Social Proof – “Monkey-see, monkey-do” aspect of human behavior

Why would you never find an empty donation / charity box? Why do the cover page of books mention ‘more than 1 million copies sold’ and other similar expressions showcasing that many others have bought it before you? Why do websites show what others are buying with such prominence?

In an experiment, when there were 10 artists silently standing and facing the rear of the elevator, it was found that, the stranger who enters is more than likely to do the same.

There is strong tendency in humans to see what others are doing while deciding what constitutes correct behavior. And this is termed as “Social Proof”.

The principle of social proof says: The greater the number of people who find any idea correct, the more the idea will be correct.

But why do we have this tendency?

From an evolutionary perspective, this behavior was quite useful to the hunter gatherer societies. The chance of survival greatly increased if they lived in a group, hunted together and followed what others were doing.

Over the years, our brain is wired to automatically conclude what others are doing as correct.

J M Keynes said: “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” Thereby, we feel it is better to follow the crowd and be in the crowd than otherwise. The zebra in the middle of the herd has the least chance of becoming prey to the hunting lion.

Under what conditions is this tendency most prevalent

  1. When you are in doubt, confused, stressed

In his book, Seeking Wisdom, Peter Bevlin states – “When we are uncertain, we are most likely to follow what people similar to us do.We feel more comfortable as part of a majority. It acts as a protection from criticism. If we are wrong and everybody else is too, we get less blame.”

Robert Cialdini in his famous book, Influence, reiterates the same construct – “In general, when we are unsure of ourselves, when the situation is unclear or ambiguous, when uncertainty reigns, we are most likely to look to and accept the actions of others as correct.”

Charlie Munger in his talk, Psychology of Human Misjudgment said:

When will social-proof tendency be most likely triggered? Here the answer is clear from many experiments: Triggering most readily occurs in the presence of puzzlement or stress, and particularly when both exist.”

  1. When you see similar people doing it.

Robert Cialdini continues:

“In addition, there is another important working condition: similarity. The principle of social proof operates most powerfully when we are observing the behavior of people just like us. It is the conduct of such people that gives us the greatest insight into what constitutes correct behavior for ourselves. Therefore we are more inclined to follow the lead of a similar individual than a dissimilar one.”

Similarity is an extremely important catalyst to operationalizing social proof. You are most likely to use a product or service if your friend recommends it than other means of persuasion.

“That is why I believe we are seeing an increasing number of average person- on-the-street testimonials on TV these days. Advertisers now know that one successful way to sell a product to ordinary viewers (who compose the largest potential market) is to demonstrate that other“ordinary” people like and use it. So whether the product is a brand of soft drink, or a pain reliever, or a laundry detergent, we hear volleys of praise from John or Mary Every-person.”

Therefore, the best way for a parent to control their teenager’s actions would be to change his peers rather than admonish his/her every behavior.

Is it bad or good?

“The tendency to see an action as more appropriate when others are doing it normally works quite well. As a rule, we will make fewer mistakes by acting in accord with social evidence than contrary to it. Usually, when a lot of people are doing something, it is the right thing to do. This feature of the principle of social proof is simultaneously its major strength and its major weakness.” – Influence, Robert B. Cialdini

In multiple situations, social proof helps us take the right decision. What better way can be to find the way to the stadium before a match than follow the crowd? Or to find the best restaurant on the street than to see which one is the most crowded.

But social proof has also caused havoc in the past. It impairs human judgment and causes crowd folly.

It is highly likely that everyone is falling prey to the same phenomena and madly following others. The sum total effect could be a disaster. This is the reason why Tulips were selling at 2500 florins (present day $25,000 to $50,000) in the early 17th century as explained by Charles Mackay in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. This happened as everyone bought the “rare” tulips because everyone else was buying them. This is also one of the many factors leading to real estate costs being skyrocketed in the recent past. In the stock market, social proof has a major role to play. The tendency is to buy “popular” stocks and follow the market in both boom and bust.

Not only action, but inaction is also affected by this tendency

Charlie Munger:

“In social proof, it is not only action by others that misleads but also their inaction. In the presence of doubt, inaction by others becomes social proof that inaction is the right course.”

In a rather famous instance, on 13 March 1964, Kitty Genevose, a 28 year old women was murdered and it was witnessed by 38 “good” citizens from the comforts of their home. Yet nobody called the police or offered any help. No one had helped just because thirty-eight witnesses were present. As per Peter Bevlin, there are two reasons for this:

  1. “First, we must interpret an event as an emergency. When we are uncertain, we have a tendency to look at people around us to see how they react. If others don’t react, we interpret that as evidence that it is not an emergency, and we therefore don’t react. We don’t want to be the ones that stand out in a crowd and risk embarrassment for acting in a non-emergency situation. But here comes the problem. If each person reasons the same way, everyone draws the same conclusion. “Since nobody is concerned, nothing is wrong. It can’t be an emergency.”This is called pluralistic ignorance.”
  2. “The second reason is called diffusion of responsibility. The more people there are, the less personal responsibility we feel. We often rationalize by saying,”Someone else probably called the police.”If we all think that way, no one will help.”

That’s why the chances of an accident victim being offered help goes up if there was only one witness as against a group of people. And this has been demonstrated by numerous experiments by the psychologists.

Concluding remark by Charlie Munger:

“If only one lesson is to be chosen from a package of lessons involving social-proof tendency, and used in self-improvement, my favorite would be: Learn how to ignore the examples from others when they are wrong, because few skills are more worth having.”

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