Making it public helps behaviors spread (Contagious, part 4)

Here’s the fourth post about Jonah Berger’s book Contagious: Why things catch on. Berger describes six reasons that products, ideas and behaviors spread.

Making it public

Things that are public, that is, visible by others, are more likely to spread. For example, people are more likely to go into restaurants that are full than those that are empty. As my husband always says, “Crowds don’t lie.”

Berger talks about the “power of observability:” shirts are more easily imitated than socks because they’re more visible. I think that’s one reason that recycling has spread more quickly than composting. In Seattle we put the recycle bin on the curbside for pickup, where all the neighbors can see it. But the compost bin is in the backyard, where most people don’t see it.

The influence of others can be powerful. If you’ve heard me speak, you may have seen the “Candid Camera” clip that I often use called “Face the Rear.” The TV show put several of its staff in an elevator, all facing the rear instead of the front, and then filmed what unwitting Candid Camera subjects would do. People might fight the impulse, but they all ended up fitting in with the crowd and turning to face  the rear.

Robert Cialdini  and his associates found that signs about what others are doing are persuasive. In an experiment, they placed signs in hotel rooms that said,—“Help save the environment. Hang up your towels” (instead of asking for fresh towels). That persuaded some to hang up their towels. When they changed the sign to read —“Join your fellow guests in helping save the environment,” they saw a 34% increase in towel reuse. And there was even more change when guests were told that majority of guests staying in this room hung up their towels. It appears that the more similar people are to us, the better. Cialdini has written several books about influence and persuasion.

A friend had a job giving away samples of bottled water. He had a hard time getting people to take his samples, until he came up with the idea of having his coworker walk up to him and take one. Then several people who followed would do the same.

However, using social proof or social influence can backfire. Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” anti-drug campaign actually increased use because it made it more public. You need to be careful to model the behavior you want people to do, rather than the one you don’t want them to do.

Here are Berger’s six principles of contagiousness:

  1. Social currency
  2. Triggers
  3. Emotion
  4. Public
  5. Practical value
  6. Stories

Here are direct links to my posts about social currency, triggers and emotion.

Stay tuned for more about steps 5, practical value, and 6, stories.