were particularly successful, which simultaneously means particularly successfully—compared to others at least—in contributing to the problem of a subsequently reduced yield. Voluntary self-restraint would be punished as those with less of that personal quality would thrive while those with more would suffer. Conscience, as Hardin (1968) noted, would be self-eliminating. …

Relatively minor changes in the social environment can induce major changes in decision making because these minor changes can change the perceived appropriateness of a situation. One variable that has been shown to make such a difference is whether the decision maker sees herself as an individual or as a part of a group.

Footnotes
  • 1

    Dawes RM, Messick M (2000) Social Dilemmas. Int J Psychol 35(2):111–116

Dan Ariely on 10 Irrational Human Behaviors

Predictably Irrational is a fascinating examination of why human beings are wired and conditioned to react irrationally.

We human beings are a selfish bunch, so it’s all the more surprising to see how easily we can be manipulated to behave in ways that run counter to our own self-interest.

Here are ten irrational human behaviors from Dan Ariely.

1: The Truth About Relativity

When Williams-Sonoma introduced bread machines, sales were slow. When they added a “deluxe” version that was 50% more expensive, they started flying off the shelves; the first bread machine now appeared to be a bargain.

When contemplating the purchase of a $25 pen, the majority of subjects would drive to another store 15 minutes away to save $7. When contemplating the purchase of a $455 suit, the majority of subjects would not drive to another store 15 minutes away to save $7. The amount saved and time involved are the same, but people make very different choices. Watch out for relative thinking; it comes naturally to all of us.

2: The Fallacy of Supply & Demand

Savador Assael, the Pearl King, single-handedly created the market for black pearls, which were unknown in the industry before 1973. His first attempt to market the pearls was an utter failure; he didn’t sell a single pearl. So he went to his friend, Harry Winston, and had Winston put them in the window of his 5th Avenue store with an outrageous price tag attached. Then he ran full page ads in glossy magazines with black pearls next to diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. Soon, black pearls were considered precious.

 

Simonsohn and Loewenstein found that people who move to a new city remain anchored to the prices they paid in their previous city. People who move from Lubbock to Pittsburgh squeeze their families into smaller houses to pay the same amount. People who move from LA to Pittsburgh don’t save money, they just move into mansions.

3: The Cost of Zero Cost

In the real world, this effect was demonstrated by Amazon’s free shipping. After Super Saver shipping was introduced, Amazon saw sales increases everywhere except for France. It turned out that the French division offered 1 franc ($0.20) pricing instead of free pricing. When this was changed to free, France saw the same sales increases as elsewhere. Another real-world example: People will wait in line for absurdly long times to get something for free. Free is one of the most powerful ways to trigger behavior.

4. The Cost of Social Norms

Vohs, Mead, and Goode: Participants were asked to unscramble sentences that were either neutral (“It’s cold outside”) or related to money (“High-paying salary”). Then they were asked to solve a puzzle. The experimenter left the room, and the subjects were allowed to go to him for help.

“Salary” participants waited 5.5 minutes to ask for help; “neutral” participants waited only 3 minutes:

  • Thinking about money made people more self-reliant and less willing to ask for help.
  • On the other hand, they were less willing to help others.

The conclusion is that thinking about money puts one in a market frame of mind. Subjects were:

  • More selfish and self-reliant
  • Wanted to spend more time alone
  • Were more likely to select individual tasks rather than those that required teamwork
  • Chose to sit farther away from others

A real-life example: The AARP asked lawyers to participate in a program where they would offer their services to needy employees for a discounted price of $30/hour. No dice. When the program manager instead asked if they’d offer their services for free, the lawyers overwhelmingly said they would participate.

Conclusion: Market norms drive out social norms.

5. The Influence of Arousal

Ariely and Loewenstein conducted an experiment on Berkeley undergrads (Ariely tried to do this at MIT, but couldn’t get the necessary permissions). They asked them a series of questions. Then they had the undergraduates stimulate themselves to a state of sexual arousal, and asked them to answer the same set of questions. The results show that people simply don’t realize how different their decision-making is during a state of arousal.

Implications – Someone may promise to just say no, but that promise is less likely to hold up during a state of arousal.

6. The Problem of Procrastination and Self Control

Ariely conducted an experiment on his class. Students were required to write three papers. Ariely asked the first group to commit to dates by which they would turn in each paper. Late papers would be penalized 1% per day. There was no penalty for turning papers in early. The logical response is to commit to turning all three papers in on the last day of class. The second group was given no deadlines; all three papers were due in the last day of class. The third group was directed to turn their papers in on the 4th, 8th, and 12th weeks.

