Have you ever spent over two hours pondering whether to wear socks?

Didn’t think so…

How you make decisions in your day-to-day life shapes your future. This goes deeper than deciding whether to wear socks!

You feel you have more control over your decisions than you genuinely do.

Social proof is one of the cognitive biases that have a hold on your decision-making process. It’s both a blessing and a curse depending on the situation.

On the one hand, we can’t function without biases and heuristics like social proof. We’d have to think everything through thoroughly before acting on it.

The result is ineffective and inefficient decision making that leaves us paralyzed.

Social proof allows us to make quick decisions without having to ponder whether we’re right.

On the other hand, it leads to irrational decisions in our lives and causes a lot of suffering without us knowing what’s to blame.

If you want to know how to improve your thinking and learn why you make the decisions you do, stay tuned!

Social proof definition


Social proof describes the act of basing our decisions on the decisions or experiences of others. In other words, you do what other people do or say. This makes decision making a lot easier. 

Social proof is a type of conformity bias that makes decision making easier. However, it can also cause errors of judgment, as with all biases and heuristics.


Robert Cialdini, professor and author of the book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, first coined the term “social proof”. There’s a lot of information on the topic in his book. It’s a great read if you want to learn more about social proof and persuasion as a whole.



Social proof is often used as a heuristic for decision making when you’re unsure about the right choice. However, uncertainty appears in all shapes and sizes, not just in the way that you interpret it.



In any decision, there is some kind of uncertainty that creeps in. Whether you’re wondering whether to buy something online, or you’re pondering whether to have coffee or tea at breakfast.



Social proof impacts you in a public setting, called public compliance. It is also seen in private scenarios, which is called private compliance. The main difference is that in public compliance, you go along with a group even though you know they’re wrong.



With private compliance, you genuinely believe the other people are right. This causes you to act on other people’s thoughts and opinions without them being physically present.

Graphic of a book called social proof with connected people on the cover

A story



In this story, you see examples of both public and private compliance. See if you can spot them and think about whether you’re ever influenced by social proof!


The day has arrived! 

It’s Saturday, the birds have just started chirping and you’re all geared up to pick up your new Audi. 

As you’re dancing around the house, you can’t seem to wipe that cheesy smirk off your face. And why would you… It’s the big day!

On the way to the car dealership, you’re thinking about all the great things that Robert, the salesman, told you about the car. He has one too and was even talking about road tripping together!

You watched various car shows and saw that everyone who owns an Audi goes on a road trip. Your wife detests the idea, but it’s a done deal. You’re going on that road trip whether she likes it or not!

You finally reach the car dealership, and you can already see your brand new red Audi sitting outside. 

It’s ready for you. 

Red was the color for you since two of your friends also had red sports cars. This would be epic! Driving down the freeway with the three of you. All in the same color car…


In just this short example, there are multiple cases of social proof. You’d be surprised at how often social proof influences our lives!

Take Robert, the sales guy. He also has an Audi and said that it’s great.

Recommendations by others, as well as other people’s behavior, are both things you look at for social proof. You want proof that you’re making the right decision, and there’s no better proof than other people who have already made the decision.

This isn’t a completely conscious decision. You don’t just copy their opinion, but it subliminally influences you strongly in a strong way.

The road trip is another example. This time, social proof sells a concept to you rather than a physical product. If everyone who owns an Audi goes on a road trip, then it must be a great idea!

The red car example is another one. The chances of you picking a red car rise when your friends also have a red car. 

This bias is easy to understand, so there’s no need for the story to be any longer.

Graphic of curtains revealing the words "social proof examples" behind it

Social proof examples 



Social proof extends further than we think. You can get people to do the strangest things, just by using social proof!

In this YouTube video, you can see how social proof can make us do the weirdest things. From joining a queue with no one knowing why, to doing the conga with a bunch of strangers.

You can probably tell that not all of your days are filled with conga lines and random ques! However, it goes to show just how far social proof can push people.

There are many instances where social proof influences us without us knowing about it. We simply can’t be aware of everything all the time.

Real-life examples of social proof

Some examples of how social proof impacts your life are easy to come by. This cognitive bias can influence everything from the college or university you join to the things you do or don’t buy in your lifetime.

Even things as important to you as your beliefs, religion, and even politics have the possibility to be altered by social proof.

You may think you’re different, but you’re human just like us all!

(Unless you’re not. If this is the case, I’d love to hear how that happened!)

Image of sheep flocking towards a sale

Social proof in marketing



Social proof is a fruitful marketing tool. It’s used to increase the likelihood that someone will purchase the product or service marketers are trying to sell. 

