“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much”, Walter Lippman, an American writer and political commentator said this. Walter was a critique on democracy and public opinion. Anyway, this post isn’t about him. This post is about social acceptance and conformity, and the opportunities and threats created by such behaviour. As humans living in a society, we are susceptible to our need for social proof.
Social acceptance and conformity
Robert B. Cialdini writes about his experiments with canned laughter during comedy shows in television. People call it stupid, obvious, phony etc. Still, why canned laughter is so popular with experienced and shrewd television executives? It’s popular because experiments have found that use of canned laughter causes audience to laugh longer, more often and rate the material as funnier. Also, it makes poor jokes more effective. But what is the reason of this behaviour? The answer lies in our tendency to assume that our actions are correct if others are doing it. Our need for a social proof and acceptance. It’s so reflexive that even fake evidence such as canned laughter can cause it.
It’s all around us
We are trained to look for social acceptance and follow conformity. Our everyday actions are determined by our need to be socially accepted. Right or wrong doesn’t matter. Where should we throw the trash, how should I drive in the rains, how to board an airplane, eating popcorns during cinema- many such things are determined not by our independent preference, but by our need to conform.
We probably do not appreciate the extent to which our need for social proof impacts our decisions. I faced two incidents last week where this principle was in action:
While looking for a food place during a long drive, you have an option to choose between two food places- one has a lot of cars parked in front, the other has none. Where are you more likely to go?
Someone came to your home for a donation for blind school. They wanted to put your details on a register where previous donors have filled their information. You will naturally read the amount others have given. If it is in the order of Rs 500 or so, will you really donate only Rs 50? I guess you know why so many donation boxes have transparent walls so you can peek into high value notes.
You can leverage or address this behavior in 3 situations:
- It is an influencing tool. It goes beyond rationality. Marketers exploit this all the time. Why so many products build credibility by using statements such as “world’s largest”, “fastest growing”? You don’t need to know about the product features if you are convinced that many others are using it.
- It creates biases, which are important to resolve. Next time, when you aren’t able to reach a decision in a stakeholder meeting, think about possible biases among stakeholders.
- Lastly, don’t choose conformity as an easy route for yourself. It’s easy to blend in than stand-out, but is it right? I have seen many professionals victim of wrong career choices, education choices, life choices and even relationship choices due to this reason.
Sales and motivation consultant Cavett Robert advised sales trainees: “Since 95% of people are imitators and only 5% initiators, people are persuaded more by the action of others than by any proof we can offer”. It may not be such a bad idea to unlearn or uneducated yourself from time to time to free yourself a bit from such biases!
How about you? Take 10 mins to think about it. You will be able to spot many instances where social conformity is in play. I would love to hear your examples. In my next article I will elaborate more on this.