The Power of Social Proof - The behavioural economics trick behind VICE’s shed experiment
Humans are social creatures - this is something that we all know, if not objectively then at least on an intuitive level. Throughout our evolution as a species, gathering in groups meant increased chances of survival; so, quite naturally, we associate inclusion in a group with thriving and social exclusion with, well, let’s just say less positive things.
These associations are hardwired into our minds so that, on a subconscious level, we desire inclusion and belonging. This need has got fascinating ramifications into our day-to-day lives, making us change our behaviour in order to seamlessly integrate into different social landscapes. This experiment conducted by Brain Games exemplifies this point beautifully:
Social proof is a psychological and social phenomenon where people mirror other people’s actions in order to reflect behaviour established to be correct by the group.
So, for instance, if everyone is standing in a queue, you will probably join in rather than cut the queue. Likewise, if everyone agrees that something is great, you are less likely to stand up and say that you disagree.
This is something that we can vividly observe in VICE’s recent article comprehensively titled: “I Made My Shed the Top Rated Restaurant On TripAdvisor.” TripAdvisor is a platform where social proof is in full effect - people decide which venues to visit on their Saturday evenings depending on other people’s opinions of them. Of course, you could say that it depends on the quality of the food and the decor, but really - is it not actually about how cool other people think the place is?
So Oobah decided to create a fictitious restaurant, pay people to lavish it with exquisite reviews and get it to rank at #1 out of all London restaurants. And - surprisingly - he managed to. As the very real reviews of the very imaginary locale started rolling in, so did booking requests from unknowing people. Of course, this all began out of curiosity with a humorous twist, but it ended up being the ‘restaurant,’ opening its doors to a select few.
It’s the behaviour of the select few that intrigued us.
Oobah very smartly hired actors to play customers and be oh-so-impressed by the restaurant and the food itself (which was actually £1 ready-meals from Iceland). One would hardly expect anyone to fall for this but, rather shockingly, they did. They went along with it, joining others in praising the inventiveness of the famous South London restaurant. ‘It felt like something I’d had maybe when I was like, a kid,’ said one customer, audibly distressed by the words he was uttering.
From a behavioural economics point of view, we can clearly see three main biases put into action:
- Scarcity - Before even arriving at the restaurant, the clients knew that it took them several months to be able to book a table - something that suggests that the locale is highly sought after and provides a valuable experience;
- Social proof - Once in the restaurant, the attendees were surrounded by actors pretending to be thoroughly enjoying their time and had been primed by the abundance of positive reviews - thus making them more inclined to agree with the group;
- The influence of expectation - Because Oobah had framed the locale as 'homely' and reminiscent of childhood, what would have normally been perceived as shabby was now pleasantly flawed.
There are two ways of interpreting this story. One revolves around the rather deflating perception of London that builds up - Is it really all about appearances? Can Londoners be fooled that anything is great if it is framed as 'cool'? On the other hand, we can understand the message underneath this whole narrative, which is actually quite inspiring: People want to stick together and joint experiences have the power of bringing us closer.
We’ll leave you to enjoy the story itself - here is VICE’s prank turned behavioural economics experiment:
- Out of our intrinsic need to integrate into social groups, we may engage in doubtful behaviour once in a while... VICE's new prank seems to double as a social experiment fantastically exemplifying this.