The results? Group 3 (imposed deadlines) got the best grades. Group 2 (no deadlines) got the worst grades, and Group 1 (self-selected deadlines) finished in the middle. Allowing students to pre-commit to deadlines improved performance. Students who spaced out their commitments did well; students who did the logical thing and gave no commitments did badly.

“These results suggest that although almost everyone has problems with procrastination, those who recognize and admit their weakness are in a better position to utilize available tools for precommitment and by doing so, help themselves overcome it.”

7. The High Price of Ownership

The “endowment effect” means that when we own something, we begin to value it more than other people do.

 

Ariely and Carmon conducted an experiment on Duke students, who sleep out for weeks to get basketball tickets; even those who sleep out are still subjected to a lottery at the end. Some students get tickets, some don’t. The students who didn’t get tickets told Ariely that they’d be willing to pay up to $170 for tickets. The students who did get the tickets told Ariely that they wouldn’t accept less than $2,400 for their tickets.

There are three fundamental quirks of human nature. We fall in love with what we already have. We focus on what we might lose, rather than what we might gain. We assume that other people will see the transaction from the same perspective as we do.

8. Keeping Doors Open

In 210 BC, Xiang Yu led an army against the Ch’in Dynasty. While his troops slept, he burned his ships and smashed all the cooking pots. He explained to his troops that they had to either fight their way to victory or die. His troops won 9 consecutive battles. Eliminating options improved the focus of his troops.

We feel compelled to preserve options, even at great expense, even when it doesn’t make sense.

9. The Effect of Expectations

Ariely, Lee, and Frederick conducted yet another experiment on MIT students. They let students taste two different beers, and then choose to get a free pint of one of the brews. Brew A was Budweiser. Brew B was Budweiser, plus 2 drops of balsamic vinegar per ounce.

When students were not told about the nature of the beers, they overwhelmingly chose the balsamic beer. When students were told about the true nature of the beers, they overwhelmingly chose the Budweiser. If you tell people up front that something might be distasteful, the odds are good they’ll end up agreeing with you–because of their expectations.

Not only do we react differently based on stereotypes of others, we react differently based on stereotypes about ourselves. Shin, Pittinsky, and Ambady conducted an experiment on Asian-American women. A first group was asked questions related to their gender, then given a math test. A second group was asked questions related to their race, then given a math test.

The second group did better on the math test than the first. “Blind” presentation of the facts (presenting the facts, but not revealing which party took which actions) might help people better recognize the truth.

10. The Power of Price

Ariely, Waber, Shiv, and Carmon made up a fake painkiller, Veladone-Rx. An attractive woman in a business suit (with a faint Russian accent) told subjects that 92% of patients receiving VR reported significant pain relief in 10 minutes, with relief lasting up to 8 hours.

When told that the drug cost $2.50 per dose, nearly all of the subjects reported pain relief. When told that the drug cost $0.10 per dose, only half of the subjects reported pain relief. The more pain a person experienced, the more pronounced the effect. A similar study at U Iowa showed that students who paid list price for cold medications reported better medical outcomes than those who bought discount (but clinically identical) drugs.

Source.

Social Proof: Why We Look to Others For What We Should Think and Do

“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
Walter Lippmann

“The five most dangerous words in business are: ‘Everybody else is doing it.'”
Warren Buffett

***

The Basics

Consider a university freshman, attempting to navigate the adult world for the first time. They are convinced that all the other students around them somehow know more about adulthood. Perhaps they imagine that everyone else was handed a manual they somehow missed. Everyone else seems to know where to go, how to make new friends, what to do. Except, of course, the majority of their peers feel equally unsure and are doing the exact same. We never quite leave behind that tendency to look at others for clues.

When we feel uncertain, we all tend to look to others for answers as to how we should behave, what we should think and what we should do. This psychological concept is known as social proof. It occurs as a result of our natural desire to behave in the correct manner and fit in with others. It can be easy to assume that everyone else has a better grasp of what to do in a given situation. Social proof is especially prevalent in ambiguous or unfamiliar conditions, or in big groups. It affects us both in public and in private.

In The Power of Positive Deviance, Richard Pascale explains social proof:

A well-known principle of chemistry establishes that active ingredients can be mixed together with little effect until a third ingredient- often an innocuous catalyst- triggers a chemical synthesis. Analogously, the social system is the catalyst between all the stuff we know versus what actually alters our behavior and mental maps. Social proof? Simple idea, really: it boils down to ‘seeing is believing.’… We use social proof to decide how to dispose of an empty popcorn box in a movie theater, how fast to drive on a highway, or whether to tackle that fried chicken or corn on the cob with our hands at a dinner party. At the more consequential end of the spectrum, we rely on social proof to inform moral choices- whether to assist an inebriated football enthusiast who falls on the sidewalk or step forward as a whistleblower.

