Social Proof

Social proof, also known as informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior for a given situation. This effect is prominent in ambiguous social situations where people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior, and is driven by the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation.

The effects of social influence can be seen in the tendency of large groups to conform to choices which may be either correct or mistaken, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as herd behavior. Although social proof reflects a rational motive to take into account the information possessed by others, formal analysis shows that it can cause people to converge too quickly upon a single choice, so that decisions of even large groups of individuals may be grounded in very little information (i.e. information cascades).

Social proof is a type of conformity. When a person is in a situation where they are unsure of the correct way to behave, they will often look to others for cues concerning the correct behavior. When ‘we conform because we believe that other’s interpretation of an ambiguous situation is more accurate than ours and will help us choose an appropriate course of action,’ it is informational social influence. This is contrasted with normative social influence wherein a person conforms to be liked or accepted by others. Social proof often leads not just to public compliance (conforming to the behavior of others publicly without necessarily believing it is correct) but private acceptance (conforming out of a genuine belief that others are correct). Social proof is more powerful when being accurate is more important and when others are perceived as especially knowledgeable.

The ‘multiple source effect’ occurs when people give more credence to ideas that are stated by multiple sources. This effect can be clearly seen when social proof occurs. For instance, one study observed that people who hear five positive reviews on a book as read by five different synthesized voices perceive that book more favorably than if they hear the same five reviews as read by one synthesized voice. Uncertainty is a major factor that encourages the use of social proof. One study found that when evaluating a product, consumers were more likely to incorporate the opinions of others through the use of social proof when their own experiences with the product were ambiguous, leaving uncertainty as to the correct conclusion that they should make.

Similarity also motivates the use of social proof; when a person perceives themselves as similar to the people around them, they are more likely to adopt and perceive as correct the observed behavior of these people. This has been noted in areas such as the use of laugh tracks, where participants will laugh longer and harder when they perceive the people laughing to be similar to themselves.

Social proof is also one of Robert Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion, (along with reciprocity, commitment/consistency, authority, liking, and scarcity) which maintains that people are especially likely to perform certain actions if they can relate to the people who performed the same actions before them. One experiment which exemplifies this claim was conducted by researchers who joined a door-to-door charity campaign, who found that if a list of prior donors was longer, the next person solicited was more likely to donate as well. This trend was even more pronounced when the names on the donor list were people that the prospective donor knew, such as friends and neighbors. Cialdini’s principle also asserts that peer power is effective because people are more likely respond to influence tactics applied horizontally rather than vertically, so people are more likely to be persuaded by a colleague than a superior.

The most famous study of social proof is Muzafer Sherif’s 1935 experiment. In this experiment subjects were placed in a dark room and asked to look at a dot of light about 15 feet away. They were then asked how much, in inches, the dot of light was moving. In reality it was not moving at all, but due to the autokinetic effect it appeared to move. How much the light appears to move varies from person to person but is generally consistent over time for each individual. A few days later a second part of the experiment was conducted. Each subject was paired with two other subjects and asked to give their estimate of how much the light was moving out loud. Even though the subjects had previously given different estimates, the groups would come to a common estimate. To rule out the possibility that the subjects were simply giving the group answer to avoid looking foolish while still believing their original estimate was correct, Sherif had the subjects judge the lights again by themselves after doing so in the group. They maintained the group’s judgment. Because the movement of the light is ambiguous the participants were relying on each other to define reality.

Another study looked at informational social influence in eyewitness identification. Subjects were shown a slide of the ‘perpetrator.’ They were then shown a slide of a line-up of four men, one of whom was the perpetrator they had seen, and were asked to pick him out. The task was made difficult to the point of ambiguity by presenting the slides very quickly. The task was done in a group that consisted of one actual subject and three confederates (a person acting as a subject but actually working for the experimenter). The confederates answered first and all three gave the same wrong answer. In a high-importance condition of the experiment subjects were told that they were participating in a real test of eyewitness identification ability that would be used by police departments and courts, and their scores would establish the norm for performance. In a low-importance condition subjects were told that the slide task was still being developed and that the experimenters had no idea what the norm for performance was—they were just looking for useful hints to improve the task. It was found that when subjects thought the task was of high importance they were more likely to conform, giving the confederate’s wrong answer 51% of the time as opposed to 35% of the time in the low-importance condition.

