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How To Use Social Science To Manipulate People Into Feeling A Strong Sense Of Community

Richard Millington
Richard Millington

Founder of FeverBee

We once did a workshop experiment which went like this:

I asked people who believed that communities could be measured to a financial value to raise their hand. About 30% raised their hand. I asked them to keep their hand up if they had measured the true ROI of the community and had more than 10 years of community experience.

That left a group of 10 people. They went to one side of the room.

Next I asked people who didn’t believe communities could be measured to a financial value to do the same (if they had 10+ years of experience). They went to the other side of the room.

Each group was then tasked with choosing a leader, ideally the person with the most experience or most powerful role between them. Then a spokesperson, someone with some media/debate/speaking experience. 

The basic principles at work here are simple. 

The goal wasn’t so much to prove that communities could/couldn’t be measured to a financial value (we believe they can). The goal was to prove that you can use basic principles from social science to create an incredibly strong sense of community. 

During the debate (point, counter-point, closed discussion, point, counter-point, closed discussion) the rest of the group would vote if they felt one side had made a stronger argument than the other. 

At various points, other members of the group were asked a direct question by the audience (they were allowed to seek support before answering). 

We then had the group nominate one person to note down all the key arguments their group made for a final pitch to the audience. 

Note the social science at work here: 

1) Establish a high boundary & group feeling. First we created a group boundary and an in-group feeling. Members felt they were among their peers. People had the same experience/expertise and beliefs as themselves. 

2) Create an enemy. We created a rival group. They had an enemy to help bond them together. They had an existential threat. They were subtly pressured to align more in their goals. 

3) Force interaction and self-disclosure. By making members nominate the person with the most experience in their field (and then the person with the most speaking/media experience) we forced participants to talk about their experience and expertise. We forced a level of self-disclosure from members. 

4) Provide all members with influence. By allowing members to ask direct questions to other members (and allowing them to seek support of the group) we ensured everyone felt influence within their group. 

5) Provoke a shared emotional connection. We used voting to provoke emotional reactions from each group. One group was either winning or losing. They either felt pride or shame (and a little anger). This helps bonds the group together. 

6) Documented the group history. By documenting all the history and the people they made them, we’re creating a shared group history. This is the narrative of the group. 

We only did this experiment once and probably won’t run it again.

A few thoughts about this. First, you can use these tactics in almost any situation to build a stronger group identity among people. They work as well online as they do offline. 

Second, people that know these principles manipulate people every day to achieve different goals. The identification of an enemy, the slicing of people into boundaries, the deliberate emotional provocations, the twisted group history, the illusion of influence – these are all tactics to watch for. 

Curiously, at lunch, most people sat with their own groups – even the voting audience. 

If you want to learn more, sign up to the Virtual Community Summit in London from Feb 20 – 21. 

This is the first event dedicated to mastering the psychology you can use to increase growth, activity, and the value of any community. Learn more, click here.

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