The Science of Social Proof

In class we’ve been discussing how people make decisions based on the behavior of others. I had to research a similar idea in my business communications class, and the theory that I researched is known as social proof. According to the book Influence: Science and Practice, social proof occurs when “we view a behavior as correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it.” Basically, the more people you see performing an action or activity, the more likely you are to join in. This principle follows the example we’ve looked at in class in terms of individuals deciding which restaurant to eat at based on how many people are already eating there, even at the expense of outside information given to these individuals.

From an evolutionary standpoint, social proof makes sense. If everyone is eating a certain food, you can assume that it is safe to eat and eat it as well. If everyone is running a certain direction, you can assume there is danger and run as well. However, social proof does not always lead to the best possible outcome. One such example is cult followings, especially deadly ones. The most classic example of this idea is Jim Jones’ cult; once one person chose to drink the Kool Aid, the rest followed in an act of mass suicide.

Another example of social proof lies not in people following others’ actions but rather their inactions. The most famous case of people choosing not to act because others wouldn’t is in the case of Kitty Genovese. She was a young woman who was murdered outside her apartment in New York while her neighbors watched. No one called the police because they noticed that no one else was doing so. Taking their cues from their neighbors, they did nothing as Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered. These examples are evidence that social proof does not always lead to the best outcome despite the validity of the behavior from an evolutionary standpoint.

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2 thoughts on “The Science of Social Proof”

  1. This is really interesting. It kind of shows that we would jump off a bridge if all our friends did, haha. This also helps me see game theory as something that can assess almost every decision we make in our lives, let alone our social lives and habits. This also shows the power and influence each individual person (node) has! It is very astonishing to see that our actions and inactions have such a profound effect on each other when introducing the things we are learning into the real world.

  2. I think that, if we bear in mind the rules of the evolutionary “game”, we can understand why social proof isn’t always an ideal behavior. Behaviors that allows individuals to reproduce more successfully than others of their species will spread through populations; the behavior need only be better than the alternative. For example, this particular evolutionary game would involve two strategies, “Social Proof” and “Not Social Proof”. While Social Proof certainly has its drawbacks, it is clear from the behavior of modern humans that it has so far won out over Not Social Proof.

    Because of the structure of the evolutionary “game”, evolution does not produce ideal results, it only produces “good enough” results. Nobel prize-winner Francois Jacob famously described evolution as a tinkerer, not an engineer . A more illustrative example may be his description of the interaction of neocortex with the more primitive nervous and hormonal systems: “It is somewhat like adding a jet engine to an old horse cart” (http://adi-38.bio.ib.usp.br/ibi5023/2010/Jacob_1977.pdf).

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