Social Proof – What Are Your Neighbors Lying About?

Part Deux

This is part two in my mini-series on social proof, based on examples discussed in the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Dr. Robert Cialdini.

More...

If you missed the first post in this series, you can check it out by clicking here. In that post, I described the concepts of pluralistic ignorance and diffusion of responsibility, and how they can paralyze groups of people confronted with an unfamiliar situation.

Do your part

Today I’m going to talk about an experiment conducted on residents of a California town. The experimenters conducted door-to-door interviews to ask residents for their opinions on the importance of energy consumption, and to urge the residents to reduce their electricity usage. They then asked the residents what factors were most important to them when deciding whether to reduce their energy usage.

Today I’m going to talk about an experiment conducted on residents of a California town. The experimenters conducted door-to-door interviews to ask residents for their opinions on the importance of energy consumption, and to urge the residents to reduce their electricity usage. They then asked the residents what factors were most important to them when deciding whether to reduce their energy usage.

As you can probably guess, the primary reasons they gave were altruistic. Things like protecting the environment and preserving our resources for future generations topped the list. Reducing their monthly energy bill was a little bit lower on the list. When asked whether they would reduce their energy usage simply because their neighbors were doing it, most people said that fact would have little to no effect on their actions.

Truth or dare

But this is where the story gets interesting because, unbeknownst to the residents, the researchers actually had the ability to test the honesty of their answers. They had been granted permission to review the electricity consumption of each household from month to month. Armed with this capability, they set out to test the effectiveness of social proof, by placing door hangers on all of the homes that had previously been interviewed.

The community was divided into different test groups. For each group, the door hanger was worded to focus on one of the reasons the residents had previously identified as a motivating factor. For example, one hanger would say something like “reduce your electric bill by 15% by turning your thermostat up two degrees” or “reducing your electricity usage by 10% has the pollution-reducing effect of taking five cars off the road”. There was also a social proof group that received a hanger simply indicating how their electricity usage compared to their neighbors. Can you guess which one had the greatest effect on actual electricity consumption? I think you know the answer.

And the winner is...

The households receiving the electricity usage stats had by far the biggest reduction in electricity consumption over the course of the experiment. As we’ve seen before, the knowledge of what other people do (or don’t do) has an incredibly powerful impact on our own behavior. Sometimes that behavior is conscious (although not always acknowledged, as in this example), and sometimes it is subconscious. But it’s effect is undeniable.

I hope you enjoyed this second part of my social proof mini-series. Please leave a comment below to let me know what you think, and consider subscribing to my newsletter at the top of this page.

Share