Social Proof: Is there really strength in numbers?

I had expected that when I read about Professor Cialdini’s third weapon of influence, social proof, I would not discover anything terribly intriguing. Boy, was I wrong!

Social proof is predicated on this theorem: Since the vast majority of people are imitators, people are persuaded by the actions of others than by any other proof that is offered. We see this rule put into play quite often. Canned laughter, TV and print endorsements by “people on the street,” bartenders loading a jar with tips before people arrive, are all examples of creating a social proof that it is appropriate for us to take an action simply because there is an appearance that others just like us are taking that action.

The applications of this rule are significant. Studies have shown that children and adults can overcome fears by observing people doing what they are personally afraid to do. If they see someone else doing it, it feels safe to them.

The interesting application of this idea is the concept of similarity. It may not be sufficient to see someone else do something but, rather, it often has to be someone like us. In other words, a child will respond to seeing another child doing something as opposed to an adult doing the same thing. (Overcoming an irrational fear is easier for a child if another child demonstrates no fear when doing that particular thing.)

This, however, leads us to another cultural phenomenon.

Many years ago, Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City. I first learned of the unusual circumstances surrounding her death when I heard the Phil Ochs’ song, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends.” Her murder was particularly remarkable because 38 people observed the murder taking place over a period of more than a hal hour from adjacent apartment buildings. Yet, none called the police.

Ochs attributed her death to widespread apathy and said it was indicative of how unfeeling we had become. Cialdini, though attributes it to something he calls “pluralistic ignorance.”

Pluralistic ignorance assumes that when multiple people are present, people will (a) assume others will take actions and (b) look to others to see what actions should be taken because, to some degree, (c) they are uncertain. (It also may explain why when an e-mail is sent to multiple people requesting an action be taken, no one takes the action.) The interesting point about all of this is that if nobody takes an action, the assumption becomes that no action should be taken (Otherwise someone would have taken it, right?)

To test this theory, Cialdini cites a study, where an emergency was staged – sometimes in front of multiple bystanders and sometimes in front of a single individual. Help was provided nearly three times more often when staged in front of the individual than =when staged in front of the bystander groups.

The way to mitigate the likelihood of inaction is to do three things (1) Indicate that help is required – this eliminates the situational uncertainty, (2) designate an individual to help – this eliminates the perspective that “if I don’t help, someone else will” and (3) request a specific action – this removes any remaining uncertainty about what should be done. (“Hey you in the green coat – I’m hurt – stop, call an ambulance now!)

So how do you combat this form of influence? One needs to recognize the manipulation going on in social proof situation and, as the author suggests, recognize that bad social proof is being demonstrated and the our own behavior can be controlled.

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One Comment on “Social Proof: Is there really strength in numbers?”

  1. […] Ignorance,” or the Bystander Effect. According to the summary on Social Proof from Strategy Insight, Pluralistic Ignorance assumes: …that when multiple people are present, people will (a) […]

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