Social Proof – Should You Drive After A Public Suicide?

Bringing It Home

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


In the other two posts, I describe how pluralistic ignorance affects the behavior of groups, and how peoples’ stated motivations often don’t reflect their true motivations.

Are we lemmings in disguise?

Today I’m going to talk about another fascinating example of social proof. Dr. Cialdini describes a study conducted on accidental death rates following a highly-publicized suicide. The researcher analyzed data from tens of thousands of accidental deaths in cities all across the country, looking for trends following those suicides. What the researcher found was startling.

In the two weeks following a suicide, not only was there a significant increase in the number of accidental deaths in the area, but the demographics of those dying during that time were eerily similar to the individual who had committed suicide. By doing some creative analysis of the data, the researcher determined that many of those deaths were likely not accidental at all, but were instead suicides staged to look like accidents.

There are several plausible explanations why someone would use an accident to cover up a suicide. They may have wanted to avoid bringing shame onto their families, or to make sure that their families received their life insurance payout. We’ll obviously never know the answer. This study absolutely blew my mind. If you want to know more about the details of the methodology and results of this study, I highly recommend you check out that chapter on social proof in Dr. Cialdini's book.

It's hard to believe

Another study looked at violent crime data following high-profile boxing matches. Similar to the suicide study, the data revealed a startling pattern about social proof. In cities all across the country, in the days following one of these boxing matches, there is a statistically significant increase in the number of violent crimes like assault and murder. And also like the suicide study, the demographics of the individuals involved in those crimes are strikingly similar to the individuals participating in the boxing match.

The similarity even extended to which person was the attacker and which was the victim. For example, if a white man had defeated a black man in the boxing match, the crime data would be heavily weighted toward white-on-black. If, however, a black man had defeated his white opponent, then the local crimes would reflect that same dynamic.

It's not all bad news

So, what do all of the examples described in this video series have to do with motivation? They illustrate the incredibly powerful ways that social proof influences your behavior. You can use this fact to build motivation into your life by intentionally surrounding yourself with people who exhibit the kind of behavior you desire but usually can't achieve. When you see your desired behavior in the people around you, your brain will consider it the expected and appropriate behavior for the situation. As a result, you will be much more likely to achieve and, more importantly, sustain your desired behavior change.

I realize that this isn’t a new concept for most people. The are thousands of different kinds of networking and support groups that exist solely to provide this kind of social proof. If you join a running club, you are more likely to go out running every morning because that behavior is normal within the group. If you join an investing club, the appropriate behavior is to invest.

The power of leverage

The aspect of this strategy that is not as well understood, however, is how you can multiply the power of social proof exponentially the more you build it into different areas of your life. If you want to get over your fear of public speaking, you can join the Toastmasters organization. If you actively participate, it will certainly help you improve, but the transformation will likely be slow. If, however, you want to really accelerate that change, you can find people who enjoy public speaking (whether or not you even consider them good at it), and purposely spend more of your time with them. The more you are around those people, the more quickly you will achieve your desired behavior change.

I’m using this strategy in my own life. Now that I’m a full-time entrepreneur, I’m purposely building a network of like-minded people, so that the behaviors necessary to achieve success will become my new normal.

I hope you enjoyed this series. I definitely enjoyed creating it. Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment below, and please consider signing up for my email updates at the top of this page.