When ‘Fitting In’ Beats Facts

Behavioural Insights Into COVID-19

When faced with an uncertain situation, an unsure person often looks to other people for guidance on how they should behave, or what they should believe. In this sense, uncertainty is the rocket fuel that activates and feeds the engine of social proof.

Social proof is a psychological process and social phenomenon where people copy the actions of others in an attempt to reflect the correct behaviour in an ambiguous situation. It is driven by the assumption that the people surrounding you in your social network have more knowledge about the current situation that you do.

How is social proof useful?

Teachers use social science principles of social proof as a means of instructing students. Classroom peers seem to be highly effective at teaching academic concepts and prosocial skills to less capable fellow students.

Social proof can also be particularly effective in treating phobias and is a technique often used by therapists. Children who are afraid of dogs, for instance, have quickly learned to overcome their fear by observing another child play happily with a dog or even by simply viewing film clips of numerous other children interact safely with dogs. If it’s okay for the other child to play with the dog, even if the observing child has ‘information’ through experience or other observations that that dogs can be dangerous, this is now overwritten with the social proof that dogs must be safe.

Social proof concepts have been and continue to be some of the most effective means of persuading consumers to buy a product. Supplementing products with tag lines such as “8 out of 10 mothers recommend…” or “the most popular…,” and using testimonials significantly increase the chances of the product being bought. 80 percent of people surveyed in one study said they’d be more likely to purchase if they saw positive user reviews on a company’s Facebook page.

When social proof goes wrong 

One reason why we are so keen to believe in conspiracy theories is that we are social animals and our status in that society is much more important than being right. So, we constantly compare our actions and beliefs to those of our peers, and then alter them to fit in. This means that if our social group believes something, we are more likely to follow the herd. This principle also applies powerfully to ideas. If more people believe a piece of information, then we are more likely to accept it as true.

And so if, via our social group – through Facebook Groups or real-life word-of-mouth interactions, we are overly exposed to a particular idea then it becomes entrenched in our world view. In sum: social proof is a much more effective persuasion technique than purely evidence-based proof, which is of course why this sort of proof is so popular in advertising. Social influence and proof trumps facts.

Perceived similarity beats facts

Whether in online communities like Facebook Groups, on other social media like Instagram, or in real-life, the amount of similarity a person or group might have to you is an important influence. A person who is ambivalent and may be persuadable is more likely to adopt behaviour and attitudes of people who are perceived to be similar to themselves, and are therefore seen to be easy to relate to. Research on social proof has shown that our peers, in particular, and their choices are important to us and influence our decisions and actions: we usually choose to do the same thing that our peers are doing.

Social proof becomes more influential when the surrounding people are perceived as particularly knowledgeable about a situation or are even just slightly more familiar with the situation than the observer is. And this is all about perception – that familiarity doesn’t even have to be based in fact. The engine of social proof works best when the proof is provided by the behaviour and actions of a larger number of people. It seems that the greater the number of people or ‘agencies’ who find an idea to be correct, the more correct and valid the idea will be for the ambiguous and persuadable observer.

When you consider that bout 30% of U.S. adults think that the coronavirus was created and spread on purpose and that the threat of Covid-19 has been exaggerated to damage Donald Trump, then you can see why these ideas can spread quite quickly, and can potentially be very damaging such as as when people won’t wear masks in a pandemic or refuse to comply with contact tracing information requests.

Why are people motivated to believe a conspiracy theory?

“A conspiracy theory,” Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami Joseph Uscinski says, “is an accusatory perception in which a small group of powerful people are working in secret for their own benefit against the common good and in a way that undermines our bedrock ground rules against widespread force and fraud, and that perception has yet to be verified by the appropriate experts using available and open data and methods.” A University of Chicago study estimated in 2014 that half of the American public consistently endorses at least one conspiracy theory.

Further studies have shown that people are likely to turn to conspiracy theories when they are anxious and feel powerless. Other research indicates that conspiracy theory belief is strongly related to lack of sociopolitical control or lack of psychological empowerment.

Among many other reasons, belief in conspiracy theory also appears to be partly predicted by the perception that society is under threat, and that society’s fundamental values are changing. A lack of control over perception of these changes can lead to people to exaggerate the influence that they attribute to their ‘enemies’, and can deepen their belief in conspiracies, provided that the perceivers consider the implicated authorities, or ‘enemies’ as immoral.

Conspiracy theories do not seem to be restricted to specific times or cultures: Citizens around the world are susceptible to them, from modern to traditional societies. The tendency to be suspicious of the possibility that others are forming conspiracies against one and one’s group may well be a fundamental part of human nature.

Religious congregations are not exempt from the workings of a particular form of social proof. Devotees who talk about their miraculous transformations, whether legitimate or “planted,” do the job of convincing ambivalent minds into pledging their commitment and their resources to the religious cause.

When trying to counter misinformation goes wrong

Taking a myth-busting approach to countering misinformation and conspiracy theories might seem like a good way to go. Perhaps calling out the myth and then [resenting reality seems like a logical, fact-based way to present corrective information so people can change their behaviour, based on good evidence.

The truth will always win, right?

Unfortunately, this is not how the brain with its inherent cognitive biases paired with social influences works. What is actually seems to do is trigger what has become known as the backfire effect, where the myth ends up becoming more memorable that the fact.In a study evaluating a ‘Myths and Facts’ flyer about flu vaccines, things seemed to go well initially. Immediate after reading the flyer, study participants accurately remembered the facts as facts and myths as myths. But only 30 minutes later, this completely changed, with myths becoming much more likely to be remembered as ‘facts’.

It seems as though merely mentioning the myths actually seems to reinforce them. And then over time – and a shockingly short period of time at that – you forget the context in which you heard the myth. So, even in the context of a myth-debunking flyer, the participant is more likely to be left with just the memory of the myth itself, as fact.

Avoiding the backfire effect

The biggest power lies in pre-bunking rather than debunking – and that’s pre-emptively warning people about the strategies that people are using to speed conspiracy theories, like high-end production values and the use of fake experts.

Check out the Bad News game online for more about this. It’s been proven to be particularly effective because it simulates sites like Twitter, allowing you to build your follower base by implying misinformation techniques like impersonating of delegitimising official accounts by attacking them in different ways, making polarising comments deigned to create partisan divides, or through creating complete conspiracy theories.

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