Consider a university freshman, attempting to navigate the adult world for the first time. They are convinced that all the other students around them somehow know more about adulthood. Perhaps they imagine that everyone else was handed a manual they somehow missed. Everyone else seems to know where to go, how to make new friends, what to do. Except, of course, the majority of their peers feel equally unsure and are doing the exact same. We never quite leave behind that tendency to look at others for clues.
When we feel uncertain, we all tend to look to others for answers as to how we should behave, what we should think and what we should do. This psychological concept is known as social proof. It occurs as a result of our natural desire to behave in the correct manner and fit in with others. It can be easy to assume that everyone else has a better grasp of what to do in a given situation. Social proof is especially prevalent in ambiguous or unfamiliar conditions, or in big groups. It affects us both in public and in private.
In The Power of Positive Deviance, Richard Pascale explains social proof:
A well-known principle of chemistry establishes that active ingredients can be mixed together with little effect until a third ingredient- often an innocuous catalyst- triggers a chemical synthesis. Analogously, the social system is the catalyst between all the stuff we know versus what actually alters our behavior and mental maps. Social proof? Simple idea, really: it boils down to ‘seeing is believing.’… We use social proof to decide how to dispose of an empty popcorn box in a movie theater, how fast to drive on a highway, or whether to tackle that fried chicken or corn on the cob with our hands at a dinner party. At the more consequential end of the spectrum, we rely on social proof to inform moral choices- whether to assist an inebriated football enthusiast who falls on the sidewalk or step forward as a whistleblower.
No one likes to be confused about what to do in a situation where other people are around to witness any blunders. The more uncertain we feel, the more susceptible we are to social proof.
A further key factor is the similarity we see between ourselves and the people around us. When people relate to those around them (due to gender, class, race, shared interests, and other commonalities) they mimic each other’s behavior with greater care. This is known as implicit egotism and linked to the mirror neurons in our brains.
In one study, researchers from New York City university planted a man on a busy sidewalk. Amongst crowds of people, he stopped and looked upwards for a minute. The experiment by social psychologists Milgram, Bickman, and Berkowitz was designed to test the power of social proof. When just one man gazed at the sky, just 4% of passersby also looked up. When the experiment was repeated with five men looking upwards, 18% of passersby followed suit, and for 15 the figure was 40%. This experiment is cited by Cialdini as an illustration of how social proof persuades people to behave in certain ways.
Another study cited by Cialdini concerned charitable donations, finding that showing people a list of their neighbours who had donated to a charity led to a substantial increase in funds raised. The more names on the list, the more people donated. Cialdini also explains how the use of social proof can backfire. Campaigns to reduce drug and alcohol consumption which cite high rates of abuse can have the opposite effect. People subconsciously seek to comply with the many others who are engaging in this behaviour.
The principle of social proof says so: The greater the number of people who find any idea correct, the more the idea will be correct…We will use the actions of others to decide on proper behaviour for ourselves, especially when we view those others as similar to ourselves…When we are uncertain, we are willing to place an enormous amount of trust in the collective knowledge of the crowd…First, we seem to assume that if a lot of people are doing the same thing, they must know something we don’t…Social proof is most powerful for those who feel unfamiliar or unsure in a specific situation and who, consequently, must look outside themselves for evidence of how best to behave there… Since 95 percent of the people are imitators and only 5 percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.
An unfortunate fact of life is that some people desperately seek opportunities, while others are bombarded with them. One person struggles to find a job, sending their CV everywhere. Another person has an impressive role already and yet is constantly offered others. One book proposal is fought over by publishers. Another is relegated straight to the bin. One person never manages to find anyone willing to go on a date, while another receives non-stop propositions despite being in a relationship. Why does this happen? The answer is social proof.
When someone is regarded as successful, talented, or attractive that view spreads. When social proof is absent, others are more dismissive and attentive to flaws. Two people could be equally qualified, but the one with a high-ranking job already seems like a fail-safe choice for a key role. Two writers could be equally talented, but the one whose previous book was a bestseller will have much less trouble getting their next published. And so on.
How marketers use social proof
Marketers love using social proof to encourage people to spend more money. If you ever feel the strange urge to buy something you don’t need, this could be down to social proof.
Marketers achieve this in a number of ways:
- Using influencers and famous people. A phenomenon known by psychologists as the ‘halo and horns effect’ means we see a product/service as more desirable if it is associated with someone we like. On a subconscious level, we imagine their good qualities rubbing off on the item advertised. Likewise, if we wish to be like someone, we may think anything they endorse will make us more like them.
- Implying popularity. Night clubs and bars often make patrons wait outside, even when the venues are not full. This creates an aura of desirability
- Reviews/ratings. 70% of people look at these before making a purchase, to see what others think about a product or service. Even though these can be biased, anecdotal or even fake, we judge people ‘like us’ as more trustworthy than the companies. For example, if someone is planning on buying a certain vacuum cleaner, just one negative review can sway them away from it- never mind that said reviewer may have used it incorrectly.