A recent article by Chung & Duckett over at In the Library with the Lead Pipe has inspired me to try and expand on some thoughts on the importance of social proof. I especially like their third category of learning objects:
CATEGORY 3. Provide students with MORE CONTEXT to understand a process or concept — the BACK STORY for how information is created, vetted, stored, accessed, and used. Resources in this category address social issues surrounding information and other scholarly communication topics …
With the kind of one-off teaching I do, I’m often tempted to get into the concept of social proof, but haven’t yet found the best way to go about it that justifies the time spent. Creating a learning object may be the best route, since it’s something a student can work through on their own time, and it wouldn’t take up valuable class time. If an instructor only has 50 minutes a semester to teach a subject, every minute counts. Here’s an outline for a potential learning object, if I were to do one that satisfies category 3 above:
Outline for an Academic Publishing / Social Proof Learning Object
In Cialdini’s book Influence: the psychology of persuasion (I’m referring to the second edition-1988), he describes the phenomena thusly:
The principle of social proof states that we use information about the way others have behaved to help us determine proper conduct for ourselves. As the dropped-wallet experiment showed, we are most influenced in this fashion by the actions of peoople who are like us. [p. 140]
As Cialdini demonstrates in his book, “the principle of social proof is so wide-ranging and powerful that its domain extends to the fundamental decision for life or death.” Where this effect really comes into play is in areas of uncertainty. Take for example this story from 2007 about the renowned violinist who played in the DC subway. The passersby were unknowingly thrust into a very uncertain situation:
Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment? … No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. … In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?
The answer, of course, was no. This led the Washington Post to shout the following question (emphasis is theirs):
IF A GREAT MUSICIAN PLAYS GREAT MUSIC BUT NO ONE HEARS . . . WAS HE REALLY ANY GOOD?
It’s a tree falling in the forest kind of question. But the answer has to be yes, he is good. The problem was that he had no social proof going for him at all. Cialdini suggests proving this to yourself by conducting the following experiment on your own on two subsequent days. The first day stand on a crowded corner and look up at a section of sky for one full minute. Chances are you’ll have no one else look up. The next day, at exactly the same time, bring along four of your friends to look with you. Chances are on the second day you’ll receive a great deal of interest. Your friends will be “similar others” to yourself. It will inspire other similar people to take a look as well. If the Washington Post had dressed up four or five people as commuters, and placed them in the subway listening, enraptured by the music, they would have probably created a pedestrian traffic jam.
I believe this is related to academic peer review in the following way. Take a look at this image from Cialdini’s book, pg. 114:
Let’s parse the cartoon one stage at a time, from left to right:
- The lonely researcher, working in relative isolation on things only s/he is paying attention to.
- An editor pays attention. (Who is the child? How should I know? Work with me here!) Note that in a non-academic setting, this could well be a marketer instead.
- The arrival of “similar others”. In academic publishing these are peer reviewers. They would be colleagues with knowledge in the field, serious types. In the non-academic world, the marketer will have selected “others” similar to the ideal target market.
- A crowd recognizes a group of “similar others”, and, possibly through some form of self preservation, will take a look for themselves since it’s obvious that it is important. Note that the woman in the ivory tower (okay, it’s just a window) has noticed the rabble as well. She looks up for the same reasons.
- The whole world is now looking, even the authorities notice (here represented by an angel.)
The phenomenon of social proof is everywhere on the web. In academics, peer reviewers are used to establish seriousness in the form of thoroughly-vetted “similar others”. On the open web, similar others are discovered by paying attention to certain social software systems and communities: Facebook, Twitter, Digg (or Digggraphr), HotStuff, and Memeorandum are a few examples among thousands.
- end of tutorial -
So that’s the learning object outlined, everything aside from the hard work of animating it. I believe Chung and Duckett are right that back stories are crucial for students to understand concepts such as academic publishing. Librarians need to dig deeper and create more objects that can be shared widely to promote this type of knowledge. I’ll be sharing this one as soon as I can get it peer-reviewed.