Social proof

We are social creatures. A lot that we do and think is influenced by what the society, or the people around us do. A common realization of this can be found in the concept of conformity; we often seek to get a confirmation of some decision that we have already made. Doing so gives us an assurance that our decision is actually good. Think about all those time when you took your friend shopping with you just so that you can get her seal of approval on that new dress you were going to buy.

There is another form in which before-mentioned social behavior is exhibited. To understand this, let’s talk about a study that Stanley Milgram, Leonard Bickman, and Lawrence Berkowit did in 1968 in New York City. They put a man at the corner of a busy street looking up. A few of the passersby stopped to look up what he was looking at, and most kept moving. Then Milgram et al. put 2 people looking up, and then 3, 5 10, and 15. As they increased the number of “crowd” people looking up, more and more passersby stopped and looked up. These “subjects” were not looking for a confirmation; they were merely following the collective decision of a crowd.

Joshua Bell A more recent example can be found in a story published in Washington Post, who convinced Joshua Bell, a famous violin virtuoso to play in the Washington DC subway during the morning rush hour. So he took his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin and played. Almost no one noticed or stopped to listen. He collected a total of $32 for an hour of playing (not counting a $20 bill that was given by a person who recognized him). The commuters judged the famous violinist not by his performance, but how the rest of the crowd was reacting to him.

If lots of people are doing something or believe in something, there must be a good reason why. This idea is called social proof or informational social influence, or bandwagon effect.

Wikipedia defines social proof as a psychological phenomenon that occurs in ambiguous social situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior. Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, they will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or better informed.

If we look around carefully, we can find the realization of social proof almost everywhere. Why do companies distribute free stuff (also called SWAG) at job fair? Why do some items are over-priced? Why does a man take a picture with a group of attractive women and upload it show it to everyone? The answers to all of these and many more questions can be provided with explanations involving social proof.

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