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Last week I discussed Social Proof: the powerful tendency for people to “follow the pack” when determining a course of action.

It’s important to understand how Social Proof works. Because it applies both to good and bad behavior. (“Sure, I threw some rocks at the cars… but everyone was doing it!”)

If we don’t understand the ramifications of Social Proof, we may unintentionally motivate people to do the exact opposite of what we want.

It’s in public service messages that Negative Social Proof most commonly insinuates itself. Take the following messages for example:

  • Drinking driving: This year, 20,000 people from all walks of life will be arrested for drunk driving.
  • Voting: Last election, 45% of eligible voters didn’t bother to show up at the polls.
  • Recycling: 75% of people don’t recycle everything they could. And 25% don’t recycle anything at all.
  • Safer Sex: 35% of sexually active teens do not always use condoms.
  • Sexual harassment: 50% of women report being harassed in the workplace. [Implication: Lots of men are still doing it.]

All of the above messages may be well-intentioned. But they’d likely have the exact opposite of their intended effect. They make the undesirable behavior sound popular. They validate the behavior, allowing recipients to rationalize with “Lots of people are still doing it. So it can’t be all that bad.”

Robert Cialdini ran an experiment* in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. In addition to a control state (in which no signs were placed) he placed signs that stated either:

  • Straight Request: “Please don’t remove petrified wood from the park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest” or
  • Social Proof: “Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest”

The results were staggering: whereas the straight request reduced theft slightly, the Social Proof message actually increased theft by almost three times the control rate.

Avoiding Negative Social Proof in Your Online Communications

It’s not just public interest websites that face this challenge. Say you’re selling security systems. If your messaging emphasizes the scope of the problem (e.g. “60% of households are still unprotected”), you’re simply validating the behavior of those without alarms.

How can you avoid the pitfalls Negative Social Proof? Simple. Don’t focus on how common the undesirable behavior is. Rather, indicate that it is rare and practiced only by the very odd social outcast. Emphasize (where appropriate) that the behavior is:

  • Illegal
  • Subject to penalties
  • Immoral
  • Reprehensible
  • Irresponsible
  • Stupid
  • Outdated, no longer acceptable
  • Universally scorned

By doing so, you make the powerful forces of Social Proof work for you, rather than against you.

* Reported in Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive.