Why dodgy perfume salesmen are masters of context

August 5, 2015

downloadOne of my holiday jobs as a student in London was to count people entering Harrods. We operated in shifts in crack teams of two with a clicker and a clipboard. It was mind-numbing, but watching nearby street vendors fascinated us.

Every day, two men would set up on a pavement nearby and display a range of perfumes. They would cheerily spruik to passersby, claiming the goods were genuine but suggesting they had fallen off the back of the truck.

They quickly attracted a handful of prospective buyers, which rapidly swelled to a crowd. The seductive bargains and enthusiastic buying did the rest.

This performance happened a couple of times a day, and we noticed that the first two customers were always the same people. They would appear from the subway, eagerly try and buy lots of perfume, and disappear.

Later, when the crowds thinned, they would return discreetly, slip the perfumes back, and repeat the ruse. The con worked every time!

Why? Humans are hugely context-sensitive creatures, and we’re highly attuned to context cues. It explains why you see people wearing business suits in the city and swimsuits at the beach.

The two ringleaders were masters of context. The general heuristic rule is that if many others are doing it, it must be good: a persuasion principle known as “social proof” (Cialdini and Goldstein 2004). The salesmen had set up the perfect context with rigged social proof and it worked every time!

We feel we are less likely to make mistakes if we follow the majority. This is both the weakness and the strength of social proof. It does provide a convenient shortcut in our time-poor and busy lives, but can also leave us vulnerable to hucksters.

On the other hand, when we set out to influence, it does not have to be complex models, mind-numbing data or thrilling explanations. But simple, humble social proof will work every time. The proof is not in the pudding: it’s in the social proof.

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