Can social psychology, the branch of psychology that deals with how people think about, influence, and relate to each other, inform smart social commerce – selling with social media?  We think so.

Here’s Part 1 of a three part series on our 10 “Need to Know” Social Psychology Experiments for Social Commerce.  Let us know if you find them useful.

And if you’re psychologically inclined, and want more now – Jeremy Dean’s PsyBlog is a wondrous resource and source of insight.

The Halo Effect: The Halo Effect Experiment

The “halo effect” is a classic finding from social psychology, describing a systematic bias in how we evaluate each other – and things. What happens is that our overall general impression of a person influences how we rate them on individual traits.  For example if we perceive someone as physically attractive, we’re automatically predisposed to thinking about them positively in other respects (intelligent, successful, friendly).  Our first impression creates a halo, colouring subsequent thoughts.  What makes the halo effect so powerful is that we are unaware that it is happening – we’re blind to the halo effect. In a classic social psychology experiment, two psychologists Nisbett and Wilson demonstrated that students were unaware that their evaluation of the general likeableness of a teacher had influenced their opinions about the teacher’s attractiveness, mannerisms and even accent.

What does this social halo effect mean for social commerce? First, first impressions count – your goal should be to switch customer mindsets to a default positive by creating a first positive impression, if you look good, sound good – then you, your brand, business or campaign will be perceived as good. Second, try tryvertising, sampling designed to produce a great first impression of your product that is really worth taking about – you’ll create an enduring halo effect that will influence subsequent experience.  Third, create associations with people and things you know are evaluated positively – from celebrities and experts, to publications and security symbols.  These will automatically and unconsciously create a halo effect around you and what you sell – resulting in more positive judgements – and transactions.

The halo effect: Evidence for unconscious alteration of judgments. By Nisbett, Richard E.; Wilson, Timothy D. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 35(4), Apr 1977, 250-256).

Cognitive Dissonance: The Forced Compliance Experiment

Cognitive dissonance is a particularly powerful concept social psychology, referring to the psychological discomfort we feel when we do or say something in public which is contrary to our private opinion.  What happens is that to avoid or reduce the discomfort of this dissonance we’ll often re-align our private opinions with what we say and do in public, unless we can rationalise our behaviour to ourselves – and others.   This is called dissonance reducing behaviour. For example, Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith showed that students when forced to do a tedious task and then say it was interesting, actually found the task more interesting – except when paid to do so.  More generally, if a person is induced to do or say something which is contrary to his private opinion, there will be a tendency for them to change their opinion so as to bring it into correspondence with what he has done or said.  But the larger the pressure used to elicit the overt behaviour, the weaker will be the above-mentioned tendency.

There are many implications for cognitive dissonance for business, but perhaps the most important one for social commerce is to encourage, but not force, potential customers to do or say something publicly that is consistent with buying your product – ‘liking’ you on Facebook, trialling the product (ordering a sample), helping the business (say, by reviewing an ad).  Interestingly, cognitive dissonance is the reason why the current trend of ‘like-gating’ – forcing customers to like you to in order to access deals might seem psychologically smart, but actually isn’t so smart – the effect is undermined by giving people an instrumental rationale for hitting the like button – to get a deal; this means they’ll be less likely to like you.

Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. By Leon Festinger & James M. Carlsmith, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, (1959), 203-210.

Power & Prejudice: The Robbers Cave Experiment

In one of the most famous field studies ever in social psychology, Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues showed that group formation involves not only the emergence of in-group social norms, leadership and structure, but prejudice, hostility and conflict towards external groups (out-groups) with which they find themselves in competition for resources or rewards.

In other words, group-identity and group-behaviour are defined as much by who we are not, as who we are.  The experimenters also found that inter-group antagonism could be mitigated by getting competing groups to cooperate with each other on common goals that transcended the groups (‘superordinate’ goals).  Ironically, in one of the experiments, the common goal that was inadvertently hit upon by the groups was to rebel against the experimenters themselves; they united and teamed up against the manipulating psychologists, indicating that power relations between groups may influence inter-group behaviour.

The essence of the Robbers Cave Experiments was summed up in President Reagan’s Space Invaders speech on World Peace in which he recounted a conversation with President Gorbachev in which he suggested “…how easy his task and mine might be in these meetings that we held if suddenly there was a threat to this world from some other species from another planet outside in the universe. We’d forget all the little local differences that we have between our countries…”

Implications of group prejudice for social commerce?  Communicating who you and what you sell are NOT FOR may be as important as explaining who you are for.  Be explicit in who you are not targeting to create an in-group/out-group dynamic that fosters a sense of ownership and identity with the brand. Additionally or alternatively, find a shared goal that can unite your prospects with each other and with you.

Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment. By Muzafer Sherif, O. J. Harvey, B. Jack White, William R. Hood, Carolyn W. Sherif (1954/1961)