Social proof can be problematic for two main reasons. Firstly, groups of people can reach conclusions which are suboptimal or even outright wrong. This is also known as groupthink or herd behavior. Secondly, social proof can be manipulated to guide us towards choices we would not otherwise make. In extreme cases, it can lead to groups of people becoming violent or antisocial. We will look at one of the worst examples further on in this post.

No one likes to be confused about what to do in a situation where other people are around to witness any blunders. The more uncertain we feel, the more susceptible we are to social proof.
A further key factor is the similarity we see between ourselves and the people around us. When people relate to those around them (due to gender, class, race, shared interests, and other commonalities) they mimic each other’s behavior with greater care. This is known as implicit egotism and linked to the mirror neurons in our brains.

In Private Truths, Public Lies, Timur Kuran writes of the influence on social proof on groups:

A phrase like ‘the American way’ when uttered on behalf of a particular agenda, signals that most Americans, or at least most respectable Americans agree on what is appropriate. Of course, the claim embodied in such a phrase may harbor much exaggeration. Other methods of exaggeration include dwelling on biased polls [e.g. a political poll only completed by white males] and overstating the size of a demonstration. All such methods constitute direct appeals to social proof. ..the softness or hardness of a belief must not be confused with its power, which is its potential influence over behaviour. A belief based solely on social proof -one that is extremely soft- may generate wild passions, as when a student participates fervently in a revolutionary movement whose program she has never read. By the same token, a belief formed through extensive personal experience- one that is very hard may elicit little action. An educator convinced that schools are in decline will not necessarily act on this information fearing objections.

No matter how individual we think we are, we all have an inherent desire to conform. Psychologists call this the bandwagon effect- ideas, beliefs, trends, and concepts are spread between people. The more people adopt them, the more people are influenced to do so.

In The Negotiator’s Fieldbook, an example of how social proof is used by lawyers is provided:

A lawyer… might exhibit certain behaviors at the bargaining table (e.g. she can attempt to frame the negotiation as a search for jointly desirable outcomes) and thereby model the behaviour for her counterpart. This, in turn, could induce her counterpart to conduct herself in a similar manner. Likewise, a lawyer might use evidence from similar cases…showing how often- even perhaps for what amounts- litigants in similar cases have settled. By demonstrating that similarly situated others have settled, the lawyer may be able to persuade her counterpart that settlement is appropriate for her as well.

Robert Cialdini and the Science of Persuasion

According to Robert Cialdini, social proof is one of the six key principles of persuasion. When combined with reciprocity, consistency, authority, liking, and scarcity, it can be used to influence people’s actions.

In one study, researchers from New York City university planted a man on a busy sidewalk. Amongst crowds of people, he stopped and looked upwards for a minute. The experiment by social psychologists Milgram, Bickman, and Berkowitz was designed to test the power of social proof. When just one man gazed at the sky, just 4% of passersby also looked up. When the experiment was repeated with five men looking upwards, 18% of passersby followed suit, and for 15 the figure was 40%. This experiment is cited by Cialdini as an illustration of how social proof persuades people to behave in certain ways.
Another study cited by Cialdini concerned charitable donations, finding that showing people a list of their neighbors who had donated to a charity led to a substantial increase in funds raised. The more names on the list, the more people donated. Cialdini also explains how the use of social proof can backfire. Campaigns to reduce drug and alcohol consumption which cite high rates of abuse can have the opposite effect. People subconsciously seek to comply with the many others who are engaging in this behavior.

Cialdini writes:

The principle of social proof says so: The greater the number of people who find any idea correct, the more the idea will be correct…We will use the actions of others to decide on proper behavior for ourselves, especially when we view those others as similar to ourselves…When we are uncertain, we are willing to place an enormous amount of trust in the collective knowledge of the crowd…First, we seem to assume that if a lot of people are doing the same thing, they must know something we don’t…Social proof is most powerful for those who feel unfamiliar or unsure in a specific situation and who, consequently, must look outside themselves for evidence of how best to behave there… Since 95 percent of the people are imitators and only 5 percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.

Examples of social proof

“Lack of skepticism is often the result of our social beliefs. No one would believe such absurd nonsense as a moon made of cheese or a flying teapot when it is proposed in such an unfamiliar way. However, when we encounter equally absurd belief systems in socially or historically-familiar contexts, they seem to have a measure of proof and be established or valid. In other words, a lot of people believing some total bullshit creates a form of social proof.”
— Sia Mohajer

***

An unfortunate fact of life is that some people desperately seek opportunities, while others are bombarded with them. One person struggles to find a job, sending their CV everywhere. Another person has an impressive role already and yet is constantly offered others. One book proposal is fought over by publishers. Another is relegated straight to the bin. One person never manages to find anyone willing to go on a date, while another receives non-stop propositions despite being in a relationship. Why does this happen? The answer is social proof.

