By: Kara Johnson
In this age of social media, user reviews and recommendations are everywhere we look. You can read other consumer’s opinions on practically any product on the market from toothpaste to travel destinations. How influential are other consumer’s opinions and do they really cause us to change our minds about products? A new study conducted by the HP Labs shows that peer pressure in social media is indeed effective and can have important implications for online marketing. However, this study indicates that peer pressure in social media is more effective in reversing decisions when fewer people disagree than when many people disagree.
The study conducted by the HP Labs showed participants a picture of two loveseats on a computer screen. Under the pictures, was the sentence “Your close friend wants your opinion on a loveseat for their living room. Which do you suggest?” Participants were asked to select their preference by clicking a button under the loveseat of their choice. After varying intervals of time, participants were then shown the same items again and asked to make their selection again. However, this time, participants were told that a varying number of other people had preferred the opposite loveseat than the one they had chosen. The findings from this study showed that people were more likely to change their decision if only a moderate number of people had chosen the opposite loveseat versus a large number of people opposing their decision.
The study also found that people were more likely to change their decision when there was a greater interval of time passing between the two decision points versus people who were asked to make the decision again immediately after their initial decision. Lastly, participants were more likely to reverse their initial decision if they spent more time making the initial decision than those who spent less time making the initial decision.
When it comes to the effectiveness of peer pressure in social media, this study illustrates two psychological principles, which contradict each other. The principle of social influence and conformity occurs when an individual’s thoughts, feelings and actions are affected by other’s thoughts, feelings and actions; people will often change their own attitudes and beliefs to fit in with a group and conform to social norms. I think a situation like the one presented in the study could lead to public compliance, where the participant conforms publicly to fit in but still privately holds to their initial beliefs, because disagreeing with the group regarding loveseat preference does not cause much cognitive dissonance.
The other principle we see in this study is the reactance theory. Once we make a decision and commit to it, we don’t like to be self-contradictory and therefore when we face opposition to our beliefs, the need for self-preservation causes us to stick to them more strongly and increases our resistance to persuasion. This can help explain why people were less likely to reverse their decision when a large number of people chose the opposite loveseat – there was a bigger threat and therefore a greater need for self-preservation. The fact that people who spent a shorter amount of time making their initial decision were less likely to reverse their decision when asked again could be an indication of attitude strength and accessibility – the stronger an attitude is, the less time it will take to respond and the more stable it is over time.
This study has important implications for marketing and indicates that the power of persuasion and peer pressure from a few individuals is much more effective than peer pressure from many. As a marketer, if you want to convince people to change their opinions and beliefs, it is best not to make their initial decision seem incredibly unpopular, otherwise they will become more determined to stick to their initial assessment of your product. Bernardo Huberman, co-author of the current study, summed up this idea when he said “Rather than overwhelming consumers with strident messages about an alternative product or service, in social media, gentle reporting of a few people having chosen that product or service can be more persuasive.”
“To Switch or Not To Switch: Understanding Social Influence in Online Choices” (Source)