Learn the six universal principles of influence and how to use them to improve your marketing efforts.

Part 4 of this seven-part series of articles, which are based on Dr. Robert Cialdini’s book, "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion," explains the third principle of influence – Social Proof.

The Third Principle of Influence: Social Proof

Did you ever wonder why certain television shows use canned laughter, even though most people really don’t like it? To get an answer to this question, you need to understand the “principle of social proof,” which states that we determine whether our behavior is “correct” based on what other people think is correct.

Much of our behavior is influenced to some extent by what other people are doing. Although we would never admit it, we often engage in “monkey-see-monkey-do” activities simply because we usually conclude that an action is more appropriate when others are performing it.

Like other principles of influence, the principle of social proof provides a convenient shortcut for figuring out what to do in various situations, without having to spend a lot of time and mental energy. Although we typically get what we need if we act in accord with social evidence, using this shortcut can also get us into trouble from time to time.

So why are laugh tracks used, to the dismay of millions of viewers? Because TV executives know that we tend to take other people’s reactions to humor as evidence of what deserves laughter. And they know that most of us will react automatically even to patently fraudulent laughter. As strange as it may sound, we respond to social evidence in such a mindless, mechanical manner that we can be fooled by fake evidence.

Using Social Evidence for Profit

Our tendency to believe that an action is more appropriate if others are doing it is exploited in various situations. Bartenders have been known to “salt” their tip jars to stimulate tipping. Evangelical preachers have hired “ringers” to give witness at rehearsed times. Charity telethons spend an enormous amount of time reminding viewers how many people have already contributed. And advertisers are prone to tell us when their products are “fastest-growing” or “largest-selling” to give the impression that these products must be good.

All of these tactics are designed to elicit the following response: If other people are taking action, then it must be the correct and proper thing to do! Primed with that seemingly harmless thought, we then follow suit and repeat the behavior we have observed. There is no escape from the widespread assumption that the greater number of people who believe something is correct, the “more correct” it is.

Uncertainty Breeds Pluralistic Ignorance

The principle of social proof has the greatest effect on us when we find ourselves in unclear, uncertain, or ambiguous situations. If we lack confidence in ourselves, we are most likely to look for evidence of the correct action to take in the behavior of other people.

We attempt to resolve our uncertainty by examining and accepting the actions of others. But we forget that the very same people we are turning to for guidance are also examining the social evidence and are probably as uncertain about the situation as we are.

This phenomenon – of looking at and accepting what others are doing, especially in ambiguous situations – is called “pluralistic ignorance.” It’s as if we all nonverbally agree to the idea of “the blind leading the blind.”

Pluralistic ignorance is widespread in our society and it often rears its ugly head in our social, financial, commercial, and political systems. This phenomenon is best demonstrated in the rather common occurrence of individuals being attacked and even murdered in public while bystanders make no effort to intervene.

Bystanders’ nonaction while viewing public violence can easily be explained by the phenomenon of social proof. We typically prefer to appear poised and unflustered in public. During a display of public violence, we search for evidence of how everyone else is acting. Since other people appear to be placid and unruffled, we conclude that the violence we are witnessing is a nonemergency, and therefore take no action. We become mesmerized by our pluralistic ignorance and erroneously assume that nothing is wrong because nobody seems concerned.

Numerous research studies have confirmed what is happening behind the scenes in situations involving bystanders witnessing emergencies in public. The findings reveal that the principle of social proof and the effect of pluralistic ignorance are strongest when an emergency is witnessed by several bystanders who are strangers. Apparently, since we want to look poised in public and are unlikely to correctly interpret the reactions of strangers, a real emergency is often viewed as a nonemergency and no one takes action to help the victim.

Similarity Fosters Imitation

It is clear that the principle of social proof is a powerful factor in situations involving uncertainty. But this principle also has been shown to operate most effectively when we observe the behavior of people we consider similar to ourselves. Thus, we are much more likely to follow the lead of people who are similar to us than who are dissimilar. That is why advertisers use “average-person-on-the-street” testimonials to sell products; if “ordinary” people like and use a product, then ordinary viewers will probably like and use it too.

Scientific research provides compelling confirmation regarding the importance of similarity in determining whether or not we will imitate other people’s behavior. In one study, researchers planted “lost” wallets in various locations in Manhattan. In addition to containing money and the name and address of the “owner,” the wallets contained a letter from a man who supposedly had found the wallet earlier and evidently had lost the wallet again before returning it to its rightful owner.

The letter in some wallets was written in standard English by an “average American,” while other wallets contained a letter written in broken English. The wallets containing the broken English letter was returned only 33% of the time, compared to a return rate of 70% for the wallets containing the standard English letter.

These findings highlight an important qualification of the principle of social proof: we are more likely to use the actions of other people as a basis for our own behavior when we view these people as similar to ourselves.

The Might of Social Proof

A phenomenon referred to as the “Werther effect” further emphasizes the influence of social proof in our society. Research studies have consistently shown that, immediately after a suicide has been publicized, the suicide rate increases significantly in geographical areas where the story was run. The more publicized the story is and the wider the publicity, the greater the increase in the suicide rate.

This propensity for suicides to beget suicides illustrates the potency of the principle of social proof. It appears that troubled individuals, who read about a suicide, are more likely to commit suicide based on how the presumably troubled person acted.

Our tendency to rely on and imitate other people’s behavior, especially when we are confused and uncertain, and especially when we view the other person as similar to us, even applies when it comes to acting on suicidal tendencies. In effect, the very idea of suicide becomes more acceptable or legitimate if we hear of other people committing suicide.

Social proof is a pervasive influence and touches all aspects of our lives. It’s not surprising that we use social evidence (i.e., what others are doing) practically everyday to help us navigate through countless daily decisions. It comes in very handy, and most of the time the information that social proof provides is both valid and valuable.

But what happens when this “automatic-pilot device” is not working properly, when the information we get from social evidence is wrong (as in the case of bystanders witnessing public violence)? Should we try to turn the mechanism off because it fails us from time to time? Or do we just live with the consequences of making unwise decisions based on incorrect data?

Ethical Marketing

Unscrupulous, dishonest organizations hope that we never find a way out of our dilemma and that we allow our social-proof automatic pilot to remain fully engaged at all times. Such organizations want people to navigate blindly and mindlessly because they profit from providing social evidence that has been purposely falsified.

Let’s take a closer look at the average-person-on-the-street commercials in which so-called ordinary people sing the praises of a product. Even though the unreadable fine print states otherwise, sometimes you are led to believe that these testimonials are unrehearsed and are coming from “average” people who are not being paid for their services. More often than not, however, these testimonials are not genuine and are actually scripted lines delivered by actors.

There is nothing unethical about organizations using social proof in their marketing and advertising campaigns to convey the message that their products or services are popular and widely used, as long as the information being provided is valid and does not intentionally obfuscate serious problems with the products or services (e.g., defective products, shoddy workmanship, unreliable service).

We need to be on guard when it comes to phony advertisements that deceptively present a product or service to manipulate us into buying it. This is really our only defense against the auto-pilot device that gets activated every time the social proof principle is operating. In addition, companies that deliberately use the principle of social proof through false or exaggerated claims do not deserve our business.

Author's Bio: 

Barry Farrell is an organizational psychologist who has provided management consulting for over 35 years. Visit GreatBizTools to try some free BizTools and to register for a free 15-day trial of WebAssess, an online testing system.