This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Influence" by Robert B. Cialdini. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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Have you ever been drawn to a crowd just because there was a crowd? Do you ever find yourself buying something based on its popularity? How about laughing when everyone else laughs even if you didn’t get the joke? These situations are all social proof examples.
The Social Proof Principle is a theory stating that you decide what’s correct based on what other people think is correct. This theory is often used to sell products by showing how popular they are with other people. Learn with social proof examples and see when the social proof principle of persuasion might lead you astray.
What Is the Social Proof Principle?
Robert Cialdini’s Social Proof Principle states that you look to others to decide what’s correct. If lots of other people are doing something or thinking something, then it must be good and worthy of imitation.
We see social proof examples all the time in everyday life. When we see a crowd of people forming on a street, we instinctively want to join. “If all those people are gawking at something, it must be something interesting that’s worth checking out,” our brains tell us.
As you can probably guess by now, however, compliance practitioners of all stripes are very good at manipulating social proof biases to get us to behave in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t.
Social Proof Example #1: Television Laugh Tracks
Look at canned laughter on TV sitcoms for another social proof example. Although it’s not as prevalent as it was a generation ago, TV producers still overlay recordings of human laughter following “funny” lines on the show. Experiments show that the audience watching at home finds the show funnier if they hear other people laughing.
The Social Proof Principle is strong enough to override our basic intuition and knowledge. We laugh along with the laugh track even when the underlying content isn’t funny, and even when we know that it’s a fake recording. The transparency of the ruse does nothing to diminish its effectiveness.
Like the turkey mothers with the fake “cheep cheep” noise, we’re responding to a stimulus (the noise of laughter) according to the same predictable, fixed-action pattern (laughing along ourselves). Our social proof bias drives our behavior.
The motive, then, is clear for compliance practitioners. If they can convince you that lots of other people are doing something, they can make you do it too.
Why We Imitate Others
The Social Proof Principle of persuasion is one that usually serves us well. In general, you’ll make fewer mistakes if you follow social evidence than if you ignore it. When a lot of people are doing something, it usually is the right thing to do.
Like the other fixed-action mental shortcuts, social proof saves us a lot of mental effort. We can look to others for how to model our behavior in everyday situations, rather than needing to meticulously analyze everything.
(Shortform note: You can see how social proof would have been a highly useful psychological trait for early humans. By encouraging adherence to group standards of behavior and thought, it probably played an important role in allowing many basics of society like religion, morality, and political hierarchy to develop. It was also a useful aid in achieving important collective goals like agriculture, public works, and military campaigns).
Thus, we are strongly conditioned to do as others are doing. The problem is when we respond to fraudulent or manufactured social proof or when our social proof instinct leads to harmful consequences.
Social Proof Example #2: “Highest-Selling” and “Fastest-Growing” Products
Perhaps unsurprisingly, advertisers are among the most prevalent manipulators of the Social Proof Principle of persuasion. Advertisements often tout products as being the nation’s “fastest-growing” or “highest-selling.”
The subtext is clear: if so many other people are enjoying this product, why aren’t you? By using this trick, an advertiser doesn’t even need to convince you that the product is good on the merits: they just need to convince you that lots of others think it is. These marketing tactics are social proof examples.
You can see a social proof example in the charitable, nonprofit sector. Fundraisers love to promote how many donors they have and how much they’ve raised so far in their campaigns (both of these are staples of fundraising telethons). By demonstrating how many people have already contributed to their cause, fundraisers know that they can compel many non-donors to start giving.
The Social Proof Principle of persuasion will be more potent under certain conditions than others. One such condition is uncertainty.
In unclear or ambiguous situations, we’re more likely to use the actions of others to model our own behavior. This can lead to a phenomenon called pluralistic ignorance, in which a group of people behaves contrary to the norms and standards of most of the individual members of that group.
It really comes down to the difference between how a person acts and how people act. Pluralistic ignorance explains bystanders who fail to help individuals in need. This is a dangerous social proof example.
The second working condition where the psychology of social proof thrives is that of similarity or familiarity. We model our own behavior after that of people we believe to be similar to us.
This has real-world ramifications in the social proof example below. We’re more likely to offer assistance to people that we perceive as being in our in-group and are susceptible to appeals or calls to action from people that we judge to be fellow members of the same in-group.
Social Proof Example #3: The Wallet Experiment
In one Columbia University experiment, researchers wanted to test whether Americans would be more willing to assist someone they perceived as being a fellow American. This social proof example shows how behavior changes.
The researcher placed wallets on the ground in Manhattan for passersby to pick up. All the wallets contained the same amount of money. But there was a crucial difference between some of them. In one group of wallets, the researchers enclosed a letter written in broken English—to convey to the finders that the “owner” was a foreigner.
In other wallets, the letter was written in standard English—signifying that the “owner” was a native-born American.
The results were stark and showed a social proof bias. People only returned 33 percent of the “foreign” wallets, whereas they returned 70 percent of the “native” wallets. Clearly, people were more willing to do an act of kindness for someone they saw as being similar to themselves than they were for someone who they perceived as being “other” or an outsider.
Social Proof Example #4: The Person On the Street Commercials
A favorite tactic of advertisers is the “person on the street” testimonial in television commercials. We’ve all seen it: average-looking and average-sounding people appear on screen and offer glowing personal testimony about the phenomenal experience they had with a given product. This is another social proof example.
The purpose is clear: to convince you that the person on screen is just like you. Once you identify with the person in the commercial, you’ll want to emulate their behavior: by purchasing the product in question.
Advertisers know how to use this tactic to drill down into the specific demographics of their product’s target audience, like having young people appear in ads for youth-oriented products. This is how they use the social proof bias.
Of course, the problem is that many of these people are not real users of the product: they’re paid actors cast to look like everyday, on-the-street people. The advertisers are hoping to build an affinity between the audience and the actors in the commercial. This uses the psychology of social proof.
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- How professional manipulators use your psychology against you
- The six key biases you need to be aware of
- How learning your own biases will help you beat the con men around you