From the excellent Big Think, here’s a worthwhile video of social psychologist Robert Cialdini talking about some of the social psychologists who influenced his work, including Situationist contributor Phil Zimbardo.
The Cialdini effect might sound like a new mind-control trick from the illusionist Derren Brown, but it is more sinister than that. It is indeed a mind-control trick, but one that requires no tricksy showman to pull it off.
If, like me, you have ever abandoned a shopping trolley in a messy supermarket car park, then you have fallen under its subtly destructive spell and you have only your subconcious to blame.
The effect takes its name from Robert Cialdini, a American psychology professor who wrote a groundbreaking book called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. This was no pap psychology book; it was, appropriately enough, a highly influential work that continues to shape social psychology, that mesmerising scientific discipline which examines the sometimes irrational way we behave in our relationships with others. Cialdini showed, among other things, that people do what they see others doing, even when they know they shouldn’t.
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Now a Dutch study has shown that the Cialdini effect is only the start of our troubles. People can actually be steered into criminal behaviour, such as stealing, simply by tinkering with their environment. In fact, the scientists claim, if you know what psychological buttons to press, you can make antisocial behaviour spread like a contagious disease. The paper, which has gone virtually unnoticed beyond the academic community, should be read by anyone who cares how and why people disobey the rules of civil society.
It seems common sense that a litter-strewn, graffiti-spattered environment will suffer more petty criminality than a pristine one. . . . But, surprisingly, it has never been proven beyond reasonable doubt . . . .
And so Kees Keizer and a team of behavioural scientists from the University of Groningen designed some experiments that could settle the matter, all to be conducted secretly on Dutch streets. In the first set-up, they chose an alley near a shopping centre where people park their bikes. In the middle of the alley stood a large No Graffiti sign. Dr Keizer’s team looped flyers over the bikes’ handlebars; any cyclist would need to remove the flyer before pedalling away. Given there were no rubbish bins, would the cyclists take their litter home, or drop it on the ground? The scientists took up their spying positions, and waited.
When the alley walls were clean, 33 per cent of cyclists dropped the flyer on the pavement or put it on another bike (both counted as littering). When the scientists added graffiti and repeated the experiment on another day, 69 per cent of the cyclists littered, a far bigger difference than would be expected by chance. Could it be possible that one sign of disorder, graffiti, was triggering another undesirable behaviour, littering?
So they tested the theory another way, this time in a supermarket car park and using flyers shoved under windscreen wipers. When the car park was tidy, with all the shopping trolleys put away, 30 per cent dropped the flyers on the ground. When the car park looked chaotic, with four shopping trolleys strewn around (their handles smeared with petroleum jelly to deter shoppers from grabbing them and thus ruining the experiment), 58 per cent littered.
Despoiling the environment is one thing; stealing quite another. Dr Keizer’s team left an envelope hanging out of a postbox; the stamped and addressed envelope had a window through which could clearly be seen a five-euro note. How would passers-by, or those posting a letter, react when they saw it? The vast majority (87 per cent) either left it alone, or pushed it into the postbox. Only 13 per cent took it away (this was regarded as stealing).
But roughing up the environment had a dramatic effect. When the postbox was tagged with graffiti, 27 per cent of people stole the letter. When the postbox was surrounded by rubbish (but not graffitied), 25 per cent pocketed the cash.
The academics, who reported their startling results last month in Science, suggest that disorder does indeed beget disorder; when one social or legal norm is obviously violated, we are tempted to loosen our grip on others. Or, as Dr Keizer writes in the more precise language of psychology: “The most likely interpretation of these results is… that one disorder (graffiti or littering) actually fostered a new disorder (stealing) by weakening the goal of acting appropriately… The mere presence of graffiti more than doubled the number of people littering and stealing.”
Exactly why our capacity to act honourably melts away in nasty settings is a mystery. Dr Keizer speculates that, when the instinct to act appropriately is pushed to one side, competing instincts – such as to do what feels good or to give in to greed – take over. If we can see that bad behaviour has gone unpunished, perhaps we feel that our own lapses will go uncensured.
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To read the entire article, click here. To listen to a 22-minute interview of Robert Cialdini, click here.
How can inconveniencing your audience increase your persuasiveness?
