Social proof: Everybody's getting involved!

The study of human behavior
It is well known that we are social beings and look towards other people close or otherwise for support, companionship and even inspiration. In other words we have a need to be connected to others. This surpasses the act of just communication, we also look to others to guide our decision making, this phenomenon is called social proof.
Social proof arguably is another word for conformity, coined by the psychologist Robert Caldini who wrote one of the most well received books called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, I strongly recommend you read it. Social proof, this is when people look towards others for guidance on how to correctly behave within an unfamiliar situation. These decisions we make can be made consciously or unconsciously, even though we like to think we are free and original with our thinking ironically most of the time we are not.

The general concept in regards to the psychology of social proof is generally ''if everyone else is doing it, it must be right.'' For instance you're at the train station waiting for a train to go to work, there are other people waiting on this platform as well and you've been waiting a while, a few trains have passed by though none of them have actually stopped. After a while you hear an announcement from the speaker tannoy explaining that ''the next train stopping is not in service''. True enough this train arrives at the station slowing down to a stop, you see everybody edging towards the train anyway, and funnily enough so do you too, soon after realising that this train is not in service and you cannot board, the train leaves without letting anyone on board. You remind yourself about the earlier announcement feeling a little foolish. This is an example of social proof at work. Though most of you might have experienced this whether it was with a train or a bus and maybe some of you haven't, hopefully you get the idea.
Social proof can be present in variety of ways, this can be from conforming to people talking in a certain way so you change your speech to fit in, to a new trend of the latest trainers to a new popular song on the radio even deciding to watch a movie after reading its popular review. People like to move with the herd. Advertising and media are notorious for using social proof to their advantage such as..

-Television shows playing canned laughter and pre-recorded applauses to create the  perception of a joke being funnier than it actually is and cues for a round of applause.

-Testimonials to increase increase a products favourability, even from a well known celebrity.

-Communication company slogans such as ''Millions of people stay connected through our    network'' 

-Social media eg. tweets, Facebook likes, Youtube views etc etc

-Advertising announcing shortage of their product due to ''high demand''

-Positive reviews from companies best customers to give company a good image.

When leveraging and using social proof keep in mind there are a few principles which help to increase its effect depending on what you are trying to achieve. 

This effect is quite significant when the situation is ambiguous, similar to the example a given earlier. In Caldini's book on influence describes one of the most disturbing and even upsetting events that occurred in history in relation to social proof and conformity happened in 1978, the incident was instigated by Reverend Jim Jones at Jones Town. Over 900 members of his cult were convinced to drink a strawberry flavoured poison which unsurprisingly took each of their lives. It was explained that being in isolation from the rest of the world in a jungle within a dangerous country was one of the major factors towards this mass suicide. The Jones followers moved from San Francisco to the jungles of Guyana, being in totally unfamiliar territory with other similar people to themselves naturally they had major uncertainty in regards to their new situation which increased they likely hood of social proof coming into play, in the case of the mass suicide the people of Jones Town looked towards similar others for correct behaviour and when they saw them taking the strawberry flavoured poison those very same people followed suit which ensued a mass suicide of their own doing. In summary the isolation of like individuals in an unfamiliar environment and uncertainty will turn the group into followers.

People are more inclined to follow others who they view as similar to themselves, it is most powerful when the action or behaviour has been observed. This principle is commonly used in adverts where whoever is using the product is the person who looks ordinary and is the everyday man/women, this is useful because this will reach out to a wide umbrella of people who see themselves similarly ordinary and everyday thus making it seem a more realistic prospect to go and purchase this product. On a related note testimonials also have a powerful effect because if the person giving a positive testimonial is relate-able to you then you will find yourself thinking to the effect of ''if it works for this person, then it must work for me too.'' Powerful stuff.

Social permission
Peoples behaviours tend to gravitate towards a positive outcome and away from negative consequences this has been known to be called the law of effect, this concept was first realised by Edward Thorndike. I spoke of this in a previous post on How we learn:the principles and the mechanics chapter 2. In regards to social proof that means if we see others doing something that may be looked down on, we are more likely to commit that action as well, we just need permission to perform that  behaviour. This can give some explanation to the Rwanda genocide in 1994 where there were mass murders between the Tutsi tribe and the Hutu tribe. The Hutu civilian people were instructed by their military personnel to kill even their own Tutsi neighbours amongst other extreme acts, the participants sometimes were given money and food and were also told they could keep the land of the Tutsi neighbours they killed. The idea behind this extreme example is if given the okay by the majority or by people with credibility they are likely to commit acts they wouldn't otherwise normally do. People more often than not can be easily led and will do things if there is an incentive or little or no negative consequences. 

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  1. Very interesting. I'd like to know how such social conformity relates to social media and "liking" behaviours etc.

  2. Hi harry, in terms of ''liking'' behaviours in social media such as facebook its a matter of social permission as to whether someone is more likely to click the like button or not. If a comment or picture already has a lot of likes then it is more likely you will click the like button also as it would not seem that much of a stretch as so many people have clicked like already as you will just be one of many. Of course how much more likely you will conform varies from person to person. Hope this answers your question