Do you know ANYONE who likes canned laughter?

I mean, seriously? Do you know anyone who likes canned laughter?

    It’s awful, awful stuff.

Face being pinned into a smile

Humans are conditioned to take social cues from others

    I’ve never met anyone who likes it. And TV writers and actors hate it too – they often complain. So why do so many TV shows use laugh tracks?

    (Actually, have you ever watched Friends without a laugh track? It’s really creepy.)

    The reason TV execs use canned laughter is: psychology.

    Experiments have found that canned laughter causes an audience to laugh longer and more often when funny stuff is on display. Plus, people rate the material as funnier.


There’s also evidence to suggest that canned laughter is most effective for crap jokes.

    So in the light of that evidence, the TV execs’ decisions make good sense.

    But why does it work? It’s all to do with another weapon of influence. Canned laughter works because of the principle of social proof.

    You and I are subject to this principle every single day. We use it to decide what is the correct way to behave. It’s another short-cut – we don’t have time to analyse and think through every situation that arises, so if we’re unsure of something we look to those around us to see how they’re handling it.

    What do you do when a fire alarm goes off in a building? Is it just another test? I bet you only start making a move when everybody else does, right? (Assuming there’s no smoke and heat…)

    How about leaving your empty popcorn cartons and drink cups in the cinema? If you see others carrying theirs out, you’ll take yours. If you see others leaving theirs behind, you’ll do likewise.

    Usually, when a lot of people are doing something, it’s the right thing to do. We’ll generally make fewer mistakes by following the crowd.

    Unfortunately, this has some negative side-effects… ever wondered about those news stories you hear from time to time when somebody has been attacked in front of bystanders who did nothing?

    It’s not that the bystanders didn’t care. They weren’t apathetic. It’s that they weren’t certain what was going on, so they looked to the people around them. Unfortunately, those people were doing the same – looking for confirmation of how to behave.

    This tendency for everyone to look and see what everyone else is doing can lead to a fascinating phenomenon called “pluralistic ignorance”.

    Two psychologists, Latané and Darley, found that if there are a number of observers, the chances of a victim getting help decreases.

    There are at least two reasons for this: first, with several potential helpers around, each individual feels less personal responsibility. Everyone assumes someone else will help. So nobody does.

    Second, and more intriguingly, it’s not always obvious that an emergency is an emergency. Is the man on the floor having a heart attack or drunk? Are those bangs gunshots or a car backfiring? What about the ruckus next door – an assault or a loud marital row? What’s going on? When faced with this type of uncertainty, we naturally look to others.

    Nobody wants to look like they’ve no idea what’s going on, so everyone remains calm on the outside. So the emergency, uncertain to start with, now looks like a nonemergency.

    I highly recommend that you read this chapter of Cialdini’s book (Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion) because it is absolutely fascinating – and horrifying.

    But for now, I’ll leave you with one life tip: if ever you are involved in a nasty accident, or think you’re having a stroke, or are being attacked – point at a bystander. Make eye contact with them, and tell them to help you. In 90% of cases, they will help you because you’ve removed the uncertainty for them. You’ve told them that this is an emergency, and you’ve put the responsibility squarely on their shoulders.

    Now, what does this have to do with your business?

    Well, I’ll enlighten you.

    My reasons for telling you this stuff are twofold.

    First: you have to remove your customer’s uncertainty about buying from you. There are many ways of doing this, some of which I hope you’ve already got your head around. But one of the most powerful ways of removing uncertainty is using social proof.

    If other people are buying from you and talking about you and praising you, they’ve probably made a good decision. Therefore your customer’s decision to buy from you will likely be a good one too.

    The more people you can get talking you up and recommending you, the better.

    Second: it’s really important not to fake this stuff. You’ve seen how damaging it can be when social proof misfires. It damages the fabric of society. Brands that are complicit in that damage are not easily forgiven, and nor should they be.

    You and I both know what this fakery looks like: dreadfully cheesy ads with people who are obviously actors reading from a script about how great the product is. Compare that to the ones that use real people. Which are more believable? Which are more likeable?

    So,, I urge you to get as many testimonials as possible from your customers. Every time they buy from you, ask them how you did.

    Put the good ones on your website. Learn from the negative ones – see them as constructive criticism. Address the problem and fix it.

    Feedback is win-win, even if it’s not all glowing.

    And you’ll probably learn something new about your business, too.



Vicky Fraser is a copywriter, author, and entrepreneur. She really did run away with the circus… but when she’s not swinging from a trapeze, she’s showing other copywriters and small business owners how to work with better clients, make more money, and stop missing bathtimes, first words, and dinners with angry partners. In fact, she wrote the book on it. Get your copy here.

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