You decided to go eat lunch at this little café downtown. While you were out, this overwhelming urge came over you to pick a little something up for your girlfriend/wife. It’s not her birthday, your anniversary, Valentine’s Day, etc… you just wanted to do something romantic to surprise her. You’re thinking simple, but special… you thought maybe a bottle of perfume would be just the thing.
Standing at the store’s counter you are faced with hundreds of perfume choices: some smell sweet, strong, mild, this one is in a pink bottle, that one is in a tall thin purple bottle… you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, which one do I get?” Frustrated and ready to just throw in the towel on your romantic gift idea, out of the corner of your eye you see a little display of round, light blue perfume bottles neatly organized with a small poster behind them with the name of the perfume and a picture of a beautiful well-known celebrity. Bingo! You grab one of the little round blue bottles, pay for it, and off you go!
Why do you think you chose that particular brand of perfume? What just happened?
You just experienced social proof. Social proof is a psychological phenomenon where people accept that the actions of others imply correct behavior for any given situation. In this perfume scenario you decided on that particular brand of perfume because you recognized that stunning celebrity, and being she is so beautiful and popular, you made the assumption that the perfume she is associated with was the option to take. You thought to yourself, “Well if she endorses it, my love will too.”
Using a famous TV star or athlete to validate a product is one of the methods of social proof used in advertising, and it is very powerful.
Social proof also occurs when a person walks into a situation not familiar to him/her. Not knowing how to act or what to do, he or she will look around at the surroundings and people and adapt his/her actions to acting in a similar behavior. Why? Because we are social creatures. When we see others, particularly large groups of others doing something, we are likely to come to the conclusion that we should be doing it too.
Here are some other examples of social proof I’m sure you will identify with:
• When bartenders start their shifts, the tip jar is usually empty. Most will throw some of their own money into the jar (also called ‘salting the tip jar’). Why? Because it will stimulate the customers to give more tips.
• Advertisers use terms like, “Best selling”, “Millions of people have already signed up”, “This is the number 1 chosen by more people”.
• Well-known TV evangelists will plant people in the audience to run up to the altar to pray or yell out cheers of happiness or praise. This will cause others to participate also.
• Social proof is all about following the crowd, so it’s no surprise that bloggers, and Facebook and Twitter users started picking up on the value of promoting the number of subscribers/fans/followers they have. The more you have the better.
The following studies are classic examples of the power of social proofing.
The staring study:
In 1969 researchers Stanley Milgram, Leonard Bickman, and Lawrence Berkowitz chose a busy street corner in Manhattan, NY and had someone just stand there. They also told him not to do anything except stare at one area on a very tall building. Then the researchers watched and recorded how many people either stopped and looked up to stare along with the original man on the corner or looked up as they walked by him.
The data that was collected was very interesting. When just one person was looking up at the building, only 20% that walked by looked up too or looked up as they passed by. But when a group of people of at least five, were staring up at the building, the percentage went from 20% to 80%!
The dog study:
In 1967 Albert Bandura, Joan E. Grusec, and Frances L. Menlove used the theory of social proof in treating young children who were very frightened of dogs. They had a group of children watch one boy play contentedly and gleefully with a dog for twenty minutes every day. After the fourth day, 67% of the children in the group that observed this boy and the dog playing climbed into a pen and played with a dog also.
A Powerful Phenomenon
As you can see from these examples, social proof is powerful and effective stuff. And it’s everywhere you look. What spellbinding examples of social proof have you fallen victim to?