Influence and Persuasion: The Rule of Social Proof

by Dean Rieck

This is part of a series of articles on the science of influence and persuasion. It is based in large part on a book by Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D., titled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Part 1: How to Trigger the "Yes" Response
Part 2: The Rule of Reciprocity
Part 3: The Rule of Consistency
Part 4: The Rule of Social Proof
Part 5: The Rule of Authority, Liking, and Scarcity

A few years ago, my wife invited her family over for Thanksgiving, totaling 12 adults, two babies, a five-year-old, and a clowder of cats.

Around day three, after one of the babies peed on our new sofa, the refrigerator broke down, and every square inch of our house was covered with food, diapers, and suitcases, I suddenly became interested in getting out of the house to see a hockey game, even though I'm not a big sports fan.

Along with another family member who needed to escape for a few hours, I drove downtown to see the local minor league hockey team, the Chill, play a regional rival, the Louisville River Frogs.

The first two periods saw our team down by three points. Then, in the third period, in a burst of explosive energy, our boys started fighting their way back.

The crowd began screaming. Clapping their hands. Stomping their feet. Taunting the opposing team's goalie. Thousands of people were suddenly functioning as one. And oddly enough, though I'm generally not given to such displays, I found myself screaming and clapping and stomping right along with everyone else.

The Rule of Social Proof

Why did I begin acting that way when it's clearly not in my nature to do so? Simple. Because everyone else was doing it. So many others were doing it, in fact, and doing it so loudly, I found it impossible to just sit there.

That's the Rule of Social Proof in a nutshell.

All of us look to others to help us decide how to act, to guide our behavior, to determine whether something is right or wrong. The more people doing it, the more correct it seems.

We do it on the highway: We merge right when we see cars ahead of us merging right. We do it at the office: We use the same inane jargon and laugh at the same lame jokes. We do it at parties: We dress like everyone else and have a drink in hand if others do.

We're all driven in so many ways to conform. But, as with all the principles of influence, this isn't a bad thing, because as a smart marketer, you can use this knowledge to your advantage.

After all, why do you think bartenders salt their tip jar, telethon hosts read the names of those who call in a pledge, and bar owners keep people waiting in long lines outside?

Because of the Rule of Social Proof. If others are doing it, it must be the right thing to do. And because it works!

Why does Social Proof work like this? Because Social Proof is what psychologists call a "decision heuristic" — a shortcut for making decisions. Life is too complicated to carefully evaluate every element of every situation, so we learn to take shortcuts to help us make what are usually reasonable and reliable decisions.

It's a sound, logical adaptive behavior, after all. It's mathematically justified: The more people who do something, the more likely it is correct — or at least relatively safe. Not always, but for most things it works with a high degree of reliability.

And when you understand the rule, you can trigger it at will to generate a "yes" response to your offers and requests.

Putting Social Proof to Work

Now for the nuts and bolts. To put the rule to work for you, just follow this logic: Most people are imitators. So, if you want someone to do something, show others doing it.

Here are a few specific applications of this idea:

You don't have to memorize a list like this. Just remember to ask yourself, "What is the most tangible and relevant way to show how my product or service is popular?"

A Caveat for Marketers

The Rule of Social Proof works best under two conditions: Uncertainty and Similarity.

First, Social Proof will have the greatest effect when your prospect is uncertain about your offer, your product, your company, or some aspect of your message. If you're a completely unknown or new magazine, for example, Social Proof could help you sell subscriptions. But if you're already a brand name, such as Time, it's unlikely that any form of Social Proof would have an effect.

Second, Social Proof works best when your prospect sees similar others using the product or service. They should be able to say, "Yes, those people are like me and they are using it. So, I'm the type of person who would use it, too." If the others you show are not similar, the Social Proof will have little effect.

A Caveat for Non-Profits

The Rule of Social Proof works directly and simply when you're selling something, because most transactions involve personal gain or clear benefits. You trigger the "yes" response by showing others who have said, "Yes."

However, when you're asking a prospect to help others — as in charitable fundraising or cause-related marketing — you may run into "The Diffusion of Responsibility Effect." This effect works counter to the Rule of Social Proof in certain group situations, causing prospects to reason: There are lots of others helping. My help is not needed.

Getting around this is tricky. I suggest you first determine the basic psychology of the situation.

For highly public situations, as in a telethon or event, emphasize the number of others helping while secondarily pointing out how important each person's contribution is.

For private situations, as in a personal direct mail solicitation, emphasize the importance of that one person's help while secondarily pointing out how many others are helping. For personal appeals, saying nothing about the number of others helping may be best. It's more important to single out someone for help. "Only you ..." See my article "Tapping the Irresistible Urge to Help."

Note: I am indebted to Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D. for his personal advice and his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Copyright © 1997 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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