Consensus is a powerful force, for good or bad: we naturally do what everyone else around us is doing. This is perfectly understandable; for much of our history, separation from the group meant death, and even today we take our social cues from those around us.
As Robert Cialdini, author of Influence, explains, consensus is one of the Seven Laws of Persuasion, an important tool we all use to persuade each other. And one of the best ways to get people to do something is to convince them that everybody else is doing it, too.
Advertisers have used the power of consensus for centuries; this form of peer pressure has been used to sell everything from cars to candy. With little time to research every choice we make, we often fall into the habit of reaching for the number one brand. However, when the drive for consensus is used against us to sway our behavior, the results can be much more sinister than our brand choices.
Akin to the schoolyard bully pressuring a teen into trying a cigarette because “everybody’s doing it”, a predator will play the consensus card to make us believe that everybody wants what they’re selling. And everybody can’t be wrong, right?
The problem arises when we don’t take the time to see that, in fact, all teens aren’t smoking cigarettes, and the advertisement trumpeting “the number one brand” is from a company that isn’t even in the top five.
But even if those claims of popularity are true, sometimes everybody can be wrong. Although we now know that the iconic footage of the lemmings jumping off the cliff wasn’t a naturally occurring event (and was, in fact, faked), there is still a valuable lesson of caution: something that is popular now could turn out be a disastrous choice in the long run, or even be proved to be a dangerous scam.
Generally, a reputable person or organization offering something good won’t need to tell you how popular they are.
Cialdini’s principle of consensus is, of course, an important tool for positive persuasion. But a critical thinker will also remember how the lure of consensus can work against our better interests. It’s up to us to use healthy skepticism, research any claims of popularity – and take a second look at anyone telling us that “everybody’s doing it”.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Robert Cialdini’s book? Do you have a story about consensus that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!