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Harnessing the power of "social confirmation"

Jim Babka
Downsize DC
April 10, 2008

We often think of sociology as a soft science, or as not a science at all, but sociologists are increasingly delivering interesting experimental results. One such result has something to teach us about the work of trying to Downsize DC.

Three sociologists at Columbia University, Duncan Watts, Matthew Salganil, and Peter Dodds, conducted the following experiment . . .

  • They recruited 14,000 people to register at a website
  • This website allowed people to listen to, download, and rate songs by unknown bands
  • One group was given only the names of the songs and the bands, while . . .
  • The other group was also shown how many times each song was downloaded

The results were startling, and highly informative . . .

The group that had no idea which songs were being favored by others downloaded a radically different selection of tunes from the group that could see which songs others were choosing. Those who could see which tracks others downloaded were much more likely to also download those songs.

I call this phenomenon "social confirmation." It is part of what we are fighting against, but it is also something we must work to harness in our favor.

Government schools and the media provide constant social confirmation that the political choices others are already making are the superior choices. Election campaigns work the same way. Polls push votes in a certain direction. The more support a candidate receives, the easier it becomes, on balance, for him or her to gain even more support.

Votes won through the bandwagon effect of social confirmation can deliver startling results. For instance, most Republicans who opposed the war in Iraq, and who rated it the most important issue, voted for John McCain in the primaries, even though McCain was the staunchest pro-war candidate.

The same phenomenon also works in reverse. Non-mainstream candidates like Ron Paul have to maintain constant upward momentum in order to counter the social confirmation forces that are working against them. If they can do this then eventually they can turn the power of social confirmation in their favor. But it's an uphill climb, and more often than not such candidates fail.

When downsizing candidates receive low vote totals it serves as a social confirmation that downsizing ideas really aren't worth considering. This is why we prefer to work in an arena where the forces of social confirmation and dis-confirmation are not as strong as they are in electoral campaigns. It is also why we focus so relentlessly on two things . . .

  • Recruiting a large army of supporters
  • Reaching the point where we can achieve universal visibility for our proposals

The more progress we make in each of these areas the more we will harness the power of social confirmation. But the hard part comes at the beginning, when the power of social confirmation is largely against us. Nevertheless, with each new person we recruit, and each new dollar we raise, the task of harnessing social confirmation becomes steadily easier.

We have been doing very well with recruitment so far this month, but we are running behind in fundraising, which is the long-term key to achieving the universal visibility that is essential to harnessing the power of social confirmation. Fortunately, the more monthly pledgers we recruit, the easier this task becomes on a month to month basis.

We set a new record for monthly pledges last month -- $7,707. This achievement reduces the additional amount we have to raise each month to about $7,300. If we could also cover this portion with monthly pledges then we would be at the starting point for doing the kind of advertising we believe is necessary to turn the power of social confirmation in our direction.

You could be a part of achieving this by starting a monthly pledge for as little as $5. Or, if you felt ambitious, you could become our top pledger, by donating more than $236 a month. You could also choose an amount in between, as fits your budget. You can start your pledge here.

If you're not ready to start a monthly pledge, but would like to help us meet budget this month, a one-time contribution in any amount would be a big help. There is no limit on how much you can give, unlike with political campaigns, and, if we get 10 contributions of $100 Jack Mullen will write us a check for $1,000. You can contribute here.

Thank you for being a part of the socially confirming Downsize DC Army.

Jim Babka
President, Inc.

Education for Freedom

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