How 'social proof' is being used to secure your consent for the pursuit of Net Zero and related policies
Before I get started, let me first say: I believe certain human activities are influencing the Earth’s climate, it makes sense to try and limit those activities where practicable if likely to result in adverse impacts, and that includes by using renewable energy sources as part of the mix in global energy systems.
That I felt compelled to set out my position is proof positive of what I'm going to discuss in this article: that organised activists, think tanks, media outlets and NGOs (collectively 'green groups') that want to stamp-out the use of fossil fuels are systematically using a psychological principle in order to push their cause (which tends to be more extreme than a reasonable, mainstream view of matters).
What is this principle, known as 'social proof’?
I refer you to the work of Robert Cialdini that I'm going to quote extensively in support of my views on this subject: Influence. The Psychology Of Persuasion.
Cialdini defines social proof as a 'potent lever of influence' and sums it up by explaining how we determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct.
The star-ratings and reviews on Amazon are a prime example (pun intended) - we're more likely to choose a product with 5-star ratings and positive testimonials because it suggests others found it a good purchase.
So, how is social proof being used to manipulate the masses to back the pursuit of Net Zero?
According to Cialdini, there are three basic conditions that optimise the effectiveness of social proof when it comes to influencing people:
(1) when we are unsure of what is best to do (uncertainty); (2) when the evidence of what is best to do comes from numerous others (the many); and (3) when that evidence comes from people like us (similarity).
I’d argue all three conditions are met in this context, and are being exploited.
We look to others for behavioural cues where there is uncertainty or ambiguity
Firstly, let's take uncertainty. Cialdini says "one way uncertainty develops is through lack of familiarity with the situation. Under such circumstances, people are especially likely to follow the lead of others."
How many ordinary citizens are truly familiar with the science of climate change? And the practicalities and costs of delivering Net Zero? Very few, in reality.
Which means that when they see others talk of the need for action based on 'settled science' they’re more likely to buy-in to that way of thinking.
And it can become self-reinforcing (with the right help from those that are well-versed in using the principle of social proof as a tool of influence). For instance, an NGO could commission a poll asking for views on Net Zero. If this results in an insignificant percentage of people agreeing it's a sensible policy, it can quietly bury the results and nobody will be any the wiser, but if the numbers are high, it can publicise them in the media and that, itself, becomes a form of social proof - showcasing that many people hold this view, and exploiting the second optimising condition: when the evidence of what is best to do comes from numerous others.
So, secondly, let's look at how 'the power of the many' is used.
We follow the crowd the bigger it gets
As well as favourable polling, another way of creating the impression that it’s a majority view is to organise mass climate action rallies through city streets. But if you pay close attention to them, you’ll notice that the people who join these marches aren’t all there with placards decrying a lack of government action on climate and demanding Net Zero - instead, many carry placards about NHS funding, refugees, Black Lives Matter, the Socialist Worker and other important social issues of the day.
However, when the BBC shows helicopter footage on its news bulletins, you just see a mass of bodies and so the casual observer is left with the impression that tens of thousands of people marched for the climate and Net Zero.
Cialdini tells us that "the greater the number of people who find any idea correct, the more a given individual will perceive the idea to be correct" and that's where social media is used so effectively to amplify and reinforce.
It's worth noting at this point that there are some other powerful psychological principles in play too that are inextricably linked to social proof: cognitive biases.
Two that are particularly relevant are Confirmation Bias (the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s exisiting views) and a logical fallacy known as Escalation of Commitment (where people justify increased investment in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment, even if presented with new evidence suggesting that the decision was probably wrong).
You can actually see this within the leaders of green groups themselves, who have systematically opposed nuclear power for so long that they can’t bear to now accept it has a major and valid role in reducing power sector emissions, where it’s capable of continuously providing large amounts of uninterrupted, low carbon electricity.
In essence, once people have been successfully influenced by social proof, there's every chance they'll seek out information that confirms their newfound beliefs and that, over time, they'll come to cement and retain those beliefs - even if presented with information that would normally be expected to undermine them, simply because of the mental and emotional investment they've made up to that point.
Where do they search for confirmation? The internet and social media. Who do they look to? People like themselves...
