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.
“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?