(I am proud to post this on behalf of Kirk Englehardt, Director of Research Communication and Marketing for the Georgia Institute of Technology. Take it away, Kirk.)
We all want to fit in and be part of the crowd. We also want to be in the know, or at least to not miss out on something great that others learned about first. Marketers use this psychology to get you to purchase products and services, but when social marketing techniques move out of the consumer realm and into health, medicine and science – the results could be disastrous.
I started thinking about this after reading a great FastCompany article about the Psychology of Social Proof. Think of social proof as the way our decision-making is influenced by the beliefs of others, like experts, celebrities, friends and groups.
…but what happens if the others are wrong?
The article identifies 5 kinds of social proof used by marketers today. I’ve taken each a step further to give examples of when these seemingly innocent techniques can become dangerous for you and your loved ones.
- Expert Social Proof
How many times have you seen companies promote their products using endorsements by “experts?” These may be people you recognize or trust telling you why you need to purchase a product or service. You’re inclined to believe them and act on their recommendations.
When it gets dangerous:
In 1998 Andrew Wakefield published his research claiming there was a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. His paper fueled a worldwide frenzy that stopped many parents from vaccinating their children, putting them at risk for contracting diseases that were once under control. Wakefield was a surgeon and a researcher, an expert in the field.
As it turns out, science confirmed he was wrong. His research collapsed under scrutiny, and The Lancet retracted his paper. He was accused of being dishonest and irresponsible, and he is barred from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom.
While the debunking of Wakefield’s conclusions was widely reported, many people are still afraid of vaccines. There is also an anti-vaccine movement that continues even though there is no scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism. More children are at risk today because of the “expert social proof” that sparked the anti-vaccine movement.
When you blindly believe a so-called expert, or activist, without doing any additional fact-finding, you may be putting yourself (or your loved ones) in danger.
- Celebrity Social Proof
Your favorite actress shares which shampoo makes her hair so shiny and beautiful. Your favorite actor prefers Coke over Pepsi. Your favorite rock star plays only Fender guitars. You adore these people and want to emulate them, so you place value on their recommendations.
When it gets dangerous:
Jenny McCarthy is a beautiful model, successful television personality and a very funny actress. You can’t help but like her when you watch her on The View. You want to believe what she says is true.
But for years, she has been an outspoken activist against vaccination, and has claimed that vaccines cause autism. There are children around the world who are now unvaccinated as a result of her claims, which are not supported by medical research. Making matters worse, she has a huge audience of loyal fans. She has 1.16 million Twitter followers, a Facebook page with more than 585,000 likes and is a published author.
When a celebrity recommends a particular shampoo, it’s safe to assume it’s a paid endorsement, and that the shampoo won’t make your children vulnerable to contracting a potentially deadly disease. But when celebrities share opinions on health, medicine and science you should do additional research. Remember, they’re not scientists.
- User Social Proof
The FastCompany article describes this as “approval from current users of a product or service, including testimonials, case studies and online reviews.”
When it gets dangerous:
Any eloquent writer can give you the false impression that he is an expert on a particular topic. This can become dangerous when people posting, commenting and opining online intentionally, or accidentally, share bad information. We still see this happening on the topic of vaccines. Even though science has proven them wrong, a vocal minority persists in wanting you to believe that vaccines are harmful. Many share their emotional and “personal stories,” which, for all we know, could be fiction.
Always consider the source when reading opinions on health, medicine and science. You should also be cautious when considering what you read in blog comments, on Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and other social media platforms. If you read something compelling on a website, find out who runs/sponsors the site. Doing these things may help prevent you from making decisions based on bad information.
- ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ Social Proof
If others are doing it, you should be doing it too…right? They obviously know something that you don’t, and you certainly don’t want to miss out on a good thing. That’s what marketers want you to think.
When it becomes dangerous:
You are putting yourself at risk when you let your opinions be determined solely by those around you. It’s always valuable to consider the input of others, but making important decisions by simply following the crowd is a very bad idea. This is especially important when the decisions involve your health. If you take the time to do even a small amount of research, you may realize the crowd is wrong.
- ‘Wisdom of Your Friends’ Social Proof
If 5 or 6 of your friends change their Facebook icons to a red equal sign to signify support for same-sex marriage, you may do it too. If other parents share excellent reviews of the new Spiderman movie you may take your kids to see it. If several of your friends tell you that under “Obamacare” you won’t be able to choose your own doctor, you’d probably dislike the law. Friends are strongly influenced by the beliefs and actions of other friends.
When it Becomes Dangerous:
If a handful of your friends decided not to vaccinate their children, would you think twice about doing it? If they told you the newest cleanse diet was good for your health, would you give it a try? Unless your friends are medical researchers or nutritionists you should be skeptical. It’s too easy to share, retweet and forward misinformation that sounds credible. Remember that you could be putting your health, and the health of your loved ones, at risk if you don’t check things out for yourself.
I hope this piece encourages you to consider the source of what you read, and to make good decisions based on facts instead of rumors and assumptions. Maybe one day we will all be educated consumers of health, medical and science information.
If I can provide one takeaway: Trust, but Verify!
Understanding Vaccines: National Institutes of Health
Vaccine Information: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention
10 Vaccine Myths: Busted – Parenting Magazine
Kirk Englehardt is Director of Research Communication and Marketing for the Georgia Institute of Technology. He currently blogs about strategic communication in science and higher education at http://thestrategyroom.tumblr.com He also posts and interacts regularly on Twitter @kirkenglehardt.