In 2008, a landmark study by Goldstein, Cialdini, and Griskevicius discovered that human beings fall victim to herd mentality, even in the face of better appeals to judgment.
The experiment, designed to test whether hotel guests would choose to reuse bathroom towels, randomly assigned individuals into one of two groups. Participants in Group 1 received signs on their washroom towel rack asking them to "Help save the environment" by reusing their towels. In contrast, Group 2 signage asked participants to "Join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment" by reusing towels.
The second condition, which appealed to social norms, yielded a higher towel reuse rate, indicating that people align decision-making with group consensus at times of uncertainty. This behavior, titled "social proof," describes the tendency for people to copy the actions of others in a given situation.
Fast forward to today, and the prevalence of social proof is higher than ever. Late-night TV shows liberally employ the use of laugh tracks to signal audience agreement and enthusiasm. Restaurants mark menu items as "chef's favorite" or "most popular" to nudge customer purchasing behavior. Political candidates use interactive digital cues to convince you that others are donating at this very moment on their website—and you should, too!
Amazon reviews, TripAdvisor ratings, and Yelp stars reflect mob preferences, all with an outsized ability to bias your range of choice. Even automatic behaviors, like waiting for peer action before standing for an ovation or waiting for classmates to raise their hands before raising your own, are rooted in social proof influence.
One factor that amplifies social proof effects is uncertainty. Individuals, when operating in situations with limited context or information asymmetries, feel obligated to follow in the steps of others who are perceived to be more knowledgable. Another condition that activates social proof is the need to conform to homogenous groups with distinct identities (e.g., social circles, university affiliation, company culture). You're far more likely to side with your favorite sports team, political party, or religious affiliation when evaluating and selecting between a set of options.
Knowing these forces are at play in everyday life, what can you do to combat them?
- Practice mindful thinking. During decision-making, take a moment to pause, then reflect before jumping to action. The split-second slowdown can stop your brain from reacting viscerally to a given situation.
- Evaluate the trustworthiness of social markers of agreement. Don't blindly buy a product based on high reviews or skip out on a restaurant because of low ratings. Everyone's framework for assessment is unique and individually calibrated, so the popularity contest approach isn't a strong basis for thoughtful decision-making.
Noah J. Goldstein, Robert B. Cialdini, Vladas Griskevicius, A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels, Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 35, Issue 3, October 2008, Pages 472–482, https://doi.org/10.1086/586910