The Power of Social Proof – The behavioural economics trick behind VICE’s shed experiment

By Teodora Miscov
26 Jan 2018

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Humans are social creatures – this is something that we all know, if not objectively then at least on an intuitive level. Throughout our evolution as a species, gathering in groups meant increased chances of survival; so, quite naturally, we associate inclusion in a group with thriving and social exclusion with, well, let’s just say less positive things.

These associations are hardwired into our minds so that, on a subconscious level, we desire inclusion and belonging. This need has got fascinating ramifications into our day-to-day lives, making us change our behaviour in order to seamlessly integrate into different social landscapes. This experiment conducted by Brain Games exemplifies this point beautifully:    

Social proof is a psychological and social phenomenon where people mirror other people’s actions in order to reflect behaviour established to be correct by the group.

So, for instance, if everyone is standing in a queue, you will probably join in rather than cut the queue. Likewise, if everyone agrees that something is great, you are less likely to stand up and say that you disagree.

This is something that we can vividly observe in VICE’s recent article comprehensively titled: “I Made My Shed the Top Rated Restaurant On TripAdvisor.” TripAdvisor is a platform where social proof is in full effect – people decide which venues to visit on their Saturday evenings depending on other people’s opinions of them. Of course, you could say that it depends on the quality of the food and the decor, but really – is it not actually about how cool other people think the place is?

So Oobah decided to create a fictitious restaurant, pay people to lavish it with exquisite reviews and get it to rank at #1 out of all London restaurants. And – surprisingly – he managed to. As the very real reviews of the very imaginary locale started rolling in, so did booking requests from unknowing people. Of course, this all began out of curiosity with a humorous twist, but it ended up being the ‘restaurant,’ opening its doors to a select few.

It’s the behaviour of the select few that intrigued us.

Oobah very smartly hired actors to play customers and be oh-so-impressed by the restaurant and the food itself (which was actually £1 ready-meals from Iceland). One would hardly expect anyone to fall for this but, rather shockingly, they did. They went along with it, joining others in praising the inventiveness of the famous South London restaurant. ‘It felt like something I’d had maybe when I was like, a kid,’ said one customer, audibly distressed by the words he was uttering.

This is the power of social proof: if you get the right people saying the right things at the right time, your business has the potential of growing purely from that social intertia.

We’ll leave you to enjoy the story itself – here is VICE’s prank turned behavioural economics experiment:    


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