The Social Proof Shortcut to Creating Social Change

This summer I attended a poorly organized concert. Outside the venue, people were wandering in the hot sun trying to find the entrance, or the line to the entrance, or at least something that indicated where to go next. We were experiencing pluralistic ignorance: after failing to find signage, we were all looking to everyone else for guidance, but no one knew what was going on. Then, a line started to form and move in a specific direction. There was palpable relief as people saw social proof of what to do next.

When we use the behavior of groups of people who are similar to us to help guide our actions or decisions, we are using social proof.[1] This is an excellent way to save time and energy in decision making. If each concertgoer in the example above had to see the entrance in order to know where to go, it would take a lot longer to get everyone seated. However, once people see a group performing a similar action, the rest know what to do.

This intriguing phenomenon can be useful for nonprofits wishing to encourage behavioral or attitude change. Whether your goal is to raise funds to end homelessness or get signatures on a climate change petition, social proof can move people quickly to a decision point. Social proof works best when:

  • The situation seems ambiguous to your audience. For example, in a campaign to fund school art programs, your audience doesn’t know how many parents really support art program funding.
  • The group providing social proof is similar to the group you are trying to influence. Using information about typical school parents will influence specific school parents.
  • The group providing social proof is large enough to have an influence. A majority, preferably a large majority, agrees with funding school art programs.
  • You can state the issue positively. People are more likely to respond to something that is a gain than a loss.[2] Not “parents are willing to spend more…,” but “parents support having more….”

Here are 7 ways any nonprofit can use social proof to further its goals:

  1. Are statistics on your side? Use them! If you can say 85% of parents support keeping arts in schools, social proof will serve as a powerful influence.
  2. Don’t have statistics already? Create a targeted survey to see if support is there.
  3. Hold a rally or event that draws a large audience. The appearance of a supportive crowd helps others deduce that social proof exists. Make sure to share the event through video and photos; social proof doesn’t require first hand experience.
  4. Circulate a petition. Signatures beget more signatures, as well as social proof to policy makers that support exists.
  5. Hold a call-in day targeting policy makers. If they hear from enough constituents, they deduce widespread support.
  6. Find a hashtag that’s already in use on social media that works with what you want to promote. Building popularity for a new hashtag takes a lot of time, but if you see programs with similar agendas already using #ArtforSchools, use it too.
  7. Use imagery and stories that prove your point. Pictures of large groups of kids happily playing band instruments and endorsements from parent and community groups will provide evidence that many find art programs valuable.

While it would have been nice for the organizers to provide clear signage at my summer concert, it was interesting to watch social proof in action, and once we made it inside, the concert was a blast. Where have you seen social proof at work? In what ways have you used it in your nonprofit activities?

[1] Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion (Revised). New York: Harper Business.

[2] Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Image credit: freeimages.com/Yarik Mishin

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