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Social Proof

April 30, 2010

It was reported over the weekend that a man lay dying in the streets of Queens, blood gushing from a stab wound, as 25 people casually walked past him. Security footage shows that most people glanced at him. Some took a good look. A few stopped to gawk. One saw what was happening from his office window and walked outside to take a picture with his cell phone camera. Not one of them thought to him or herself, “Someone is bleeding and unconscious. Best to alert the authorities.”

I don’t care to rehash the horrifying details, I want to show you the power of social proof. Made popular by psychologist Robert Cialdini in his book Influence, social proof is one of the six Weapons of Influence. It is the phenomenon that attracts you to your friend’s boyfriend. The same phenomenon makes you want to buy a terribly ugly pair of shoes after seeing other people wear them. Social proof provides you with the less risky option, the one that doesn’t require you to think much. Why gather all the necessary information when other people can do the research and make your decision for you?  Social proof is the driving force behind our desires to be the first to buy the most anticipated products (do you REALLY need to spend twice as much for an in-between computer with a piece of fruit on it?), and it also drives good people to do boneheaded things… like walk nonchalantly past a dying man. This does not make them bad people. The simply repeated a lot of other people’s mistake based on bad information.

Ultimately, social proof gives us the power to create buzz & hype (where would Borat & Lady Gaga be without buzz & hype?). This is a good thing for business. You don’t have to be a superstar to harness the power of the people.  The good news is social proof establishes trust between you and your consumer. Trust – and transparency – are more important than ever, now that people can swiftly take to the internet with their complaints. Testimonials are nothing new, they’re just a lot easier to spread these days.

It’s unrealistic to suggest we try never to be influenced by what other people do, and why should we? Sometimes it’s fun to buy in. When it matters, let’s try to make our own informed decisions. I’ll admit, I bought platform jellies in 6th grade because everyone else had them. They gave me blisters and they were hideous. Our group decision to buy unsightly plastic shoes will not get a President elected or incite people to war or prevent a man from surviving a stabbing. Let’s not reach the point where the body collective is so influential that we do nothing when we should really do something.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2010 5:16 pm

    I never DID get the appeal of Jellies. Nor do I own a pair of Crocs. But I DID jump on the Uggs bandwagon with the rest of the crowd…! Good read as always, Esther!

  2. May 3, 2010 3:24 am

    Great post! I guess the other word for it is influence. Look at Coke, beer, junk food…all the things that aren’t exactly good for us. But here are eating them all up. Popular kids are popular because yes sometimes we are afraid of them–but most importantly, they are popular because they have influence.

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