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Social proof – how one granny can persuade a crowd to take on armed robbers

By on February 22, 2011
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I was recently talked to a social games client about how important Social Proof is to creating successful social games.

He listened to my exposition of Social Proof and said, “Oh, you mean like that granny who tackled those armed robbers?”

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Now that I have seen the video he meant, I have to agree. Go and watch the video, then come back for me to tell you how it is a perfect example of social proof in action.

(Note to ITV: you might get more traffic by not allowing me to embed videos, but I very nearly didn’t bother to write this post because of that decision).

Social proof

Social proof is the way in which we, as a species, determine what is the appropriate course of action. We look to other people around us to see what is the best way to behave in a given set of circumstances. If they get involved, we get involved; if they do nothing, we do the same.

It’s why Kitty Genovese died despite 12 (some reports said 38) people hearing her screams for help over a two hour period in a crowded city block.

In the video, you can see or hear the process of social proof moving from “INACTION” to “ACTION” in barely a minute. It shows how big a difference a single person can make.

0.00: Six men on mopeds and armed with sledge hammers start smashing the windows of a jeweller in Northampton. Someone chooses to film it on their mobile.

0.07: Man walks in front of the camera, does nothing about the crime

0.12: A old lady in a red coat starts running across the road.

0.16: We hear someone asking to speak to the police, presumably on their mobile.

0.22: Old lady hits man on moped with her handbag. He guns his engine and flees, and she turns to hit another robber.

0.34 She has them on the run, and suddenly the crowd are moving. Our camera person runs, so do other bystanders.

0.49 One of the six robbers is knocked off his scooter. Bystanders jump on him and hold him down.

With help from bystanders, police were able to arrest four of the six thieves with an hour of the attempted robbery.

What happened?

What happened is that the social proof changed. At first, everyone looked around to see how they should respond to an armed robber. The clear answer was “stand around and watch”.

One person, a little old lady, stood up to the robbers. And suddenly everything changed. “If she can take them on, so can I” became the new thought.

Social proof went into reverse. The right thing to do switched from “Stand around and watch” to “Get ‘em!”

If the bystanders had reacted a little quicker, they’d have caught them all.

Why does this matter for social games?

Social games are social. That means we can look for clues amongst our friends to see what they are doing. If they come back frequently, then so should we. If they buy stuff, then so should we. If they send messages to their friends, so should we.

And social game designers should show players what their friends are doing, particularly if you want the player to perform a similar action.

Used well, Social Proof is a hugely powerful way of motivating groups of people to do what you would like them to do. This video is a reminder of quite how powerful it will be.

I will shortly be writing a series of blog posts on social proof and other ways of using psychological and social triggers in game design. In the meantime, if you are interested, I urge you to check out Robert Cialdini’s Influence.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • It was definitely an exaggeration. It is also one of the most studied crimes, from a psychological standpoint, ever, because so many people were worried about what it said about society.
    It nevertheless shows a powerful, and graphic, example of social proof in action (or inaction).

  • Hasn’t the popular account of the murder of Kitty Genovese been repeatedly shown to have been an exaggeration from the journalist? You’ve stated a “two hour” time period, but the Wiki article suggests one hour, with the attacks being reported to police right from the start but weren’t responded to because the severity of what occurred wasn’t understood since most people only saw snippets of the event. Plus she couldn’t scream because Kitty had suffered a punctured lung.

    For a better example of the bystander effect, look to the death of Delatha Word – beaten up by a much bigger man in public, stripped and eventually jumped off a bridge to escape her attacker, all in front of witnesses. (http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20101541,00.html) Unfortunately the Samaritan effect kicked in here – the more people witnessing something, the less likely any individual will act. However, when you get a leader (such as Granny up there) suddenly the situation changes.

  • You are absolutely right. I think social proof is most useful when some people are doing things that help your business (sharing, spending, even playing in the game in the first place). Making it easy for people to see that “people like them” are doing the same thing is a huge benefit.

  • I’m not sure getting ‘people to do what you would like them to do’ is exactly it. In this case, its getting people to do what they *want* to do. The lack of social proof is a barrier from where they would like to be.

  • I have that one on my shelf too. I think I prefer the more “academic” Influence, but both are good.

  • Good stuff Nicholas, looking forward to your posts about social proof and games. Another great book from Cialdini is ‘Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion’ with loads inside about social proof. Linky: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Yes-50-Secrets-Science-Persuasion/dp/1846680166

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