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Marketing Week: Social Proof and Anchoring: The Power of Behavioural Biases at Work

From Marketing Week: Let’s imagine that one of your tasks this week is to choose a new software vendor for your team’s project planning. How do you go about this? Certainly, you don’t just go for the great app that you heard a co-worker rave about in the coffee queue this morning… do you? Well, maybe. We love to think that we operate in a fully rational way at work. That we weigh up all options equally and select the course of action that best meets our brief. But the research suggests otherwise.

Is social proof actual proof?

There is compelling evidence that social norms are at play in professional settings. Even among medics, who are trained to apply an evidence-based approach to every treatment decision. In 2018, the Australian government carried out a study into how best to reduce antibiotic prescription. Six thousand medical practices were placed into five groups, each receiving one of the following:
  1. No letter (control group)
  2. Education letter
  3. Education plus social proof, ie “You prescribe more antibiotics than 85% of prescribers in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) region”
  4. Social proof plus delayed prescriptions
  5. Social proof plus illustrative graph to make the comparison more salient
The least successful message was the education message, which reduced prescriptions by 3.2% compared to control. The most effective was social proof plus a graph, which reduced the number of antibiotic prescriptions by 12.3% over six months. Social proof – seeing what other doctors are doing – seems to be a strong driver of whether or not to offer antibiotics to patients. This is a significant change in prescribing behaviour based on nothing but a reframing of the situation, not medical evidence.

Default positions in doctors

Social proof is consistently shown to be one of the most powerful behavioural biases, so perhaps it’s no surprise that doctors are just as susceptible as the rest of us. But there are other important biases too. A fascinating study demonstrating the influence of default options on decision making was conducted by David Olshan, Charles Rareshide and Mitesh Patel in 2018 at the Penn Medicine Nudge Unit. The researchers analysed prescribing behaviour for generic and branded medications between 2014 and 2017. Prescriptions had been made by doctors who selected the medication they wanted from a drop-down list. Branded drugs were listed at the top. Then the researchers made a tweak to the list: they moved generic drugs to the top, effectively making them the new default choice. The impact was huge. At the start of the study, the prescription rate for generic drugs was 75%. After reordering the list, generics made up 98% of all prescriptions. Prescribing behaviour changed radically, but again, not as a result of any new evidence. Just a simple tweak to the choice architecture. Read more at Marketing Week.