What have Jamie Lynn Spears and this blog about internet business have in common?

The message here today is about the power of social proof. We all look at what other people are doing to help us make decisions about what we should be doing – that’s called social proof.

(Social proof is why many people still use AdSense on their sites even though it isn’t profitable any more, but don’t get me started on that one.)

I’ve just read a blog post pointed out to me by my wife, about a concerned mother whose children watch Zoey 101 starring Ms. Spears. The character Zoey is supposed to be about age 13 or 14, while the actress who plays her (Jamie Lynn Spears) is 16.

Here’s the thing. It’s almost certainly likely that while the children watching it will know the factual difference between the real person and a character being played by that person, they will behave as if that character is a real person.

(I’ve only got to look at my own children talking about what Ben 10 will do next to know I’m right on that count.)

So the concerned mother opens in her blog post:-

“Today, when my kids arrive home from school, I predict the first thing they will want to talk about is the fact that Zoey 101 is going to have a baby.

And then the questions will start. ‘Mom, isn’t she in like 9th grade?’ ‘Mom, Jamie Lynn Spears isn’t married.’ ‘Mom, how can a kid have a baby?'”

I can imagine the problems she’s had sorting that one out.

She knows that we all look to our peers to see the correct way to behave. We learn this as babies, for example, staring into our parents faces to see when it’s appropriate to laugh.

And she’s worried that her children will think it’s okay to be pregnant while still at school.

(For a while here in the UK, if a girl became pregnant while still at school, she was immediately taken out of school so as not to set an example for the other girls. I don’t know if that still goes on.)

If you’re wondering about Jamie Lynn Spears behaviour here, just look at who her role model is – her older sister who has been fussed over and chased by the media over her own pregnancies. It may seem to Jamie Lynn that it’s good to be pregnant because you then become important and “special” like her older sister.

I don’t know…

If you doubt the power of social proof, in Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence – The Psychology Of Persuasion”, he relates a story about a previously unexplained rise in plane crashes in the US every so often. This was a charted “blip”.

After a lot of investigation, it turned out that the plane crashes coincided with heavily publicised suicides. If the suicide was in a national newspaper, then both plane crashes and car crashes would increase, as well as suicides in general across the country.

If it was in a state newspaper, then plane and car crashes would increase in that state.

It seems that the only reasonable answer was that pilots and the drivers of cars were deliberately crashing in an attempt to both take their lives and earn insurance payouts for their families.

I know it may seem far fetched – you need to read the book for the full story.

Insurance companies have taken it all very seriously and now plot the number of claims right after a heavily publicised suicide – they know what’s coming.

So the old adage of “monkey see, monkey do” is a good one. Behaviour really does breed behaviour.

Moving away from the examples above, from a business point of view social proof is often used in the form of testimonials. If a good number of people say something is the best thing since sliced bread, then it makes sense for us to believe it.

It’s one of the short cuts we take when we go through the decision making process when we’re unsure about something.

Don’t believe me? Imagine this as a final example…

You pull off the highway part way through taking a long journey, as you’re hungry and you’re looking for something to eat. You see two diners, and both look equally good. However, one has a good number of cars parked outside and you can see people moving around inside, the other car park is empty and you don’t see any people.

Which one would you choose?

Well I think you’d say to yourself…

“What do the people in the busy diner know that I don’t? Is the empty diner awful? Does the busy one have the best food for miles around? I’m hungry and I’m not taking any chances, I’ll go with the one that’s busy. Those people must know something I don’t.”

That’s the power of social proof.

-Frank Haywood.