The picture above shows an eight-year-old giving the suspicious side-eye to a sign at a haunted house tourist attraction. The sign made a claim that he simply did not find credible – that the haunted house in question was so terrifying that more than one hundred thousand people had chickened out.
First things first – the sign may indeed be accurate. He's only eight, and most numbers seem huge to him. If asked he thinks a new car costs hundreds of dollars. And he certainly doesn't appreciate the way a number like that would grow over the span of years. But his reaction is worth examining.
adjective | in·cred·i·ble
Definition: Too extraordinary and improbable to be believed. implausible, inconceivable, unbelievable, uncompelling, unconceivable, unconvincing, unimaginable, unthinkable.
Synonyms: fantastic (also fantastical), implausible, inconceivable, incredulous, unbelievable, uncompelling, unconceivable, unconvincing, unimaginable, unthinkable, full of it
The haunted house, one of the five in a busy tourist area of just a few blocks, wants to establish that they are the best. By best they mean scariest.
To establish that they are the scariest they use something called social proof in the form of the chicken board. Rather than simply claiming to be the scariest, they attempt to prove they are the scariest by referencing the number of tourists that have chickened out.
Social proof is, in general, a very effective tactic. Claims from someone who is trying to sell you something are easily dismissed. The kind of peer review at work with social proof is seen as far more credible. If that many other haunted house enthusiasts found this one too scary then it must be truly scary.
Social proof is what makes the kind of peer review we see in places like Yelp! and Urbanspoon so credible. The data isn't coming from the seller, who is working entirely from a profit motive; it's coming from people just like you.
In the 1950s McDonalds used a very simple kind of social proof with their "Over one million served" sign. Can that many people be wrong? If they like it, you must like it too. The haunted house is doing the same kind of thing but it reverse – if it caused that many people to chicken out it's probably going to scare you senseless too.
Pushing too far causes a real problem though. The goal of social proof is to add credibility to a claim. Instead of just making the claim that a haunted house operator would be expected to make in a highly competitive market (our haunted house is the scariest), social proof is employed to make that claim seem more credible.
But – if the claim of social proof is incredible then it backfires. It's just another meaningless claim from someone trying to sell you something.
In fact it's worse. A subjective claim like "we're the scariest" is probably considered standard marketing hype. A specific objective claim, like the number of people to have chickened out, seems actively dishonest, and an attempt to undermine the peer review process. It becomes a betrayal.
In this case the number of daily chickens (14) might be a good number to use as social proof. A weekly, monthly, or even yearly number might be good too.
But a number greater than 100K? At first glance it simply doesn't seem credible. It might be real – if you did the math it works out to 20 chickens a day every day for almost fifteen years – but the very fact it compels you to want to check the math means that it is setting off a red flag.