100 Things You Should Know About People: #44 — When Uncertain, People Look To Others to Decide What To Do

Product rating at Zappos websiteYou are browsing a website to decide what to boots to buy. You see a pair that looks good and then you scroll down to see the ratings. Many people have rated the boots highly, but a few say the boots are cheaply made and uncomfortable. What will you do? Will you buy the boots or not?

Uncertainty tips the scale

In my book, Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? I have a chapter on this topic. The tendency to look to others to decide what to do is called social validation. Research on social validation shows that it is when we are uncertain about what to do that we will most look to others to decide.

Is the smoke dangerous? — There have been many studies about social validation. Latane and Darley conducted a series of studies where they would set up ambiguous situations to see if people were affected by what others around them were or were not doing. For example, they would bring someone into a room, supposedly to fill out a survey on creativity. In the room would be one or more other people who were pretending they were also participants in the creativity study, but who were really part of the experiment. Sometimes there would be one other person in the room, sometimes two others or more. While everyone is filling out their creativity survey, smoke starts coming into the room from an air vent. The researchers were interested in seeing if the participant would leave the room, or go tell someone about the smoke, or just ignore it. It wasn’t clear what the smoke was, or if it was dangerous. So it was an ambiguous situation.

Only if others think it is — Whether or not the participant left the room and/or went to get help, or whether they stayed there and kept filling out the form, depended on the behavior of the other people in the room, as well as how many other people there were. The more people in the room, and the more the others ignored the smoke, the more the participant was likely to also ignore the smoke. If the participant was alone they would go leave the room and go to notify someone. But if there were others in the room not reacting, then the participant would also not react.

Testimonials and ratings are powerful — Online, social validation is most in evidence with ratings and reviews. When we are unsure about what to do we look to testimonials, ratings, and reviews to tell us how to behave. The most powerful ratings and reviews:

  • Include information about the person writing the review – a mini “persona”. This is effective because the person reading the review will give more credence to a review written by someone who is like them.
  • Tell a story about the product or service. Because stories “talk” to our mid, or emotional brain, they are very powerful.
  • Ratings from people like us are more powerful than ratings from “experts”. I wrote another blog post on research by Chen on ratings and reviews at a book web site that studied these different types of ratings. Ratings from other readers were more powerful in influencing behavior than ratings from experts or from the website itself.

Although people don’t like to admit that they are easily influenced by others, the truth is that they are. What do you think? Do you try to resist the impact others have on your decisions?

For those of you who like to read the research:

Chen, Yi-Fen, Herd behavior in purchasing books online, Computers in Human Behavior, 24, (2008), 1977-1992.

Latane, Bibb, and John M. Darley. 1970. The Unresponsive Bystander. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970.


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100 Things You Should Know About People: #45 -- You Choose (And Vote For) The First One On The List
New Book Due Out In April: 100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People: The Book and the Workshop

3 Replies to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #44 — When Uncertain, People Look To Others to Decide What To Do”

  1. The smoke study takes me back. (Sigh) The whole “people like us” phenomenon is very interesting. Adding more detail about the person doing the product review can have a positive or negative effect. If the personal information added indicates that I have something (or a lot) in common with the reviewer, then I am more likely to be influenced. If the personal information that is added indicates that we are very different, then I am (presumably) less likely to be influenced. This suggests that the less personal information that is added, the broader the influence because when no information is given besides the product review, I will assume the person giving the review is like me. (They are reading the same website as me and contributing to it.) I have no disconfirmatory evidence. So unless you are marketing to a particular target audience, it is better to err on the side of less information about the reviewer (assuming a non-famous reviewer).

    I read and contribute reviews and forum posts on TripAdvisor. With reviews of hotels, tours, etc., readers can click a box to identify the review as having been helpful. I think it would be very interesting to see if helpfulness is tied in any way to the amount of personal information in the review (e.g., noting that the person was traveling with family or on a business trip vs no such info). It would be even more information to mine the data to see if the users identifying a review as helpful are in fact similar to the reviewer in terms of information gathered by TripAdvisor (e.g., travel patterns, family status). If only I had the time and the grant money…

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