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The Psychology of Social Proof

What are the Benefits of Social Proof

Simply stated, social proof is the deeply-rooted psychological bias that implies trust in other people. This psychological phenomenon is the belief that other people know more than we do; therefore, the best way for us to make a decision is to see what others are doing and to copy their actions. 

We’ve all been benefactors of social proof, probably in various different instances throughout our lives. Think about when you started a new job, did you immediately take a mental note of how everyone in the office was acting? The way they dressed? Or did you simply show up thinking you knew what was best? Chances are you paid attention to those who were already familiar with the office and mimicked the behaviors, attitudes, and dress code that you observed others doing. You were the benefactor of social proof in your new work environment. 

Although this is only one example, there are countless instances where we have been included by the actions of others. But, observing the actions of others and perceiving them as being the correct actions is a mental shortcut, it is our subconscious telling us that what we are seeing is correct without questioning if it really is. When we see others’ actions, buying decisions, social behaviors, and more, we subconsciously take a mental note of their behavior as social clues as to how to act or behave based on the situation, not to mimic. 

So, if we subconsciously know that what we observe others doing are intended to be social clues, not directions, why do we follow them? The most common reason why we blindly follow the actions of others is because we often find ourselves uncertain as to what we should be doing in certain situations. Oftentimes, we rely on the perceived knowledge and experience of others, to tell them what is “right”, or what we should be doing, regardless of our own knowledge and experiences. There are a few different reasons for this, which I’ll discuss here: 

Multiple Source Effect 

The idea that when multiple people or different sources all say the same thing, then it must be trust, is where the multiple source effect comes from. This is where reviews can really shine, as consumers take a lot of stock in how many positive or negative reviews a brand, product, or organization has. If there are more positive reviews than negative ones, consumers tend to also think highly of the product, brand, or service. The same idea goes for negative reviews. Because reviews come from multiple different sources, social proof leads us to believe that what the majority is saying is the truth, which we automatically believe without experience it for ourselves. 

Uncertainty 

The effectiveness of social proof is further enhanced when any amount of uncertainty is present. When we experience any amount of uncertainty about whether or not to make a purchase or not, the opinion of the majority plays a significant factor in our decisions. The opinion of others is even more important when we are relying on our social proof instincts regarding a product that we are unfamiliar with, and have no personal experience with. Consumers want to ensure that they are making a wise purchase, which is why they rely so heavily on social proof when any amount of uncertainty is present.

Similarity 

After observing and seeing others that we believe we have something in common with, using a product or service we are interested in, our social proof increases. This is common when you see influencers promoting products to their followers again and again. In these instances, influencer’s followers already feel as those they have something in common with the influencer, so when they share a new product, it is accompanied with an increased sense of social proof as we already know and trust the influencer and what they are sharing is familiar to us. 

The Science and Psychology Behind Social Proof 

The reason why consumers make purchasing decisions and how external forces affect those decisions has been studied extensively since the 1930s. Since social psychologists began to study the idea of social proof, there has always been a connection between those who have an external force influencing their decisions and those who do not have that external force. 

Social proof is at play in our lives, both online and offline, with those whom we personally know and trust and those we only know online. Because social proof is not a new concept, those who are familiar with it and understand just how powerful it can be, marketers will go to great lengths to ensure that they create and cultivate a positive social proof experience. 

In the early years of the idea of social proof, marketing expert Cavett Robert was quoted as saying “95% of people are imitators and only 5% initiators…people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.” Robert was able to summarize the idea of social proof accurately, by showing that only a small percentage of people are original in their actions, and all the others follow suit because they are persuaded based on what they see that small percentage and others doing. Simply put, social proof is psychological in the idea that we want to be like others and fit in, so we mimic what they are doing, or not doing.  

Ultimately, the idea of social proof raises the question of how much of our ideas are our own original ideas, and how many are the result of social proof? Next time you find yourself reading reviews and seeking input from others, notice how what you are reading and seeing is affecting your decisions. Are you acting as a result of social proof, or are you breaking the norm and going to be influencing others in a different way? Either you are the victim of social proof or the creator, it is going to be nearly impossible to avoid social proof altogether.

Sources: 

https://sproutsocial.com/insights/social-proof/

https://www.convertize.com/social-proof/#:~:text=Social%20Proof%20is%20a%20social,the%20correct%20way%20to%20behave

https://www.convinceandconvert.com/word-of-mouth/social-proof/#:~:text=Social%20proof%20is%20the%20result,decisions%20other%20people%20have%20made

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