Using Social Proof to Battle Toxic Behavior

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I just checked and toxic behavior in online video games continues to be a problem. At least sometimes. Game companies and community managers often combat players who call each other terrible things and tell each other to uninstall the game. This kind of community management requires expensive and cumbersome systems like reporting, banning, and karma systems. These are great and bear no substitution, but from my conversations with game developers and community managers, they’re often on the lookout for cheap, simple, and easy-to-implement solutions to supplement these approaches. I was reading through some older studies about the science of persuasion and came up with one idea that might help.

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One thing that social psychologists have come to understand about people is that when we’re in weird, uncertain, or unfamiliar situations, we tend to look to the behaviors of the people around us to understand what may be acceptable behavior. This is why, for example, customer reviews on sites like work. It’s also the heart of appeals taking the form of “10 million gamers can’t be wrong” or ignoring the weirdo on the subway when everyone else is doing the same. Even canned laughter on TV sitcoms triggers this effect, which is a practice that has its roots in professional “claquing,” in which Parisian opera-goers during the 1800s could be secretly hired to provide enthusiastic clapping at key points of the performance.

Bereft of our own experience with a product, we usually look and see what others are saying about it. If we don’t know what to think or do, we will look to others for guidance, especially if those people seem similar to us. This is often referred to as “social proof.”

But instead of selling books or housewares, clever people can also leverage social proof to craft persuasive appeals for the greater good. In one fascinating study, Robert Cialdini and his co-authors Noah Goldstein and Vladas Griskevicius got hotel guests to behave in a more environmentally conscious manner. They randomly assigned hotel guests to one of three different messages left for them in their rooms. In one, the hotel noted that the environment deserves our support and to thus please reuse your towels.

In this condition, the researchers had the hotel track how often guests reused their towels. They did so only 37.2% of the time.

In the second condition, guests got a message saying that most people in the hotel reuse their towels. In this condition, 44% of guests reused their towels, which is an improvement and proof of social proof.

But the third condition was even more interesting. In it, guests were told that said a majority of the guests who stayed in their room –with that specific room number– reused their towels. These guests were invited to follow their fellow guests’ lead. This condition, with a tiny bit of similarity, had the highest compliance level. Almost half of the guests reused their towels. 

One important detail here is noting the similarities between the guests and people who recycled their towels. If you really want to maximize it, you have to point out the ways that the pro-generators of social proof are similar to the person you’re trying to influence.

Which can take us back to combating toxic behavior and encouraging teamwork in online games. It would be interesting for developers to experiment with dropping little appeals to social proof into their games, like in loading screens or matchmaking screens. For example:

  • Players playing as this character have 80% fewer complaints against them relative to other characters. Please be a good sport!
  • Teams with your current composition have a higher win rate if they use voice comms to call out enemy positions. Give it a try!

Players in your region tend to leave commendations for teammates at a rate higher than others. Congratulate your fellow players when they make good plays

And so on. Would it be a silver bullet to end strife and make everyone hug and giggle? No. Definitely not. But it’s such a cheap, little thing that it would be worth experimenting with. Just make sure that the claims you make in these messages are truthful; lying and making them up would be unethical and could potentially backfire badly.

1. For more on social proof, see chapter 4 of Cialdini, R. (2021). Influence: The Science of Persuasion. New York: Harper Business.
2. Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3), 472–482.