I’m miserable at all types of computer coding, but I learned basic HTML at my first job out of college – not because I wanted to learn, but because all my colleagues knew HTML. They thought I should too and every day they’d remind me to try Codecademy for free lessons. I gave in and started studying. A few months later, my new HTML skills led to a raise. Eventually, they even landed me a better job.
That’s social psychology at work.
Social psychology is any change in thoughts, feelings, or actions based on other people. When I learned HTML, I changed my behavior based on the group’s opinions, which ended up benefiting me immensely.
Social psychology isn’t always so benign. When used poorly, it can lead to negative situations that stifles creativity and individuality. But when it’s used well, social psychology benefits individuals as well as the group, like it did at my first job. It helps us learn and connect with our peers.
As a community builder, you can use social psychology in positive ways to increase participation in your online community. Try these four psychology principles.
We may think we’re making decisions and taking action based on logic, but most of us aren’t. Instead of neutrally weighing a list of pros and cons, we base our choices on how we feel.
This idea was supported by neuroscientist Antonio Demasio. Demasio studied decision making in a group of people who, due to brain damage, could not feel emotions. He found that people without emotions either could not make decisions at all, or did so with great difficulty. By losing the ability to feel, people also lose the ability to make choices.
Social psychology plays on this by using the group to influence how people feel, which in turn influences their decisions and actions.
In his bestselling book, Hooked, Nir Eyal says negative emotions are powerful triggers that prompt action. “Our brains are adapted to seek rewards that make us feel accepted, attractive, important, and included,” Eyal states. Why do we seek those types of rewards? Because we want to avoid the negative counterparts. We don’t want to feel unaccepted, unattractive, unimportant, and unincluded.
In social psychology, negative emotions often come up when individuals compare themselves to the group. For instance, before I learned HTML I felt less knowledgeable than my coworkers. I wanted to feel more valued as a professional, like my coworkers, so I started studying HTML to deal with those feelings.
The rivalry between football (soccer, college basketball, rugby…) fans is one of the best illustrations of how competitive people are. They compare themselves to their friends, family, and coworkers to measure who comes out on top.
The desire to succeed when compared to their peers is a recurring theme in social psychology. It’s given rise to both contests and gamification, ideas that many online communities are already using.
How many times do you check your email at work? What about Facebook? That action is often driven by a fear of missing out. You “need” to see the latest email from your boss or comment on your friend’s engagement announcement.
A study by MyLife showed that 56% of people are afraid of missing out on something. That fear motivates action, causing 40% of us to check our phones within five minutes of waking up in the morning. That continues throughout the day, with older generations checking their phones 47 times and younger generations checking it up to 82 times every day.
While FOMO is a relatively new term that’s risen with social media, it fits well into social psychology. It’s simply a more modern expression of established principles: FOMO is a negative emotional driver.
Online communities are the perfect place to use social psychology in positive, constructive ways. Consider the principles above as stepping stones that will help you build engagement prompts with positive results. Here are five ideas, with examples, to get you started.
It’s easier for community members to network if they’ve filled out their profiles and uploaded photos. Use social psychology to encourage those actions by comparing incomplete profiles to complete ones. This could be as simple as saying: “90% of the most sought-after experts in the community have filled out their bios and uploaded a photo – join them” You could also add: “and they’ve gotten double the contact requests” for a little extra oomph.
FOMO is one of the best ways to get community members to register for online and offline events. Send an email or post an on-screen banner saying “500 of our most active members have already registered for next year’s conference and booked their hotel. Don’t miss out – register now!” The message can be even more powerful if you include sought-after event sessions or specific people in their network that have already registered.
FOMO can also be used to keep people up to date on community and business news. After making a big announcement or an exciting week in your community, send an email that plays on that excitement and spurs interest to subscribe for more. Make sure to detail the extra information and benefits they will get from subscribing to the newsletter or digests - they won’t want to miss out on industry news, announcements, or events.
Answering discussion questions is one of the best ways for members to show off their expertise. It’s simple, fast, and boosts their prestige in the eyes of their peers, but that first post isn’t always easy to write or publish. To encourage your members to answer queries, send an email asking for their help with a question.
Most people will be flattered just by being asked, but use the psychology principles we’ve talked about for extra motivation. A blurb at the end of the email stating: “If you’re not sure of the answer, don’t worry, we’re also asking 10 other expert volunteers” can be incredibly effective. It implies that while your member is an expert (keep it positive) there are others who may be even smarter than them. Their combined knowledge will only make the conversation more productive. It also taps into the competitive spirit, motivating members to answer because they are just as smart as their peers.
You can adapt these social psychology principles to almost any situation, helping motivate members to engage in ways that are important to your organization, such as registering for an event and generating non-dues revenue, or leaving a product review to help your company build social proof.
Just remember that social psychology should always be used to help people. In every one of the examples above, psychological principles are used to motivate people to participate, learn, or connect – all actions that enrich their lives. They are networking, teaching, and gaining knowledge that lets them perform better at work or make a difference in the world.
By becoming more engaged in your online community, you also help people feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves. They are not alone. Studies show that such a feeling of belonging can have even greater benefits, increasing happiness, boosting performance at school or work, and even improving health.
So try sprinkling social psychology into your messages to motivate community members to participate. The results will benefit your members, the group, and your organization.