Negative Social Proof

This is my most-read and most-popular piece of advice on social proof

The title of this post was written as “positive social proof”. It gives you the impression a bunch of other people are looking at this and reading this article. Whereas negative social proof is making a statement that indicates people are doing what you don’t want them to do.

For instance, news organizations make a habit out of telling you, “Most people aren’t paying for news. Support local reporters!” Or the old “You wouldn’t download a car” anti-piracy campaigns from the FBI and others in the early 2000s.

In both instances you get a subtle nudge to think, “Hey, lots of other people, maybe most other people, are taking this without paying, too.” You don’t get to be surprised when the problem gets worse.

I’m reminded of this after seeing the usual news stories about how much water some places take to water their lawns. “Half of residents consume X million gallons of water to keep their lawns green”. Here again is negative social proof showing the behavior we’re supposed to dislike is done by a lot of people. Cycling advocates could learn a thing or two from this in attempting to get people out of cars by not reminding us how many cars there are on the road.

It can be uncomfortable to think human nature isn’t what we’d hope and these problems are exacerbated by negative social proof. But humans are social creatures hardwired to respond to clues from the rest of the herd. The troubling thing with anti-vaccination proponents is pro-vaccine groups are defaulting to negative social proof. “Anti-vaxxers on the rise” aren’t helping anyone except people nervous about injecting something they don’t understand into their kid.

Like most every measure of communication, you and your work would be better off using blunt truths:

  • “12% of Indianapolis subscribes to the IndyStar. You can, too, for 99 cents.”
  • “2 million people paid for this song”
  • “Half of Houstonites don’t water their lawns at all”
  • “Number of cyclists commuting to work reaches 30-year high”
  • “99.997% of families vaccinate their kids”

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