Social proof: is there always safety in numbers?

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When faced with a difficult decision, copying the actions of others can feel reassuring. We are social animals, and following the crowd can lead us to believe that we are benefitting from the wisdom of others. This may be especially true if we emulate the behaviour of those we consider to be authority figures.

This informal fallacy of making choices that fit with those of our peers is known as social proof. While social proof can help us to make everyday decisions, it is vital to learn how to use it wisely rather than blindly following the crowd into what could turn out to be a bad choice.

Seeking safety in numbers

First coined by Robert Cialdini in 1984, social proof is also known as informational social influence. In his book Influence: Science and Practice, he discusses social proof as one of the influential psychological principles that persuade us to behave in certain ways.

In ambiguous situations, decision making is made difficult by uncertainty regarding the potential outcomes, which may result in decision anxiety. Social proof therefore becomes a powerful influencer of decision making if we feel that others are better qualified to decide than we are.

Researchers Elliot Aronson, Timothy Wilson and Robin Akert explain: “We conform because we believe that others’ interpretation of an ambiguous situation is more accurate than ours and will help us choose an appropriate course of action.”

Safety in numbers, or reliance on the authority of others, can give us the courage to commit to a decision that we might otherwise struggle with. Social media influencers, for example, have an impressive impact on the buying decisions of their followers. Their perceived authority and belief in a product can persuade people who might otherwise have felt indifferent otherwise to make a purchase.

The power of positive endorsement

This impact has been corroborated in a study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. David Wooten and Americus Reed found that when consumers felt ambiguous about a product, positive endorsement from others was likely to sway their conclusion to align with others’ opinions.

That’s why retailers use social proof to further encourage spending. Positive public reviews and ratings persuade us that a company or their product is trustworthy. Endorsements from specialists such as doctors or dentists also encourage consumers to choose a recommended product rather than one with no professional testimonial, even if the products are otherwise comparable.

It’s interesting to note that we don’t tend to seek safety in any kind of numbers. When we see ourselves as similar to those around us, we are more likely to view their behaviour as correct, and therefore adopt it as our own. For instance, in a study of canned laughter, participants were found to “laugh longer and harder when they perceive the people laughing to be similar to themselves.”

The dangers of relying on social proof

Although there are many benefits of using social proof in decision making, especially as a quick rule of thumb for unimportant decisions, there are also dangers to be aware of. Herd mentality can prevent us from practising critical thinking and exploring new, innovative ideas.

Even if an opinion is held by a large group of people, this does not necessarily make it correct. In argumentation theory, argumentum ad populum, Latin for “appeal to the people,” is the fallacious belief that when the majority approves of something, then it must be real or better.

Following the crowd can lead people to make poor decisions that they would not have made without the encouragement obtained from social proof. For example, in Arizona, stealing of rare wood from the Arizona Petrified Forest only worsened when officials put up notices highlighting the high prevalence of theft. Rather than deterring theft, the notices seemed to act as social proof that stealing the rare wood could be justified, because many other people had already committed the act.

In addition, social proof can cause you not only to act, but also to fail to act. Robert Cialdini reported in his book that upon witnessing the attack of a woman, a crowd of over thirty people failed to intervene to assist the victim. This inaction was thought to be the result of mass uncertainty. Because no-one had the confidence to intervene, everyone failed to act.

How to wisely use social proof

Many of us will have been persuaded by social proof, whether in making moral, social, professional, or purchasing decisions. When used carefully, you can unlock the benefits of social proof in everyday decision making, without succumbing to its pitfalls.

Be mindful of influencers. Successful influencers are incredibly persuasive. When you see a product or argument being advertised, be aware of the underlying mechanism of influence at play rather than allowing yourself to blindly follow their lead. Reflect on whether you truly respect their opinion, or if you are being persuaded by powerful marketing.

Interrogate your own beliefs. It can feel easier and quicker to adopt the beliefs of others, rather than interrogating your own opinion on a subject. Requesting advice or an opinion of a friend or colleague can be helpful, but the decision you later come to must also align with your personal values.

Know when a decision matters. Decision anxiety can cause you to adopt someone else’s opinion to avoid making a decision for yourself. This can be helpful in avoiding becoming bogged down in minutiae. Choosing the same water bottle as a celebrity endorser will likely save you time, with minimal consequences if the bottle does not meet your expectations. However, moral decisions, choices that will affect your income or career, or expensive purchasing dilemmas should be made with more than just reliance on social proof.  If a decision really matters, you should ensure that you give it careful consideration. Social proof may help, but it should not be the deciding factor.

Social proof can be a beneficial way to make decisions when you feel ambiguous about a choice or its outcome. Drawing wisdom from external sources can make a choice seem less risky or give us more conviction in our own actions.

However, social proof can lead us to act in ways that do not align with our beliefs, and that morally may not be defensible. Learning when and how to use social proof to make decisions will allow you to benefit from the wisdom of others, without encountering the associated pitfalls.

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