13 March 2013

How to Buy Pasta in a Foreign Country - Social Proof

In an earlier post on social influences on our own behavior I have addressed the topic of social conformity, mainly from the perspective of “peer pressure” or conforming to group norms and behaviors in order to no be or feel excluded.

The social influences on our own behavior have also a different side, namely that we tend to conform to social norms and to “do what others do” not only to avoid feeling excluded, but simply because we infer that “others know better”. 

Imagine the following example. You are in a foreign country and want to buy pasta from a supermarket. None of the brands on the shelves are known to you and you don’t know the language of the country, so you can’t read too much on the packages. As you are looking at the pasta bags and packages trying to figure out which one to buy, a lady comes by the shelf with pastas and picks one bag, puts it in her shopping basket and leaves. The lady looks more like a local and a lot less like a tourist.

How likely are you to pick up the same type of Pasta as the lady did? 

My belief is that you are very likely to buy exactly the same type of pasta as the lady did. This is not because you are afraid that if you would not pick the same type of pasta you would be or feel excluded from a social group. After all you are in a foreign country, you don’t speak the language and have no idea what kind of pasta is the best… how more excluded can you get?

You will pick up the same type of pasta as the lady picked because you infer that she knows something you don’t, namely which pasta is better.

Social proof is similar to “peer pressure”, but it is distinct. One similarity is that we are influenced more by the actions of people who are similar to us. For example a Manchester City fan will not be influenced by the behavior of a Manchester United fan (City and United are rivals). At the same time if you are a young male, very likely you will be influenced by the behavior of other young males.

One distinction between social proof and peer pressure is that social proof occurs only when there is some ambiguity, whereas peer pressure occurs even in situations in which there is no ambiguity. We infer that others know better, but this implies that we ourselves don’t know too much. In the pasta example, you inferred that the local lady knows which pasta is best only because you had no idea which one is better.

Peer pressure, on the other hand, acts even if you know exactly which pasta is better. Let’s assume that you go to the supermarket to buy pasta and this time you know that brand B is the best pasta in the world. However, you are not alone on your shopping trip and your “in laws” are with you. They are also shopping. Your mother in law picks up some pasta brand A (which you know is inferior to brand B). Then your sister in law picks up the same brand A pasta… now even if you know brand B is better, you might buy brand A in order to not be excluded by your extended family.

Both social proof and peer pressure lead to the same outcome – “doing what others do”, the mechanisms behind each of them are distinct.

A characteristic of social proof is that it becomes more powerful with the increase in the number of people who exhibit a certain behavior. In the buying pasta example, if you see that ten ladies and not only one buy a certain type of pasta, you will feel no doubt that you should buy what they bought.

A particularly interesting thing about social proof is that it starts from a rational (or at least reasonable) assumption, namely “if I don’t know too much / anything on a topic, then others might know more on that topic and doing what they are doing is a smart idea.” However, this very assumption can lead to perfect irrationality in the sense that “if I don’t know what to do and I simply copy the behavior of others, then someone else may have the same issue and subsequently copy my behavior, but I don’t know why I am doing what I am doing.”

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