When someone is regarded as successful, talented, or attractive that view spreads. When social proof is absent, others are more dismissive and attentive to flaws. Two people could be equally qualified, but the one with a high-ranking job already seems like a fail-safe choice for a key role. Two writers could be equally talented, but the one whose previous book was a bestseller will have much less trouble getting their next published. And so on.

The Arizona Petrified Forest
A classic example of social proof occurred in the Arizona Petrified Forest. The theft of unusual petrified wood by visitors was becoming a serious issue, depleting the ancient woodland. Staff put up a sign stating: ‘Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, destroying the natural state of the Petrified Forest.’ This was intended to deter theft, but it had the opposite effect. The depletion of the petrified wood tripled. Experts who looked at the case determined that the signs had served as social proof, making people feel the act was justified.

Claquers
Another example of social proof is a claque. A claque is a group of professional applauders, positioned in theaters or opera houses. Claqueurs (members of a claque) have been used since Emperor Nero, whose performances were applauded by five thousand soldiers. In the 16th century, claqueurs became a common part of theater and opera performances. Their job was to applaud a performance, encouraging others to do the same. Social proof meant that once a few people began to applaud, the rest did the same. Audience members saw that others appeared to enjoy the piece and went away with a more positive view of it. Whilst clacquers are now rare, their existence shows how social proof can distort reality.

The Jonestown Massacre
The 1978 Jonestown Massacre is one of the most shocking, terrifying examples of the dark side of social proof. Under the leadership of religious fanatic Jim Jones, 918 people died in a commune in Georgetown. Although the event was technically a mass suicide, the degree of duress and force under which the deaths happened and the fact that 1 in 3 were minors mean that massacre is more accurate. Nearly a thousand members of the cult drank poison, including infants. Within a matter of minutes, all were dead.

In the aftermath of this tragedy (the worst loss of American lives on a single occasion until 9/11), the world struggled to make sense of how it could have happened. One important element which emerged upon study was that of social proof. Isolated from the rest of the world, the commune had no outside influences and no one to emulate save each other. At the head of the cult was the self-appointed messiah Jim Jones who manipulated and controlled his followers. Force was used to squash any dissent, meaning people had no option but to comply. Cult members were encouraged to inform Jones of anyone who felt rebellious, and families were broken up to give him total control. If someone did object, they had no allies to side with and reinforce their change of heart. The few people who survived were mostly couples who managed to stay together and had the social proof provided by each other necessary to retain their opinions. Deborah Blakey, a survivor later said:

Any disagreement with [Jones’] dictates came to be regarded as “treason.” ….Although I felt terrible about what was happening, I was afraid to say anything because I knew that anyone with a differing opinion gained the wrath of Jones and other members.

Jones’ final, harrowing speech which manipulated his followers into committing suicide can be heard here. It provides a clear example of how people succumbed to social proof. Throughout the tape, a number of people are heard dissenting, only to be forced back into submission by their peers.

How marketers use social proof

“Social proof is a flame to the human mind moth,
and it leaves a fire trail of destruction across the path of enough.”
— Will Jelbert (The Happiness Animal)

***

Marketers love using social proof to encourage people to spend more money. If you ever feel the strange urge to buy something you don’t need, this could be down to social proof.

Marketers achieve this in a number of ways:

  • Using influencers and famous people. A phenomenon known by psychologists as the ‘halo and horns effect’ means we see a product/service as more desirable if it is associated with someone we like. On a subconscious level, we imagine their good qualities rubbing off on the item advertised. Likewise, if we wish to be like someone, we may think anything they endorse will make us more like them.
  • Implying popularity. Night clubs and bars often make patrons wait outside, even when the venues are not full. This creates an aura of desirability
  • Reviews/ratings. 70% of people look at these before making a purchase, to see what others think about a product or service. Even though these can be biased, anecdotal or even fake, we judge people ‘like us’ as more trustworthy than the companies. For example, if someone is planning on buying a certain vacuum cleaner, just one negative review can sway them away from it- never mind that said reviewer may have used it incorrectly.
    Social proof is part of the Farnham Street latticework of mental models. To read more on the topic look to Cialdini’s Persuasion, Gladwell’s Tipping Point, or Kuran’s Private Truths, Public Lies.

Social Proof is in the Farnam Street Latticework of Mental Models.