Sunday, April 28, 2013

Influence, Chapter 4

Chapter 4: Social Proof.  We care a lot about social approval and consensus.

I find this chapter both enlightening and upsetting.  Let's do the enlightening stuff first.

Different strokes for different folks
People look to each other for social cues on the correct behavior.  More than anything, they don't want to be seen as doing something foolish.  If you have a stroke in front of a bunch of people, it is entirely possible that people will:
  1. Keep calm and collected, secretly glancing around to see how others interpret your behavior.  Are you having a problem or are you just taking a nap?
  2. See that everyone else is calm and collected.  Deduce that they ought to be calm and collected.
  3. Ignore the problem like everyone else.
Needless to say, you would prefer that they help you.  And if there was just one person around, he would almost surely rush to your aid.  But in the crowd, that often doesn't happen for some reason.

By now we're all familiar with findings like the above.

Now, an economist might suggest several alternate explanations for the unhelpfulness of the crowd.  Perhaps they each have a diluted  1/nth responsibility for helping; everyone would like help to be provided but they'd rather it be someone else.  We could perhaps even construct a game where the probability of No Help is increasing in n, even though everyone would prefer to help if they were the only person.

But interestingly, psych studies find that help is almost always provided, even in a crowd, when it is perfectly clear that there is an actual problem. That is, the rampant nonparticipation seems to stem mostly from pluralistic ignorance and the fear of looking stupid in front of other people.  These effects are surprisingly strong.  Even a little bit of doubt can prevent people from acting.

So, here is Cialdini's recommendation if you are having a stroke.  Single someone out.  Point.  "You, in the red shirt! Call 911, I need an ambulance!"  Not only does this thrust the full responsibility onto them, it takes their uncertainty out of the equation.  Of course they should call an ambulance when someone asks them to; if you turn out not to need an ambulance, the burden of looking foolish will be on you, not them.

That's good advice.

Apocalypse Now! No, wait...Now!  No wait...Now, join us!
There is also a fascinating account of a Chicago apocalypse cult.  They were originally quite exclusive.  But when their doomsday predictions failed, they immediately turned to conversion efforts in an attempt to achieve social validation for their previous devotion.  If reality doesn't validate you, social validation can substitute for actually being right.

Accidental Suicides
There is also a plausible account of how publicized suicides lead to increased suicide but also increases in suicides disguised as accidents.  Plane and car crashes rise in areas where there was a high-profile suicide in the news.  Now, it isn't remotely surprising that people disguise their suicides as accidents; however, notice that this connection between publicized suicides and subsequent accident rates gives us a way of estimating how many "accidents" are really suicides!

That is, if we assume that suicide publicity shifts suicide rates but not (true) accident rates, we can use that to split accidents into "true accidents" and "suicides."  Without doing this, we could be drastically underestimating suicide rates and overestimating accident rates.

Perhaps a lot more people are unhappy with their lives than we think.  And on the flip side, cars are pretty safe, but perhaps they are a lot safer than the statistics would suggest...

(No, none of this analysis is suggested or reported by Cialdini.  He is more interested in the social influence suicides have, namely that they encourage other people to commit suicide.)

Anyway, this is where I start to diverge from his prescriptions:
  1. It seems an overreaction to recommend avoiding air travel at times when a public suicide has been in the news.  Really?  (He doesn't really give the relevant numbers for me to properly judge this though).
  2. I don't see why it is necessarily a bad thing to publicize suicides, just because they trigger suicides.  It is completely nonobvious that publication of suicides actually increases total suicides (or increases by much) rather than predominately shifting around the timing of suicides.  And even if it does significantly increase total number of suicides, it is not obvious to me that this is a bad thing.  It is not necessarily bad for people who are really suffering to put themselves out of their misery.
Bystander effect, take 12
This chapter also contains the usual (wildly exaggerated) account of Kitty Genovese. (Which is not his fault).


Now, let's get into the stuff that really bothered me.

Sheep cyclones: Redux!  or, Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
(I'm sure you will want to revisit that incredible clip of sheep cyclones!
Every chapter of this book has a structure like: Here is a psychological quirk.  It generally makes sense that it exists, but it also creates some problems.  Here are a bunch of examples of such problems.  Finally, here is how to overcome them.

We are influenced by social cues because we rightly care what people think of us, and because what other people are doing is a pretty reliable shortcut for figuring out how to behave ourselves.  In this chapter, he acknowledges that the actions of others are generally useful information, but that herding behavior can go wrong.  He then strongly suggests that with a little awareness we can somehow magically take advantage of valuable social information while ignoring the pitfalls.

Ugh.  Social cues save us from the cost of gathering information for ourselves.  Sometimes this will lead us astray ex post, but in order to know which times, we would have to actually gather the information.  We can't magically know if the information is worth gathering, in advance of gathering the information!

The sad truth is that herding behavior is often individually -- and perhaps even socially -- optimal ex ante even when the outcome happens to be bad ex post.  The sheep in the sheep cyclone, or even the bison that follow each other over the cliff to escape the Indian hunting party, can each be behaving optimally the entire time, given their limited information.  Cialdini looks at the situation and says, "Well, obviously some of the bison should have looked up."  But that only seems obvious because Cialdini has information they don't have.

I won't elaborate on this point any more because this chapter review is already getting long.  Suffice it to say that Cialdini blurs the distinction between individual and social optimality, as well as the distinction between ex ante and ex post optimality.

I don't like this...but I can live with it.

What I can't live with is Cialdini's perspective on canned laughter.  He excoriates it!  It influences us to enjoy sitcoms unduly, he says.  People laugh more and rate a scene funnier if there is a laugh track.  For shame, CBS, you manipulative @#$&!%@s!  I knew The Big Bang Theory wasn't really funny!

One of the big themes of this book is that Cialdini harbors hostility for anyone who would "manipulate" us.  Incredibly, he goes so far as to say that "we should refuse to watch TV programs that use canned laughter."  Down with laugh tracks!

Umm...I think we are really losing sight of the goal here.

Isn't it a good thing if people find a show funnier?  The entire point of a show is to entertain us.  If we enjoy it more with canned laughter, what's wrong with that?

And besides, there's a symmetry here.  A sitcom with laugh track is funnier, a sitcom without one is less funny.  Which one is "correct"?  Neither --- they are just different.  The former is more like being in a theater with a bunch of other people, the latter is more like being at home alone.  Yes, you truly are at home alone, but the whole point of television is to simulate events that aren't actually happening in your home.  It's all just pixels and machine-made sound waves.

Social laughter, even simulated, increases our enjoyment because we are social animals.  And that's nothing to scoff at.

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