The Social Proof Mechanism

This is one of the most dangerous human traits that we invoke every day whether we know it or not. Quite likely most people have never heard of it.

Human beings are social animals. And we have ingrained mechanisms which we have developed to facilitate that sociability as well as our survival. Social proof is a psychological habit/trait/evolutionary mechanism that compels us to look to others for direction. To realize how pervasive this is consider the following.

When we enter a party how quickly do we check that our presentation (clothes, hair, gift etc) is appropriate by looking at everyone else?

When we are walking down the street and notice half a dozen people looking skyward how likely are we to look up also?

How often do we reverse our stances and compromise our standards in order to please an audience, particularly if they have the weight of social proof on their side?

How often do we ask others what their choice is before making our own?

How often do we attempt to get others to participate in something we want to do even if we know they have no interest? (consider prosthelytizing which is also a form of social validation of personal belief)

…one’s belief in the value of performing a certain act is partly a function of the number of other individuals who have already performed the act. In an uncertain decision context, the number of individuals who perform a particular act signals to others the likely value or necessity of the act and this signal will influence other individual’s choice of action.  3.

Internet marketers greatly favor using this mechanism of social proof to provide buzz for their products. As do publicity agents and advertisers in general. If enough people are seen to follow something we are inclined to follow it too. Without critical thought.

The proof of validity is only provided by the numbers of people involved not by the facts of the situation itself. Social proof may have been useful as a survival mechanism in terms of maintaining group cohesiveness and avoiding danger. However it has become so predominant and socially reinforced that it is very often irrational.

This is also a great part of the mechanism behind memes and other viral phenomenon that we see on the Internet. And in part it is responsible for flame wars, riots, celebrity phenomenon, best seller lists, fashion choices and victims, food popularity, TV ratings, election results, vacation choices, guru worship, Facebook suggestions, Twitter trending, sweat-lodge deaths, movie choices, stock market fluctuations…

There are literally trillions of dollars made annually based on manipulating this little mechanism.

Why do we follow the crowd even when we know it’s not in our best interest? Fear. Fear of being singled out, fear of being left out, fear of being alone, fear of criticism, fear of being wrong, fear of taking responsibility for our own lives.

Participation is NOT mandatory. “They” don’t always know what’s best.


1. Social Proof: Herd it Through the Grapevine from Copyblogger (a blog about on-line marketing which urges cultivation of social proof for branding)

social proof, a powerful psychological mechanism by which we look to others to guide our own actions…A person in distress is better served by having only one person available to help them. If several people observe an ambiguous situation where someone may be in trouble, they will look to each other to see how to act. If no one takes immediate action, the likelihood that no one will do anything at all grows, which is called pluralistic ignorance. If only one person is in the vicinity to help, the level of personal responsibility is higher, and aid is more likely offered without hesitation.

2. Social Proof: The Worst Enemy That Lives in Your Head from Life Hacks (a little self-improvement-y but some interesting points)

When your decisions are informed by the assumption that those around you are better informed than you on what the appropriate action to take is, you are destined towards several places, and none of them are good. When you make your decisions according to what other people think or do you end up quite unspectacular and rarely achieving anything of note, nor any of your dreams and goals in life.

3. Social mechanisms:an analytical approach to social theory from Google books

Musical Accompaniment

From someone who didn’t give much of a damn about social proof after all, but certainly understood it.

John Lennon-Working Class Hero


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