The strength of social proof also varies across different cultures. For instance, studies have shown that subjects in collectivist cultures conform to others’ social proof more often than those in individualist cultures. Although this trend seems reoccurring, there is evidence which suggests that these results are a simplification, and that an independent subject’s personal individualistic-collectivist tendency also makes an impact upon their decisions. Additional variables, such as the subject’s sense of social responsibility, need to be taken into account to better understand the mechanisms of social proof across cultures; for example, more collectivist individuals will often have an increased compulsion to help others because of their prominent awareness of social responsibility, and this in turn will increase the likelihood they will comply to requests, regardless of their peers’ previous decisions.

Social proof has been proposed as an explanation for Copycat suicide, where suicide rates increase following media publication about suicides. One study using agent-based modeling showed that copycat suicides are more likely when there are similarities between the person involved in the publicized suicide and the potential copycats.

Social proof can have negative implications in family and employment interaction. Consider a son coming to his mother complaining about his running shoes, saying, ‘Mom, I need those new running shoes. The ones I have now make me look so uncool!” The mother responds by telling her son that he doesn’t need the new running shoes, no matter how cool they make him look. However, when the same mother sees that two of her friends have recently bought the same piece of furniture, she may buy one too. Although she didn’t care about her son’s conformity since she doesn’t care about his peer group, she cares about her own. Similarly, a person who has been unemployed for a long time may have a hard time finding a new job – even if they are highly skilled and qualified. Potential employers attribute wrongly the person’s lack of employment to the person rather than the situation. This causes the potential employers to search more intensively for flaws or other negative characteristics that are ‘congruent’ with or explain the person’s failure and to discount the applicant’s virtues.

Similarly, a person who is in high demand – for example a CEO – may continue to get many attractive job offers and can as a result extract a considerable wage premium – even if his/her objective performance has been poor. When people appear successful, potential employers and others who evaluate them tend to search more intensively for virtues or positive characteristics that are ‘congruent’ with or explain the person’s success, and to ignore or underestimate the person’s faults. People who experience positive social proof may also benefit from a halo effect. Other attributes are deemed to be more positive than they actually are. Additionally, the person’s attributes may be viewed with a positive framing bias. For example, a person might be viewed as arrogant if they have negative social proof, and bold if they have positive social proof.

For these reasons, social proof is important in determining a potential employer’s consideration set. Social proof naturally also applies to products and is used extensively in marketing and sales. Situations that violate social proof can cause cognitive dissonance, and can cause people to have a sense of loss of control or failure of the ‘just world hypothesis’ (similar to the concept of karma). In the entertainment industry, theaters sometimes use specially planted audience members who are instructed to give ovations at pre-arranged times. Usually, these people are the ones who clap initially, and the rest of the audience follows. Such ovations may be perceived by non-expert audience members as signals of the performance’s quality. On TV, studios have found that even though viewers find canned laughter highly annoying, they perceive shows that happen to use canned laughter as more funny than the shows without it.

There are some modifiers to the effect of social proof, for example, possession of special knowledge: if one perceives that s/he is better advised about a situation than the surrounding group, then s/he is less likely to follow the group’s behavior. Another modifier is identification with authority: if one perceives themselves as a relevant authority figure in the situation, they are less likely to follow the surrounding group’s behavior. This is a combination of “Identification of the surrounding group with self” and “Possession of special knowledge.’ People in authority positions tend to place themselves in different categories than other people and usually they have special training or knowledge that allows them to conclude that they are better informed than the surrounding group.

Also, one might perceive particular groups of others, identified by their behavior or other characteristics, to be more reliable guides to the situation than the average person. One might think truck drivers to be more frequent, and therefore more experienced drivers than others, and therefore weigh more heavily the number of trucks than the number of cars parked when judging the quality of a restaurant. One might identify the movement of betting odds or securities prices at certain times as revealing the preferences of ‘smart money’ — those more likely to be in the know.

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