Social proof

The principle of social proof states that one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. The principle applies especially to the way we decide what constitutes correct behavior. We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it. Whether the question is what to do with an empty popcorn box in a movie theater, how fast to drive on a certain stretch of highway, or how to eat the chicken at a dinner party, the actions of those around us will be important in defining the answer.

from Influence by Robert B. Cialdini

I’ve been thinking about social proof lately. I decided to actually pick up and read Cialdini’s Influence, which has been repeatedly recommended to me.

One of the things that occurred to me while I was reading the chapter on social proof is that it might be useful to make a distinction between phenomena that have been observed by psychologists and techniques that are used by marketing, sales and UX people. If the phenomenon is referred to as social proof, what should we call the use of social proof to try to change behavior? Cialdini offers some help here:

There are two types of situation in which incorrect data cause the principle of social proof to give us poor counsel. The first occurs when the social evidence has been purposely falsified. Invariably these situations are manufactured by exploiters intent on creating the impression—reality be damned—that a multitude is performing the way the exploiters want us to perform…

We need only make a conscious decision to be alert to counterfeit social evidence, and the smug overconfidence of the exploiters will play directly into our hands. We can relax until their manifest fakery is spotted, at which time we can pounce…

And we should pounce with a vengeance. I am speaking here of more than simply ignoring the misinformation, although this defensive tactic is certainly called for. I am speaking of aggressive counterattack. Whenever possible we ought to sting those responsible for the rigging of social evidence. We should purchase no products featured in phony “unrehearsed interview” commercials. Moreover, each manufacturer of the items should receive a letter explaining our response and recommending that they discontinue use of the advertising agency that produced so deceptive a presentation of their product.

Cialdini is particularly vitriolic here, but he has a point. Social proof works best when people are uncertain of what action to take. If we think people might be uncertain about our product or service, it’s worth asking ourselves whether we’re fabricating social evidence or simply highlighting. Even then, it’s worth asking whether highlighting social evidence is the best course of action.

If we’re trying to create value or to create opportunities rather than trying to change behavior, perhaps social proof isn’t the best way of addressing that uncertainty. Perhaps the best solution is spending some time listening to the reasons for that uncertainty, rather than trying to change behavior.