How we’re peer-suaded by people like ourselves
Which brings us to the third optimising condition that makes social proof so powerful: when evidence comes from people like us.
This is used by businesses in everyday sales and marketing all the time. The salesperson trying to get you to buy double-glazing casually mentions how your neighbours recently had all of their windows replaced by them, and because these are people just like you (in the same type of house, same street etc) you feel more comfortable deciding to buy your new windows from the same firm. And the TV ads that depict families just like yours enjoying that trip to Disneyland, or the video testimonials of people just like you explaining how they benefited from X service from Y company.
It's a common tactic that's proven to work, so why wouldn't green groups use it too?
Want younger people, that are more easily influenced, to join your cause? Simple. Give them Greta Thunberg and the School Strikes for Climate initiative.
Want more retired people on board? Easy, distribute some leaflets featuring photos of an elderly couple and their comments on wanting to leave a better climate for their grandchildren. Working mums? Unemployed people? University students? All you need is some basic audience segmentation then content focused on the various audience personas you want to speak to, featuring people from that audience.
Once it's gained some momentum, and people are sharing images, opinions and content on social media, it naturally reinforces the earlier two conditions.
For instance, school kids that are unsure about climate change (uncertainty) and looking for information on it will come across lots of other kids discussing it on Facebook and WhatsApp (the many) and encounter Greta Thunberg talking about it (someone like themselves) and they'll be influenced by all this social proof.
Now, remember at the start, I briefly set out my own position and that there was a reason I'd felt compelled to do so?
Cialdini provides three reasons for why the power of the many works so forcefully: validity, feasibility, and social acceptance.
We naturally feel more socially accepted when we are part of the many. But the reverse is also true: when we hold an opinion that is contrary to the many, it creates a feeling of 'psychological distress' according to Cialdini. Nobody wants to risk the social disapproval of others by being viewed as a dissenter and, therefore, some sort of outsider or pariah.
Enter the label "Climate Denier" that gets applied to anyone who dares to question the validity of climate science, whether it really is a 'crisis' or 'emergency', or the potential impacts of human-influenced climate change, or, more recently, the costs of achieving Net Zero.
By attaching this label (with its intentional parallel to Holocaust Denial) green groups have made it socially unacceptable for people to express contrary views or even just ask reasonable questions, with the result that it stymies necessary and democratic debate by deterring people from speaking-up.
I suspect something similar is also at play within the scientific community too: faced with the often repeated claim about a 97% consensus amongst scientists that climate change is man-made, how many scientists and academics do you suppose will go against this apparent orthodoxy and risk becoming outcasts?
So, the question now becomes: is it a bad thing that these groups are using the power of social proof in the pursuit of their cause?
It’s not for me to say.
I run a PR and marketing agency that employs the principle of social proof for its clients on a daily basis, and so I can hardly criticise green groups for doing it.
There’s a caveat though. We use it to influence small, very tightly defined audiences in a bid to motivate purchases that people are often already thinking of making (we just ‘nudge’ them). We’re not using it a nationwide scale to influence the perception of millions in order to get them to accept some pretty significant lifestyle and major societal changes, and we don’t intentionally set out to make people feel bad for not buying what our clients sell (publicly outing people as "Online Purchase Deniers" isn’t a tactic I would advocate).
However, I do think it’s important for the public to understand the ways in which their opinions on climate change, our energy system and Net Zero are being shaped and, to an extent, manipulated, by green groups using social proof as a lever of influence. It’s important because no matter how valid the world view and policies of green groups may be, their public mandate for them is lacking (which is why social proof is needed in the first place) and they have no democratic accountability; all of the power, none of the responsibility.
Let me leave you with one last example of social proof being used to manufacture consent and compliance: the Climate Assembly.
From the website:
"Climate Assembly UK brought together 100+ people from all walks of life and of all shades of opinion to discuss how the UK should meet this target.
"The assembly members met over six weekends in Spring 2020. They heard balanced evidence on the choices the UK faces, discussed them, and made recommendations about what the UK should do to become net zero by 2050. Their final report was published on Thursday 10 September 2020."
More than 100 people. Just like you. If this is what they think, you should think it too, right?