Social Influence in Technology

Social Influence and User Experience

We are all social animals – It is what makes us human. 

So said Paulo Freire, the influential 20 Centaury educator.  People like to converse, discuss and to share ideas and knowledge.  It is how we develop and grow as a society and how, according to Freire, we affect change.

But how does sharing and discussion influence how we behave? Do we make choices depending on what others think, say or do?

Yes we do.  We are all swayed by others.  Whether it be following the advice of those we see as experts – parents, friends, teachers – or liking what your friends like on Facebook or simply buying something because 10,000 other people have bought it that year.

Social influence is strong.

Social Influence is the process by which individuals make real changes to their feelings and behaviour as a result of interaction with other who are perceived to be similar, desirable or expert (Rashotte 2006)

There are many ways people are influenced by others.   To name but a few:

Robert Cialdini in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (2006) outlines an interesting concept he calls – Social Proof –where he says that –  People will do things that they see other people are doing.  For example, in one experiment, one or more confederates would look up into the sky; bystanders would then look up into the sky to see what they were seeing.

We conform to what others do or say.  The Asch conformity experiments from the 1950s show how powerful this principle is:


Another interesting social influence has been identified as ‘herding’ and defined here as “the phenomenon of individuals deciding to follow others and imitating group behaviours rather than deciding independently and automatically on the basis of their own, private information”

Have you ever followed the crowd? How about buying something that is in Fashion?

Closely connected is – Information cascading – which states that the decision (even if not the optimal one) made early in the process tends to be the dominant one and is adopted by a group and others who join later on (Baddeley & Parkinson, 2012).

Obedience/Authority: Our decisions will be swayed by those we see as superior or in authority.   Yes Sir.

Individual differences: Of course the amount of influence exerted is somewhat down to the individual and their previous experience, attitudes, their own identity and place within the group/society. (Baddeley & Parkinson, 2012)

Or maybe we follow others actions because sometimes it’s just easier…

Taking a Heuristic Short-cut : Making judgements take time and energy, people follow the decision of others, sometimes because its easier. (Kahneman, 2012)

Why do we need to know?

Knowing how social influence works brings us closer to understanding our customer’s actions and behaviour.
We know that we (and others) trust friends and those we see as experts/influencers.  Above and beyond any product recommendation.
Take TripAdvisor or  Bar last year’s fiasco with TripAdvisor were it was revealed users were paid to write good reviews, users do generally look to other travellers reviews to steer them when making decisions about holidays.  Just recently I noticed TripAdvisor has added an additional dimension to their customer reviews.  They made it personal.  Not only did they offer customer reviews on the hotel I was considering – they let me know that one of the customer reviews was from a friend of mine.  Smart.

Did you know (according to Facebook)   “60% of Facebook fans and 79% of Twitter followers are more likely to recommend those brands since becoming a fan or follower”

People who “Like” stuff on Facebook have a more positive attitude towards it than if they didn’t like it.
Liking something influences later behaviour and purchase intentions.  This is close to what Cialdini calls commitment in his book. Once you have committed (even in a small way) to something, you are much more likely to behave positively towards it later on – in order to remain consistent.

Knowing the social influences at play when your users are making decisions brings us a step closer to understanding their behaviour and then… directing their behaviour in the right direction (the direction you want them to take)…


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