People tend to feel more comfortable and certain about performing an action or purchasing a product/service when others have done the same before. This creates the illusion that the greater the number of people behind something, the truer or righter the action is. Furthermore, the greater the number of people who behave a certain way, the greater the acceptance of that behavior is by everyone else. This is what Social Proof means. This covers everything from ethics and morals, to music and science, business and fashion, all the way through economics and religion. For good or bad, right or wrong, we are influenced everyday by what other people are doing/believing whether you are aware of that fact or not.
Let’s take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge for example, an extremely successful and viral marketing campaign. Few people would have performed the challenge on their own, but seeing so many other people doing it, and being challenged by someone they themselves knew, they felt obliged to participate. Though for a very good and worthy cause which is not to be downplayed here, this is actually Social Proof being used at it’s most cynical base. Force people to action based on social pressures. Do the challenge, like I’ve done the challenge, as well as countless others, or donate $100. Do neither? and you’re a terrible person! Now that last part is obviously more implied, but when you look online at those that did not perform the challenge even though someone did challenge them, there is some social backlash against them. Some even take it as far as becoming upset they’ve even been challenged to begin with. Facebook friendships can be ruined. Take this ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Facebook post for example (Warning: Explicit Language). The point here, not that either person was right or wrong, is that Social Proof can actually start to get ugly for those that don’t fall in line when everyone else believes it should be expected.
Social Proof is also often the culprit behind instances where there is widespread panic and pandemonium. Look at Stock Market Recessions and Depressions? one of the biggest causes for sharp downward shifts in the stock market are often due to great masses of people all trying to sell their stock at the same time because they see everyone else doing the exact same thing. It’s like the proverbial snowball effect. It becomes worse the more that people become involved. We forget that stock prices are supposed to be relevant in terms of the businesses overall and expected present/future worth. But rather it often turns into what the public deems the stock is worth and less what the actual value is or might be. The same problem holds true for the U.S’s floating currency system. Let the American people, as well as the world, believe our money is worthless, and that is exactly what it will be worth. There is no inherent value to our dollar, only that which we assume it has. Every dollar used to be backed by a certain proportion of gold, which was at one time redeemable ( Changed January 30, 1934), and gave the dollar real and inherent value. However this is no longer the case and economic stability/certainty is a very dangerous arena for Social Proof to be playing around in and having an influence upon.
Social Proof can even trick, swindle, and bamboozle entire nations in one fell swoop. Did you know that during World War 2, nearly 80-90% of all male children were a part of the Hitler Youths? Granted, the remaining children who did not participate, as well as their families, were turned into outcastes (Somewhat similar to people who refused the ice bucket challenge, though the gravity of which is no where near). But do you imagine, or can you imagine, any group or club that will receive a membership rate as close to 80-90% of an entire nation’s children population? No because it’s hard to fathom without understanding all of the factors in play, but the largest factor obviously being that Social Proof (or pressure) forced German Families to sign their children up. By 1940, there were 8 million Nazi Youth Members. (Reference).
