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Changing minds through social media: HP study shows it happens, but not how you might think

New research from HP Labs shows that our choices can be reversed when we’re exposed to the recommendations of others.  In a surprising twist, though, we’re more likely to change our minds when fewer, not more, people disagree with us.


The research has practical applications for businesses, especially in marketing, suggests co-author Bernardo Huberman,  Senior HP Fellow and director of HP’s Social Computing Research Group


“What this implies,” he says, “is that 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.”


The experiment – devised by Huberman along with Haiyi Zhu, an HP labs summer intern from Carnegie Mellon University, and Yarun Luon of HP Labs – reveals several other factors that determine whether choices can be reversed though social influence, too. It’s the latest product of HP Lab’s pioneering program in social computing, which is dedicated to creating software and algorithms that provide meaningful context to huge sets of unstructured data.


Study results: the power of opinion

Opinions and product ratings are everywhere online. But when do they actually influence our own choices? 


To find out, the HP team asked several hundred people to make a series of choices between two different pieces of furniture.  After varying amounts of time, they were asked to choose again between the same items, but this time they were told that a certain number of other people had preferred the opposite item.  (Separately, the experiment also asked subjects to choose between two different baby pictures, to control for variance in subject matter).


(above: an example comparison used in the experiment)


Analysis of the resulting choices showed that receiving a small amount of social pressure to reverse one’s opinion (by being told that a just few people had chosen differently) was more likely to produce a reversed vote than when the pressure felt was much greater (i.e. where an overwhelming number of people were shown as having made a different choice).


The team also discovered:


- People were more likely to be influenced if they weren’t prompted to change their mind immediately after they had expressed their original preference.

- The more time that people spent on their choice, the more likely they were to reverse that choice and conform to the opinion of others later on.


Attention marketers: Implications in theory and practice

The experiment pits two theories of social influence against each other.


Psychological reactance theory suggests that when we face opposition to our beliefs, our need for self-preservation drives us to stick to them strongly.  On the other hand, social influence and conformity theory argues that we like to feel socially connected with others and as a result will reverse our opinion if we feel it will restore that sense of belonging and self-esteem.


The research team’s results suggest that the first theory is more powerful when we’re presented with the opinions of many others, while the second has more power when we’re imagining ourselves as members of a smaller group.  It also supports earlier Labs work showing that our votes on rankings are influenced by our own desire to impact the choices of others.


These are all insights that online marketers can use to alter the design of their recommendation systems and thereby influence their customers’ behavior, Huberman suggests.


Tackling the problem of ‘big data’

To conduct the experiment the HP team used Rankr, a new mobile, cloud-based polling application created by the Social Computing Group.


As well as polling people on simple preferences, Rankr can be used to sort much larger lists of relative preferences, such as desired product features, or crowdsourced concert playlists.


Given the vast number of choices that companies and individuals now face when dealing with information, efficient mechanisms for filtering and ranking sets of possibilities are of increasing value.  Similarly, understanding how product rankings work, and how to best exploit them, will grow in importance as ever more such ‘unstructured’ data is created online every day.


“Customers see tremendous value in the ability to make sense of this data,” remarked HP CEO Léo Apotheker last week.  “HP has an opportunity to lead in this area, transform unstructured information into meaningful insights and deliver it to customers better than anyone else.”


Next up: the power of friends

Huberman and his team next plan to focus on whether specific quantities of recommendations or the source of those recommendations (their perceived ‘quality,’ in a sense) carry more influence.  


When presented with the fact that 1,000 people recommend a specific item but that 4 close friends like the alternate, for example, which would most of us choose?

Labels: HP labs
Robert Medley(anon) | ‎09-16-2011 03:20 AM

I think HP needs to change there mind on making personal electronics, and on WEB OS as well as the way they are doing business with the property they attained by buying PALM. Hopefully; if your study is correct anyway, my singular enticement will change your mind. Oh and I like the Blue couch not the white one because I like the blue couch not because of what anyone thinks.

Lisa Kirkman(anon) | ‎09-19-2011 08:19 PM

I worry though, with the power of peer pressure being so strong, that we’ll become more monolithic in our thinking – it’s variety that sparks innovation.  Fascinating topic.  I'm struck by how offering fewer opinions is more impactful.  Less is more.

gowharjan | ‎09-22-2011 08:53 AM

Fantastic piece of information.

I wonder whether saying "2 people prefer HP Touchpad, 108 prefer xxxx" could have affected our Touchpad sales.

ANON283(anon) | ‎09-22-2011 05:16 PM

Very interesting.

Malcolm Bradley(anon) | ‎09-23-2011 05:09 PM

A very interesting insight although perhaps not so surprising.  If people take a long time to choose the more mental gymnastics they are doing to make a decision so they are weighing up pros & cons for both choices.  To later suggest the alternative to their choice may not be that hard a sell anyway. 


I can understand how many contrary recommendations may seem like bullying tactics and people 'rebel' and refuse to change however I would have thought the vast majority would have heard the overwhelming contrary choices and gone along with that.  It also seems a little risky to offer very low key contrary arguments in a current ad campaign although in general people don't want to hear how bad the oppositioni is - they generally want to hear how good your offering is.


Interesting work though.

RobertQ(anon) | ‎09-25-2011 07:15 AM

as other say: Continue webOS, continue webOS devices... change Board of Directors Mind.

Sam Sotiropoulos(anon) | ‎10-07-2011 02:19 PM

I'm with the previous commentors on continuing development of WebOS and its Touchpad implementation. I don't know how anyone at HP could simply scoff at the HUGE user base they created for themselves with the firesale. Now, if they pump out useful apps and regular WebOS updates, they could turn a loss into a profitable proposition.

Carlin Soctt(anon) | ‎10-24-2011 10:21 PM

I have a strong motivation to be contrarian so I would have picked the white couch because I knew less people would own one, and not for the reason mentioned in the article. This makes me think that maybe people only change their minds if ads make them think they're going to be more unique by switching brands.... Actually, wasn't that the entire ethos behind Apple's advertising strategy of the last ten years?

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