Social Proof Theory: We’re All Lemmings

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Willpower Instinct" by Kelly McGonigal. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is social proof theory? How can you use social proof to your advantage?

Social proof theory is the innate belief humans have that says: if others enjoy something then it must be good. This is why Amazon reviews are so helpful and why we’re more likely to save electricity if our neighbors are doing it too. Social proof can be dangerous but it can also be used for good.

Here’s a background on social proof theory and how you can use it to make positive changes in yourself and others.

What Is Social Proof Theory

It seems reasonable that our families and close friends influence our behavior, but we should also consider how much complete strangers influence our choices. For example, do you ever look to see what movies are popular or what the bestselling books are? Do you look at customer reviews for products you’re thinking about buying? 

Our brains trust the tribe of humanity—we believe that what others enjoy must be good. The theory known as “social proof theory” sounds a lot like what your mother used to say: “Would you jump off a bridge just because your friends did?” Indeed you might. Humans are wired to do what others around them do. 

“Everyone else is doing it” is one of the strongest marketing messages in the world (even though most of us believe it doesn’t apply to us). We may brag about our independent thinking, but the truth is that the human social instinct is overpowering—and our brains are wired to find a way to fit in, which means doing what others do and liking what others like. 

The research: Poll takers went door to door asking people about their energy use, and handing out door hang-tags that encouraged energy-saving activities like turning off unnecessary lights. Each door tag included a motivational message like “It’s good for the planet” or “Save money on energy bills” or “Save energy for future generations.” But the message that had the biggest impact on people’s behavior was founded in social proof: “99 percent of people in your community turned off unnecessary lights to save energy.” In other words, “everyone else is doing it” was the most influential message.  

Willpower Hack: Use Social Proof to Your Advantage

It’s tough to be under the influence of others, but this can also help us boost our self-control. If you imagine yourself being evaluated by others—especially people you admire—you may decide to make less impulsive choices. For example, if you know your eight-year-old wants you to quit smoking, imagine his disappointed face when he catches you sneaking a cigarette in the backyard. Or imagine how proud he’ll feel when you reach your one-year no-smoking anniversary. 

The Normalizing Influence

Most of us want to secure a spot in the tribes that matter most to us. Media statistics about American health are grim: The average adult consumes 100 pounds of sugar each year. Forty percent of Americans never exercise at all. Only 11 percent of Americans get vigorous exercise five times a week. If you’re in the other 79 percent, you may find yourself thinking something along the lines of: “It’s okay that I rarely exercise because that’s normal—I’m in a very big club.” These kinds of statistics may help you normalize or justify your behavior—even if your behavior is contrary to your goals. 

Example: Many people overestimate the number of people who cheat on their tax returns, and this makes them more inclined to cheat on their taxes. But when they find out that the number of tax cheaters is actually very small, they are more likely to file an honest return. 

Religion’s Influence

Telling some people that God wants them to eat healthier is enough to get them swearing off corn dogs and cooking broccoli-kale casseroles. When devout Christians are asked to consider Bible passages that condemn certain behaviors or praise others (like “Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat”) and apply them to their own behaviors, they’re often motivated to change. People who consider themselves religious don’t like seeing a disconnect between God’s will and their actions. 

Self-Control Through Pride, Not Shame

When we feel bad, our desire to make ourselves feel better right now is overwhelming. Because of this, shaming ourselves for willpower failures isn’t an effective way to increase our willpower. (It usually leads to worse failures.) But pride has the opposite effect of shame. Feeling proud of yourself actually increases your heart rate variability, a.k.a. your willpower reserve

To make pride work for us, we have to play into our need for social approval. We must believe that others are witnessing our “good” behavior, or that we’ll have a chance to tell others about the five miles we ran or the 200 pounds we bench-pressed. 

The research: People are much more likely to buy green, good-for-the-planet products in a brick-and-mortar store than when shopping privately online. We want the gratification of knowing other people saw us make our earth-friendly purchases. It helps us to feel good about ourselves. 

Support Your Tribe

By now it should be clear that if you want help with your willpower challenge, you should look around at your tribe—what they do or don’t do will affect your chances of success. It’s also important to remember that you’re involved in other people’s willpower challenges—and your behavior can help them or hurt them. Willpower failures are often impossible to hide—think of bankruptcy, obesity, or addiction—and they often have a stigma attached. Sometimes people with these problems are socially rejected, and that only further decreases their willpower. 

You’ve probably heard the quote: “If shame worked, there would be no fat people.” The best thing you can do for others who are struggling with willpower issues is offer your full support. Just checking in and encouraging each other can make a big difference in someone’s life. 

Social Proof Theory: We’re All Lemmings

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  • That willpower isn't a character trait but rather an innate instinct that's wired into our brains
  • How marketers can use "neuromarketing" to influence you to purchase more
  • How you can harness your innate willpower to achieve your goals

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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