Understanding Social Proof: A Matter of Life or Death? | Cardinal Path Blog
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Understanding Social Proof: A Matter of Life or Death?

As a teaser for next week’s webinar, I’d like to provide one simple — if tragic — example of how incredibly powerful Social Proof really is.

Have you ever noticed that the media rarely cover suicide stories? You hear about suicides through the grapevine, not through the newspapers or TV.

There’s a good reason for this. It’s because every time a suicide is widely publicized, a whole raft of copycat suicides follow.

This is known as The Werther Effect, after Goethe’s 18th century novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. In the novel, Werther commits suicide. Soon after publication, the book was banned… to stop a huge spike in suicides.

Even more surprising is how similar copycat suicides are:

  • Well-publicized murder/suicides (including pilots or drivers crashing intentionally, taking passengers with them) only lead to flurries of similar murder/suicides.
  • Well-publicized individual suicides only lead to flurries of individual suicides.

How can this possibly be explained? Alas… it’s Social Proof: Not knowing what to do, troubled individuals look to see what other similarly-troubled people do.

When these high-risk people hear of a suicide — especially by someone in a similar situation — the “solution” of taking their own lives (and sometimes, the lives of those around them) is validated.

To determine just how powerful The Werther Effect was, sociologist David Phillips examined suicide statistics in the United States from between 1947 and 1968.* Incredibly, he found that on average, each front-page suicide story resulted in 58 more people killing themselves than would be statistically expected.

No wonder the police and media don’t broadcast suicides: Who’d want to be responsible for so many deaths?

That is the power of Social Proof. If you’d like to learn some surprising — and positive — ways you can put it to use, be sure to attend my free webinar at 10:00 PST on January 26.

 

* Reported by Robert Cialdini in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

 

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