Social Influence

Using Social Influence to Increase Success

In July 10, 2017
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The idea that we follow others has some interesting implications. Let’s start with few examples.

There was a famous campaign in the United States, an anti-drug campaign, called the Just Say No campaign. It was started in the early 1980s by Nancy Reagan, and the idea was very simple. Drug rates are increasing, particularly among kids, so public service announcements came out talking about the dangers of drugs, and trying to encourage people not to do them. This seems like a pretty simple idea, right? We wanna encourage kids not to do drugs, so the ads had a variety of real life situations where kids might be asked to do drugs. A neighbour for example might say, hey, do you wanna do drugs? Or, hey, the kids at school are doing drugs. Do you wanna try them? And the idea was by learning to say no, by seeing other kids say no, people would be more likely to say no themselves. Researchers analysed whether this campaign was effective. Did children who saw the anti-drug ads, were they less likely to take drugs? You might expect the answer would be yes. That showing kids anti-drug ads, telling them just to say no, would decrease drug use. Unfortunately,  that didn’t happen. It didn’t lead to decreased drug use. In fact, it didn’t even lead to no change in drug use. It actually had a reverse effect. Kids that saw more anti-drug ads were later more likely to report using drugs. This might come as a big surprise. The ads were particularly designed to get people not to use drugs. So why did it actually have a reverse effect? Well, think about it for a moment. You’re a kid, you’re sitting at home, you’ve never thought about trying drugs before. And then an ad comes on television and says, hey little boy or girl, there is something called drugs. Well, if you’ve never heard of drugs before, the ad just told you that they exist. And then the ad proceeds to show other people using drugs. They say, hey, the kids at school are using drugs or the cool kids are using drugs, but you shouldn’t. And you’re sitting there, going, well, if the cool kids are using them, maybe I should check them out as well. While telling people not to use drugs, the ads were simultaneously saying, other people are doing it. And whenever we tell people that other people are doing something, they’re gonna be more likely to do it themselves.

On the other hand, when we wanna convince people to do something, we wanna point out how many other people are doing it. In Britain, for example, they wanted to raise more tax dollars. Not enough Brits were paying their taxes on time.  So they added one line to a letter they sent to people’s homes that increased the tax revenues by a huge number, by tens of millions of dollars. The only line they added to that letter was nine out of ten people of your peers pay their taxes on time. And by merely letting people know that other people are doing it, it increased the chance that they would do it themselves.

We’ve talked about how conformity shapes the individual decisions we make, but they also have some interesting implications for why some products and ideas become popular. Think about something that’s recently become popular, maybe a famous book or movie or music star. Take JK Rowling, the author of Harry Potter. That book has sold tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions at this point, of copies. All around the world, people love the book, and it’s one of the biggest hits of all time. When we look at the story behind Harry Potter, we see something quite different. JK Rowling, the author, actually shot that manuscript to a number of publishers who turned it down. Many said it wasn’t very good, it had a niche audience, it needed to be rewritten. She had to shop it to dozens of publishers so someone finally picked it up and made her a multimillionaire in the process. So if certain things are better than others, why don’t experts realise it?  It turns out there’s something more interesting at work. Success is often unpredictable, not just because it’s based on quality, but because success is based a lot on social influence. Imagine you came to a website that had a bunch of different music artists, and they had different songs that you could download. There’s a long list of artists with different songs, and you could pick whichever one you like. There are songs you’ve never heard of, bands you’ve never heard the names of, but you listen to a couple and at the end, you end up downloading a certain song.

Researchers ran a study just like this one. People could listen to whatever music they’d like and download certain songs. But in addition to the version I just told you, they also ran the world that included social influence. In addition to the name of the song and the name of the artist, next to it was the number of other people that had downloaded that song previously. Just like the number of views that might appear on a clip on YouTube or the number of sales that might appear next to a book on a best seller list. And what they looked at is how just that number of what other people had done previously, changed what people listened to. And they found, not surprisingly, that people tend to listen to songs that were already popular. People tended to follow what others had done previously. The songs in that social influence world, the hits became more popular, and the failures became much less popular. As we’ve talked about, people tend to follow others. But there was one more interesting hitch to this story. They didn’t just run one social influence world, they ran multiple. Multiple cases where a bunch of individuals were assigned to one situation where they listened to songs. And what they found is in those different, separate worlds, those different groups of people, completely different songs became popular. If it was just about quality, the same song should have been popular in each world. Yet in one world, a certain song might have been the best hit and in another, it was close to last. So why did that happen? It turned out social influence not only drove success some things to succeed and others to fail, but it also drove some of the randomnesses. People tended to follow others, so whoever had listened to the song first had a big impact on what others did.

Just like that person who might have been first to speak in a meeting, people tended to follow the others that came before them. They tended to listen to the same songs, to download the same songs, and increase the hit count even further. That’s why best seller lists have such a big impact. We tend to look to those lists to figure out what we should read or watch, but that in turn leads those songs or movies to stay on the lists and then that affects the next people as well. What this study shows is that social influence does two things. First, it increases inequality. It makes popular things even more popular and unpopular things even less popular. But importantly, it also makes success unpredictable. The winner in one version was almost completely different than the winner in others. Just like that first person in the meeting, has a big impact on what the rest of the group does, the first person who listened to a song had a big impact on the people that followed them. And so this idea of the herd or bandwagon effects can have a big impact on what catches on. If we’re designing a recommender system, or thinking about how to provide information to others, we need to be really careful about that social information. In some cases, we want to do what I’ll call making the private public. We wanna make it more observable what others are doing. The easier it is for us to see what others are doing, the more likely it will be to imitate it. But in other cases, we wanna make others’ behaviour private. If we don’t want people to imitate others, we wanna make others’ behavior harder to see.

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