Colleen Szot is one of the most successful writers in the paid programming industry. And for good reason: In addition to penning several well-known “infomercials” for the famed and fast-selling NordicTrac exercise machine, she recently authored a program that shattered a nearly twenty-year sales record for a home-shopping channel. Although her programs retain many of the elements common to most infomercials, including flashy catchphrases, an unrealistically enthusiastic audience, and celebrity endorsements, Szot changed three words to a standard infomercial line that caused a huge increase in the number of people who purchased her product. Even more remarkable, these three words made it clear to potential customers that the process of ordering the product might well prove somewhat of a hassle. What were those three words, and how did they cause sales to skyrocket?
Szot changed the all-too-familiar call-to-action line, “Operators are waiting, please call now,” to, “If operators are busy, please call again.” On the face of it, the change appears foolhardy. After all, the message seems to convey that potential customers might have to waste their time dialing and redialing the toll-free number until they finally reach a sales representative. Yet, that surface view underestimates the power of the principle of social proof: When people are uncertain about a course of action, they tend to look outside themselves and to other people around them to guide their decisions and actions. In the Colleen Szot example, consider the kind of mental image likely to be generated when you hear “operators are waiting”: scores of bored phone representatives filing their nails, clipping their coupons, or twiddling their thumbs while they wait by their silent telephones — an image indicative of low demand and poor sales.
Now consider how your perception of the popularity of the product would change when you heard the phrase “if operators are busy, please call again.” Instead of those bored, inactive representatives, you’re probably imagining operators going from phone call to phone call without a break. In the case of the modified “if operators are busy, please call again” line, home viewers followed their perceptions of others’ actions, even though those others were completely anonymous. After all, “if the phone lines are busy, then other people like me who are also watching this infomercial are calling, too.”
Many classical findings in social psychology demonstrate the power of social proof to influence other people’s actions. To take just one, in an experiment conducted by scientist Stanley Milgram and colleagues, an assistant of the researchers stopped on a busy New York City sidewalk and gazed skyward for sixty seconds. Most passersby simply walked around the man without even glancing to see what he was looking at. However, when the researchers added four other men to that group of sky gazers, the number of passersby who joined them more than quadrupled.
Although there’s little doubt that other people’s behavior is a powerful source of social influence, when we ask people in our own studies whether other people’s behavior influences their own, they are absolutely insistent that it does not. But social psychologists know better. We know that people’s ability to understand the factors that affect their behavior is surprisingly poor. Perhaps this is one reason that the people in the business of creating those little cards encouraging hotel guests to reuse their towels didn’t think to use the principle of social proof to their advantage. In asking themselves, “What would motivate me?” they might well have discounted the very real influence that others would have on their behavior. As a result, they focused all their attention on how the towel reuse program would be relevant to saving the environment, a motivator that seemed, at least on the surface of it, to be most relevant to the desired behavior.
In our hotel experiment, we considered the finding that the majority of hotel guests who encounter the towel reuse signs do actually recycle their towels at least some time during their stay. What if we simply informed guests of this fact? Would it have any influence on their participation in the conservation program relative to the participation rates that a basic environmental appeal yields? With the cooperation of a hotel manager, two of us and another colleague created two signs and placed them in hotel rooms. One was designed to reflect the type of basic environmental-protection message adopted throughout much of the hotel industry. It asked the guests to help save the environment and to show their respect for nature by participating in the program. A second sign used the social proof information by informing guests that the majority of guests at the hotel recycled their towels at least once during the course of their stay. These signs were randomly assigned to the rooms in the hotel.
Now, typically, experimental social psychologists are fortunate enough to have a team of eager undergraduate research assistants to help collect the data. But, as you might imagine, neither our research assistants nor the guests would have been very pleased with the research assistants’ sneaking into hotel bathrooms to collect our data, nor would our university’s ethics board (nor our mothers, for that matter). Fortunately, the hotel’s room attendants were kind enough to volunteer to collect the data for us. On the first day on which a particular guest’s room was serviced, they simply recorded whether the guest chose to reuse at least one towel.
Guests who learned that the majority of other guests had reused their towels (the social proof appeal), which was a message that we’ve never seen employed by even a single hotel, were 26 percent more likely than those who saw the basic environmental protection message to recycle their towels. That’s a 26 percent increase in participation relative to the industry standard, which we achieved simply by changing a few words on the sign to convey what others were doing. Not a bad improvement for a factor that people say has no influence on them at all.