Have you ever noticed that when you are at a concert and someone starts clapping, you start clapping too? Or when someone suddenly looks up, you do the same? Why is it that the subconscious brain is making our body move in such a way? Such actions are a consequence of social proof.
Social proof, also termed herd instinct, is a phenomenon that persuades individuals to replicate the actions of others to make them feel as if they are behaving properly. It works by tapping into the human instinct to copy others. This type of pattern is embedded so deeply within us that we use it every day even though it offers no survival advantage.
In the past, following people proved to be beneficial, for example, for hunters and gatherers. If a majority of people started sprinting, the others would also follow instead of standing around and scanning the surroundings for threats.
But these days, peer pressure provokes social proof. We are often convinced to buy a product only because our friends have bought it. Advertisers use our weakness of social proof to their advantage. A word of praise from a past customer convinces us that the product is worth our money. Various talk shows use social proof and insert canned laughter to trigger laughter in the audience.
Fear of missing out (FOMO) plays a vital role in making us fall into the trap of social proof. We copy others only to assure ourselves that we are behaving in a correct manner.
There are certain instances, however, where social proof is beneficial. Robert Cialdini and Noah Goldstein conducted an experiment to understand if social proof could be used to stimulate environmentally friendly behaviour. Through their experiment, they hoped to persuade hotel guests to reuse their towels.
The first set of guests was told that everyone in the hotel had chosen to reuse their towels. The second set of guests was only shown a sign requesting that they reuse their towels. The group that was given the social proof message recycled their towels 44% of the time whereas the group exposed to just the sign recycled their towels 35% of the time. Thus, using a cognitive bias, a person’s behaviour can be influenced.
So, it is advisable to be cynical when it comes to blindly copying others. We should consider beliefs before accepting them, even if they are reckoned true by a majority of people. We should keep in mind the wise words of W Somerset Maugham, “If 50 million people say something foolish, it is still foolish.”
REFLECTION: Prove It
Explain the term ‘social proof’ using an example.