Why is it that ‘flock of cows’ is wrong? Or ‘herd of sheep’, for that matter?
Collective nouns puzzle me. Some, like a gaggle of geese, sound about right. But what’s the logic in ‘a murder of crows’, or ‘a deceit of lapwings’?
The collective is important. Despite the negative implication of the phrase ‘herd mentality’, our instinctive preference for social interaction is at the heart of many of our day-to-day decisions.
We make our minds up based on what psychologists call ‘social proofing’, that is a desire to fall into line with people that we think are like us.
An understanding of this fundamental need can be used to influence others in all sorts of ways. If you’ve got five minutes head over to Robert Cialdini’s site and take its ‘influence master’ quiz – but wait until you get to the end of this post (it’s what the majority of really bright people do, you know).
The quiz will test your understanding of how marketers use social proofing. And it provides you with an idea of how sensitive you are to the tricks of the influencers’ trade.
For me, the most exciting thing about harnessing social proofing is the punch it can bring to environment-related messaging. The classic example is hotel towels.
When guests were told that re-using towels saved their hotel money it made little difference to behaviour. They were also largely unmoved when told about environmental impacts – the ‘save the planet’ argument.
What did work was adding in a reference to the herd, or whatever the collective noun for hotel guests might be (how about a weariness?) When told that most other guests who stayed in their room did re-use towels, a majority of people became re-users themselves.
UK politicians are now talking about levying deposits on plastic drink bottles to reduce litter. A deposit scheme is definitely worth a try, but it should be communicated with just a twist of social proofing.
A recent study in the Netherlands tested-out a number of messaging approaches in the hope of reducing bottled water consumption on a college campus. One of the approaches involved students being told about a (fictitious) survey that showed that 65 per cent of their peers were already cutting down on bottled water use.
Yes, that was the approach that worked best when it was linked to facts and figures about environmental impact. Powerful thing the herd, flock, school, shoal, charm, troop, or whatever.