Reviews are one of the most powerful things a marketer can use to leverage social proof. 

If a buyer sees that a product has a lot of good reviews, then the chances of them buying skyrocket.

There have been many different studies done on the effect that social proof has on buying decisions. You can find some of these in the resources section of this post if you’re interested!


Social proof is used by adding reviews but can also be leveraged in other ways.

For example, there are a lot of companies who show you the most recent purchases along with the amount. This not only provides social proof for the product but also for the amount spent.


Sometimes, companies will tell you how many products they have already sold. Things like “best-seller” or “trusted by over 10.000 users” are ways that marketers try to make their products more appealing.

Social proof is a powerful factor in your decision making and can be leveraged in a bunch of clever ways by seasoned marketers.

If you’re not convinced, do a google search for marketing case studies focused on social proof. Marketing is a field where everything is tested and shared. You can find hundreds, if not thousands of examples about the effect that social proof has on the number of sales.

Image of a red person speaking out against the crowd and resisting social proof

Behavior



When it comes to behavior, the difference between social proof and conformity blurs. 

When you don’t know how you should act or behave, you look to the actions and behaviors of others. 

This helps us be accepted by those around us. However, you can tell that this comes with a whole load of other problems. 

The more we follow along with others, the less we‘re true to ourselves.

This is especially true in social situations. Since you’re often caught in the moment, it’s hard to realize when social proof clouds your judgment.

A good example is when you see someone drop something in a busy street. 

Most people are unsure of what to do and look to their peers. If everyone just walks past, the chances of someone helping are slim.

We all know that it’s best to help out. However, social proof makes it harder to do this when no one else seems to care.

It’s often said that you become the 5 people you are around most. When you look at this from a social proof standpoint, this is probably correct.


You can read more about this in the post about conformity bias.

Differences between cultures

It’s been shown that the strength of social proof differs a lot between different cultures. It’s still debated whether this has more to do with the person’s own personal views or the views of the culture itself. Research has been done that supports both these hypotheses.

Cultures that attach more value to the opinions of others may be more likely to be affected strongly by social proof. If you don’t care as much about the opinions of others, you’re less likely to be influenced as strongly by this cognitive bias.

This isn’t to say you’ll be exempt from its effects though!

Graohic with a flexed arm and the text "dealing with social proof" on it

Dealing with biases in everyday life



Dealing with social proof is a pain. There‘s not much you can do to prevent it from happening. This is the same for all cognitive biases.

There are, however, two ways you can try to leverage it in your favor.

The first is more like damage control than using it in your favor. By learning about the topic and becoming more self-aware, you can reduce the impact this cognitive bias has on you.

Next time you catch yourself conforming to the opinions or actions of others, take another look at whether you’re making the right decision. 

Is the social proof really an indication of quality or is it just an easy way of deciding? 

Have people “helped” you come to the conclusion? If so, do they have your best intentions in mind? Even more important, are they right?

By noticing when social proof has its grubby little paw prints on your decisions, and taking a step back, you can limit the effect it has on your decision making. 

You won’t be able to eliminate it, but you can increase your awareness. The same goes for behavioral decisions, like the example of the person dropping something in the street.

The second way is to use it as marketers do.

You can use social proof to sell someone on your idea or vision. You can even use it to improve your own likeability.

Being fake about it isn’t what I mean here. 

No one likes fakes. With all the fake news, fake products and, frankly, fake people going around, most people can spot a fake a mile away. (even if they often don’t like to admit it… But that‘s for a whole other bias!)

If you use social proof when it‘s actually the case, you can strengthen your position.

Conclusion

Social proof is a cognitive bias that shapes our decision making and impacts our future. Without it, we’d be spending all day making decisions. However, it brings challenges with it too that we need to learn to navigate.

How are you going to prevent social proof from influencing your important decisions?

References:

In culture: https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0033-2909.119.1.111

In culture: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0146167299258006

Social proof in marketing: https://www.emarketer.com/content/surprise-most-consumers-look-at-reviews-before-a-purchase , https://www.business2community.com/marketing/numbers-dont-lie-2016-nielsen-study-revealed-referrals-01477256#V8TIQh7C1AlbMhf4.97 , https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Walter_Wymer/publication/46489602_Using_Social_Marketing_to_Enhance_Hotel_Reuse_Programs/links/59f222250f7e9beabfcc5bf9/Using-Social-Marketing-to-Enhance-Hotel-Reuse-Programs.pdf

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