How about the famous speech by the Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joesph Goebbels in 1943 (which can be viewed here: Goebbels Speech)? In this video you can see/hear Goebbels giving a speech to a very large audience, and at one point, around 2-3 minutes in that linked video, you can hear him ask the crowd, “I ask you?. Do you want Total War!?” The crowd cheers and roars a very loud yes. “Do you want if necessary, a war more total and radical than anything you ever could have imagined?” Once again the crowd roared yes. But how is that possible? Did anyone just hear what he said? A war more total and radical than anything ever imagined before? Keep in mind the crowd is very large, and obviously those invited to watch and participate would have been hand picked for being pro-Nazi. But even then? his words are terrifying to hear. Individually, and more likely in private, these crowd members would probably not subscribe to a full-blown total war which called for radical tactics. How could they? What logical and moral person would? The reason they, as well as the rest of the nation, so openly supported this idea, beyond perhaps being caught up in the moment, was likely because everyone else was seemingly behind the idea. Again, this was Social Proof luring a nation into an abysmal and horrific war. “Thus hath the candle singed the moath”
But you may ask yourself, why is Social Proof so inherently persuasive? Why do we so naturally follow those actions we normally wouldn’t consider on our own? What is it that influences us so strongly to follow what others are doing? Simply put, and as far as most logical fallacies are concerned, it’s an evolutionary trait. Imagine you were in the middle of the Amazon Jungle with all of your buddies. There you are, hanging out, eating fruit, swatting at insects, when suddenly everyone takes off running. Now before you give it much thought, you’ll likely follow suit and begin running as well. But do you know why you’re running or what you’re running from? No you don’t and it doesn’t really matter. Your herd instinct has taken over and you know that if everyone else is running from something that is likely dangerous you should probably be running as well. In fact, throughout time those that didn’t run and stayed behind were likely to be killed by a jaguar or band of ravenous monkeys. Therefore their genes don’t remain in the gene pool for very long. The reason humans are around and as abundant as we are nowadays was because originally we would take note of those around us, if they thought something was dangerous and ran, we didn’t need to know what it was or think about it. We didn’t need to see it first, we just ran. The danger of staying behind to find out was too great? is it really worth knowing whether there was an actual threat? Would it matter if you ran for nothing? No. It’s by far the safest option. So yes, monkey see monkey do. Humans instinctively and inherently follow one another. That is the power of the herd mentality, that is the urge and cause behind social pressures, which is the reason Social Proof happens to be so persuasive in regards to our daily actions and thoughts.
Now in the past we see this was actually a trait that helped us to survive. If you see people eating an unknown fruit or food you’ve never tried before, you assume it was safe to eat yourself. You’ve then increased your total number of food sources without having to dangerously “test” the food yourself. If people began running in fear, you didn’t need to know why, you just ran as well. This even goes for not performing certain actions. Most people are courteous and have manners for a reason. Those that are rude, mean, or odd in some fashion typically will have fewer people that enjoy their presence. Here is a great example that highlights the impact of Social Proof when discussing behavior that is shunned rather than followed. Look at The Five Monkeys Experiment. Now it’s debatable whether this experiment has actually occurred as it’s stated or other variations of it were attempted, but the lesson therein is still spot on when discussing how Social Proof, whether we understand it or not, largely determines the daily actions we choose to perform.
However, nowadays in our civilized and advanced world, social proof rarely helps to keep us alive, and rather, the herd instinct hurts us more often than not. Sure if there is physical danger present, our herd mentality and instincts are extremely worthwhile. But we rarely put ourselves into physical danger on a daily basis where we have to reply on others as warning signs. This means that our instinct to follow Social Proof is well? crazy most of the time. Look at how often things or people become popular simply because of their popularity and for no other real reason or cause. Social Proof can make something popular or trendy, and I would argue, is the reason for most short-lived trends. Otherwise why would they have existed to begin with?
You can even see Social Proof in action in scare-prank videos, where people’s instincts take over when possible “danger” is apparent. Watch this prank video. Notice how many of the people don’t even look to see what it is, they see someone run and quickly follow suit (Even if they don’t leave behind what they’re running from). You can see this in any number of pranks, where a person may not fully understand what it is they’re afraid of, or why their running. But those questions can be answered later, it’s far safer to run first and ask questions afterwards.
Social Proof is also a very strong marketing ploy and especially amongst products or services that have no clear advantage from one to another. When items/services are touted as being, “the most popular” or “Americas favorite”, this is their attempt to prove to you that plenty of people have done business with them in the past, so you should feel confident in doing business with them as well.
There are even social tickers on websites, which show total number of followers on various platforms. Even AdWords has an Ad Extension, which allows you to include social media metrics in text ads shown which have no other value beyond providing Social Proof.
So what does this mean for marketers and managers of ecommerce stores? Well it means two things really:
1.) Use Social Proof in your efforts to show users that your brand/business is trusted and has been used in the past.
2.) Understand that just because something is popular; a trend, marketing ploy, new design schemes, or whatever? does not mean it is necessarily a worthwhile endeavor to pursue yourself. Sometimes the herd instinct keeps us from danger, but other times we may simply be following the lemmings off of a cliff.